Reviews from the Backroom: Descent 3

Reviews From The Backroom: Descent 3

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Never, ever, EVER judge a book by it's cover.

The reason I want to start off by saying that is because flight-based games have been done to death. From the Microsoft simulators to games like HAWX, this particular genre of game-play has been used for every type of story-line imaginable. Unfortunately, many have been of little note, whether it's because they are bland or outright crap.

Descent: Blowing your mind since 1995.

The Descent series isn't even close to being bland or crap.

Back in 1995, most of the "3D" games available belonged to what has, in recent years, been termed "2.5D". The environment was usually in all 3 dimensions with choppy rendering and blocky textures; while the items, enemies, animations, etc. were usually a 2D sprite placed inside the environment. Along with that, the controls usually limited where or how much the player could move, to prevent a game-breaking experience. For the time, it worked; mostly because home computers were just learning to walk, and couldn't handle a fully-3D rendered environment.

However, transition proved difficult when the time came that home computers had the power to pump out 3D models at playable speeds. One of the first games to attempt full 3D was the EarthSiege series. Unfortunately, the EarthSiege games suffered from poor programming, with textures popping in and out or blurring, parts of 3D models disappearing, and an overall slow, choppy game engine. Ultimately, they (and many games like them) were ignored.

The first games of significant note to ever come out that featured full 3D-rendered models and environments were in the Descent series. The textures were complete and remained rendered at a distance, enemies were rendered as 3D models with complex A.I., and the player had access to the full six degrees of freedom to move around in. In 1995, this was a significant accomplishment for an interactive, real-time rendered medium, and it made way for many 3D games to come.

For the first two installments of the Descent series, the games remained largely unchanged; mostly due to Descent II being planned out as an expansion rather than a sequel, and being released only one year later. In 1999, Interplay gave Descent a MASSIVE overhaul, and released the third installment.[1]

After three years of silence from Interplay, fans were once again given an awesome experience, with even more technical advances to boot! Descent 3 was exactly what Interplay needed, helping them hold onto fans of the older games, and helping newer players into the series without leaving them to wonder what it was all about. Plus, one of the best opening sequences ever:

The reason for Descent 3's long development time is due to the game engine receiving a complete overhaul from the first two. Using what was dubbed the "Fusion Engine", Descent 3 had levels that seamlessly incorporated both the claustrophobic indoor areas the series was known for, with massive outdoor areas (more on that later). As for the 3D architecture, this game introduced more rendering tech than you could shake a stick at. Bump mapping, dynamic colored lighting, weather effects, high-detail texture and video mapping, real-time level-of-detail mixing, support for the DirectX, OpenGL, and GLide API's, and 3D models created from collections of 2D planes instead of individual 3D artifacts. Without a doubt, this was a beautiful and complex game that didn't suck your computer's hardware to the floor.

Everything is beautiful. EVERYTHING.

As for the game itself, it stands up on its own very well. The story behind the Descent series is contiguous throughout all the games, with the ending and opening cut-scenes of every game leading directly into the next. Unfortunately, the story often takes twists IN-game that either make little sense or can be viewed as padding to increase length. This often leads to the game leaving the player in the dark, with entire levels that seem out of place, or vague mission objectives that leave them wandering aimlessly for long stretches at a time.

On a similar note, the game design leaves a bit to be desired. While the levels featured leave an awe-inspiring impression on the player, with expansive outdoor areas and indoor/underground sections that make Minecraft look sparse; this often leads to issues with game-play. With the six dimensions of freedom, it is easy for players to get lost inside of large, relatively unmarked locations; particularly in the numerous underground sections. Descent 3 attempts to overcome this problem with the "Guidebot", a small helper that the player has constant access to, that can guide them to any given destination. For the most part, it works; but this feature represents an increased number of controls (which can be confusing), and the Guidebot A.I. often turns stupid at the drop of a hat.

As for the game-play itself, this is where Descent shines through the brightest. The levels vary to an incredible degree, and always have new experiences and challenges for the player to overcome. You can go from breaking into a maximum security prison, to flying through the streets of Seoul under martial law, to breaking into an army base ON THE MOON. Throughout the game, there are a few different bosses as well, all of which are very difficult (without being frustrating) and require different strategies to defeat. No two mission objectives play out the same, and the missions are too complex and interesting to allow the player any boredom. Gripping doesn't even begin to describe it.

As for the enemies, there is enough variety here to fill a buffet. There are basic security bots, riot-control bots, defense-forces, mining bots, bots that steal your weapons and items, massive walking mechs, the list goes on and on. Besides that, there are often different variations on the same enemy type, none of which fight the same. Besides variety, there's the A.I., which will kill you over and over again in so many different ways and settings, that it becomes obvious that a developer somewhere went to great pains to see it come through as well as possible.

Items also vary in both use and spectacle. Different weapons drain energy at different rates, destroy certain enemies quicker, and require different levels of skill to use. As for variety, there are enough to choose from that you can set up many different strategies to enter any given situation. Missiles that explode into fragments or flames, missiles that create black-holes, Gatling cannons, microwave cannons, even sniper-rifles.

The cons for this game are so few, I'll only include them in one paragraph:

The cutscenes for this game are rather poor, and the voice acting isn't exactly going for any awards. Though game-play is quite good, it often becomes frustrating and hectic, particularly in small environments, and sometimes things have a tendency to lapse into being cartoony.

Overall:

Descent 3 is not only large, engaging, and one HELL of a time; it has also aged very well, and is still available for as low as $6.00 U.S. Unless this type of game makes you nauseous, I highly recommend you give this one a look.

P.S.

If you enjoyed this review, please tell me! And if you have any suggestions for future games to get for my back-room, let me know!


[1] In 2008, Interplay re-purchased the rights to Descent, and a fourth game is rumored to be in the works.

And here is, yet another, humble bump.

Guess I picked a rather unknown game.

Skorpyo:
And here is, yet another, humble bump.

Guess I picked a rather unknown game.

The Descent series is one of the most memorable things from my childhood. I played (partially) through Descent 3 again not long ago. It is, as you say, far too easy to get lost. But the game itself is so enjoyable that this is easily overlooked.

Ah, I miss this game. I used to play multiplayer a bit too, back in the day when I actually played some multiplayer. I still remember the abrupt server shutdown, that put a dent in things. Fell off after that.

brings me back man, great review. this was back in the day I was pretty much an exclusive pc gamer... those days are gone unfortunately, just the feeling of a mouse in my hand is almost a foreign feeling these days. loved the descent series, and interplay in general...such a shame they went by the wayside as some of my fondest memories of gaming in general were theirs.

I must not have noticed this review when it was first posted, because knowing my character there's just no way I'd ever miss a chance to wax eloquent about one of my favorite series of games of all time. Descent was a game that, at the time when I first picked it up and sat down to play it, I didn't really understand. Probably because there really wasn't anything like it at the time - 3Dish games existed quite a while prior to Descent of course, and I had played a bunch of those in my formative years, but the idea of a fully 3D range of motion inside of an enclosed space was rather groundbreaking.

The first time I saw Descent in action was also the first time I have ever experienced motion sickness from watching a video game played. That might have been because, for whatever reason, when I first fired up the game it was actually my younger brother who sat down to play it, and he had even less idea of how the game was supposed to work than I did. Watching him go from a mostly level position to somehow making the wall the floor, and then killing himself with the backblast from his own rockets while trying ineffectually to combat the very first robot in the very first room of the game, well that was both a nauseating and eye-opening experience.

I wasn't going to be able to just sit down and PLAY this game.

Growing up on a diet of side-scrollers, overhead shooters, ground-based vehicular shooters, clocking the few odd hours here or there on other people's copies of early FPS titles, none of that was actually hard to do - as a kid those were just the sort of games that I could sit down and play, with virtually no learning curve; either you had movement along a flat plane with directional keys translating directly towards movement in those directions along that flat plane, or you were still moving on a flat plane only now you could spin your view around.

But Descent, that was actually in full 3D - you could literally rotate and move in any direction at all times. Space Shooters did that of course, but those were in space, where the only way you could tell you were upside down or sideways was by relating your ship to the other objects floating around in mostly empty space, and for all you knew those were upside down or sideways; physical orientation of your ship was ultimately meaningless apart from how it positioned you with regard to the various friendly or hostile objects. Flying a ship in a space shooter might encompass a bewildering array of what should be dizzying maneuvers, but they tend not to be in practice unless you spend a great deal of time very close to a very large object; flipping and rolling through empty space just doesn't have that disorienting effect if you can't really judge how fast you're moving or even in what direction you're going.

Descent took zero gravity controls and ship movement and placed it inside of enclosed spaces, while asking you to dogfight insane robots who were similarly unconstrained by gravity. If it weren't for cheat codes I might never have been able to even play the game long enough to get decent at it, it took me at least a week before I could smoothly move about and dealing with being shot at while trying to wrap my head around navigating a fully 3D space was more than I was equipped to handle at the time, heh.

Now of course it's second nature, and I readily credit Descent's status as my first non-shareware game (that I purchased for myself) for my heightened ability to navigate my way through modern gaming spaces - very few things are confusing after you've gained proficiency with the wireframe automap in Descent 1 and 2.

That was one of the only things I didn't like about Descent 3: The map. Sure, it's a lot prettier than the bare-bones wireframe maps from the first two games, but it's also harder to navigate in a meaningful way due to opacity, and the whole thing was WAY slower to respond to player input. But that's a minor quibble - presenting us with massive levels with mission objectives other than "find keycards, destroy reactor, escape" was so awesome that I happily overlooked the sluggish map interface. Having alternate ships available as the campaign progresses was also super cool, and the Mercenary expansion's campaign was a blast as well (it comes bundled with the game if you get it from Good Old Games).

I'm going to touch on one last thing - destruction! Specifically, that of the robots - they blow up in surprisingly varied and interesting ways, depending on how you damage them, what weapons you use, whether or not you target certain sections of them, etc; it adds a surprising amount of character to what are (almost exclusively) robotic opponents. Also it looked really cool.

 

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