There haven't been many games that have adapted the Aliens name that have managed to capture the essence of what makes many of its early films so captivating. The survival-horror game Alien: Isolation comes closest, eschewing the typical direction of action for horror, making its single Xenomorph a terrifying entity that demands the fearful respect so many other adaptations fail to offer it. While there are many, many more Xenomorphs in Aliens: Dark Descent, this hybrid of action and real-time strategy mostly works because it conveys the same sense of fear you feel when engaging them, which makes it easier to gloss over the times its other systems don't quite work as well.
Aliens: Dark Descent predominantly takes place on the planet Lethe, after a familiar scene of a Xenomorph outbreak takes place on a Weyland-Yutani space station and forces the entire area into a deadly lockdown. As survivors scramble for a way to get off-planet while also investigating the root of the outbreak, you'll travel to numerous locations across the planet to uncover clues, scavenge for supplies, and shoot down anything that gets in your way. Aliens: Dark Descent has the inklings of a captivating tale that never delivers on any of its initial promises, boiling down an interesting premise in the opening hours to a standard story without much to say beyond its straightforward mystery.
The story is mostly delivered through dialogue between the game's two leads, a surviving administrator from the opening space station and a grizzled space marine with a strange link to the Xenomorphs. Their chemistry is lacking and their relationship swings wildly from one extreme to the next in very short spaces of time, making it difficult to feel engaged in their plight or personal motivations. Secondary characters rarely get any moments to shine, so it's easy to start tuning the entire thing out in lieu of Dark Descent's far more interesting pieces.
Aliens: Dark Descent is a mixture of genres to the point where it can be difficult to pin down exactly which one it conforms to most. Its top-down view and cover mechanics are reminiscent of games like XCOM, but its real-time action borrows a lot from standard action role-playing games like Diablo. During each mission, you assemble a squad of four space marines and control the unit as a single entity. You cannot move individual squad members independently, and soldiers will only break from formation if you instruct them to open a crate or retrieve a collectible, after which they will hurriedly scurry back.
This restriction of independent movement allows for Aliens: Dark Descent's atmospheric horror to work, because it keeps your attention focused on one point at all times. Despite having a large view of your surroundings, the restrictive radius around your marines that you can actually see retains a lot of the tension as you explore narrow hallways in derelict outposts or twisting caverns in an infested underground mine. Enemies can, and will, hunt you as you move around these areas, with the recognizable ping from your motion sensor giving you some indication of how close they might be. Just a couple of Xenomorphs are enough to completely tear your squad apart, giving these creatures a sense of power that ratchets up the tension every time you face them. Your space marines exhibit this fear literally in a stress meter that rises as you are hunted by the hive, eventually inhibiting them from performing their alien-slaying duties as effectively as possible.
Stress is just one small component of your squad that you will need to manage, but it serves as a good example of numerous small mechanics that all work together to accentuate the tension between skirmishes. Much like in the films, Xenomorphs spray harmful acid blood when injured, meaning your space marines have a chance to take damage if they kill one too close to themselves. This makes moving while engaging enemies paramount, afforded by the ability to shoot if you choose to move at a slower, walking pace as opposed to an all-out sprint, which doesn't let you return fire. Xenomorphs will surprise attack from vents, grabbing the weakest members of your team and dragging them to their demise if you don't stop them. Facehuggers will burst out of eggs and latch onto your squad's faces, rendering the soldier in question dead if you decided not to bring along the required equipment to pry them off. These small moments composed of small decisions are what make even mundane movements between objectives stimulating, forcing you to think about subversion and action over outright action in most scenarios.
While there are many, many more Xenomorphs in Aliens: Dark Descent, this hybrid of action and real-time strategy mostly works because it conveys the same sense of fear you feel when engaging them, which makes it easier to gloss over the times its other systems don't quite work as well
Stealth is not just a viable tactic, but one that Aliens: Dark Descent encourages with a system that tracks when you're being hunted by the Xenomorph hive. Everything you do that might cause attention, like firing a gun or blowing up a barricade for a shortcut, alerts the hive to your presence, with regular drones being sent out to hunt for you. The longer you're in this hunted state, which is reset every time you alert an enemy, the overall aggressiveness of the hive increases. Eventually this causes larger groups of patrolling enemies, the introduction of special boss enemy types that are much harder to kill, or a brutal onslaught of foes that will routinely wipe your squad out if you aren't prepared. It's an effective way to encourage you to seek out alternative routes or employ stealth when you can but also exposes how valuable extractions can be.
Each mission lets you quit at any point and return to fight another day, entrusting you with making decisions that could see you return with a full squad or a battered one limping back with soldiers missing. It's a powerful yet simple mechanic that engrosses you further into the management and preservation of your squad in Dark Descent's brutal environments.
Aliens: Dark Descent makes a point of being challenging. It outright warns you of the fact before starting a campaign, and routinely prompts you to prepare before large skirmishes each time you trigger them. However, its encouragement to play in a certain way doesn't always end up providing the most engaging moment-to-moment experiences. While it's fun to devise ways around enemies without drawing their attention, it's equally frustrating when you're forced into the same types of skirmishes consistently because there's so little depth to dealing with recurring climatic encounters. They usually boil down to you being given time to set up some turrets and deciding which soldiers you want to lay down suppressive fire in specific directions, and then mostly passively watching encounters play out where you either come out relatively unscathed or have your entire squad wiped out. The key to addressing failure usually lies in one or two actions (such as using abilities like your deadly close-range shotgun blast or deploying some additional mines), but given how similarly these encounters play out, it quickly falls down the hole of routine rather than strategic stimulation.
Outside of missions, the strategic element is just as thin. Between deployments, you're in charge of a base-management system akin to XCOM. You can assign physicians to work on specific troops and reduce their injury times, spend resources you find on missions to unlock a (small) variety of weapons, send troops on training so that they can level up outside of traditional deployments, and a little more. The few options for you to meaningfully enhance your numerous soldiers coupled with their earned upgrades feeling imperceptible makes the decisions imposed by each department come across as meaningless. Beyond assigning physicians, I rarely found myself tabbing to the rest of the departments outside of checking in on a potential new weapon or upgrade, making this entire layer of gameplay more of an annoying necessity between missions rather than a vital one to ensure their success. The composition of squads you send on missions and individual troop progression also feels relatively flat, with little discernible difference from a new recruit to a fully upgraded one when they're out in the field. You assign passive perks and unlock weapon proficiencies as each soldier levels up, which should go some ways to giving each one some memorable personality. But when a single drone can tear apart a fresh recruit or seasoned veteran in about the same amount of time, it's difficult to grow close to ones you've been playing with for several hours.
It's disappointing that Aliens: Dark Descent gets so much right about its setting, only to falter in each of the more critical areas that are meant to hold your attention. Its detail-oriented focus in presenting a richly authentics and atmospheric setting will be welcomed by anyone familiar with the franchise. Smaller mechanics that put emphasis on the terror that Xenomorphs exude add a suitable layer of tension to both exploration and combat, making each more distinct than their initial make-up would suggest. But it's a squad that rarely feels like a personable unit of people that you desperately want to keep alive, fighting for a cause in a narrative that is so easy to tune out well before the halfway point. There's a lot of good in this attempt to make Aliens something fresh and interesting again, and that might be enough to encourage you to see it through. But there's also just enough to potentially derail you entirely.