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Graphics: Graphically, Descent 3 is on the cutting-edge, comparable to the best 3D engines in terms of architecture, texturing, lighting and modeling, and transcending them in terms of pyrotechnics and stability. Although it does not feature curved surfaces or underwater environments, the engine handles depth and mammoth constructions as well as the best. This, coupled with the creative talent of the level designers, who erect interesting maps that continue to impress far into the game, creates one of the most aesthetically appealing 3D titles to date. The textures are crisp and convincing at all resolutions, though the outdoor areas suffer a bit from texture shifting. Although the polygonal complexity of each scene is moderate and the mappers use textures economically, the overall effect is wholly believable. This convincing sense of environment is complemented by smooth specular lighting and reflective surfaces.
The lighting effects are terrific and ignite the screen with color and flash; going into a dim tunnel and firing the laser cannon is a real visual treat. Additionally, the models are among the most smoothly animated machines in a 3D action game to date; each robot features multiple animated parts and various assault and defensive maneuvers. The masterful animation goes a long way toward creating a menacing opposition as well as gratifying casualties; there is nothing more joyously indulgent than watching an opponent arc through the air, trailing fumes and fire, then hit the surface and disintegrate into “a million” bits and pieces. Special effects are another highlight; the explosions and weapon effects are pure, glorious eyewash. There are also some smile-inducing details, such as the soft coronas, the scorched walls, the tiny embers that bounce off surfaces hit with lasers and the splotches of water on the ship’s windshield as it flies through rain. Despite all its graphical polish, though, Descent 3 does not develop as strong a sense of atmosphere as the immersive Aliens vs. Predator, though there were moments when the lights were out that I was grateful for the headlight.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of all is the unwavering stability of the engine. The game did not crash once, I never got caught in a corner and at no time did a polygon split at the seams. There is one important caveat emptor, however. Although smooth at most resolutions, the Direct3D performance suffers from dropped frames at 1024×768 when things get intense, and the OpenGL performance is appalling. Glide is favored here, despite the engine’s internal support for 32-bit color. There is an abundance of options to toggle, including terrain details, object complexity and rendering depth, and toning these down speeds things up. To get a consistently smooth frame rate with all options turned on, I had to drop the resolution to 800×600, something RIVA TNT2 users are hard-pressed to do. Nonetheless, Descent 3 is of a superior visual breed.
Interface: Most 3D titles, ranging from mech simulations to on-foot action games, strongly favor one type of control setup over another. For instance, fast-paced 3D action games benefit from the mouse, while a mech simulation might prefer something more complex. Not so with Descent 3, which is highly flexible and open to any number of peripheral setups, including those commonly used for flight simulations. More important than enabling gamers to configure the controls to their taste, the interface permits them to be successful using a broad range of input devices. Competitors scoffed at my using the mouse to turn and accelerate, but I managed to hold my own. The in-game shell is quite adept at communicating important information; from ship status to important messages, information is presented in a non-obtrusive but descriptive manner. The well-laid out menus are a veritable treasure trove of options and toggles that can be accessed and changed in seconds. Considering the options available for altering game elements, graphics, sounds and more, Descent 3 can be fully configured to match each person’s preferences and machine potential. There is even a 3D automap that actually clearly communicates the ship’s position and the map’s design. If I was to be impaled on a long, sharp object and placed over a hot fire in order to issue some level of complaint, it would be that the implementation of radar would be most helpful during combat. Additionally, the number of in-game commands are much greater than most traditional 3D action titles, especially when the commands for the GuideBot are tossed in, but the setup is still intuitive and simple to learn.
Gameplay: A good 3D game is more difficult to design than detractors consent. Never mind the technology; capturing an absorbing experience within the geometry is an involved process that requires a deft touch. The designers here perform wonderfully. At its core, Descent 3 is a furiously paced 3D shooter, but there is a calculable level of strategy and adaptation involved in defeating it. Each robot has a method of assault that can be countered with specific weapons and tactical powerups. I would normally criticize such an algorithmic approach to enemy behavior, but in this case, it encourages us to approach combat as though it was a puzzle needing to be solved. For instance, the Tubbs are massive and do copious damage up close, but can be easily hit with a concussion missile; Mantas are thin and hard to hit, but napalm can do wonders against them. Additionally, the countermeasures alone enable a more sophisticated approach to armed conflict than most action titles, and the advantages of terrain should not go under appreciated. Firing a shot and retreating into the folds of a hill is not for the feeble, but rather sharp pilots who understand they are up against faster and more maneuverable enemies. Couple this with missions that have varied objectives and multiplayer options that function out of the box, and the result is one of the best purebred action games to date.
Sound FX: There was a moment in Descent 3 that was a revelation for me in terms of sound and its capacity to establish environment. I was in an underground cavern battling nefarious robots when I heard a sizzling noise. Certain I was hitting the bullseye and that the hissing was the sound of scorching metal, I drilled in for the slaughter…and died. It turned out I was hearing steam rising off an acid pool as my laser cannon missed its target. It was such a flawless consummation of graphics and sound that it was almost transparent. That is the definition of immersion. Descent 3 is absolutely replete with powerful weapon and explosion effects, as well as impeccable details, such as the audio signatures of the individual robots. When the screen convulses and the audio erupts as your ship is hit with a concussion missile, you really feel as though you are battling for your life in a doomed futuristic craft.
There is comprehensive support for 3D audio, including Direct3D, Aureal 3D and Creative EAX. Although the action gets a little too furious and the audio too full for me to perpetually appreciate the 3D soundscape, the effect is uncanny when battling one or two robots. There is nothing quite as captivating as hearing a projectile approach from behind and pass to one side, complete with Doppler effects. The strategic potential to determine enemy positions is there if you can decipher the abundant sounds at play in a given moment.
Musical Score: The music is the one area in which Descent 3 sways toward mediocrity. Bypassing CD-ROM based numbers in favor of something less aurally enticing, the score adopts the proverbial techno approach most current 3D action titles are moving away from. This is unfortunate, because the music for the opening cinematic perfectly establishes how alone the ill-fated Material Defender is in space with a single, haunting female vocal. This sequence builds in intensity and reaches a climax that has all the power of a good cinematic score, but alas, the rest is not as memorable.
Intelligence & Difficulty: It has been said that robots and computers are only as smart as the people who program them. If that is true, the devious intellects behind the robot AI in Descent 3 should be shoo-ins at MENSA. Without a doubt, this is the most advanced AI in a 3D action title to date. Long-gone is a single algorithm that commands all opponents; rather, each robot features a distinct set of offensive and defensive behaviors. Here are creatures that have a fearsome ability to pursue gamers through doors and can circle-strafe human opponents in 360 degrees while engaging their weapons. The robots also fight according to the advantages inherent in their design; for instance, massive automatons such as the Tubbs head butt gamers in jarring frontal rushes, while the vexatious Squid are more elusive. These lethal creatures of copper and cunning also demonstrate an uncanny understanding of the architecture and terrain. A robot might fire off a shot and scamper around a corner or soar off for help when it suffers damage. Yes, team-based tactics are in full operation here. Most robots function in groups that have distinct assault patterns; some even have specific responsibilities, such as setting alarms and calling in reinforcements.
The AI is but one of the reasons Descent 3 is such a mountainous challenge. Facing such creatures in 360 degree arenas with movement mechanics that are more demanding than the title’s fleet-footed ground-based cousins will summon the hardcore gamer in all of us. At the same time, this offering should be commended for its well-balanced difficulty levels. There are five that cover the range of talent that resides within the 3D gaming commune, from “training” to “insane.” The training mode offers a more carefree experience; powerups are healthier, most robots detonate with a pump or two of the laser cannon, and the aggressiveness of the AI is toned down. This is a great style of play for less-experienced gamers wanting to learn the basics or for those not wanting to feel bludgeoned after being on the computer. The mid-range level is the sweet spot. Not too simple and not too tough, the “hotshot mode” features a reasonable balance of AI potency and powerups.
My one gripe about this aspect of the game is how the player simply respawns after losing a life rather than being forced to reload. There is an unlimited number of lives, and simply respawning with the map remaining in the same state of completion and the robots still having suffered damage can discourage the carefully wrought tactical approach to defeating the enemies and lessens the tension of the battles. There were a number of times when facing a boss character that I felt little to no disappointment upon death since it merely meant restored shields and armor and a fresh round of concussion missiles. There are penalizations later in the game should the player respawn too many times, but this is not adequate motivation during some of the tougher battles.
Overall: Descent 3 is a technical tour de force filled with design wizardry. From the robust graphics and finely tuned interface to the smart computer-controlled opponents and mission design, this game radiates talent. Furthermore, the various online multiplayer modes prove, once and for all, that a 3D action title can feature vigorous multiplayer options and still present an engaging solo adventure. Although the movement mechanics, which are more deliberate than on-foot action titles, and dizzying 360 degree panorama might not be everyone’s cup of tea, this is among the most intense and intelligent pure action titles I have ever experienced. The designers have both remained true to the series’ fiercely consistent criterion, but also expanded in fresh directions. Descent 3 is a pleasure, and it is a testament to this series’ enduring appeal that, even after three games and countless vertigo-inducing battles, I cannot wait to see what is next.
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