Ascending through the rankings?

Over the past year or so, at the time of writing this, I've been as invested in board gaming as I have with video gaming, and on the top of the tables, you can play the dungeon crawling, part-RPG part-puzzle, figure heavy game called Descent.

It's alright. It's not piqued my interest enough to be in my collection, but I'll play it if it's brought out. I'm not sure why I'm telling you this, really, because Descent has nothing to do with Descent, the first person shooter flight sim hybrid, I suppose you'd call it.

I've only heard of Descent in passing and I wouldn't bet on being able to pick it out of a screenshot lineup (ignoring the fact that its 1001 write up is headed with a screenshot). Save for the genre and a few paragraphs explaining how actually really 3D it is, I'm in the dark on this one.

Let's pilot our way to the surface of the Moon.


So I'm skimming the manual and the Wikipedia article and I'm seeing that Descent includes the obvious joystick support, but also mouselook before the rest of the gaming world thought that was worth looking into, and keyboard movement if you're a maniac, and I'm getting more interested with every tease of wrapping my fingers around a flight stick (because, after playing TIE Fighter, I guess I'm still giddy on the damn things).

But after setting up my inputs I've got a whole novella to read before things even get started. It sets the scene that I'm being roped into performing a mission for those damn suits who care more about their company than any individual caught up in its problems, but it's a bit of a dump at times, and it's not the easiest thing to read, even with rotating robots to keep you distracted.

Eventually, the mission boils down to shoot the things, blow up the other thing, try to save the people but otherwise just get out alive. Easy peasy.

Fun Times

Easy peasy, floats like a butterfly, stings like a beesy, this line needs more work but goddamn does Descent feel goooooood.

You may struggle to look at it sometimes, either because of textures, resolution or complete loss of which direction is up, but once you stop wobbling around the space like Bambi and actually start to 'gracefully' float through the level like the professional pilot you are, Descent quickly turns into a game you wish you knew about sooner.

You move through the levels with two weapons equipped at once, from a selection of ten available through pickups and powerups. In true old-school first person shooter fashion, finding and collecting things makes you better and shooting all the things that don't want you finding and collecting things.

In this case, a computer virus has rendered all the mining robots hostile, and the surest way to deal with it must be with violence and explosions, so that's what you set off to do with lasers and rockets and whatever else you can find.

It's not complicated to get your head around in terms of objectives. It follows the same pattern as Doom, for example, in that if a door is red and won't open, you might end up finding a red key card that will open it for you.

The difference between Doom and Descent is that while Doom did a damn good job at pretending it was fully three dimensional, Descent actually has levels that twist and turn above and below other corridors and hallways and whatnot. You are, at times - even if only temporarily - required to forget which way is up so that you can dive down onto your foes from above, or meander through a tunnel to God-knows where.

While the first level is mostly flat in these regards, I still found myself having to not think about screenshots in order to try to find the various inputs to right myself enough to not feel hopelessly out of control - always after combat has finished though...

You'll notice a lot of these screenshots have 'Demo Playback' on them. In both single and multiplayer modes, Descent includes a feature to record your gameplay for later playback, all in-game. Damn right I'm going to make use of that, and it even comes with some sneak-peak demos of later stages in the game to give players an idea of what they're getting into before even committing to a new game (but after committing to purchasing it, I'd imagine) - fire, screen tints and death, apparently.

No deaths for me, though. While I saved nobody (found them, but, gosh, there's a door between us guys, dunno how I'll get through that), I successfully blew up the reactor core and got the hell out of the level before it all came crashing down around me.

Final Word

My score might not be, but the feeling Descent gave me was great - the kind of great that isn't just 'yeah, that's pretty good', but 'I'm going to remember that from now on'.

It's not quite a first person shooter, not quite a flight simulator, but whatever middle ground Descent manages to cover, it covers it very well. I found myself mentally mapping the opener, only to go through a door or two and immediately have to stop and think 'no, this will be a little different, let's just deal with this section before slotting it back into the mental map'. I'm stupid really. I should have just used the auto mapper.

Descent is a game that will only give you its best when you give it the best input you can, preferably a joystick of some kind, but even a mouse is better than the num pad. Give it what it wants and it'll give you a game that'll turn your brain a little inside out while you dance around the incoming fire and return it with a squeeze of your trigger finger.

Will it get more complicated, trickier, just outright harder to stay alive against bigger, stronger, meaner opponents? I've absolutely no idea right now but look forward to finding out. You might prefer to fly in nice open skies, but trust me when I say that you'll want to fly through Descent for just a little while at least.

Fun Facts

Perhaps not too noticeable at first, or in the thick of the action, but there are lighting effects at work here, and you can drop flares to see them in action.

Descent, developed by Parallax Software, first released in 1995.
Version played: MS-DOS, 1995, via emulation.