Easing gently through the narrow doorway into the unexplored chamber beyond you see walls trimmed with high-tech knick-knacks, lit screens and steaming pipes obscuring a discomforting number of suspicious niches and shady corners. Mom told you to look left and right, but you've learned from countless hairy scraps she should have added "and above and below you". Just as you're about to throttle up some, you hear a particular kind of metallic squeal you've grown to associate with "Squids", a nimble foe that's at its most venomous when allowed free range with its homing missiles. You feel lucky to have picked up on its presence, and start considering your options: which weapons to prepare, what distance to maintain, how to dodge around the room? Then, a ghastly moan from behind! You were too engrossed in your calculations to have spotted something in the rear view. A tan horror swings a metal claw at you, knocking off your quad lasers. Panicking, you charge in deep becoming further rattled by the Squid catching sight of you. Frantically looking for a way to loop around one of the pipes in hopes of shaking the clawed stalker, you scramble a finger onto the countermeasures button for dropping mines, miss it, and end up firing a frag missile instead. It blows up directly in front of you and showers you with deadly high-speed fragments of metal, resulting in yet another moment of silent contemplation as you watch your ship explode into a colorful starburst of missiles, weapons, and other miscellaneous items...
The Descent games are both known and loved, and number two was even covered by The Underdogs at some point and so I'll try to stick to what relates to the third installment released in 1999. First to clear a misconception I had myself: developer Outrage is NOT an outside company the title was commissioned of: the name change is the simple result of an internal restructuring inside Parallax that caused it to split into two teams – Outrage and on the other hand Volition which would busy itself with the Freespace series and Red Faction. Descent 3 seemed to alienate some fans by breaking the old formula, but I feel this was a natural – and desirable – move to make. The "enter mine – find reactor – blow up reactor – escape" routine had been reiterated some sixty times already (that's without extra level packs), and technological advances made large outside areas and more overall complexity feasible. Thus in the third installment, players would be served a far greater variety of mission objectives and environments, with a mostly reworked smorgåsbord of bots and weapons to boot.
The missions are indeed the focus of the game, to the point that the story is a backdrop for them instead of the other way around. This doesn't shock those familiar with the series, of course, but does lead to times where you've forgotten how what you're doing fits into the big picture. The characters are whatever: the "Material Defender" and his jerk of an ex-employer Dravis are Bruce Willis and Evil-Corporate-Guy respectively. There are very scant written briefings and debriefings for each mission, along with the few cutscenes that are paced in such a way as to suggest the rest got cut. Almost every mission is likely to take you in the range of one to three hours to complete with many of them more brainy in nature requiring a bit of puzzle-solving and strategizing. The last one in particular is tough if you just try to brute-force your way through.
Like Descent back in 1995, D3 took another technological leap in '99. Max settings would kill all but the sturdiest war mounts of computers in the year of release (and bugs prevented many from finishing it at all) but I'm sure you're going to appreciate the extra eye candy today. When a bot has received a pummeling, streaks of electricity will start creeping along its body, hinting that just one more burst of damage should finish it off. When it dies, it might catch fire and drift into a wall, exploding on impact with bright lights and smoking debris. The lighting effects from the weapons and flares also look realistic, but some areas will have this rapid flickering effect that could affect epileptics and I'm not sure what exactly they were thinking with that. The sound design is also top notch, and the bots have their distinctive noises – albeit perhaps a little bit less so this time around. I couldn't quite learn to recognize all of them based on sounds alone.
The music should probably be given a separate note (pun not intended) as it's the first soundtrack in the series that was composed entirely by one person and that feels perfectly coherent. It's in the style of late 90's electronic music (I guess) and in my mind acts as the baseline (again, no puns intended :) ) for what future entries should sound like. It even has a recurring motif incorporated in subtle and pleasing ways tying the sufficiently varied tracks together. The most brilliant part about it, though, is that it's dynamic and often goes into a new part when you've completed some sub-goal or reached a new area. This prevents it from sounding repetitive even after playing the mission for hours. Sometimes the music will even stop completely, creating negative space, but I wasn't sure if that wasn't just a bug.
How does the famous AI hold up in the third iteration? It's been a while since I played either Descent or Descent II, but I feel advancements have been made, and that seems the observation of the critics of the time as well. Unreal, Half-Life and SiN, all of which were 1998 releases, introduced the world to the next generation of enemy AI that allowed them to do more things than just line up and hurl themselves at your throat... and this game certainly stands tall next to them. The AI is a large part of what makes gameplay fun, and there's a challenge in learning just how to aim in order to actually hit some of the smarter ones, especially in outdoors environments. The fact is, it's so far ahead of any basic Doom clone that it just feels good enough despite there being less to say about some bots than others.
Speaking of gameplay, I think the opening paragraph gives a good impression. If you're playing on a difficulty that's at all a challenge to you (total newbs might want to go Rookie, whereas average players will probably settle on Hotshot), you'll learn to anticipate trouble around every corner. There will be parts that frustrate at first, but there's usually something you didn't initially realize you should be doing differently, and so you should be patient when getting stuck. Not that you CAN get stuck for long, seeing as every death just sends you to the nearest checkpoint resetting your weapons and health. I hardly ever felt cheated to the degree of wanting to restore a save game instead of just playing on. Losing your weapons presents an interesting quandary where any scraps you can find will be instrumental in fighting your way through to your scattered spew. There was only one mission where the first death led to half a dozen because of the checkpoint being dead in the middle of a heavily infested area that I was led to fleeing another heated scene. If you think you've made a mistake with it, the difficulty setting can be adjusted in the pilot menu, and the change happens instantaneously, which is really great as well.
So there have to be some weakpoints to the third Descent, surely? Well, as I said, the original release was a little bit buggy and even unstable. By version 1.4, the last official patch, only minor but noticeable issues remain. There were a few times when a bot would phase between invisible and visible while having turned impossible to hit with normal weapons, in a completely anomalous way. This even happened with one of the special bots you have to kill to complete a mission at one point but luckily it still took indirect damage from nearby explosions, and so I didn't have to restart the mission. You'll run into several other bugs as well, but very few of them approach game-breaking. There's other small issues that feel like they should probably have been ironed out in another QA pass in areas like balancing and the UI, so it's not quite perfect in this regard. I think the chaff countermeasure doesn't work at all...
Despite all the praise from the press, Descent 3 didn't sell terribly well, and no more Descent games were made by Outrage/Volition. In addition to all this, you'll be interested to hear that there are several new games under development that explore the six-degrees-of-freedom genre in a modern engine. Firstly, there's the titular sequel, Descent: Underground, by Descendent Studios; there's a spiritual successor called Overload by old Parallax employees, a game heavily reminiscent of the first and second in the series; lastly there's a completely open-source effort titled Sol: Contingency. They're all still in development as of writing this, but you can buy/download early versions already and see for yourself. Everyone really seems to be enjoying these next-gen free-fliers so maybe you should try one of them after finishing Descent 3 :)
There was also an add-on called Mercenary which I will probably review later on.
TIWIKs = Things I Wish I'd Known (no spoilers)
All the command line stuff works by going to the setup -> misc and typing it into the "Optional switches" box. Remove the angle brackets and quotes.
- I could only get the game to run in 3DFX mode, which is best anyway. You might be able to get it to display in widescreen with the switch "-aspect 1.78" and by setting target -width and -height to something like 1600 x 900 with the respective switches. Didn't work for me though, and reportedly causes the view to cut off around the top and bottom anyway. The best resolution seemed to be 1024 x 768 because the highest setting makes the HUD weird. For unlimited FPS, go "-framecap 999" but this is known to cause a higher energy drain rate on the omega cannon as an unfortunate tradeoff. "-nomotionblur" does what it says if you don't like that effect.
- To avoid having to tap through the opening cutscenes every time, find the game's movies folder and delete or move the ones called "dolby1" and "intro". You can also use the switch "-pilot " to automatically select your pilot.
- Hit F1 in-game to bring up the help menu: tells you all the rest of the F-commands.
- Quicksaving after the first time saves the game in the last used slot. If you want to change it, do a manual save first.
- Experiment with every weapon. Some of them won't reveal their best use until you've tested them in various circumstances. Also remember to bring up the Guidebot menu from time to time and see what you can get it to do for you. Notice that hitting "shift-[number]" is a quick way to select Guidebot commands. The readme/manual addendum has a list of them.
- Try playing with the reticule off if you think it obscures the screen too much: you can get used to it and it's pretty immersive!
- I initially had autoleveling on but after getting [re]used to the flying, found it better switched off.
- When switching from a heavier ship to a lighter one, you lose any missiles that are in excess of the new ship's capacity, so make sure not to hoard them too much.
- If you have to turn the joystick pretty far before anything happens, using the switch "-deadzone0 0" might help.
- The game's mouselook features have been criticized (I'm not sure if this got patched by v.1.4) and I never really tried it; it helps to have a joystick with something like 6+ buttons. You could try having one hand on the keyboard but this sacrifices precise throttle controls. Alternatively you could play with keyboard only which seemed to work okay even with the default binds but you might want to turn the difficulty one notch down.
- Sadly, it doesn't seem possible to rebind the weapon select keys. Because of this, I disabled several weapons in the "weapons" menu so they wouldn't be cycled through when pressing the cycle binds so I could quickly find my favourites just by tapping those.
- Save pretty frequently in several different slots as there are at least a few ways in which you can get screwed over by leftover bugs.
- If you're only going to play through the game once, you might want to know which levels have secret exits. I'll present the numbers as formulae: first one in (the numerator from the answer to 1/(sin 60)^3, remember that powers come first) and the second is in (the seventh Fibonacci number minus one). To find the first one just scout around the map carefully as you proceed until you find a special item. The second one requires you to backtrack at a certain specific time (so keep saves handy).
- There's a bug with recording demos: stop the recording before quitting or when about to finish a level to avoid a crash.
- Matcens are moderately annoying but can sometimes be switched off or just avoided: there's some that will never stop so don't bang your head on them too much.
- If you can locate the v.1.5 patch beta (never officially released), here's the patch notes – it mostly doesn't seem to fix the issues I ran into so perhaps you don't have to bother with it, not for the single player anyway.
- Be careful if you mean to buy a physical copy: There exists a version of the game called "Sol: Ascent" that was shipped with various video cards and such. It only contains a part of the games levels.
- If you mean to record your gameplay, some tips as to how to set that up are given here.
Reviewed by: LotBlind