Guest Retro: Descent Series

Posted by Gilgamesh on 20 January, 2013 at 8:37PM

Tags: Descent, PC, Exploration, Retro, Interplay, Parallax Software, FPS, Flying

Guest Retro: Descent Series

Okay so less strategy guide more review this time.

Made in 1994 by Parallax Software and Interplay Descent was a rather unique FPS game that spawned several sequels and expansion packs. It features movement with six degrees of freedom in a zero gravity setting.

The story to Descent has the player work for a corporation called PTMC who has hired them to clean out several of their off world mines of a computer virus that has infected many of the mining robots. As is standard in older FPS the game features a distinct level system with each level being a mine in this case. The player will start out on the moon and move throughout the planets and moons of the solar system clearing out the mines.

The game's length is pretty solid with 27 main levels and three secret levels to find if you're so inclined. The levels are often quite maze-like and will quickly require you to get used to the fact that you have those six degrees of freedom. Enemies will come at you from any direction and exit doors/passageways are just as often in the 'roof' as they are the walls. I honestly think flying around the levels is a big part of the appeal to the series. The extra buttons required to control your ship as opposed to your average person in an FPS might take a bit of time to get used to (and possibly some customisation)but it's really rewarding to fly smoothly about the mines as you duck, roll and twist around enemy attacks and launch your own.

Just about every level follows the pattern of the player entering the mine and trying to find the reactor. After the player finds and destroys the reactor the mine will start to shake violently as the self destruct mechanism is activated. The player will then have a time limit to locate the escape door (ideally located before you destroy the reactor) or perish with the mine. The reactor is virtually always (it might be always but I'm not 100% sure) located somewhere behind a red door that you'll need a red keycard to open. The red keycard is frequently behind a yellow door that needs a yellow keycard and the yellow keycard is usually behind a blue door with the blue keycard being somewhere accessible from the start. It's also possible to find PTMC workers that are trapped as hostages and rescuing these will give you additional points. Points are used for high score tables as well as earning extra lives. Personally, I find the industrial look and feel of the stages rather aesthetically pleasing.

Unusually for the time of the game all the enemies in the game are full 3D models rather than sprites. Powerups and collectables however have sprites used for them. The game has a decent variety of enemies with them ranging from minor annoyances to serious brutes and they'll use different tactics to try to overcome the player. If the player is killed all collected powerups drop on the spot (but hostages perish) and the player will respawn at the entrance to the level with nothing. I believe if you don't escape in time or die while the self destruct sequence is activated you'll simply spawn at the start of the next level with nothing. It's possible to save and load at any time and as usual with games like that I always load when I die rather than lose the life.

The player starts with a level 1 laser and it's possible to find upgrades to this gun as well as other weapons to use. Missiles and bombs use their own individual ammo supplies while most guns use the ship's energy reserves. The ship's energy ranges from 0 to a maximum of 200. It's recharged by collecting energy powerups scattered about the level and there are also energy recharge rooms that will recharge your energy up to 100. If you complete a level below 100 energy your energy will be refilled to 100 for the start of the next level. Aside from weapon usage you can also use 1 energy to shoot out a flare that will light up darker sections of the game for you. Pretty cool for the time since even basic dynamic lighting like that wasn't common at all.

Your ship's shields are also pretty similar in that they range from 0 to 200 but these are only recharged by finding powerups or finishing a level with less than 100. Shields act as your health and if they reach 0 you'll die.

The game has quite a large variety of midi tunes with most levels having their own song (22 individual level tracks for a game with 30 levels) and personally I think they are best heard using OPL3 with Sound Blaster Pro 2.0, Sound Blaster 16 ASP and most of the AWE cards using it. Some of these tracks... are fairly unremarkable but some are brilliant. It's a mixed bag.

While you're not likely going to play it I feel that I should mention Descent's multiplayer was also a pretty great feature at the time with 8 players over LAN, a convenient in-game multiplayer menu and being one of the first FPS multiplayer games that allowed players to join mid game rather than everyone needing to be there for the start of the match.

I've seen few other games that play like Descent but none have ever captured what makes Descent so great. Perhaps this style of gameplay just doesn't hold up once you introduce more realistic looking environments or try to make the player think about what they're doing more than 'blow up robots.' I'm not sure what it is but when your down in those mines, exploring the passageways (the game has a cool 3D map to help navigate with) and battling it out with the enemies it's a unique experience that I really enjoy. I was enthralled with the game the first time I played the seven level shareware demo and I don't think it's ever let me go.

While I'm here I'm going to talk about the follow up games in the series. Descent 2 was originally going to be an expansion pack and it shows with it being -very- similar to Descent. Not that that's a bad thing with Descent 3 being a fairly large departure from the established formula of the series and while that's not all that makes Descent 3 a bad game (escort missions, invisible walls, buggy maps and more) it certainly helps. The expansion to Descent 3 isn't nearly as bad but honestly I don't think either game is worth your time.

Descent 2 adds higher resolution support, has more enemies, bosses, weapons and CD quality music with midi tracks also being available. The level design in Descent 2 is more structured with the levels for each world following common themes. The levels are also more complex with 'switches' being implemented. The player can often find exposed circuits and shooting these will lower forcefields, open doors ect. Escaping the mines is also more challenging this time around. Something I'd feel remiss not mentioning is that Descent 2 adds in quite possibly the most annoying enemy in any FPS ever. The thief bot. Now there's only about one of these per level and what the thief bot does is try to sneak up on you and steal your gear. That's it. But he's very quick, he's clever and he knows every single hidden passageway through the stage and he's always trying to get behind you then quickly run off with his ill gotten goods. He can steal just about any powerup you have (including cheatcode granted invincibility) and it'll take quite a pounding before you're able to kill him and reclaim your goods. Descent 2 also adds in the option to boost your speed by draining your energy or transfer energy above 100 into your shields once you find appropriate powerups. You can also find a handy guide bot that will follow you around and assist you in locating certain items or locations.

The expansion to Descent 2 is purely a level pack with no gameplay changes at all. However, the extra stages, enemies and bosses are quality additions and it might be my favourite 'campaign' in the series. For those players using the CD music it also features remixes of the tracks from Descent 2.

All in all, definitely a worthwhile FPS series with its own look and feel that's never really been seen since. Avoid Descent 3 & its expanion outside of pure curiosity. The movement might take a while to get the hang of but once you get your wings, boy do you fly.