I love this game.
I have old memories of my older brother playing it when I was very young. My family had just gotten a fancy IBM Aptiva computer with a 486 processor rated at a whopping 66mhz and a whole 4mb of RAM! (These were just numbers to me then. It wasn't until much later that I understood all that.)
One of the first games I remember watching my brother play on that machine was, well, Doom, BUT that one scared me.
The game he played that caught my attention the most was... Well, Privateer, BUT OKAY he also played a lot of Descent on there, and that game caught my eye like no other.
See, I wasn't allowed to play many games on that IBM. My brother, in the face of computer illiterate parents, essentially had control of the device. I wasn't allowed to tinker with it, I wasn't allowed to use it save for a few things, of which I was given specific instructions in how to get to, and was told NOT to go exploring.
Most of these games were of the Windows 3.11 variety. Jezzball, Ski-Free, Chip's Challenge, and a Disney Interactivity pack that, in retrospect, wasn't all that great, save for one game.
But that was all I was allowed to do on that machine. So scared was my brother of me clicking somewhere I shouldn't and erasing things, that my favourite one he would let me play, Commander Keen, which only booted in DOS, he would load for me and then tell me to tell him when I was done so he could quit it for me.
But I watched him when he did this for me. I figured out his ways around DOS. I learned, and I eventually figured out how to get into those games myself. Sure, I could figure out how to get to Commander Keen. cdkeen enter keen4e, bam, I was in. Also simple was Civilization. cdciv civ 241 start new game, bam, I was in. But Descent was a tricky word. Something about the way the S and the C were right next to each other just eluded my youthful mind.
This was all done under cover, of course. Whenever my brother was at a friend's after school, I took the oppurtunity to play some games. I figured out the process! Let the computer load to Windows, exit to DOS, put in this one floppy disk (what the heck do boots have to do with computers, and how do they fit in this disk?), then press ctrl-alt-del. It would restart, load the boot disk, and bam, full working sound and everything.
Perhaps it was the mindset of a young child who was easily facinated, but there was a certain adventure to this process. Not only was I fearful of the looming threat my much larger and stronger brother represented if he found out, but it was like entering a secret code to get the games to work right. After all, just turning it on with the boot disk in to begin with didn't work. Stuff would load, but there'd be no sound! You had to let it load Windows first. And then! You had to type in just the right things to get the games running!
I almost pity those who were the older sibling and were given responsibility of the fancy technology. They may never have known the simple thrill of typing different letter combinations for almost five minutes, trying to figure out what the heck it was you had to type to get the game you wanted to load. Sure, I could just punch in keen or civ and play those, but that's not what I wanted to play! I wanted to play the floaty ship game!
One time, by sheer chance, I got it right. I managed to type cddescent. I was overjoyed. I wrote that fuckin' word down, and I was so damn proud of myself. But I couldn't tell my parents! They might tell my brother, and he'd tie me to the house foundation in the basement again!
So my professional opinion of Descent has quite the mark against it right off the bat. But! In times since, and teaching myself to play through study rather pure fun, so to say, I've managed to dissect Descent somewhat.
Now, this somewhat professionally formed opinion has been formed after extensive playing of the sequel. This makes Descent look... Less favourable. Sure, the glorious nostalgia blur is still intact, and goddamn it's hard to believe that they managed to actually pull this game off in bloody 1994, and yet it could (potentially) run on a 386/33mhz processor.
But there's... Certain things that Descent II does that makes it, unequivocally, the better game.
One thing, in particular, was changed for the vast improvement for the game as a whole.
What's that one thing?
Ya wanna know what it is?
Oh, I'll tell you what it is! Better yet, I'll fuckin' SHOW you what it is! And you click it. You click this damn little shitnick, and you hear the terror that sound inspires when you have only 18 shields remaining!
I like to call them Mr. Driller's.
What makes these guys so detrimental to the game?
Well, the best way I could illustrate this is to ask you to play Descent, get the hang of the controls, play through the first five levels, stumble around the labyrinthine mazes on your own, and make your way to Level 6.
Where you'll meet the Mr. Driller's.
In great numbers.
Tucked away around the corners you least expect.
Ready to pop out, scream their hellcry, and pelt you with many loads of their goddamn hitscan weapon.
And that's the biggest, hugest, WORST thing about this enemy; They fire a weapon that instantly hits you. Every other enemy shoots slower moving projectiles that gives you plenty of time to react to. Even when swarmed with shots on higher difficulties, you're able to anticipate and avoid the majority of shots fired at you. But these fuckers? Not a chance! And with the annoying accuracy these devilblights can fire at, especially in the cramped and claustrophobic conditions Descent has, they can whittle your shield to nothing in much less time than you can possibly react.
Oh, sure! They're balanced out by the fact that they barely have any health. A single missile or well-placed quad laser blast will take them out. But that's for when you actually get a shot off on them. Inevitably, unless you're taking the utmost caution by peeking around corners, pixel by pixel, praying to god that you can pop out a homing missile before they notice you, they'll get a shot off on you. On the easier difficulties, it's an annoyance. On higher difficulties, this is game-breaking. Unless you know exactly where they are beforehand, they'll get you, and take down about fifty points of your shield before you can even turn to face them.
So, how does Descent II improve on this enemy?
They took it the fuck out!
Well, not entirely true. There's enemies later on in Descent II that have hitscan weapons. But they are placed in much more obvious locations, their accuracy isn't deadeye-perfect, the general level design of the sequel in general has many more wide open rooms, and sure, they take more hits to kill, but the biggest thing is that they react slower. When you hear their comparitively subdued cry, you have a much broader window of oppurtunity to react, and these enemies flinch when hit, so they can be interupted from firing if you just keep the heat on. And if they get the drop on you and fire on you, it's not NEAR as devastating. Sure, it's bad news, but the damage is much less, and it's spread over a longer period of time.
So a terrible enemy design is reworked into a much less so version. Was that the only enemy? Oh no!
Descent II's enemy design is some of the best I've ever seen. Not just in looks, but in variety, and in how they move and attack.
See, the first game had... Less on the side of variety. The ranged enemies stood still and fired at you, and how quickly they dodged depended on the difficulty level you were playing on. This didn't vary all that much across the different kinds of foes you would run into. And then, there were the close-range melee enemies. Few though there are of them in the first game, they are relentless chasers with surprising maneuverbiltity and speed.
How does the sequel improve on them?
Simple! For the most part, each of the enemy types move different.
The weakest, most simple enemy has abysmal health and an extremely inaccurate, though fast firing, weapon. Not too far removed from the basic enemy in the first game. The biggest difference here? These fuckers MOVE. They backtrack, trying to lead you to other enemies, when in groups they'll seperate and go down different paths, and most importantly different from the basic grunt of the first game, they are much smaller. So they're much more maneuverable, and harder to hit. This is offset by the fact that unless you're playing on crazy high difficulties and you're down to literally one health, the damage they do is barely a worry. They keep the flow of combat more dynamic, since you have to chase them down to kill them. It's all too easy in the first game to simply pop in and out of cover, pelting missiles and laser shots at your enemy from around a corner.
The next biggest difference; the melee-attacking clawbots. This time around, they're much more intimidating. They have four swing-arms, and when you hit them with an energy weapon, they shoot back homing plasma blobs that trigger the oh-so-terrifying homing weapon detector on your ship. (I like to call them Quadbots) But get them in an open area and start dodging around, and... You notice... That these guys are really dumb. They'll keep going in a straight line if you dodge, barrelling past where you were. When they finally turn around and come at you, they sometimes go off in the completely wrong direction. What once was an enemy that drew your attention and got first priority in a mixed firefight now becomes... Kind of a secondary concern. Yes, if they hit you, they hurt badly, but in a room filled with things that can shoot you as well, it usually ain't the Quadbots that you shoot at first.
Another enemy that makes a huge difference in combat: The guys that can fire the orange ricocheting shots. In the first game, peeking around corners to slowly pelt at the enemy with impunity was very often the best strategies. With a couple of these new guys around, that ain't gonna work so well. They can fire around corners very easily, so despite how slowly they move and shoot, they're an important enemy to have around. A large group of them in a small room can quickly turn deadly, as their shots will be bouncing around all willy-nilly and with enough of those shots flying around, you sure as hell can't keep track of them all.
And, most importantly, there's one enemy added into Descent II that makes the biggest difference of all. People hate it, I think he's annoying, but by god, Descent II is so vastly improved by its addition it's not even funny.
You know him, you hate him, but whatever your opinion, he enhances the game.
Let's draw more comparisons to the first game. In that one, it's easy to get into a rut with how you play. The enemies just didn't have the resources and variety to combat a creative player. They either shot in straight lines and dodged to the side or charged headlong towards you while moving to the side to avoid shots. There isn't much different here, no matter the size of the enemies and the power of their shots, they kinda all moved the same.
Much improved in the sequel, as mentioned before. But the Thiefbot? Easily the most influential addition, and he doesn't even do you any direct harm!
The term here, I believe, is 'First Order Optimal Strategy'. A term used to describe weapons or techniques that are easy to do and are very effective. In the first Descent, it's very easy to get the hang of these. The ever-mentioned shooting around corners, for one. It's slow, but it works a treat. In Descent II, it's really damn hard to pull any of these off. The enemies have more curveballs to throw at you, more ways to take you by surprise in ways that are fair and unfrustrating, but still sneaky.
Exhibit A in getting you to stop doing First Order Optimal Strategies: The Thiefbot. It works simply. People don't like being stolen from. Property that they've earned are desired to be kept in their grasp. That's easy to understand. But it goes a bit deeper than that.
In the circles of Dungeons and Dragons, a game that's as freeform as a game likely can possibly ever be, there's a saying. In such a freeform environment, where imagination is the only limiting factor, it can get difficult to direct the people playing the game to go where the Dungeon Master wants them to, without outright railroading the players, ie, forcing them down a path that you dictate. Being a good Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons is all about trickery. Getting the players to want to go down the path that you want to them to. A tad underhanded, but the tricks good DM's can pull to achieve this is mind-boggling. But even with all those tricks at their disposal, there's just some things the players flat-out will not do. This varies by group, but even so, there's a handy trick to get the players to do whatever you want, however you want, and to get them to go through any hurdle you throw at them. It's a technique that has to be used very sparingly, as it's quite frustrating, but its effectiveness is undebateable. That method?
Steal from the players.
They will go through hell and high water to get what is rightfully theirs back in their possession. It's an annoying thing to do, but by god, it works. The Theifbot taps in on this in a rather fair way. The Thiefbot will zip around at high speeds when on the run, but when it's moving in for your prize, it slows to a creep and goes silent. If you're observant, you can catch it before it steals from you. But at some point in the game, it will get to you, and you will have your most useful and handy accessory stolen.
What's your response when this happens? To chase the fucker down and kill him with much prejudice, preferably using missiles.
During that initial rage when it steals from you, it has you. It can duck into the most enemy-ridden corridor in the entire level, and don't lie to me. You want to ignore everything and chase after it. It takes a concious effort to restrain yourself, calm down, and continue to fight smart. But oooooh, when you hear that sound indicating something was taken, your blood boils. During that moment, that Thiefbot could duck into a hallway of big enemies that fire homing missiles and you would still want to afterburn after the fucker.
So you struggle and you chase and you fire, often missing the crafty bastard, but then, you get a moment, you have a shot lined up, and you fire. You hit him good, and the glorious sound of his death knell is heard as he explodes, giving back all your stolen equipment and good amount of energy and shields on top of that. All that frustration, all that anger, all the time he fucked up a plan because he nicked a good weapon, it's all worthwhile in that moment. The ultimate satisfaction of killing an annoying enemy. That bit of emotional pride makes up for all the negative, and suddenly, the rest of the level seems like such a breeze. You're free. You don't have to watch your back as carefully. The backtracking movements the little blue guys make seem so insignificant now. It's a sweet release that only something of that caliber can deliver.
That, my friends, is good enemy design. It takes advantage of a basic piece of human psychology, and uses it to the game's advantage. If you're being slow and careful in Descent II, rest assured, that Thiefbot, if you haven't killed it yet, will sneak up on you when you least expect it and dangle the prize you kept on your ammo rack right in front of your face, daring you to come and get it. Even if he took something as useless as one concussion missile out of the thirty-eight others you have in stock, it's the simple fact that it got to you. It caught you by surprise and humiliated you.
And the even better fact? This act is so rarely harmful. It can only take one thing at a time, and even if it takes something that's very important, such as the Energy to Shield converter, well, it's taken it away only in the short term. You hunt it down, you kill it, you get it back. If you're lucky or it's dumb, that can distract for about a minute. But during that minute, it can take you anywhere, and you'll want to follow it. Through the maws of hell itself, you will want to ignore everything else, to your detriment, and personally strangle that goddamn Thiefbot.
Many, many people cry foul at the Thiefbot. But myself? I applaud Parallax. (after the fact, at least. In the moment, I wanna shove an Earthshaker up that fucker's tailpipe) The devteam of Descent II designed an enemy that is so simple in execution that a child could understand it, and uses it to evoke a broad range of emotions. It's annoying as fuck that the Thiefbot does what it does, but Descent II is made so much better through its presence. And even on top of the Thiefbot simply being annoying, what's more important is the degree of annoying that it is. If it were less annoying, it'd be a frustrating addition that doesn't carry the emotional power that makes it worth its weight in game time. If it were more annoying, the frustration would grow too much and many would likely quit the game prematurely and the experience of Descent II as a whole would suffer terribly.
So striking the balance with this enemy is the absolute key here. After all, to make the good of a game more potent, throw in a very carefully considered dose of bad.
Everything in moderation, after all.
Descent and Descent II can be purchased from the ever-reliable guys at www.gog.com for a paltry sum, preconfigured with DOSbox to work right after a quick install.