Descent (computer game)

From Academic Kids

Descent is a 3D first-person shooter computer game noted for popularizing the use of portal rendering technology and providing the player with six full degrees of freedom (often abbreviated "6DOF") to move and to look around. Descent spawned two direct sequels (Descent II and Descent³), and a spin-off called Descent: FreeSpace, an arcade space sim. Descent was developed by Parallax Software and released in 1995. Although old by modern gaming standards, it is still cherished by a strong community of fans and new levels continue to be developed.

Contents

Overview

The original Descent ran under DOS and was (with some tweaking) playable on 386-based PCs at 33 MHz. With the release of the Pentium, the performance requirements disappeared as an issue. Descent was ported to Apple's Power Macintosh in 1996 and both versions supported multiplayer network play over a variety of protocols. There was also a Descent game produced for the Sony PlayStation. Descent Maximum was a title developed exclusively for the Playstation, but shared much in common with the PC Descent II.

The year Descent was released, 1995, was a year or two after id's Doom but before Quake. Like those programs, it used a software renderer (3D graphics accelerator cards were not yet mainstream on the PC) and shared texturing similarities. Instead of using BSP trees, however, Descent's scene graph employed portals. In this scheme, the player progressed from one enclosed chamber to another, and since the chambers were linked by narrow doors or tunnels, it was a straightforward matter for the program to know that other chambers were unnecessary to render.

Perhaps the more significant improvement over Doom was that Descent used bitmap sprites only for powerups and not for opponents. With true 3D enemies, the game introduced a more frightening level of realism.

Premise

The premise of Descent was that the player piloted an armed spacecraft charged with purging mines infested by renegade mining robots. The action always takes place in the mineshafts (as necessitated by the portal renderer), although outdoor segments were introduced in Descent³. Exiting the mine required the player to locate and detonate the mine's nuclear reactor, causing the exit doors to open. The player then had a brief interval of time within which to escape the mine. Many of the mines contained PTMC workers held hostage by the robots. It wasn't necessary to rescue any hostages, but a bonus accrued if one did.

The interstellar mines were owned by the Post-Terran Minerals Corporation. Pilots known as Material Defenders were sent into the mines by order of Samuel Dravis, a PTMC executive, to undertake the rescue missions and purge the enemy robot infestation. Earlier, the PTMC replaced its human workforce with the robots following the "Humans First" mining strike. The mystery is that no one knows why the mining robots have become hostile (although the first two games suggest it's some form of alien invasion). It's not until Descent³ before the player learns that Dravis was involved in a huge conspiracy regarding an extremely advanced nanotechnology virus that was able to reprogram the robots in a very quick amount of time. Dravis used the nanotech virus to eliminate Isao Suzuki, president of PTMC, and assume his position.

Eventually, the player confronts Dravis in the final mission of Descent³ and finally manages to put an end to the robot uprisings once and for all.

Gameplay

In the original Descent, there are 27 levels corresponding to 27 different and unique mines (and also three secret levels). The first three begin on the Moon, the fourth on Venus, the sixth on Mercury and then back out towards Mars and on towards the moons of the gas giants and finally until Pluto and Charon.

Descent II focused on systems beyond the solar system. The realms were Zeta Aquilae, Quartzon, Brimspark, Limefrost Spiral, Baloris Prime, Puuma Sphere, and Tycho Brahe.

Each levels starts with the player in his ship materializing in a starting location within the mine. The player must then navigate through the mine destroying enemy robots and picking up powerups if his resources run low. Unlike Doom, where the player apparently never fatigued, the player's spacecraft had a fixed energy budget and required regular pickups of energy powerups to be able to continue firing. Killing opponents, however, often released such powerups. There were also permanent recharging areas available.

In Descent and Descent II, the goal of each level was to find a series of keys, usually in the order of blue, yellow, and red. Each key would correspond with a door of that color. Beyond the red door was the reactor. By shooting at the reactor, it could be detonated, setting off a countdown timer. The player would have to find the route back to the exit tunnel before the countdown expired. An optional objective was also to rescue the trapped PTMC workers in each mine and safely bring them to the exit. In contrast, Descent³'s objectives were more diverse, ranging from escort missions to an ironic mission where reactors must be defended.

Like Doom, Descent provided a navigational wireframe map that would display any area of the mine visited or seen by the player. Since it was truly 3D, however, navigating the map could be challenging, especially so in the shareware demo. The commercial release of Descent made map navigation more intuitive. One helpful trick was to use the '-' and '+' keys to decrease or increase the scope of the wireframe map.

Although the keyboard interface for moving and rotating in full 3D space was easily learned, many players initially suffered from nausea and confusion since any viewpoint became possible. With practice, however, most people found the game fluid and very enjoyable. A bigger annoyance for casual players was getting lost in the mines (some of which were very large and complex). Highly experienced players who could memorize the mine layouts became adept enough to play the game continually upside-down.

The enemy AI was touted as quite good for its time, but in practice was easily defeated. The overall gameplay was enhanced by the wide variety of weapons the player could wield. Descent³ improved on the AI significantly, leading to robots that effectively worked in teams and went to fetch help if outnumbered.

The player has limited lives. When the ship is destroyed, a new one is spawned at the mine's entrance. However, all the resources (weapons, etc.) acquired thus far would be strewn about the area of death waiting to be reacquired. The catch is that whatever originally destroyed the ship is probably still there.

The seventh level (which was the end of the shareware version) and the final level are cited as the most difficult. Both have large boss robots that fire powerful weaponry and have the ability to cloak and teleport. The final boss also gates in other robots.

Like Doom, Descent offered excellent competitive multiplayer game play over a LAN. Interestingly enough, Descent is also touted as being one of the first games that allowed on-the-fly joining of multiplayer games, whereas in Doom it is presumed that all players had to be queued prior to initiating the game. With the advent of Internet IPX emulators such as Kali, more and more people began to play Descent and Descent II over the Internet. Descent II was especially popular online due to its support for short packets and variable packet rate -- options which were crucial for smooth Internet play.

The engine for Descent and Descent II operated on the premise of interconnected cubes. Sides of cubes could be attached to other cubes, or display up to two texture maps. Cubes could be deformed so long as their sides remained planar. Walls could also be placed at the common sides of attached cubes to support effects like doors and see-through grating. Unlike in Doom, doors were flat, the level environments were static, and enemies were polygonal instead of sprite-based. However, power-ups and most weapon effects were sprite-based. Of special note was the lighting, which took on many gradients due to dynamic lighting and looked more natural than that of Doom. Colored lighting was used for Descent³.

Graphics

The original Descent used indexed 8-bit color in DOS's display mode 13h, using 320 × 200 resolution. Later versions allow higher resolutions, such as 640x480. The default engine used a software renderer, and so the textures are drawn using affine texture mapping, causing textures to appear to pop or shift when viewed from certain angles. The software renderer also used nearest-neighbor texture filtering, as opposed to bilinear filtering or trilinear filtering used by modern video cards. Nearest-neighbor texture filtering causes aliasing artifacts, such as blocky or swimming textures.

Descent³ utilized an indoor and outdoor engine in tandem, collectively called the Fusion Engine. Detailed for its time, the engine allowed dynamic colored lighting, relatively complex environments, and weather effects. Unlike contemporary first-person shooters such as Unreal or Quake, Descent³ architecture did not rely on brushes. Rather it relied on basic vertex/face modeling. It is said the original levels were mostly developed in 3D Studio Max.

Weapons

Descent

The original Descent featured ten weapons; five primary weapons and five missiles

Primary weapons:

  • Laser (precise weapon with three level-ups, and a 'quad laser' mod)
  • Vulcan cannon (uses special rapid-fire bullets that nearly impossible to evade; useful for sniping)
  • Spreadfire cannon (a rarely used low-powered triple gun; useful only in close combat)
  • Plasma cannon (fires large, fast bolts; one of the most versatile and dangerous energy weapons)
  • Fusion cannon (slow-firing heavy beam that deals heavy damage and pierces through robots; only energy weapon with radius damage)

Missiles:

  • Concussion missile (basic dumbfire rocket, area damage)
  • Homing missile (less powerful than concussion missile, but homes in on target)
  • Proximity bomb (stationary mine that explodes at timeout, or when something touches it; useful to delay chasers)
  • Smart missile (heavy missile that, on detonation, releases a group of homing plasma bolts)
  • Mega missile (homing megaton rocket with huge area effect; a single hit is enough to kill the player, or most robots)

Descent II

Descent II uses the same weapons as Descent, but adds upgraded versions of each.

Primary weapons:

  • Super laser (levels five and six)
  • Gauss cannon (upgraded Vulcan Cannon that uses less ammunition and does more damage, including radius damage)
  • Helix cannon (fast-firing rotating bar similar to Spreadfire cannon)
  • Phoenix cannon (energy bolts that bounce off walls, allowing the player to hit enemies around corners; capable of destroying player if fired carelessly)
  • Omega cannon (rapid-fire homing bolts that temporarily blind their target)

Missiles:

  • Flash missile (low-powered missile that temporarily blinds its target)
  • Guided missile (can be remotely controlled by the player or turned into a regular homing missile; useful for scouting or hitting anything far away)
  • Mercury missile (fastest of all missiles, similar to laser cannon in speed; nearly impossible to dodge)
  • Earthshaker missile (highly overpowered warhead that fires smaller homing missiles upon impact; likely to destroy player if used carelessly)

Descent 3

Descent 3 featured many new weapons but also discarded some while keeping many of the "classic" Descent weapons, such as the Laser, Plasma Cannon, and Homing Missile.

Primary Weapons:

  • The vulcan and gauss cannons have been replaced by the vauss cannon, but it is essentially the same weapons.
  • The mass driver is a powerful but slow-firing sniper weapon
  • The napalm cannon shoots a wide spray of napalm that catches enemies on fire, but also yourself if you're not careful
  • The EMD gun is a fast-firing, modestly powerful weapon that locks onto the target, but uses a lot of energy
  • The microwave cannon is a rapid-firing energy weapon that heats up an opponent and causes moderate damage
  • The omega cannon is now used to suck the shields out of an enemy and charge your shields in the process, although it is a close-range weapon
  • The spreadfire, helix, and phoenix cannons have been removed from the game

Secondary weapons:

  • The frag missile, when it explodes, sends a number of tiny, explosive projectiles into nearby targets
  • The impact mortar is a powerful bomb that bounces off walls until it is ready to detonate or hits an enemy, and it features tremendous explosive power
  • The napalm rocket is a missile used to set enemies on fire
  • The cyclone missile is essentially a flechette missile. When it detonates, it features a number of projectiles that move towards the nearest targets. This is good for taking out a small group of enemies in quick order
  • The black shark missile is an experimental, extremely powerful missile. When used, it essentially creates a mini Black Hole that sucks in surrounding objects, including yourself if you're not careful. After a few seconds, the missile detonates, destroying all objects caught in the vortex.
  • The flash, mercury, and earthshaker missiles have been removed from the game while the proximity bomb is now a countermeasure

Sequels

Descent II added more weapon types, different enemy types, different mines, laser-reflecting force field walls, and transporter areas. A notable addition was the Guide-Bot, a companion robot the player could use to aid in navigation and other tasks, and the Thief-Bot, a fast-moving, hard-to-kill enemy that attempted to steal the player's equipment. Graphics were still 8-bit, but multiple resolutions were supported, and it was ported to the Macintosh. After its release a patch was issued to add support for early 3D accelerators running the S3 Virge chipset. A fanmade patch added 3Dfx Voodoo support further down the line. The soundtrack was composed by range of musicians, from Type O Negative to Mark Walk and Skinny Puppy's Nivek Ogre. An expansion pack featured remixes of some tracks from the original score.

Descent³ switched to natively use accelerated 3D graphics hardware and improved the rendering engine to support outdoor environments with a nice automatic LOD (level-of-detail) terrain system. The higher resolution and renderer change makes the textures appear flatter, however, and thus the game seems less ominous than its predecessors. Although reviewers praised and lauded it, gamers failed to take note, perhaps because of the high system requirements at the time, and a lack of advertising. Many people also point out that the most common control scheme at the time - mouse+keyboard - was disabled by default in multiplayer modes, in order to appease joystick users. Regardless of the reasons, Descent³ was a commercial flop.

A debate exists as to whether or not Volition ever seriously considered doing a Descent 4. It is widely believed that Descent 4 was the working title for what became the popular first-person shooter Red Faction. Observant Descent fans may have noticed that Descent I's opening briefing made a reference to the "Humans First" strike (see the Premise section above) where the miners rebelled against the new robot technology. This reportedly served as a basis for Red Faction, although Red Faction does not directly relate to Descent. An archived copy of the official Descent 4 website started by Volition is here: [1] (http://web.archive.org/web/20000301165215/http://www.descent4.com/)

Descent: FreeSpace also used 3D acceleration. A main difference was that no player-controlled ships could strafe (though some enemy-controlled ships could), requiring the player to adopt a different strategy for dodging enemy weapons fire. As the action took place entirely in deep space, it was harder to judge one's velocity since there were fewer frames of reference. FreeSpace has no direct connection to the Descent series, and was given the "Descent" prefix to avoid trademark issues (in Europe, it was released as Conflict: FreeSpace).

It is rumored that FreeSpace originally had missions involving the search for the Material Defender's ship from the Descent series.

FreeSpace had a sequel in the form of FreeSpace 2, but like Descent³, it was a commercial flop.

Descent Novels

On a side note, the Descent series also spawned a trilogy of novels written by Peter Telep and sold at several major booksellers. The titles are Descent, Descent: Stealing Thunder, and Descent: Equinox. The novels did not follow the games to the word, but expanded on the basic premise, and were generally received well.

Descent Movie

There were rumors of a Descent movie. NBC commissioned a script for a TV movie but then decided to be adapted for movie theaters. Interplay Productions, the owner and publisher of the Descent games, created a division called Interplay Movies that was going to develop the popular Interplay franchises of the time into movies, one of which was Descent. The last known update was in 1999, so the plans are considered dead. Interplay Movies reportedly successfully got Redneck Rampage made into a film, although it was never released.

The Sci-Fi channel started making a movie out of Descent. (see Descent (movie)).

Source code

The source code to the original Descent (minus the networking code) was released in 1997. The source code to Descent II and FreeSpace 2 has also been released. Open source projects have sprung up around these source releases and can be found on the Internet, the most popular project being D1X. D1X was a modified executable file of Descent, which added many new features such as the ability to change resolution and detail levels, ship auto-leveling, higher mouse and joystick sensitivites, primary and secondary weapon priority, and many other features that could be found in Descent II. After the release of the Descent II source code, the D1X project sparked another project called D2X, which went on to enhance the gameplay of Descent II. D1X and D2X also made it possible to play the games on different platforms like Linux.

External links

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