: Parallax Software
: PC (DOS/Mac)
Watch Kosta run you through a slice of gameplay with commentary above
There’s a popular image that has been floating around the Internet for a few years now. In the image you can see two basic sketches of level design in a hypothetical FPS (first-person shooter), with the aim being to highlight the differences between a game from the 90s and one made today. One glance and the critique is pretty clear, and possibly damning. The consensus is that a modern day FPS is a linear experience where the player keeps moving in one direction in order to reach the next checkpoint. On the other hand, playing a shooter from 1993/94 means exploring a large sprawling labyrinth of rooms, hallways, and open spaces.
Certainly there’s some truth in there, and the added complexity in the layout of a particular level from an old shooter does mean that playing one today can get a little confusing. Does that mean that players have gone a little soft over the past few decades? Who knows for sure, but come to think of it, walking around in an old-school FPS was always a little confusing. Much like being in a large shopping centre for the first time trying to find that one particular store. It’s right around the next corner. No wait, I’ve been here before. In fact, only a few moments ago. Maybe this corner? Nope, wrong again.
Imagine playing an FPS like that, but instead of walking around you’re in a spacecraft. A spacecraft that allows for 360 degree movement in an environment that is as complicated to navigate as it is impressively 3D. Not only being able to move forward and back and turn left and right, you can also spin and turn and hover and thrust into any direction you can see. This is more or less Descent (1994), a game which came out a year after the original Doom and immediately took this relatively new concept of exploring a 3D environment and shooting at stuff to its most extreme variation. And it did all of this via a software renderer in the days before 3D cards, and pushed 386 and 486-based PCs to their limit to display intricately modelled and textured 3D environments, ships and obstacles.
In Descent, players take control of a spacecraft and fly around a bunch of planetary mining facilities in order stop some rogue AI or some such from taking control of stuff. There’s actually a pretty thorough backstory and a lot of story text to read, but one doesn’t play an FPS from the 90s for its rich, multi-layered narrative. So all you really need to know is that a bunch of space mines have gone bad and you need to find their reactors, take them out, and escape before they blow. Oh, and along the way you’ll encounter enemy ships, which is where the shooting comes into play.
So how does it stack up today? Well, the initial feeling you get when playing Descent, hasn’t changed all that much in the 20 years since its original release. Few games before or since have given players complete 360 degree rotation and movement in an enclosed 3D environment. And this sense of freedom through movement is immediately engaging, so much so that you’ll spin and rotate and flip and turn and in no time at all completely lose all bearings and forget which way you came from and which way is up.
With this degree of movement the controls can get a little confusing but wisely the game has two actual movement commands, acceleration and reverse, with the remainder controlling your craft’s positioning, rotation and height. It does take a while to get used to, and because of the sheer number of keys to press most enemy encounters will end up with you stopping completely to take aim and then shoot. Even with vertical and horizontal strafing being possible, it would take a lot of practise and probably a few extra fingers for the combat to feel totally fluid.
So, the difficulty and learning curve is quite steep. As is the case with many older games. And with each level playing out pretty much the same, with increasingly more complex environments to explore and enemies to destroy, there’s really not much to Descent. But the great thing about Descent now and even when it came out was its intuitive and easy to access multiplayer modes. Although a standard feature in all FPS games released today, in 1994 the fact that Descent had a separate ‘multiplayer’ menu option was somewhat of a PC gaming milestone. It’s in Descent’s multiplayer mode where everyone is on the same level, moving around a fully 3D environment, getting lost, losing their bearings, struggling to line up the perfect missile shot, and having a blast.
But even so, it’s hard to see Descent as more than an interesting tech demo from the 90s. Each level kind of plays out the same way, exploring a 3D environment, finding coloured keys, getting to the reactor to blow it up, and then escaping. Which brings us back to that image of two different eras of FPS level design. With a linear path it’s easy to point out the flaws of a standard modern day shooter, but this doesn’t mean that a shooter from the mid-90s is all that better. Instead of checkpoints and scripted events what you have is a maze, one where you need to find coloured keys to open coloured doors, and then find the exit. This is the FPS era that Descent was released in, and in some ways with its unprecedented freedom of movement, perhaps a less-maze like search for coloured keys and more linearly structured level design would have suited its memorable mechanics.
Check out a batch of screens from the game in our embedded gallery below.
Throwback Rating: Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless
Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician, producing under the name Kbit, with a debut album released in 2014
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