Back in the early ’90s, the world was still in shock over the release of Doom. It was pretty much a phenomenon, and like any phenomenon, it inspired a slew of clones, copycats and blatant rip-offs. This is pretty much exemplified by the fact that the term “first-person shooter” wasn’t even in effect and “Doom Clone” was used instead. There was certainly merit to this classification: most such games were intended as little more than quick cash-grabs and were generally of very low quality. However, one title in particular tried a different approach and stood out from its peers: Parallax Software’s Descent.
The game mixed up the standard 3D shooting formula with cues from a flight simulator. Players were perched firmly inside a vehicle which operated in a zero-gravity environment. Rather than being confined to a single plane, you had almost complete freedom to move in 360 degrees, where “up” and “down” ceased to be relevant. It was quite a novelty at the time and it took some getting used to; indeed, you’d be utilizing all your fingers to best take advantage of your craft’s controls. However, once players got the hang of it, they were hooked. It was reminiscent of the sort of futuristic computer games you would have seen in sci-fi flicks of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The premise was standard sci-fi fare: in the good ol’ “near future”, humanity has begun mining planets, moons and asteroids in our solar system and beyond for minerals that are rare or non-existent on Earth. Overseen by an omnipresent, Big Brother-like corporation – the largest to ever exist in history – the mining operations are conducted almost entirely by robots, with a bare minimum human presence. All goes well until a mysterious computer virus begins infecting all the robots, rendering them into autonomous killing machines that turn on their human masters. After exhausting all possibilities, the corporation has determined that their last resort at containing the virus is to cut their losses and eliminate the mines, with all the robots inside them. That’s where you come in: you’re a mercenary-for-hire with strict instructions to infiltrate the mines and destroy all their reactor cores.
From here, the game employed typical ’90s tropes, mainly getting lost in elaborate mazes and hunting for keys to open doors. Aside from six degrees of freedom in movement, other touches include 3D models (years before Quake) and noticeably higher enemy AI. Seriously, these guys are rather apt at seeing you coming, dodging your attacks and barraging you with reckless abandon, particularly on higher difficulties. New enemies could be spawned at certain locations and some were either camouflaged or cloaked, adding to the variety and requiring new tactics to defeat. The few bosses in particular were nasty brutes; so much so that later patches reduced their difficulty due to player complaints.
“New enemies could be spawned at certain locations and some were either camouflaged or cloaked, adding to the variety and requiring new tactics to defeat.“
Weapons were well thought-out too. They were generally classified between energy and missile, with one additional, minigun-like device that required its own ammunition. Keeping an eye out on your energy levels was as important as maintaining your shield, lest you find yourself essentially without ammo. The basic starting weapon – a simple laser – could be upgraded several times, thus rendering it useful even later in the game. Missiles ranged from simple nukes to homing devices, and players could also lay mines in key spots. Choosing the right weapon for the job was a more thoughtful consideration than in most shooters of the time. This was especially true in multiplayer, and if you’re thinking that deathmatching in zero gravity was insane fun, you’d be dead right.
The game was followed by a sequel that saw our hapless mercenary anti-hero travelling to other solar systems and continuing his mission under contractual obligations from his employer. Descent 2 was pretty much everything the first game was and then some; every weapon had a new variation, every enemy was a new design and two new robot types emerged: The Guide-Bot that would help you navigate the level and a Thief-Bot that would steal your weapons if it got too close. The soundtrack too was noteworthy due to the inclusion of industrial tracks by Skinny Puppy and Type O Negative, which perfectly suited the game’s gritty, tech mood.
Later games in the Descent series were either lackluster or failed to deliver on the same fun as the originals. However, in 1998 we saw the release of Forsaken, which was as close to a spiritual successor to the first Descent as we could have ever hoped for. Although more inclined towards multiplayer, the game nonetheless had a single player mode which saw you once more navigating maze-y, 3D corridors in a zero-gravity vehicle whilst destroying robotic enemies with all manner of energy weapons and missiles. The most noticeable difference was that Forsaken eschewed key-finding and instead relied on other methods for completing levels, usually involving destroying all enemies or reaching the exit within a time limit.
You can find both the original Descent and Descent 2 on Steam. Both run in DOSBox and play just fine on modern operating systems, but you nonetheless may want to look into DXX-Rebirth. It’s a source port that runs natively on today’s systems and makes the games look and play like new with higher resolutions and more control options. Finding Forsaken will be much trickier as the game seems to have disappeared from retail completely. Nonetheless, you can peek over at Project X, which, similar to DXX-Rebirth, is a modern source port and bug fix enhancement compatible with today’s operating systems. Grab ’em all and prepare to defy gravity.