Released in 1995, Descent was an incredibly ambitious game given the competition at the time. Released around the same time as Duke Nukem (Build engine 2.5D), Terminator Future Shock (3D maps and models, sprite items) and a year before the powerhouse and at the time, greatly anticipated game, Quake, were released. Descent gave us something very few games had done. Before anyone groans and cites games like Elite (wireframes) and LineWars (Space with flat shade polygons), Descent went beyond expectations. Sporting a full 3D engine and "6 degrees of freedom" (4 compass point directions, up and down, basically think of swimming in most games) with the ability to turn and fly/navigate in any direction including strafing up and down.
For some, this was a crash course in disorientation, especially on levels and situations where flying down through tunnels was necessary and involving twisting and turning before emerging into "an area" where the player wouldn't be able to clearly ascertain "up" within a gravity-free environment.
For those that could get around the idea that we're not forced to leave our feet on the floor and that the world can be navigated in any angle, in any direction, the game would become a free moving adventure through mines (and it's always mines) on the mission to get from a to b and kick ass along the way.
Playing as ace pilot "Hardcore McAssHat" you get "selected" for a mission to venture into mines for a company and purge them of a virus that took over all the robots and made them go crazy-nuts mental at peoples and start butchering them. So basically, Terminator in space without the time travel. You arrive on scene with weak lasers and a few missiles while navigating your way through tunnels, corridors, winding lengths of rooms and passageways on the journey to a) Find keys b) open doors c) destroy the mine's core and d) possibly save the hostage-taken/hidden human survivors.
Each level getting progressively harder with the additions of more robots and enemies with harder and more powerful weapons. The mazes becoming more and more complex, longer and more difficult to navigate around and through and the race to the exit after killing the core, more difficult to navigate and remember. The lives system does not help this situation.
You start with a few lives and if you die in a level, you blow up, restart the level with nothing but can get back to where you were and recollect your dropped weapons and items. Die while trying to run for the exit, you'll detonated in the mine along with everything else and it's all back to square one for the next level. Dying also kills any hostages you might have rescued. Fun.
You'll soon start to realise the same tricks in Descent that are lifted from Doom. Going past certain areas will trigger teleporters that launch lots of enemies, or open up hidden doors that lead to massive swarms of machines to come and assault you like flies on shit and you're the stinky piece of love they're eager to puke on and devour. Long lengths of corridor become ominous, power ups are sometimes left to be ignored rather than trigger an inevitable trap that the player is perhaps not ready or prepared for some of the more difficult opponents (or new opponents) that the player sometimes has yet to encounter. A double whammy of being under stocked and under armed against something they've never combating before. (Until the reload at least)
Your ship has a series of weapons, an upgradable laser (quad and strength upgrades) machine gun type weapon that doesn't drain energy, spread fire, rapid plasma fire and your usual BFG super mega weapon of death that nobody really wants to fire. Missiles come in various flavours from concussion, homing, smart (launches homing plasma) and BIG RED which is just one big homing explosion of "fuck you" that the last boss pumps out faster than a gigolo in a porn video. Weapons either use a bank of energy for their needs or bullet ammo for the machinegun equivalent. Running out of energy will leave you will a very slowly regeneration rate to fire energy based weapons or just using the machinegun.
Oddly, there's very few "boss monsters" namely 2, all depending upon the version you're using of the game. One of which is heavily armed and teleports with smart missiles, the other is faster, bigger, uses Big Red missiles and tanks damage like a fridge in a nuke blast wave, shrugging it off with little issue and turning round to launch, teleport behind you, and launching again, sandwiching you inside of the wall of death. Your arse will be kicked. While every other boss is a reactor guarded by other robots and sometimes can shoot back at you but rarely does anything beyond sit there like a fat man on a boss that blows up the whole bus once you dig his ego enough, a short while after you've made him cry.
Which can lead to an exhilarating race against time and newer enemies inside the old shaky-camera syndrome, smashing through blockades of heavies and tougher robots in the fight for escape to flee through the detonating mine, hitting the escape door just as the whiteout effect begins and then to blow your way out of the dead zone and launch off just as the flames over take.
The 10th time you do it, it becomes less impressive.
Eventually you'll get to the point where you found the reactor, didn't find the exit door and then realised there's no point in worrying as you've a lot of lives and don't care about losing all the items, so you sit there and wait for death. Or panic and fly around madly like a blue-arse fly and then blowing up just as you realise that the open door you flew past three times IS the exit.
Despite this, the levels are rather bright and colourful for a cheerless game of death, doom and gloom. Mud and earth looks brown, very little else does with brightly coloured rooms and locations, lava being a steady addition to some levels with the added bonus of shooting it causing higher splash damage, and flowing gravity helps give the sense of "up" in places. But with the problem of more advanced levels, the automap can be a nightmare of wireframe graphics in trying to discern where you are, and how to get from one point to another within the game. You're better off ignoring it and just letting yourself learn it in your own time.
Musically, Descent is a bit of mixed bag in that the game has some rather disco/techno based tracks on the midi system while some levels are remix of old classical pieces of music with that "poppin' happenin' funky fresh" pseudo attempt of modernisation. Ase's Funeral played in this manner, takes away all the impact of the original piece. It's a nice idea but executed in an abhorrent manner and in some perspectives, an insult to a true classic piece of music.
Multiplayer mode in co-operative is simply the same game over, but in death match it becomes a matter of an easy set of kills for the person that grabs the big weapon and hammers it silly. Co-op gets difficult at times as the levels were not often designed with the mind set of having more than one ship flying down a corridor, otherwise you're bumping the other players, getting caught up and each collision causes damages to the shield, all shields gone and you're blown.
This does come across as quite a large oversight to the point that you wonder if MP was slapped in as a last minute coding addition, rather than say in Doom where levels are developed with co-op in mind and situated with extra enemies and weapons to accommodate for this circumstance. Especially where normally it's a one way trip in some levels but in co-operative, a teleporter will open up for the others to join in and navigate around the trap that would kill and end the level.
Perhaps it's because the game was pushing a new engine and new method of making levels, that there was little experience in making the maps for the multiplayer experience, which is understandable given the knowledge that this was a pioneered work and as such, would have had such teething problems, but as a comparison to other games with such movements and weaponry, multiplayer becomes more a case of move, shoot, move, turn, move, shoot, strafe and comes across as lacking fluidity and ends up becoming clunky and irritating, especially when failing to navigate properly, is punished with damage by colliding with walls, ceilings and floors.
This game may be one of the first to show us a full flying action game in 3D with sprites used only for pickups and collectibles, but with an awkward map display, iffy movement and control systems that hold back one from flying through tunnels smoothly (unless they've some sort of wonder gadget control method) the game falls short on being truly fun and ends up in the realm of "annoying after a while" and only the hardcore will be able to continue.