If your earliest gaming memory only stretches as far back as Sony’s PS2, then it’s quite possible you don’t – though the recently announced Descent Underground and spiritual successor Sublevel Zero are doing their best to stage a revival of the so-called 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) genre.
Descent first came into being back in 1994, an era when every man and his dog was trying to cash in on what was then known as the “Doom Clone” craze. This was before the term First Person Shooter had even been established, and Doom was one of the hottest gaming properties on the market.
And so, in the years that followed, gamers enjoyed a number of dizzying highs (Duke Nukem 3D) and far too many crushing lows (Redneck Rampage). Very swiftly, a small cottage industry built up around attempting to emulate the success of iD’s seminal shooter. Many tried, few succeeded – usually because try as they might, they could neither offer ideas of their own, or struggled to provide gameplay that was compelling in its own right.
One developer hit gold, however. That developer was Parallax Software (now sadly in that great Game Development graveyward in the sky), and their game was Descent.
Even now, playing Descent feels like playing something utterly unique. Yes, ostensibly it’s a first-person-shooter; but rather than having the player character’s feet planted on Terra Firma, in Descent players take the role of a spacecraft pilot attempting to stop a robot revolt. Thanks to zero gravity, the action takes place on all six axes of the third dimension. So while Doom couldn’t even deal with distinguishing between enemies higher or lower than the player – and the limitations of the engine meant you couldn’t even walk under a bridge – Descent was already light-years ahead of the competition.
And Parallax played that for all it was worth – crafting every stage as a horrendously brain-twisting MC Escher puzzle where, thanks to the unlimited movement in all directions, was ridiculously easy to become lost in. Then it threw in color-coded doors. Then, for good measure, it threw in a slew of homicidal robot drones all wanting a bit of your face. In your confusion to both try and keep ahead of the mechanized monstrosities, and the need for self-preservation, it became incredibly easy to get lost in its cavernous mazes. As you twisted, turned, and travelled through tunnels only to end up back where you started, it was a long time before you’d see the end credits.
If the single-player campaign wasn’t good enough for you, then Descent also offered competitive multiplayer. These days, with broadband connection being a given in most homes, a game’s multiplayer modes barely warrant a mention on the back of the box. Back in 1994 however, when playing against others involved lugging your computer around to a mate’s house for LAN party, or linking up two tvs, two PlayStations and a two copies of the game, competitive multiplayer was still in its infancy. Doom may have pioneered it, but deathmatches were still rare in gaming, and single-player gaming was still king.
The graphics have dated, of course – it has been over 20 years since the first game was released – but the gameplay is as compelling (and vomit-inducing) as ever. Descent 2 and Descent 3 may have upped the stakes in the visual department, but they never quite managed to conjure up the same magic as the original, before the series mutated into the Freespace series and faded into obscurity. Nope, as the old saying goes: the original is still the best.
Genuine claustrophobia is rarely something that games manage to evoke in players – at least not deliberately – but Descent will genuinely make you crave the great outdoors. Its winding, disorientating corridors, which can cause extreme damage if you accidentally collide against the walls, can be incredibly tricky to negotiate – particularly if you’re being harassed by the many enemies which populate each level. And while there is a 3D map of each level, more often than not you’ll need to rely on your memory, building up a mental map of your surroundings so that you can quickly find your way to the exit after setting the countdown timer on the bomb hidden at the heart of each stage.
Descent also features an excellent soundtrack that holds up well today. It may not be orchestrated, but in an era when chiptune music has undergone something of a resurgence to the point where it’s now considered a bona fide genre in and of itself, who cares? The stirring theme tune sticks in the memory long after playing, and the soundtrack combines with the tense gameplay and claustrophobic level layouts to create a unique atmosphere thick with oppression and dread. Even to this day, its soundtrack is fondly remembered among fans of a certain age. Hopefully one day we’ll see it celebrated by the likes of Videogames Live.
Descent caused quite a stir back in the day, and while it has languished in obscurity for over a decade, playing it today reveals a game that is compelling and forward-thinking as anything released in the last year. Simply put, Descent still feels vital; it took the burgeoning FPS genre and built something utterly unique that caught the imagination. It’s quite amazing that, despite its tremendous success, it never managed to inspire many copycats – despite coining its own genre label with 6DOF. Some games are first-person shooters; some games are space-based combat. Parallax Software created something which exists in the space between, a claustrophobic, tense and thrilling genre hybrid that’s worth playing, even two decades later.
The early 90s was a period of relentless innovation in the first-person shooter genre. Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Exhumed and the original Medal of Honor all twisted the genre and took it in new directions, each adding their own dash of innovation to the same basic template, but each coming up with something which felt unique and forward-thinking. Descent can count itself proudly among that group. It may have been imitated far fewer times over the years than its contemporaries, but it remains an important step in the evolution of the genre. Playing Descent today is a reminder of a time when gaming was finding new ways to play around with 3D environments, and a trip into its labyrinthine levels remains just as tense and exciting now as it was nearly 20 years ago.
You can pick up all three games in the Descent series on Steam and GOG.com for next to nothing. And thanks to the wonders of community-made mods, you can jazz up the graphics a bit to something less pixellated. The DXX Rebirth project adds OpenGL support to both the original game and its sequel, as well as transparency, texture filtering and FSAA (Full Screen Anti-Aliasing), and squashing a number of bugs and glitches from the original source code. If you want to play Descent today, but can’t stomach the antiquated graphics, the Rebirth mod is a must – you can download it for free here.