**I’m a total newcomer to this game**
** Don’t buy DESCENT 1 on Steam unless it’s on a really low sale. When I say “recommended” I really just mean the game itself, not buying it on Steam. You can get this game and DESCENT 2 on GoodOldGames.com for $10. **
DESCENT is basically classic DOOM in zero gravity. The space ship you fly and missiles you launch at robots might lead you to believe it’s a space flight game, but it’s really a straight-up mid 90’s first person shooter in space (or rather underground on worlds all over the solar system). You explore labyrinthine levels collecting blue, yellow, and red keys to eventually reach the exit. The zero-g factor as well as a few other things though make DESCENT unlike most shooters released before or since.
If you’ve ever played that game FORSAKEN from Acclaim, the levels are kind of like that. You progress trough them similarly to how you would in DOOM, but they are much more three-dimensional here, which makes navigating them a task in itself. Luckily, DESCENT gives you a 3D automap and a great deal of control over it compared to DOOM’s automap, which you’ll need to use if you don’t want to get lost.
Not only do you have to navigate DESCENT’s mazes, but also plan what you do in them. Every level has hostages to rescue for extra points, but they die if you lose a life while carrying them. Also, after destroying the mainframe at the end of each level you have 45 seconds to find and escape through the exit, so it’s usually best to grab the hostages right before facing the mainframe. This navigation and planning can make DESCENT surprisingly cerebral for an action game.
Ultimately what makes DESCENT challenging though is its large and unique gallery of enemies. The problem is with how the developers decided to place them in the levels, making DESCENT an unnecessarily hard game in some parts, even compared to DOOM.
You’ve got your different varieties of enemy ships that shoot different weapons at you, but there are also enemies with interesting behaviors. One type does a pretty good job of flanking you if you let it; another simply watches you and enhances the AI of enemies around it. Eventually you discover different methods and maneuvers to use against each one. Thinking on your feet in DESCENT becomes intense in a new way when you’re doing it in zero-g.
Where it get’s annoying is when DESCENT sets up its many unfair ambushes. You’ll enter rooms from the only entrance only to be immediately surrounded. Enemies sit behind doors ready to attack in ways that are unavoidable unless you know it’s coming ahead of time from having reloaded the game. Worst of all is probably one particular enemy that, as soon as it becomes aware of you, almost instantly slices down your health with a chain gun while giving off a high-pitched pig-like scream.
Some of this might actually be affected by the source ports that have been released for DESCENT and are pretty necessary for playing the game in modern resolutions and at high framerates. I used DXX Rebirth but I think there are others. The issue is that some parts of the enemy AI are tied to framerate, the biggest issue being homing missiles. On the DXX Rebirth, once fired they’re almost impossible to dodge because they can turn on a dime.
Lastly, if you have a PC flightstick, DESCENT is supposed to be best played with them. I worked out a fine keyboard and mouse scheme. You might also want to try mapping out an Xbox 360 configuration too, which the source ports make possible.
Overall, there really have been few games like DESCENT made before or since, other than its sequels. If you’re into FPSs of its era it offers almost 30 levels of some of the most difficult FPS action this side of super-hardcore DOOM WADs.