The Descent Series Should Rise Again

Once more into the depths.

by

Almost two decades ago, there was a game that vexed me. It disoriented me, turned me around, killed me mercilessly, and changed the way I played video games for the rest of my life. That game was Descent. As a mercenary pilot, I plunged into zero-gravity mining facilities throughout the solar system to combat rogue robots and rescue hostages, all the while navigating labyrinthine mazes of forking tunnels and multi-exited chambers. While space flight games like Star Wars: X-Wing introduced me to the "six degrees of freedom" control scheme, it was Descent that taught me how precious that freedom can be.

And it wasn't just me. According to Wikipedia, the Descent series sold over 40 million copies. Even if you take these numbers with a grain of salt, there's no denying that a generation of PC gamers got their first-person shooter kicks in the mines of Descent, its sequels, and its expansion packs. The late '90s saw a proliferation of games in that genre, but since the turn of the century, first-person shooters have largely left the "six degrees of freedom" subgenre behind in favor of putting your boots on the ground. Yet with the advent of promising virtual reality headsets and the resurgence of space sims, it's time for Descent to return.

Of course, just because something hasn't been around for a while doesn't mean it should come back, and I'll confess that my enthusiasm to see the series return is partially motivated by personal nostalgia. As I mentioned before, I didn't find Descent to be an easy game and many of my hours spent with it were frustrating ones. The level layouts started off fairly simple, but soon developed into twisting, branching, head-spinning mazes in which it was easy to get turned around and spend significant time retracing my steps. The automatically charted wire-frame map offered some crude assistance, but if I counted on it to navigate during the desperate race to the exit of each level (triggered once you blew up your primary target), things often went poorly.

A similar fate often befell me in combat. The virus-corrupted robots arrayed against me came in various models, some tougher and more powerful than others. The littlest ones were pretty easy to dispatch, but unless I was careful about every corner I turned, they'd often tag me once or twice before I shot them down. When bigger baddies came into play, evasion became an even more crucial part of combat as I tried to land shots while dodging enemy fire. Shield and health pickups were precious resources in this pre-regenerating-health shooter, but there never seemed to be enough around when I needed them. I died often in those tunnels, more often than I'd care to admit.

And yet, it was these challenges that drew me back into those mines, time and time again. Forming a mental map of Descent's levels was one of the trickiest tasks I'd encountered in a game at that point, but it was vital to my success, and so I did it and sharpened my spatial awareness in the process. Positioning myself to avoid enemy fire and return my own required that I master orienting myself along those six degrees of freedom, and so I learned to transpose my perspective into that world; to this day, I still use the inverted-look controls that I became accustomed to as a Descent pilot. Overcoming these difficulties not only brought its own satisfaction, but helped shape me into the gamer that I am today.

Map design and combat: On these two pillars, Descent built its empire of virtual mercenaries. Then, as now, game design that used relatively simple systems in increasingly complex ways to demand much of the player had powerful appeal. As long as the player has the means to master a game's challenges, the fulfillment of overcoming difficulties will always be alluring to some.

But it's not just difficulty we crave; it's novelty, and how can a long dormant series be novel again? Here's where modern gaming innovations make Descent an even more tempting reboot. From the two-dimensional mines of Spelunky to the isometric caves of Path of Exile, procedurally generated levels help deliver fresh experiences to players in a number of genres. The mines of Descent would be perfect candidates for such creation, and they wouldn't have to be limited to the metallic walls and lunar geology of past Descent games. Imagine exploring organic tunnels carved by some unknown alien creature, or floating past dazzling crystalline stalactites in pristine ancient caves. Perhaps the influences of Red Faction and Minecraft could also come into play as you bored your own shortcuts through layers of destructible sediment.

All of Descent's dizzying navigation challenges could be even more exciting with the immersive potential of a virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift or the Sony Morpheus. Feeling the mine walls close in on you from all sides could get your heart racing, and turning your head to spot shortcuts, power-ups, or delicate environmental details could greatly heighten the sense of being an explorer in an uncharted land. Space sims like Star Citizen, Elite: Dangerous, and EVE: Valkyrie are already using the Oculus development kits to great effect; now it's time to take those free-flying thrills and delve underground.

Retrovirus, a recent Descent-like game.

Fortunately, the past few years have seen some releases that aim to capture the magic of Descent, albeit with mixed results. Retrovirus offered a technological slant on the genre, though uneven difficulty made it a bit of a rough ride. Miner Wars 2081 earned enough support on Steam's Greenlight program to get published, reflecting a robust level of player interest in a Descent-esque revival. And over the past few months, the Descent games themselves have been arriving on Steam for the first time. Could this be a calculated move to cultivate interest in the genre ahead of a big reveal at E3?

That last guess may be a long shot, but for the chance to return to the mines that helped define my gaming past, I'm willing to gamble on the future.

Discussion

69 comments
karx11erx
karx11erx

I was around 30 already when the Descent 1 demo appeared, and for me this game was a revelation. I had played Doom before, but it wasn't my cup of tea really. Descent however had me the moment the entrance room of Lunar Outpost appeared in front of me on my monitor, moving slightly up and down as my ship gently wiggled.


Descent's gameplay is very unique because of the full freedom of movement in all three spatial axes. For its day (and if looking at what many game devs consider "AI") the robots (the game's "NPCs") had a very good and quite diverse AI. However, from today's point of view the gameplay at least of the first two instances of the series indeed is bland, which is very much owed to the abstract and artificial nature of the levels and lack of unique and varying tasks and goals in different levels.


Descent 3 was a bit different, with much more realistic environments and varying objectives, but it was very taxing for the hardware at that time, and also deviated quite a bit from the original game formula in terms of scale, speed and weaponry, leading to quite a dividing of the spirits in the Descent community.


Still, even if appearing old school to some, the basic principle of the game seems very appealing to me. Surprisingly enough, old school shooters are making quite a reappearance currently, with titles like e.g. Wolfenstein - The New Order.


On the other side, if you are looking for great and frantic multiplayer action, Descent imo still is one of the best games out there. It greatly rewards skill, offers a huge variety of explosive gadgetry and allows for creative gameplay. In its day, Descent offered a lot of interesting, non-standard multiplayer game modes, some pure fun ("Monsterball" - push a huge sphere into the other team's goal), some very tactical ("Entropy" - capture special areas with different functions to finally take over the enemy stronghold). 


Add to that the imminent advent of useable immersive 3D headsets, and a new Descent-style game using a modern engine, good level design and a well executed, compelling story might be a winner.


All it takes is to convince all the ground pounders to get used to the disorentiation true 6dof can bring.


If you want to try, or revive Descent, you can get it legally and for little money at www.gog.com or on Steam. There are also several fan-driven mod projects improving the game and allowing to run it on modern OS's and hardware.


One of them is dxx-rebirth, which concentrates on just making the original game useable on today's computers. 


The other one (which I prefer, but heck, I am the maintainer) is D2X-XL, which allows to play Descent and Descent 2 in vanilla mode like in the old days and just like dxx-rebirth, but has a ton of optional enhancements for those who like to try a fresher flavor of Descent, offering high resolution textures, better models, improved sound, colored light, many effects (smoke, fire, lightning, weather, glow, etc. - stuff that is standard today), and much, much more, and on top of that has Oculus Rift support. D2X-XL runs on MS Windows, Linux and OS X. Find it on www.descent2.de .


karx11erx




abcdefgabcdefgz
abcdefgabcdefgz

Its just a genre that died out. Gamers today would get confused and bored within 15 minutes.

burgerbecky
burgerbecky

:) Get the versions out on Steam! :) It pays our bills.

Coolman13355
Coolman13355

I never realized how much the first Descent took from FPSes of the day. This looks like Doom: Space Fighter Edition. Now I have to decide if I want to get the Descent series on Steam or GOG.

1st_Moon
1st_Moon

@spartanx169x
http://moon.descentforum.net/Descendarium/ should help you getting through the tricky scenes.


@meatz666
Compared to Doom? Compared to Doom, Descent featured

- 8 Players instead of 4

- joining multiplayer games already in play any time from within the game (no need for sersetup.exe)

- 6 DOF

- true 3D models (before Quake)

- the Afterburner introduced in D2 sped things up considerably


@gravity_slave
Another one who couldn't handle the 6 DOF and had to stick to generic groundpounders? Pity.

Gravity_Slave
Gravity_Slave

Games like Descent are too bland and generic to stand up on its own with today's gaming standards. I think you guys (author included) are just blinded by nostalgia to see that.

dr_octagon
dr_octagon

Awesome article, and I wholeheartedly agree. This was the game series that got me into gaming. I've been wanting a reboot of Descent ever since the development for Descent 4 fell through, then Nintendo promised a port on the Wii. That's fallen through also, sadly.

benleslie5
benleslie5 moderator

Great article, I kind of thought of the same thing about the Driver series a week ago

indesigner
indesigner

for 2 years i took part in a descent multi-player league. Every Friday i'd show up for my team with my MS3DPro in hand ready to fire off mega missiles. This game was my first foray into LAN play and even level construction. If you ever played this game back in the day, do yourself a favor and pick up the 3 original titles on GOG.

LexLas
LexLas

Yes ! This game kept me busy when i worked the late shift at night, it was a game that accepted only keyboard buttons at work, and yes i learned it and ruled. This game rocks ! 

smelly_boob
smelly_boob

NO!!! Another case of gamer nostaglia gone wild, these games were boring back when they came out... i dont think it would translate well to current gen

placksheep
placksheep

I have some really fond memories of playing descent multiplayer by dialing my buddies with a 28.8 modem. Good times :-) "Get off the phone Steven!"

blackace
blackace

I played Descent  and Descent 2, but never finished either game. I get motion sickness after about 20 mins of playing these type of games, so I couldn't play them for long. The game was a blast though and I'm surprised we haven't seen a reboot after all this time.

Psycold
Psycold

I have the Oculus DK1 and ordered the DK2, was a big fan of Descent in the 90's and would do back flips if someone made a new Descent that was compatible with the rift. 

prime_l
prime_l

I don't remember playing Decent, but it reminds me of Forsaken on the N64? Were they similar?

Artwark
Artwark

I wonder if the new Star Fox game will play a lot like Descent.


also I'm planning to get the trilogy.


AceBalls
AceBalls

A new Descent with Oculus Rift = Brain Damage. 

I'm in.

TrueProphecy22
TrueProphecy22

Descent was a blast when I was a kid.  It kicked my butt too.


I've been looking for similar games for years, but most of them just disappoint.

faizanhd
faizanhd

Must............... resist................. urge to buy trilogy.

Damn it. There goes my food money..............................

shinjuki
shinjuki

I LOVED THIS GAME! I just downloaded it again, off steam, and it's just like I remember, so much fun!

TheGreatOldOne
TheGreatOldOne

Excellent article, Chris. You're one of the better writers at GS, indeed the original Descent was so ahead of its time that very few games nowadays would have a similar impact tech-wise. I guess a virtual reality-supported clone with innovative multiplayer modes would make it relevant again in today's gaming market.

lindallison
lindallison

Hey man I agree on all points, but as a cranky internet resident feel required to point out that X-wing doesn't have '6 degrees of freedom' like Descent does.


X-wing has Pitch, Yaw and Roll. That's 3 degrees. I'm discounting thrust since ships in X-wing can only move forward, so its not a full degree of movement. 

Descent has Pitch, Yaw, Roll, Lateral Horizontal, Lateral Vertical and full forward/reverse Z axis movement which makes 6 degrees.


Most recent space sims have incorporated laterals and reverse and offered 6 degrees, which is great.  


I'd recommend any Descent fans check out Strike Vector, it has a slight flavor of Descent's multiplayer mode.

angrykenji
angrykenji

yes! this was probably the game that turned me onto PC gaming (and multiplayer in general, with Kali) and became one of my fave series of all time.  to this day, i have still not seen anything like it (Freespace doesn't count to me).


please make a stream day out of it. it's on Steam and with the DX-Rebirth project, it's easy to make the game look good and to play multiplayer


http://www.dxx-rebirth.com/

http://dxxtracker.reenigne.net/

bouchart
bouchart

Descent doesn't get enough credit.  When people talk about the great 1990s run-and-gun shooters, they bring up Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D but very rarely Descent.

gannon27
gannon27

I would love to see an official descent game using VR.

BlackBaldwin
BlackBaldwin

I'd like a new defcon game miss that game soo much#

aldiggy
aldiggy

Descent had fantastic multiplayer. Loved blasting and firing smart bombs at people 

meatz666
meatz666

Decent starts great, but after a while, it would get really boring. The gimmick was cool, but the lack of creativity in level design and enemies kinda ruined it for me. It was a bit slow too compared to Doom, for example.

A neat gameplay mechanic, but a bit stuck in the FPS old vices. 

MJ12-Conspiracy
MJ12-Conspiracy

They'd be able to do some cool stuff with Decent using modern controllers....

I played a little bit of Decent and Forsaken back in the 90's, never MP but man those games were tough....just the 360 degree movement.....but they were also fun.....

tsunami2311
tsunami2311

i approve of this. I to spend countless hours being lost and frustrated in  the descent series and would love to see it reborn, but then i wanted to see theif reborn and they reboot didnt fair to well

bluefox755
bluefox755

Was the first game I ever played online, with my friend via 28.8 modem...good times.

spartanx169x
spartanx169x

Loved this game back in the day. Never could beat it though. Got to one level I just could not figure out.

Tauu
Tauu

Anyone who is unfamilar with Descent, I recommend checking out some multiplayer footage on Youtube. The controls are tricky at first but once you get a feel for it, the game is an absolute blast if you like high intensity shooting action. There are so many options for evading enemy shots. The freedom is exhilarating.

Kunasha
Kunasha

@Gravity_Slave Completely disagreed. The game has a very unique movement, maze, and pickup system, and it has several incredibly cool mechanics which we haven't seen either before or since Descent died away.

It's a very unique game - in fact I'd say it's a very unique genre.

jcknapier711
jcknapier711

@Gravity_Slave Games today are so bland they make me want to never play another game ever again.  Only games that interest me are older games.  I really think that gamers like you are so blinded by the graphics you don't care that they don't have any gameplay to back it up with, nor do you possess the skills to handle games like Decent. 

xantufrog
xantufrog

@Gravity_Slave dude, shove off - if you don't like the game then leave those of us who do alone. 

You come after people and insult them for benign, thoughtful, and polite comments. Go back and read my first post to you, and tell me who said the first jerky snappy crap to whom.

Then when people get annoyed at you for being a jerk, you have the gall to tell them that they are the ones who run around insulting people. 

Oh! And your quote of me didn't need a damned period! It was one sentence! Who breaks up one sentence with a period? so. sorry. that. you. think. every. word. should. be. followed. by. a. period. 

Again, if you hate the game, fine. But shove off and let people that enjoy it have fun. That's what gaming is about.

karx11erx
karx11erx

@Psycold There is an OpenGL based Descent mod called D2X-XL with a lot of enhancements and also offering Oculus Rift support. Find it at www.descent2.de.

olddadgamer
olddadgamer

@AceBalls This.  Play this on the OR and you spend the rest of your life in a padded cell cackling.

Chris_Watters
Chris_Watters moderator staff

@lindallison  Nuts! Guess I didn't think that one out quite enough, thanks for clarifying!

Kunasha
Kunasha

@xantufrog I really dislike people who just goes "Omg don't offend me by saying you don't like what I like"

He is perfectly within his rights to state that he doesn't think much of this game. Let him speak his mind.

xantufrog
xantufrog

And another thing, I think my question about Titans was perfectly fair: you didn't answer my question: what is absurd about space ships but not about titans? Or jet packs? Or freaking aliens? How can you trash a game with a straight face on the basis of it using space ships? Racing games are dumb because they use cars, right? "That's so last gen"

lindallison
lindallison

@Chris_Watters @lindallison 

Yeah and you can't even Yaw and Roll simultaneously in X-Wing they're mutually exclusive!  You can only Roll and Pitch or Pitch and Yaw.  

That always bothered me til Tie Fighter came along and made things worse, as you couldn't Pitch OR Yaw while Rolling!  Man.


The craziest things in Descent were accomplished by simultaneously Rolling, Reversing, Sliding Horizontally while Pitching...its understandable why the game a rep for making people sick.

xantufrog
xantufrog

and lastly, and for the last time, you did NOT understand my first comment if you continue to insist that I said Descent is original. My post was explicitly saying that almost all games share something with predecessors in their genre. Therefore if you really want to be strict about the phrase most games CAN'T be described as "truly original".