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Descent Review

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On 02/22/2014 at 12:00 PM by Matt R

Descent into awesome.

If Steam ever patches the controls, this port would be video game perfection and worthy of a full 5 stars. With the free Rebirth mod available online this is a moot point. It's hard, it requires careful exploration, and it rewards ruthlessness with survival. It's a must-play.

Even if you only played the demo way back in the ancient days of the mid-'90s, it's hard to forget the thrill of flying in and out of cramped hallways, dodging lasers and missiles to steal a door key and then strafing downward (or is it upward?) back out of the room to safety. Descent celebrates its 19th birthday this month with a straight, bare-bones port on Steam—all 27 stomach-wrenching levels of the original. This particular version has some mouse issues, but a great game is a great game.

Taking control of a first-person flight shooter like this is an empowering feeling. With a little coordination, the keyboard is fully customizable to strafe and rotate in any direction in a way that makes up and down entirely subjective. In 1995 this was pretty rad. Unfortunately in 2014 it is too straight of a port because the mouse sensitivity levels aren't adjusted properly for newer computers. Even with the slider all the way up in the options menu, as well as the Windows control panel, the ship turns way too slowly for my liking.

Whatever the year, its story is classic sci-fi: man vs. machines. The bots at these mining facilities have gone rogue, so a bounty hunter is enlisted to travel to maze-like levels deep beneath the surface of our planetary neighbors, get the blue key to the blue door, then yellow for the yellow door, then red, and finally blow up the reactor and escape through the exit door before the self-destruct timer runs out.

Descent follows the timeless video game script. It starts easy, but introduces new enemy types and more convoluted levels little by little. There are new weapons and powerups in hidden areas and secret rooms. Extra lives are awarded at certain point levels. It tricks the player into thinking a level's map is going to be relatively uncomplicated, then you find out the exit door is far from the reactor room. Or it will leave an alluring, glowing powerup in an empty room ready for the taking and then bzzzt! whirr! Trap doors open, the room is swarming with enemies, and suddenly your shields are down 30%.

Every weapon is within reach by the time the first half dozen levels are over: lasers, laser upgrades, rapid-fire plasma, and others, which can be switched to at the press of a key. You'll feel pretty powerful moving all about, strafing around enemies who are limited to one weapon type each, shooting doors from afar to make a faster getaway. But that is only a mirage. Before too long, these dumb bots start to swarm and put up a serious fight, and there are some rooms where they continually respawn. Then the health orbs become increasingly scarce and dark corridors and empty rooms start to look like trouble waiting to happen. Instead of letting the player feel invincible, Descent warns in the pre-level briefings to Proceed with extreme caution. And it means it.

On the middle of five difficulty settings, it is hard as heck at only the halfway point. One does not simply speed through a Descent level; each layout is completely different and requires careful exploration. The pixelated graphics will take some time getting used to, especially since many areas look alike, and objects that are off in the distance tend to look like splotches. Enemy bots also have this infuriating habit of lurking behind closed doors to get cheap shots off at the player's expense. However, the quick save feature takes almost all of the sting away; there's no penalty for endlessly re-loading a save state and trying a different tactic or weapon. I don't mind that. I appreciate the streamlined save ability. Thanks 1995!

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.




02/22/2014 at 12:10 PM

I have such fond memories of this game.  The greatest of these was spending countless hours with the game and memorizing all the maps, only to find out that there were 20 more levels.  I had gotten stuck on the boss in level 7 and never realized that there was more to the game than just the inner planets.

Nate Hascup Staff Alumnus

02/22/2014 at 02:21 PM

I would love to return to this game some time. This game to me was what Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem were to most people. It was my beloved PC FPS.

I never beat this game without cheats. It was very hard and some of the bosses were killer.

Did anyone try the Freespace spin-offs to this series?

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/22/2014 at 11:41 PM

Dude, you totally went old school on me with this review.  I only played the demo of Descent, but I was on the ball with Descent II.  That game was my jam!  Well...that and Terminal Velocity.  Great review.  Thanks for the quick trip down memory lane.

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