Retro Review: Descent

Descent could have been a revolution in gaming, but the idea never really took off. It supplemented what was then the quintessence of the first-person shooter experience with the ability to fly, often upside-down and thoroughly lost, through truly 3D environments. Even today it stands alone as a unique video game experience.

Basically

Developed by Parallax Software and released in 1995, Descent was born into a PC gaming world which was slightly obsessed with first-person shooters—mainly DOOM, and a whole lot of games that wished they were DOOM.

Descent dared to be different. It tried to stand out from the crowd in a few different ways, even avoiding the controversy surrounding the fledgling genre of murder simulators by virtue of the fact that every single enemy in it was a machine.

The greatest difference, though, was that the player’s ship could be manipulated to face and fly in any direction. It’s hard to explain, but the developers called it six degrees of freedom, and freedom it really was.

The game offered players one of the first truly 3D and fully navigable environments in a video game. Even the enemies in Descent featured genuine 3D models, while other games of the era continued to rely on sprites which scaled awkwardly and turned to face the player at all times. Descent’s enemies were solid entities, and the game world felt just as real.

The game was a techincal triumph, and a totally new, innovative experience, but it faded quietly into obscurity.

So, about those insanely powerful mining robots we built…

In Descent you play as a mercenary with a sort of bad attitude, who has been hired by the government for an important mission investigating troubling reports from off-world mines. Your character’s dialog reads something like a 1950s detective, albeit more gruff, to follow the FPS staple of a marine grunt persona. Reluctantly, you take up the task.

You are ordered to fly your Pyro GX deep into the mines on several different worlds to investigate a computer virus, which has apparently infected all of the robotic miners working below the surface.

These robots are inexplicably armed to the teeth with all manner of heavy weaponry. For the most part you will be investigating explosions, and if you’re lucky it will be you who causes the bulk of them.

Descent makes a great attempt at a storyline, but it’s not particularly well presented past the opening scene, and it doesn’t really motivate gameplay. It’s nice at least to have a backstory for the events of the game, explaining why exactly there exist so many mines full of angry robots.

Wheeeeee!

This game is as much a flight simulator as a first-person shooter, so the first and most important thing to mention is the simple fact that it is fun as all hell to fly around like an idiot shooting at stuff. Mastery of the controls will allow you to become very quick and agile, and it feels awesome.

That said, Descent also has all of the staples of the FPS genre, with nothing really missing from the package. I asked myself, while playing for this review, if Descent would still be a good FPS without the novel aspect of flight, and it absolutely would be.

There are colored keycards to collect in order to pass matching doors, which was a very common mechanic in just about every game that came out in 1995, but it certainly gets the job done.

A somewhat optional objective to each stage is to rescue the trapped hostages. Apparently those mining robots couldn’t do absolutely everything themselves, but neither did the Human staff in the mines have much of a plan for the inevitability of their robotic slaves turning on them.

There are a ton of secret rooms to find, which mostly aren’t all that exciting, but just finding them is reward enough if you’re like me. You can find some cool weapon powerups and things this way, too.

The only other real downside for some players may be that navigation can be a little frustrating when you find yourself trying to remember which way is up, but this could be termed a positive for others (myself among them). The maps are not so large and labyrinthine that you’ll be stuck for long, regardless.

Exploration plays a surprisingly small role in the overall experience—no more than in its cousins like DOOM or Wolfenstein 3D—but it seems like a lot more fun when you’re floating about.

While this is all sort of standard FPS fare, it all works, and it’s probably less played-out these days than it was at the time. The single addition of total freedom of movement really turns everything on its head (oh, I went there) and makes for a wholly unique experience.

Now about those explosions I mentioned earlier

Killing things is an important aspect of any murder simulator. There are a lot of different robot types to keep your primal aggression sated as you progress through Descent.

Combat seems at first to be a little on the easy side, with projectiles moving slowly enough that you can track and dodge them, Matrix-style. However, this ends up adding more depth of skill to the battles later on, when you are fighting more powerful robots in greater numbers and there are neon orbs of death filling entire rooms.

A lot of the enemies can also take a while to bring down, which has a very similar effect to the above in that it slows things down a bit and leads to more involved and interesting fights. You will often lead enemies around corners or strafe around a room ducking behind pillars, turning some standard fights into what can add up to a rudimentary miniboss.

Speaking of bosses, each stage ends with a reactor you have to take out, and while these do get progressively harder, they’re also kind of boring, because it’s the same basic idea being repeated and reactor cores tend not to bring a lot of personality.

The difficulty overall ramps up nicely as you progress. I never really even noticed the increasing challenge as I was playing, but when you look back from further in there is no doubt that the game has gotten substantially more difficult.

It’s like flying a goddamn space ship or something

Since you’re navigating 3D space, Descent features more advanced and complicated controls than the typical shooter, though not by all that much. It’s certainly not as hard to figure out as some true flight sims can be.

The controls are great once you get them working for you. I don’t recommend anyone attempt to play Descent without enabling mouse control, as the game is fairly unplayable without good ol’ mlook,.

The standard Mouse+WASD control scheme works well, but you will need additional key assignments for sliding up/down (I use spacebar/ctrl) and banking left/right (q/e).

When you’ve got the hang of it things feel very natural, but there i definitely more of a learning curve here than with most games. You’ll likely find yourself pulling off fancy-pants rolls and dekes in combat before long.

Two things in the next screenshot are enemies, and two are powerups. Guess which!

The graphics haven’t held up quite as well as the gameplay, alas. I remember being scared by this game once, but I can’t really imagine why now. I saw the robots as demonic and angry, lurking behind corners to jump out at me. Playing it now I see them as predictable ugly blobs of low-resolution textures.

Things look really pixelated here. It’s difficult for older 3D games to hold up visually, and Descent plainly does not.

Sometimes when I talk about an older game looking kind of ugly or dated, it’s something that can be rather charming in its own way. In this case, it really does hurt the game a little bit. It can be difficult to tell exactly what you’re looking at.

Verdict

The Six Degrees of Freedom slogan touted by the game is much more than a gimmick, and there is simply no game out there like Descent. Aside from the low-resolution graphics, it’s nearly perfect, and should be a part of every PC gamer’s lexicon.

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