For as long as I’ve been a dedicated Alien fan, I’ve thought about what kinds of interactive experiences could be had in the future for the franchise. I’ve always been into video games, and some of my earliest introductions to the world of Alien (& Predator) were from that format. I distinctly remember thinking how awesome it would be to be using a virtual reality headset in a physical space, surviving against Xenomorphs with a group of friends. Nearly 20 years after I first had such fantasies, I’d finally get a taste of this kind of experience for real, in Orange County, California, 2018.
Alien: Descent was announced on April 18th 2018, and would open not long after on April 26th (Alien Day) a week later. This interactive experience for the Alien Universe was developed by Pure Imagination Studios in cooperation with FoxNext, 20th Century Studios now defunct interactive entertainment publisher. In what was still a relatively new type of VR experience, players would move freely though a VR scenario which would be synced to an actual physical environment they were traversing.
As I was planning to attend E3 in Los Angeles for my 2nd time in the summer of 2018, I knew Alien: Descent would have to be added to the schedule, and I quickly reserved a slot. I was honestly a bit surprised by the venue choice of an outlet mall in Orange County, given how close it would be located to the Disneyland Resort, which has its own VR walk-through attraction: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, by another VR experience company ‘The Void.’ I was quite excited to check out Alien: Descent, and I ended up loving the experience. I’d be lucky enough to go through its updated ‘2.0’ version again a year later, shortly before it closed.
From the outside of the building I noticed that all of the windows were covered with promotional artwork for the attraction. In front of the entrance were two cast members in flight-suits waiting to check you in for your appointment. Alien vs. Predator Galaxy community member ‘SizzyBubbles’ also joined me for the experience, and after confirming us on the schedule, the cast members ushered us inside.
Once we entered the building, we were immediately ‘transported’ aboard the USCM spaceship ‘U.S.S. Solomon.’ Right by the check in desk was a full-sized stand up Alien display on an illuminated base with metal grating. I hadn’t seen this particular one in person before, and I always appreciate a life-sized Xenomorph.
After signing our wavers, we took our seats on some large ammo crates and awaited our briefing. Before too long one of the crew members directed our attention to the monitor with a rotating United States Colonial Marine Corps logo, as our briefing was about to begin. We were told our cryo-chambers were being prepared but first we had a message from Sgt. Winters. Winters appeared on the screen to tell us about our search & rescue mission.
The story setup has your squad join a unit of Colonial Marines, to investigate a distress call on a mining facility situated on the planet LV-178. Keen Alien fans might recall the name of the planet LV-178 (aka New Galveston) from some of the more recent novels such as ‘Alien: Out of the Shadows’ and ‘Alien: Sea of Sorrows’.
Heard this one before?
The full briefing, featuring graphics reminiscent of the Alien Anthology blu-ray menus, was as follows:
Sgt. Winters: “Listen up, Marines. I’m Sergeant Winters of the USCM. We’ve been handed a search & rescue mission that’s taking us to the mining facilities out on LV-178. A few weeks ago, they reported some sort of infestation that was disrupting operations. Two days later, we lost all contact with the facility. Before comms went dark, the Company received this final distress call:
Male Voice on Emergency Transmission: “LV-178 on emergency channel requesting immediate assistance. We’ve lost all access to the reactors. None of the engineering teams we sent down there have returned. It’s the infestation…they’re not spores…they hatch some sort of-” *static*
Sgt. Winters: “In the absence of more intel, we’re classifying the facility as a hot zone, with an unknown risk of exposure to biological threats. Once on site, we will split into two-man fire-teams and descend to the sublevels to sweep for civilians. Our orders are to recover and quarantine any survivors for immediate evac and treatment at the Company’s nearest outpost. The status of the facility’s reactors is unknown, so we’ll be issued standard military hazard suits. Radiation shouldn’t harm us – but your helmet’s comms will likely have limited distance…so do not fall behind. You’ll be briefed on operating procedures and tactical equipment before hypersleep. This is an alpha priority mission, so gear up, Marines. And good hunting.
The briefing was followed by a Weyland-Yutani branded video narrated by a female computerized voice to familiarize us with our weaponry: the EM41 Pulse Rifle. Though this is a familiar gun prop design for various VR experiences – the Vive Striker – I appreciated the video making it look in-universe, with green accents and W-Y branding, though it only appeared black in reality. The weapon featured a laser sight toggle, as well as an under-barrel grenade launcher. The weapon’s laser changes color if pointed at a friendly and will not fire in that situation.
Here’s the transcription from the video:
Weyland-Yutani EM41 Pulse Rifle. Powered by cooled electro-magnetic accelerators, our newest model fires caseless ultra-light projectiles, allowing a ten-fold increase in ammunition capacity, due the reduced size and weight of each bullet. The EM41 also comes equipped with a standard semi-automatic 33mm grenade launcher. To mitigate causing structural damage, as well as accidental detonation of unstable materials, Weyland-Yutani is introducing short-range concussive rounds, a dependable alternative to incendiary grenades. Although not as destructive, concussive grenades compensate by compressing to half the size of their explosive counterpart, allowing for double capacity in the weapon. Note that each grenade discharge requires a short charging time before another may be launched.
While maximum effectiveness is our top priority, Weyland-Yutani considers safety a close second. The EM41 has integrated safety measures to all but eliminate friendly fire accidents. These safety features not only prevent the weapon from discharge when aimed directly at authorized friendlies, but also inhibit grenade detonation within range of them. Finally, the EM41 boasts an integrated smart laser sight, that may be toggled on or off at the user’s discretion. The laser will automatically hue-shift to red when a friendly is targeted. Remember, green for go, red for no. Weyland-Yutani: Building Better Worlds.
We were told which of the two Alpha and Bravo teams we would be a part of, and there was a door labeled for each on the wall. The crew members guided us into a small room, which contained two vertical pods where we were fitted with with motion tracking pads on our forearms and shins, a set of HyperX headphones to communicate with each other, as well as the VR headset itself. The VR headset seemed to be using the Gear VR system.
Once the headset was on, I could see a virtual duplicate of the small room we were in. Looking down at my body, I appeared to be clad in grey marine armor. Looking to my right, I could see SizzyBubbles as yet another grey marine. The crew members had us test the virtual tracking of our arm movement by having us reach out one arm at a time. I could see my character’s arms in VR moving with me.
After these tests, our weapons were stowed in containers next to us and we were instructed to hold onto the side handles while our “Cryosleep Initiates” and to keep holding them until we are told to move forward. After the Crew left the room, lids for the pods came down in VR, and I could see the glass frosting over as the screen faded to black.
I could feel the pod I was in turning around, and as it did I could hear the sounds of the pod crashing to our destination. As if I was waking from a rough landing, the black gave way to the virtual environment ahead. It looked as if we had come down upon an upper catwalk outside of the colony, and as I stepped out of the pod, the clank of my footsteps on the metal flooring amplified the immersion. I quickly turned around to retrieve my weapon, and then moved forward. My EM41 Pulse Rifle looked as it did in the briefing now: green & black with WY branding.
“Woah, this is so cool!” SizzyBubbles and I said to each other more than once.
As I looked around, the outdoor vista was quite reminiscent of the ‘Hadley’s Hope’ colony. I could see a massive atmosphere processor, and I looked above me into the sky to see a planetary body we were seemingly in orbit of. There was a gusty cool wind blowing over us as if we were actually outside, another physical effect enhancing the immersion.
The elevated catwalk we were on had a turn not far ahead, leading to a semi-open elevator shaft. As we followed the catwalk, I reached out to grab the handrail in VR, and I could feel that metal rail on my hand right where it should be.
Oh yeah, I was totally immersed at that moment.
We reached the end of the catwalk and boarded the elevator platform, which shifted slightly under me. I’m not entirely sure how they achieved this effect, but it did really feel as if the elevator was descending. It was about at this point where I realized why this attraction was called ‘Alien: Descent’
The platform we were on continued down beneath the surface of LV-178 into a large open cavern. Once we were underground, the wind stopped blowing and the temperature rose. This must be the mine-shaft, I thought. I could see a number of other elevators also descending with marines aboard them and their voices echoing in the cavern. I could recognize the voices in the distance, they were the other two participants who were led to the other pod bay. The deeper the elevators got, the more I began to notice a familiar organic black substance appearing on some of the walls. It looked like some sort of secreted resin. There was definitely a hive down there.
Our elevators finally reached the lower platform, and we walked forward onto another solid feeling catwalk. During this time we could hear some light com chatter from Sgt. Winters with status updates on the mission. Moving forward, and now deep underground, this was an industrial setting with large metal pipes, rock surfaces, and utilitarian walls.
With the hive resin now all around us, we came to a pit full of eggs. Far across on the opposite side of the pit were the other two players. The distance between our two teams in the virtual space and the echoes of their voices really made this subterranean complex feel massive. At the end of this catwalk was an industrial horizontal platform that once we boarded, slid forward over the pit.
Hived on the wall was a colonist in a hazmat suit, I think I had a pretty good idea of how this was going to turn out. But before my suspicions could be confirmed, some of the eggs in the pit opened and a number of facehuggers crawled up from over the edge of the catwalk and came right at us! My concussion grenades made short work of them. Then, the unlucky colonist’s chest exploded and the newborn chestburster started screeching.
After blowing the vicious thing away with our pulse rifles, there were screeches of larger creatures echoing in the cavernous chamber. Some of the other marines in the distance (these ones AI companions rather than the other two players) were quickly swarmed and taken out by adult Xenomorphs. Right after that our platform was attacked by the Aliens, climbing over the railings and trying to swipe at us, our Pulse Rifle rounds and concussion grenades holding them back. The VR rifle had some mild haptic feedback when fired.
I recognized these particular Xenomorphs attacking us, the CGI models for them were exactly the same as those seen in the 2010 Rebellion game ‘Aliens vs. Predator,’ though their animations were unique for this attraction.
Fending off this wave, eventually the platform retracted and it was time to bug out. We continued along another catwalk toward a different elevator, Xenos were attacking from all sides: dropping down onto the catwalk from above and climbing over the sides of the railings. I could hear and feel the impacts on the metal as they jumped to us.
After fighting our way to the lift, we started our ascent back to the planet surface. The Aliens were not going to let us get away that easily, as more of them attacked the cage of the elevator, some crawling up from below, and others dropping down onto the top of the lift-cage.
We finally reached the surface, the cool wind returned as we the dark grey sky became visible once again. Eventually our lift arrived on another catwalk, and we were informed by Sgt. Winters that our evac transport was arriving. I could see the drop pod landing next to the catwalk, rather than crashing as our arrival pod did.
The pod door opened to reveal the same type of vertical beds as we began in. Stowing our weapons, we boarded and held onto the handrails as instructed over our comms. The lid of our pod closed, and our ship flew away. We were left to an uncertain fate, however, as medical detectors in the pod altered us to possible contagion as the pods frosted over and we drifted back into the black of cryosleep. I could feel the wall I was holding onto turn again, and a crew member was welcoming me back, and assisting me with removing the motion pads and headgear on my body.
SizzyBubbles and I were definitely glowing after the experience. She had not really tried VR as much as I had, but she had a great time and not once did either of us feel like we were going to trip or run into something. The thing that really impressed me the most is how well they made use of limited space. I never really felt like we were backtracking, though I’m sure in reality we were. The virtual environment felt much bigger than the building we were actually moving around in. Projected onto the wall were our performance scores showing accuracy and other metrics.
Nearly a year later I would be lucky enough to experience the attraction again, this time with former staff member ‘Mikey.’ I had known Mikey from the forums for a good while, but we finally met up in person in February of 2019. I was visiting LA to report on the Alien 40th Anniversary Exhibit at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (check out my full coverage of that here!), but before I went home I suggested to Mike that we drive down to Orange County to check out Alien: Descent.
The attraction largely played out the same, but to my surprise I realized that this was a 2.0 version update! They added a Queen Alien who shows up twice. You see her creeping down in the cavern as you enter the hive, then she shows up once again on the surface catwalk for a final boss fight.
The Queen here used the CG model from the Gearbox Software 2013 video game ‘Aliens: Colonial Marines.’ This honestly made the whole thing even better as the walk back to the pod felt a bit anti-climactic in the original version. The Queen’s heavy footsteps could actually be felt on the platform as she would crawl up onto it from below, retreating after she had taken some damage only to attack again from the opposite side. Eventually, when she had enough, she fell off the platform for good, dropping into the depths.
Again, I loved the experience, and so did ‘Mikey.’ We couldn’t help but throw out a few movie lines from ‘Aliens’ during our mission. As the room temperature warmed I had to say “yeah man but it’s a dry heat!”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t but a few months after that that Alien: Descent announced it would be closing:
“Following an incredibly successful limited engagement at the Outlets at Orange, ALIEN: DESCENT has just completed its first run in the Los Angeles area.
We’re very sorry to those of you who missed it, or were planning a return visit.
However, fueled by the amazing response we received, our team is pushing forward with the development of multiple new immersive VR experiences and expanded venues in the near future. Thank you for your continued interest and excitement… We’re looking forward to entertaining you again very soon!”
While we were hoping it wouldn’t be long before another location was announced, FoxNext was sold off by Disney a while later. I’m really glad I got to check this out twice, as it’s one of the most memorable Alien experiences I’ve enjoyed as a fan. I hope 20th Century Studios realizes how thrilling that attractions set within the Alien universe can be. Maybe in the future, and with a bigger budget, something even more ambitious of this nature will eventually open. Until then, stay frosty, Marines.
Promotional Image Gallery:
RidgeTop’s Attraction Photos:
Behind the Scenes video courtesy of Pure Imagination Studios:
I’d like to thank community member ‘El Diablo’ for his reporting on the opening of the attraction back on Alien Day 2018, check out his impressions here.