In 1995, hot on the heels of id's genre-defining Doom, Parallax Software created its own revolution in frantic shooting games: Descent. Whereas Doom felt immediately familiar by casting you in the role of a human moving around on foot while shooting at similarly gravity-constrained enemies, Descent turned the experience, literally, on its head. Parallax's inspiration was to put you into a free-floating spaceship, inject the ship into a series of 3D spaces, and pit it against other flying objects - the complex maneuverability of a space sim coupled with the relentless pace of a first-person shooter. By removing the notion of up and down, Descent embodied a groundbreaking and utterly unique style of play, demanding participants master a sense of total spatial awareness missing completely from its competition. It has been four years since the original Descent, and three since its first sequel. But a splinter group of the original team at Parallax, Outrage, has now released Descent 3, which improves in almost every conceivable way on its predecessors and reestablishes the series as the premier example of the play style it single-handedly pioneered.
Descent 3 begins immediately at the end of Descent 2. You are rescued after destroying the warp core as your craft hurtles towards a star. Your saviors inform you that the evil PTMC is plotting to.... That abrupt ellipsis is an attempt to simulate your likely and almost immediate loss of interest in Descent 3's story. Plot has never been the series' long suit, and while Outrage has valiantly attempted to infuse this installment with a coherent narrative by including occasional radio chatter, detail-rich mission debriefings, and cutscenes starring what looks to be the original cast of the Thunderbirds, the entire tale is far from compelling. Thankfully, following the story is not a prerequisite for experiencing the gameplay.
Each of the 15 single-player levels can be safely viewed as an unrelated piloting-skills test. Rather than following the standard find-the-key-then-find-the-other-key formula, the missions present a nice mix of goals. You'll definitely be asked to find the occasional key, but you'll also be required to operate or destroy bizarre machinery, snake your way through subway tunnels without being crushed by oncoming trains, and escape rebel outposts as they blow apart around you. One memorable level finds you defending five reactor cores from attack; at least three must survive for ten minutes to complete the mission. Although only 15 levels are included - half as many as in Descent 2 - each of these is huge, visually unique, and composed of a series of several subtasks. To keep you from becoming frustrated with flying aimlessly around Descent's intricate structures, standard ship equipment includes a guidebot that will lead you to your next goal, dropping signal flares to mark the way, and politely returning if it gets too far ahead. The guidebot, introduced in Descent 2, occasionally gets stuck in tight spots and otherwise misbehaves in this third installment but nevertheless remains a great design element. Not since Planetfall's Floyd has a little robotic buddy been so dear to a gamer's heart.
The Descent series has always been a rather bloodless affair, both literally and figuratively. The combination of its stylized mine-shaft setting and an assortment of enemies composed solely of laser-spitting geometric shapes has given it a distinctly abstract feel - chess played on a tilt-a-whirl. Outrage has created a new engine, called Fusion, for Descent 3. While requiring a 3D accelerator, it allows the game, for the first time, to render outdoor terrain and includes lots of modern extras such as colored lighting and extremely realistic smoke and flame effects. The new graphics are quite beautiful, and while remaining generally consistent with the sterile look of its predecessors, they add a welcome organic character to Descent 3's environments. The first time you fly your ship out of a tunnel into broad daylight and bank around to finally see the outside of the structure in which all Descent players have been entombed, you cannot help but be exhilarated.
Sound effects are plentiful and well done. Explosions erupt with lots of satisfying, floor-rattling bass, lasers ping nicely, flamethrowers emit appropriate rumbling whooshes, and there's plenty of ambient beeping, hissing, and mechanical humming. Of special note is the game's soundtrack. A mix of slightly skewed techno and oddball trance, virtually every track is memorable and strangely appropriate. This is the rare game that may inspire you to shut off the sound effects so that you can enjoy the music.
Quite simply, Descent 3 ships with the most complete multiplayer game of any action-shooter yet released. Fifteen multiplayer levels are packaged with the game. Deathmatch, cooperative, capture the flag, and the very fun monsterball (somewhat like soccer with flying robots) are just four of the nine variations included. Outrage has its own network, called PXO, which features a free matchup service and player rankings. A huge online Descent community already exists and will surely enlarge with the release of this newest installment, so finding a suitable game should not be a problem. The single letdown in the Descent 3 multiplayer package is Outrage's decision to remove mid-level saving from the co-op mode. While not a huge problem - the mere existence of a collaborative romp through the single player levels puts the game ahead of most of its competition - it is a disappointment to anyone expecting the feature to be carried over from Descent 2.
Outrage has brought the Descent series into the modern era in high style and with a furious commitment to quality. The single-player experience alone makes Descent 3 worth the purchase. Factor in a multiplayer game that is both unusually fun and even more unusually stable and complete right out of the box, and you have what can only be considered an attempt by Interplay to make amends for the horror that was Descent to Undermountain. Apology accepted.