This is one of the better budget games around at the moment: the original first-person viewed, Doom-like hovery spaceship based shoot 'em up with trickier levels, that go up and down as well as sideways. The levels are more intricate, convoluted and seemingly senseless than the average Lloyd Grossman sentence. It's very spinny. It's incredibly swlrly-abouty. It will have you reacquainted with your last meal before you can say, "Now where did I leave my splash-proof PVC pullover?" You won't know which way is up. You'll get lost just when you least need to (like when you've set off the detonation device at the end of the level and are trying to get out before it blows...) - But you'll have an extremely good time doing it. And it's now available on Interplay's new Black Market range for less than the price of an hour in a confessional with a toothless choirboy.
Wow am I going to explain this game to you? It's a tricky one. If I were David Cronenberg. I'd probably ask you to imagine for a moment that video games are people and that Doom is a woman. A pregnant woman come to that - and what's more, she's been artificially inseminated. Except they had a little accident down at the sperm bank. Someone was absent-mindedly hurling an immense granite boulder around (as you do) and it flew into a shelf full of specimen jars and shattered the lot leaving the contents in a huge, swirling, bubbling pool on the floor. What a mess. The collected fluids of Tie Fighter, System Shock Tempest, Microcosm, and Magic Carpet - the cream of pc gaming - mixed together as one.
Anyway, the upshot of it all is that nine months later Ms. Doom gives birth to a very unusual baby indeed, and that baby is called... Descent.
Except that I'm not David Cronenberg at all, so instead. I'll simply describe it as "360 HoverDoom".
The plot: The Wurzels have taken over a series of underground space mines, sometime in the distant future. They are constructing death rays and bloody big bombs and threatening Earth a bit. They're also reconstructing all the mining robots that they can find and turning them into horrid combat droids. Enter you (yes. YOU) as the only man, woman, or child who can stop them.
Climbing into your nifty, highly manoeuvrable attack vessel, you blast off into space, hoping to penetrate each mine in turn, rescue any humans left inside, and finally blow up the fusion reactor which lies at every core, destroying any Wurzel-tainted nastiness that lurks within in the process. Once the reactor blows however, you have a brief 45-second countdown in which to find the exit and escape the mine before it all explodes around you. Fail, and the entire human race is doomed to spend the rest of its short existence listening to sub-standard novelty pop sung in an "amusing" rural accent.
Alright then, it isn't The Wurzels. It's Aliens. Again. Anyway, enough about the plot. Let's move on to how it looks, sounds and moves.
The complete indoor pilot
Although from the screenshots, lovingly reproduced here. Descent may appear highly similar to Doom (albeit pointing at funny angles), it actually moves more like System Shock (but faster), and handles more like Magic Carpet (with greater freedom). The playing area is assembled from texture-mapped polygons, as. indeed, are the nasties. You have total freedom of movement and astounding manoeuvrability. Your craft can bank left and right, spin through all the angles that a spinning thing possibly can. hover in mid-air loop the loop, zip forwards or zoom backwards, and even "strafe" in any angle you care to mention.
As you can imagine, this causes problems during your first couple of attempts; they'll consist largely of you swearing loudly and wrestling with the controls as you spin around and around, bouncing off walls and reversing into enemies. There are an awful lot of buttons to remember, whether you're using a joystick, mouse or keyboard (it is a kind of flight sim after all) and it's learning to cope with both these and the dynamics of ultra-manoeuvrable flight that can cause a little consternation. It's well worth going through this period of frustration however, since the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you pull off your first successful flashy manoeuvre is fantastic.
Once you've grasped the basics you'll be able to come to terms with the next problem; getting your bearings. Most of us aren't used to flying upside-down through our living rooms, and so it's easy to become confused about just where you are while playing Descent. The map simply serves to add insult to injury; revealing in rotatable wireframe 3D just how dauntingly complex your environment is. It's like a freeze-frame image of a plate of spaghetti and meatballs falling from a window-ledge, turned into a 3D model, with your ship somewhere in the middle. You'll feel as lost as Bonnie Tyler did when she sang Lost in France. You'll be more lost than the family from Lost in Space. You will be the lostliest of them all.
But actually, that's all part of the fun.
How to kill from any angle
Hardly a fair fight, now is it? Probing the bowels of a warren-like mine filled to the brim with all manner of life-threatening machinery all on your own. And all you've got are two measly lasers and a back pocket full of concussion missiles. It's like a boxing match where one contestant has a horseshoe in his glove, and the other is tied to a chair. Boo hoo hoo.
Fortunately, it seems that the technological warfare equivalent of the Easter bunny has been burrowing through these mines, leaving a scattered collection of weaponry upgrades and other assorted kill-ware in its wake.
There's a veritable selection box of mouth-watering maim-stuff on offer here -vulcan cannons, homing missiles, plasma guns, cloaking devices, even floating mines. But don't go crazy or anything. It's best to save up as much ammo as you can, because if you find yourself in short supply at a crucial moment, you'll be nothing more than mere debris before you can say "knife" (those with stutters, excepted).
When you die. all the weapons you have collected remain in the location where you were killed, and if you've got any lives left you'll have to find your way back there before you can use them again. Save your game frequently or you'll end up getting rather browned off.
Remember that nail-biting, knee-knocking sensation you got every time you peered round a darkened corner in Doom? Well, because "they" could be lurking anywhere, prepare to experience that feeling all over again, except that this time you'll be afraid of not just the darkened corners, but also of the ominous hole in the ceiling, the mysterious curved tunnel leading off to the left, and the brightly lit gap in the top left corner of the room. And don't forget to look down every now and again in case you pass unwittingly over the scary, little opening below which houses a particularly shirty shredding droid.
Surprisingly, for such a claustrophobic environment, you couldn't feel more exposed if you were being flayed alive. I was playing the game on "Rookie" level and I still found myself relying heavily on save-games for progress.
Killing, Hannibal Lecter style
The gameplay might not be to everybody's taste. It sounds like a aoomph roller coaster ride through twisting, cavernous insanity. But it's actually a little more methodical -you can't just flash about at breakneck speed, blasting anything that gets in your way. because there's too many of them. They'll simply overwhelm you. Instead, you learn to try and pick them off one by one. although there's still many an occasion when you'll have to come over all Hannibal Lecter and butcher entire squadrons of the things in a maniacal whirling rage.
Sometimes it's like a game of peek-a-boo and sometimes you'll be holding epic dogfights in the corridor. It's not a simple game to handle, but it's a bloody good one.
Cavalcade of options
One of the many factors that has contributed to Doom's seemingly endless reign as the most popular and widespread PC game of all time is it's tweakability. It was endlessly fiddled about with by HackMasters* everywhere. Descent will no doubt be subject to the same kind of meddling; in fact, it seems to have been designed to be meddled with, with a range of neat little options, such as the ability to record your own demos or take a snapshot.
As is becoming de rigeur in these net-work-obsessed times. Descent also features a top-notch, link-up multi-player mode. Up to eight players can compete against each other in a frenzied fight to the very death, or come over all happy and smiley and play cooperatively against the Wurzel menace instead. Guaranteed fun basically. You can even input a range of taunts and insults and assign them to specific "hotkeys" so you can tell the opponent chasing you just exactly how bad his or her mother smells without having to pause a moment to type the whole message in - a nice, thoughtful touch, and one that speaks volumes about the general demeanour of games players.
Oh - and those of you with slightly "under-endowed" computers can fiddle about with a full range of detail settings in order to keep things running smoothly. Hallelujah.
I'm going to torture you anyway
Now. let's assume for a moment that I've just been taped to a chair by Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. He's waving a razor and a great big yam in front of me and threatening to turn it into a giant Mr. Potato Head - using my nose. eyes. ears, hair and teeth - unless I slag Descent off for a moment. He rips the tape from my mouth and allows me to speak:
I say it's a little repetitive. I say it's hard to get to grips with. I say it slows down badly when there's lots of things around. I even say that the difficulty level is set a little too high. And no. I say. shaking my head, it isn't better than Doom.
But. as soon as Mr. Orange has blown Mr. Blonde's brains out and saved me. I get up off the chair and say that none of these niggles have prevented me from coming back to Descent time and time again since I started playing it - more than. say. Magic Carpet. It's got that elusive "grip" factor which ensures a game's longevity. I'll play it through to the bitter end.
Really good action games are few and far between. But this is one of the few.
Descent is one of those programs that justifies shareware. Few companies would be ashamed of it as a commercial product - and quite a few would be envious. If Heretic was Doom in tights. Descent is Doom in spaceships and one of the best shoot 'em up games, ever.
The plot centres around trouble at the mine. In this case the mine is on Pluto and run b the ruthless Terran Minerals Corporation. Some sort of aliens have taken the place over an are making their own robots to invade earth. Only you can save the day, so you are given ai Israeli made pyrocx and sent on a suicide mission. Your aim is to sort out the trouble by shooting things, rescuing hostages and destroying reactors. Once you've blown up the reactor. there's only a short space of time for you to get out before the whole place blows up.
Those of you with long memories will recall the excellent Hovertank of the late '70s. But only the plot recalls Hovertank. This game has some of the best graphics around. If you want to know what Quake might be like, look at this. You can pan all round a perfectly rendered 3D world. Everything is smooth am detailed. The sound is excellent and atmospheric. The gameplay is just the right blend of difficulty and intuitiveness. You fly through mazes of corridors, never knowing what's behind the next comer. There's an automap. which displays the mine in glorious wireframe 3D. Various weapons are left I around, and you can get more by destroying enemy craft. You cycle through the various weapons with the number keys - just like you do in Doom.
And just like Doom again. Descent has a network option: up to four players, ipx network - the usual thing. However, the program will tell you who you have killed (or who has killed you) and there are handy macros so that you can insult other players from a selection of abusive messages. There's a built-in recorder so you can play back your moments of glory.
A huge amount of thought has gone into this game - every aspect of it. There's even a .pcx file of a quick reference card. Interplay reckon that the program should run on a 386-33. and there are options for turning down the detail for slow computers. On a 486. it shows its stuff - and a clean pair of heels to the competition.
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode