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Descent (1995 video game)

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Descent is a spacecraft-based first-person shooter and shoot 'em up[1] video game developed by Parallax Software and released by Interplay in 1995 for DOS, and later for Macintosh, PlayStation, and Acorn Archimedes. It is the first first-person shooter to feature entirely 3D graphics, and is best known for popularizing a subgenre of first-person shooters taking advantage of the six degrees of freedom. The player is cast as a mercenary hired to eliminate the threat of a mysterious extraterrestrial computer virus infecting off-world mining robots. In a series of mines throughout the Solar System, they pilot a spaceship and must locate and destroy the mine's power reactor and escape being caught in the mine's self-destruction, defeating any opposing robots along the way. The game also supports online play, where players can opt to compete in deathmatches or its variants or cooperate to take on the robots.

Descent
Descent cover.png
PC cover art
Developer(s)Parallax Software
Publisher(s)Interplay Productions
MacPlay (Mac OS)
R-Comp Interactive (Acorn Archimedes)
Director(s)Mike Kulas
Matt Toschlog
Producer(s)Rusty Buchert
Designer(s)Che-Yuan Wang
Mark Dinse
Jasen Whiteside
Programmer(s)John Slagel
Rob Huebner
Artist(s)Adam Pletcher
Writer(s)Josh White
Platform(s)DOS, Macintosh, PlayStation, Acorn Archimedes
ReleaseDOS
March 17, 1995
Macintosh
Late 1995
PlayStation
March 1996
Acorn Archimedes
Late 1998
Steam
February 13, 2014
Genre(s)First-person shooter
shoot 'em up
Mode(s)Single-player, multiplayer

Descent was a commercial success. Together with its sequel, it officially sold over 1.1 million units as of 1998. It was also near-universally acclaimed, with commentators and reviewers widely comparing it to Doom and praising its unrestrained range of motion and fully three-dimensional graphics, as well as uniquely combining mechanics of a traditional first-person shooter with that of a space flight simulator. Complaints, however, tended to focus on the frequency for the player to become disoriented and the game's potential to induce motion sickness. The game's success spawned expansion packs as well as two direct sequels in the series: Descent II (1996) and Descent 3 (1999). It also led to the crowdfunding of Descent, a prequel to the original due to release in 2019.

Contents

GameplayEdit

 
Screenshot of the player engaging a robot from a cockpit perspective. The yellow number and adjacent bars in the HUD represent the amount of total energy. Also in the HUD from top-left counterclockwise are the available extra lives, an enemy missile lock indicator, a colored key inventory, the selected primary weapon, the player ship's shields, the selected secondary weapon, and the score count.[2]:18[3]

Single-playerEdit

The game requires the player to pilot a spaceship through labyrinthine mines while fighting virus-infected robots, using the ship's armaments. The player is given the clear objective to find and destroy each mine's reactor core and escape before the mine is destroyed by the meltdown.[4] For two levels, the reactor core is replaced with a boss, changing the objective that the player must destroy the boss in order to trigger the meltdown and escape before the mine self-destructs. To obtain access to the reactor, the player must collect one or a combination of the three colored access keys for each level: blue, yellow, and red, which are required to open doors.[2]:14[5] As a secondary objective, the player can also choose to rescue PTMC (Post Terran Mining Corporation) workers who were taken hostage by the infected robots.[4]

Descent features 30 levels, of which three are secret levels. Each level is based in a "claustrophobic"[6][7][8] mine or military installation[6] located in various locations in the Solar System in an outward pattern from Earth. The levels are first set on the Moon, and then move inward through the solar system via Venus to Mercury, after which the player proceeds further from the Sun, with a level on Mars before progressing towards Pluto's moon Charon. The player accesses the three secret levels located in the asteroid belt using alternative exit doors hidden in specific levels.[9]:219 The game demands that players keep their sense of orientation in a fully 3D environment with a flight model featuring six degrees of freedom in zero-gravity.[4] It also provides a 3-dimensional wire-frame automap that displays any area of the current mine visited or seen by the player, with variously colored lines indicating locked doors and zones such as energy stations and reactor areas.[2]:12 These mines may contain hidden doors[2]:16 or robot generators that spawn enemy robots.[2]:17 The lighting effects allow for the use of flares and lasers to light up parts of the mine.[2]:9[3]

Items are available in the form of collectible power-ups, which are either scattered throughout the mines or may be dropped by destroying robots.[6] They include primary weapons, which range from lasers to wide-range Spreadfire Cannons to destructive chargeable Fusion Cannons. They all consume energy, except for the Vulcan Cannon, which uses traditional ammunition. Secondary weapons include "dumbfire" and tracking missiles, as well as droppable Proximity Bombs and mighty Mega Missiles.[2]:14–15 The player's spacecraft uses shield power as health, and has a maximum energy and shield capacity of 200 units each. Energy is replenished from energy power-ups or recharged to 100 units at permanent energy centers, whereas shields can only be restored via shield orbs. There are also power-ups that modify the ship's status and weaponry. For example, Cloaking Devices and Invulnerability respectively render the ship invisible to the robots and indestructible temporarily, and Quad Lasers modify the ship's laser system to fire four bolts of energy instead of the standard two.[2]:14 Points are gained by defeating robots, rescuing hostages, and escaping the mine before its self-destruction.[2]:23 If the player ship is destroyed, all acquired weapons are strewn about the area as power-ups,[9]:3 any rescued hostages aboard are killed,[10]:20:20 and at the cost of a life, the ship respawns and the player must navigate the mines to recollect the power-ups.[7] Players can record and later view their experiences in the form of demos, both in single-player and multiplayer.[2]:19[11]

MultiplayerEdit

Descent allows online competitive and cooperative multiplayer sessions. The competitive sector allows the "Anarchy" game mode and its two variants, "Team Anarchy" and "Anarchy With Robots". Anarchy is a type of deathmatch whereby the goal is to destroy as many opponents' ships as possible, Team Anarchy assigns players on two opposing teams, and Anarchy With Robots adds hostile robots to the match. In Cooperative, players team up to destroy mines and compete for the highest score. The former two modes allow a maximum of eight players, whereas the latter two allow up to four.[2]:23 Players can type in pre-defined taunt macros and assign them to single hotkeys, rather than pausing to type in the full message.[2]:27[7] They can also join same servers across different platforms, particularly DOS and Macintosh.[12]

PlotEdit

Descent, set in 2169,[4] begins with a briefing between a bald anonymous executive of the Post Terran Mining Corporation (PTMC) and the player, their best "Material Defender", hired on a mercenary basis to eliminate the threat of a mysterious alien computer virus infecting the machines and robots used for off-world mining operations.[13] The game progresses throughout the Solar System outward from Earth. After defeating the boss robot on Charon, the Material Defender is informed he cannot return to the PTMC's headquarters in Earth orbit, as there is a chance his ship may be infected with the same virus as the defeated robots. His employer also mentions that PTMC has lost contact with their deep-space installations outside the Solar System, hinting at the events of the sequel.[14]

DevelopmentEdit

Descent was co-created by programmers Mike Kulas and Matt Toschlog. It has origins as far back as 1986, when Toschlog first joined the gaming industry at subLOGIC, where he also first met Kulas. There, the pair worked on various simulation titles from Flight Simulator 2 to Jet. Toschlog left the company in 1988 for Looking Glass, where he worked with Ned Lerner to develop Car and Driver, and Kulas joined the company in 1990 to develop utilities for Car and Driver. The two had devised an idea of an indoor flight simulator that used shaded polygons, but after working on Ultima Underworld, they realized they could add textures to the polygons for a spectacular effect. By April 1993, they finished a two-page sketch for what would become Descent.[15][16][17]

Our aim was to create an '80s-style arcade game with '90s technology. We wanted a full 3-D environment in which the player was surrounded by interesting structures and threats in all dimensions.

Mike Kulas, Wired[18]

Descent took about 21 months and according to Kulas[17] probably cost about US$450,000 to develop. Deciding that their idea was too good for anyone else to develop it, Kulas and Toschlog left Looking Glass in June 1993 to form Parallax Software. They hired Che-Yuan Wang and John Slagel as their programmers, with Wang also being their level designer. They also hired Adam Pletcher as their artist. They set out to contact publishers, including Scott Miller of Apogee Software, id Software's primary publisher, who was excited about their proposal and signed with them a contract. For the next seven months, Apogee invested in Parallax and shared with them experience they had gained from developing their own 3D shareware titles, and Parallax would implement artistic and structural changes that Apogee requested. After those months, Apogee had numerous projects in the works, and Parallax's project became more expensive to create, so Apogee severed its involvement in the project.[15][16][17]

Left without a publisher, Parallax spent the next three months to develop a mock-up prototype, continuing their coding. The project was originally titled Miner, but Parallax presented their prototype in written letters to 50 game companies as Inferno. Of those letters, three of them received a reply; one of them was from Interplay, who immediately signed the company up. Until the game's full release, Interplay's producer Rusty Buchert would oversee and guide the development of the project, and Parallax hired three more people to finish the project: level designers Mark Dinse and Jasen Whiteside and story writer and 3D modeler Josh White.[15][16][17]

During level design, the idea of simple connected tunnels as the sole component of level architecture expanded to also include rooms and exits, and as levels became more complex, the designers found them confusing, so an automap was later added to address that.[15][16][17] To design the levels, Descent's graphics engine uses portal rendering, taking advantage of the game's use of collections of cubes to form rooms and tunnels. Within the game, sides of cubes can be attached to other cubes, or display up to two texture maps. Cubes can be deformed so long as they remain convex. To create effects like doors and see-through grating, walls could be placed at the connected sides of two cubes.[19] Robots were drawn as polygonal models; sprites were only used to represent the hostages and power-ups.[20] This system was very efficient, and made possible the first true 3D textured environment in a video game.[19][20]

Another obstacle to overcome was adding online multiplayer. Parallax found it difficult to implement and were initially reluctant to do so, but at the same time during development, they had learned of Doom and the popularity of its multiplayer. Interplay sent its Rob Huebner to help them program multiplayer. Near their project's completion, Parallax faced yet another obstacle: they needed to make sure that their highly detailed and complex game could run smoothly on computers. Although ultimately the requirements to run the game fast were high, their added option to adjust detail complexity did help.[15][16][17]

Timeline of release years
1995Descent
1996Descent: Levels of the World
Descent II
Descent II: Vertigo Series / The Infinite Abyss
1997
1998
1999Descent 3
Descent 3: Mercenary

Releases and portsEdit

Parallax Software followed the shareware model used by Apogee and id Software, and in December 1994 uploaded a seven-level shareware demo as Descent both in retail and on the Internet. They released the full game for DOS in retail on March 17, 1995,[15][21] followed by a Macintosh port published by MacPlay in December 1995.[22] A PlayStation port was released in March 1996.[23] 1996 also saw the release of Descent: Levels of the World, an add-on containing over 100 winning level submissions from a design competition held by Interplay, plus one level designed by Parallax Software.[24]:44 Descent was later ported to Acorn Archimedes by R-Comp Interactive in late 1998,[25] which later in 2003 received a 32-bit update.[26]

Cancelled portsEdit

Since Descent's inception, there had been numerous instances of planned ports that were later cancelled. A Sega 32X version of the game was announced as the first console version,[27] but it was never released. A Panasonic M2 version was also announced but never released due to the system's cancellation.[28][29][30][31][32] A planned Sega Saturn version was cancelled because the programmers found that a straight port of the PlayStation version was not possible, and they did not think it would be worth their while to do a more elaborate port for the Saturn.[33][34]

Interplay had plans dating to mid-1996 to port Descent to Nintendo 64 under the name Ultra Descent.[35] The port was delayed before it was eventually cancelled in 1998 in favor of Descent 3, with Parallax's Jim Boone explaining that it never reached the design phase in development.[36][37] Similarly in April 2010, Interplay announced a WiiWare version of Descent planned for release in that year's holiday season.[38] No further announcement about it has been made since.

ModsEdit

Descent uses HOG and PIG package files to store and load level data such as level structures, graphics, objects, and sound effects and music—similar to the WAD file format used for Doom. It also allows players to create their own such files containing the data, which can then be loaded and played.[39] Later in 1997 on the end-of-life commercial cycle came the release of the game's source code, excluding the audio code. Parallax released the source code under the license that permits non-commercial uses only.[40] All of this, combined with the game's popularity, has resulted in a number of distributed mods.[41]

Re-releasesEdit

Descent was re-released on modern digital distribution services. It was one of the launch titles for the open beta version of Good Old Games on September 8, 2008,[42] followed by a Steam release on February 13, 2014.[43] However, the game, along with Descent II and Descent 3, was withdrawn from Good Old Games in December 2015, and later from Steam. A representative of Parallax Software responded to speculation on the Good Old Games forums, regarding the withdrawal of the titles. Interplay owned the Descent trademark and the publishing rights to those games, but their developers still retained the copyrights to them. The latter pulled their games off because Interplay purportedly had not paid them royalties since 2007. As a result, they had terminated the sales agreement, disallowing Interplay from further selling them.[44]

However, in November 2017, Good Old Games announced that the Descent series would be available for sale again on their platform.[45] The game has also since resurfaced on Steam.[46]

ReceptionEdit

Pre-releaseEdit

Customer reception of the shareware version of Descent was very positive, with players praising the fully 3D environment and commentators noting perceived "loyalty and goodwill" that both Parallax and Interplay fostered.[18] However, it also garnered player complaints over a technical bug that would recharge each robot's shields whenever the player ship was destroyed (the problem was exasperated on the last level of the shareware, where the power reactor is replaced with a boss and the gameplay thus becomes extremely difficult). It also received complaints for lacking the ability to save in-game, instead saving the player's progress between levels. Parallax recognized the bug and the popularity of the save feature, so they released patches to address the issues.[16] Descent would later go on to become one of the games to inspire other retailers and software companies to look into and embrace the shareware model.[18][21]

SalesEdit

In June 1995, the Descent shareware version fell to No. 6 of the 10 top-selling budget PC games and the full game to No. 9 of the 20 top-selling full price PC games[47] before dropping off the chart next month. The full game rose back up in August 1995 to No. 19 of the top full price games, while the shareware version fell down to No. 7 of the top commercial PC titles.[48] That same month, the CD-ROM edition landed on No. 8 of the top CD-ROM titles.[49] The Macintosh port also landed on No. 10 of the top Macintosh games in April 1996.[50]

Interplay estimated in March 1995 before Descent's full release that shareware copies of Descent were distributed 900,000 times via online services, on the Internet, or at retail.[51] Official global sales of the game, together with its sequel, surpassed 1.1 million copies as of June 1998,[52] while VentureBeat estimated in 2015 that the actual sales figure of the original was as high as 25 million copies.[53]

Computer versionsEdit

Reception
Review scores
PublicationScore
CGW     [55]
Edge8/10[11]
GameSpot8/10[54]
Next Generation     [57]
PC Gamer (US)96%[6]
PC Zone94%[7]
MacUser     [56]
Macworld     [12]
PC Magazine    [1]
PC Player90%[3]

The computer versions of Descent received near-universal acclaim, with reviewers widely comparing it to Doom and noting its unique use of free motion, as well as a fully three-dimensional environment.[1][3][6][7][8][11][12][54][55][56][57] The multiplayer aspect received equal acclaim.[1][3][6][7][11][12][54][55][56] Michael Ryan of PC Magazine enthusiastically attributed the attention the game received to its unique gameplay and found no similar alternatives,[1] and GameSpot remarked that "only one 3-D shooter adds a whole new dimension to the field: Descent," particularly noting the labyrinthine environments.[54] Charlie Brooker of PC Zone noted the game's intense environment and similarities to Doom and praised its multiplayer and ability to taunt opposing players, with only minor criticism directed toward its slight repetitiveness.[7] Common complaints tended to focus on Descent's ability to disorient players, as well as potentially induce motion sickness.[1][3][6][7][8][11][54][56][58]

Next Generation particularly praised the graphics and animation, intelligent enemies, and wide array of power-ups, all of which it said would "keep most gamers glued to the screen for hours," but was disappointed by the game's delayed release, asserting it led to the game being overshadowed by id Software's then-newly released Heretic.[57] Nevertheless, they rated it the fourth-best virtual reality game in September 1995 due to its 3D environment and graphics.[59] In its third-highest-rated review,[60] PC Player also praised the intelligent enemies, as well as the lighting effects, the use of various graphical textures, and "genuine" 3D graphics.[3] Edge remarked the ability to record demos that capture the player's experiences, but also criticized the slightly repetitive gameplay and noted the robots' basic algorithm of being only a little more than "fire and evade", despite their intelligence.[11]

The Macintosh port of Descent also received praise. Bob LeVitus of MacUser called it "one of the best Mac games ever released," attributing its popularity to its online multiplayer mode, whereby up to eight players can connect and play together. His only criticism was the high system requirements (the port required a Power Macintosh to play) and a difficult learning curve.[56] Macworld's Fred DeLisio also praised the enemy artificial intelligence, realism and sense of immersion, and multiplayer for allowing cross-platform sessions between PC and Macintosh users and allowing players to join and quit anytime without ending thr sessions for everyone else, but also criticized the high system requirements.[12]

Jeremy Parish of USgamer ran a retrospective feature on the game, saying Descent combined the genre of space flight simulator with a first-person shooter experience. He also attributed the game's popularity and modifiability to the continued development of fan mods.[41] Engadget's David Lumb retrospectively likened the game's graphical innovations to the computer-generated imagery used in the 1995 film Toy Story.[61] GamesTM rated it No. 4 on their retrospective "Top 5 FPS" list for its truly 3D environment combined with the six degrees of freedom,[62] and Rock, Paper, Shotgun ranked it No. 13 on its list of "The best space games on PC", citing the game's numerous innovations, speed, labyrinthine level structures, and the free range of motion.[8]

AccoladesEdit

Year Work Category Result
1995 PC Gamer[63] Best Action Game Won
Best Multi-Player Game Won
Special Achievement in Innovative Design Won
PC Magazine[64] Technical Excellence Award Won
PC Games[65] Game of the Month Won
PC Computing[66]:198 Most Valuable Entertainment CD-ROM Runner-up

PlayStation versionEdit

Reception
Review scores
PublicationScore
EGM7.375/10[67]
GameFan83%[5]
GamePro     [70]
Next Generation     [69]
Maximum     [68]

The PlayStation port of Descent also received praise, which was often directed to the port's use of impressive lighting effects.[5][67][68][69][70] Like its computer versions, criticism commonly centered on the player's disorientation.[5][67] The four reviewers of Electronic Gaming Monthly called it an outstanding conversion due to its extremely fast rendering speed and improved lighting effects. However, two of them felt that the gameplay lacked excitement.[67] Major Mike of GamePro also judged it "an excellent conversion" due to its complex but generally easy to master controls, though he did complain of occasional severe slowdown.[70] Maximum stated it "is one of the greatest games to grace the PlayStation, and rates alongside WipeOut as one of the best ambassadors for the machine." They particularly applauded the labyrinthine level design and intelligent enemy AI.[68] Their subsequent feature on the game was more critical, saying that "the official PAL version of Descent features some of the most hideous letterbox PAL borders we've ever seen, with no sign of PAL optimisation whatsoever." However, it also praised the game's use of the PlayStation link up cable.[71]

Next Generation too praised the developers for adding a new industrial soundtrack to the PlayStation version rather than doing a straight port. Like Major Mike, they found the controls complex but intuitive and easy to master, and while criticizing that the game can be dry and repetitive, they concluded, "Overall, you still can't go wrong, and if you've got the ability to fly against someone else, it doesn't get much better."[69] K. Lee of GameFan praised the sound and music and noted the game's difficulty due to the ubiquitous doors on walls, ceilings, and floors, and though still finding it too easy to become disoriented, he found the automap useful.[5]

LegacyEdit

Descent is credited with starting a subgenre of six-degrees-of-freedom first-person shooters, and remains an icon of the subgenre.[72][73] It holds a Guinness World Record for being the first fully 3D first-person shooter,[74] and its popularity spawned two sequels: Descent II in 1996 and Descent 3 in 1999,[75] as well as a 1999 trilogy of Peter Telep novels based on the series, comprising Descent, Descent: Stealing Thunder, and Descent: Equinox.[76] It also brought about a handful of similar "Descent clones", most notably Forsaken, which was released by Acclaim Entertainment in 1998 and had similar graphics and almost identical gameplay to Descent.[77]

Since Descent 3, there had been plans and considerations to work on another game in the series, but those were either cancelled or abandoned in favor of other projects. Volition, the developer of the FreeSpace series, began work on Descent 4, but development was cancelled, as most of the company was interested in developing a fantasy role-playing game instead. It would have been a prequel to Descent, and reportedly served as the basis for the 2001 first-person shooter Red Faction, with similarities including plot points such as an evil faceless corporation and the mysterious "Plague" they are attempting to harness.[78][79] Mike Kulas (president of Volition) stated in an interview that the Red Faction and Descent universes are strictly separate, but also that the code intended for Descent 4 had been used in Red Faction.[80] Interplay similarly announced in 2007 that the company had plans to create a new Descent game if it could secure funding for the game's development,[81] to no avail.

The series was revived in the late 2010s, when development of another Descent title was confirmed and is still in development. On Kickstarter in March 2015, Descendent Studios announced a prequel to the original game, partnering with Interplay and using their intellectual property rights to develop it.[82] Titled simply Descent, it is slated for release in 2019,[83] which will make it the first game since Descent 3 to be released in the series. Another game, Overload by Revival Productions—which included many of the former employees of Parallax Software, including co-founders Mike Kulas and Matt Toschlog—was announced on Kickstarter and successfully crowdfunded in 2016. It is a six-degrees-of-freedom tunnel shooter and a "spiritual successor" to the Descent games that released in 2018.[61]

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