Descent is a 3D first-person shooter video game developed by Parallax Software and released in 1995. It is still cherished by a strong community of fans, particularly for its online multiplayer, and new levels continue to be developed. It spawned two direct sequels: Descent II and Descent³.
The series has a strong following due to its unique six degrees of freedom (6DOF) gameplay. However, because this gameplay can be challenging and strongly favors the use of a joystick, Descent never gained the popularity of more conventional ground-based 3D first-person shooter games.
The trademark for Descent was allowed to lapse by Interplay in 2002.
The game begins with a briefing between a bald anonymous executive (in later games named Dravis) of the Post Terran Minerals Corporation (PTMC) and the player, a "Material Defender" (revealed as MD1032 in the briefings) hired on a mercenary basis to gather information about a computer virus infecting the robots used for off-world mining operations. The game progresses through the solar system, from the Moon to Pluto's moon Charon. After defeating the boss robot on Charon, the Material Defender is informed he cannot return to the PTMC's headquarters in lunar orbit, as there is a chance his ship may be infected with the same virus as the defeated robots.
The game also supported the use of two joysticks that could be configured freely, which made playing the game easier than using the keyboard.
Like Doom, Descent provides a navigational wireframe map that will display any area of the mine visited or seen by the player. Since it is truly 3D, however, navigating the map can be challenging, especially so in the shareware demo. The commercial release of Descent made map navigation more intuitive. One helpful trick is to use the "-" and "+" keys to decrease or increase the scope of the wireframe map. The flight control keys are used to control the map.
Descent never achieved the popularity of more contemporary 3D shooter games, possibly due to the demands on the player to keep his or her sense of orientation in a fully 3D environment with a 6DOF flight model. Additionally, learning to effectively exploit "(tri-) chording" — increasing movement speed by simultaneously pressing the acceleration controls for several movement directions — steepened the learning curve. Nonetheless, the challenge the flight model poses attracted — and continues to attract — players, even 13 years after the first game of the franchise appeared.
An important element of the online gaming community was the Invitational Descent Ladder The ladder facilitated one-on-one duels between some of the most skilled Descent players in the world. IDL matches were chiefly played in the original Descent game and to a lesser extent Descent 2; Descent 3 was not as well received and saw little use on the ladder in comparison.
The D1X project significantly improved gameplay for on-line Descent games.
In the commercial release, the path continues out towards Mars and on towards the moons of the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and finally until Pluto and Charon. There are 3 secret levels, located in the Asteroid Belt, which can be accessed by secret exits that are placed as an alternative to the regular exits in certain levels.
The enemy AI was quite good for its time, with most robots being able to dodge a player's fire, making for challenging firefights and duels. There are special AI strategies that complement the bots' attacking style, with regular (firing) robots starting in sniping mode and often aggressively pursuing if the player retreated, close-combat robots which are highly maneuverable and charge the player, and certain "cunning" or "lurking" bots that track the player and only attack when it will achieve surprise. As the mission progresses, new, tougher robots begin to appear with more powerful weapons.
The seventh level, which is also the end of the shareware version, and the final level are cited as the most difficult. Both have large boss robots with powerful weaponry (the first boss fires Smart missiles; the second fires Mega Missiles) and have the ability to cloak (become invisible) then teleport to other parts of the room. The second boss also causes other robots to materialize nearby.
The player has limited lives. When the ship is destroyed, it respawns at the mine's entrance. However, all the powerups (weapons, etc.) acquired thus far will be strewn about the area of death waiting to be reacquired. There is also a complementary points system. Players can score points by destroying enemy robots, picking up powerups, and detonating the reactor. The most points will be earned by rescuing the trapped PTMC workers in each mine and safely escaping with them after destroying the reactor. Hostages are lost when the ship is destroyed, so it is often recommended that they be rescued just before blowing the reactor. Accumulating 50000 points will result in an extra life. In addition, after completing the game, a "Ship Bonus" will be obtained, equal to every life saved multiplied by 50000 points (e.g. if a player has 7 lives left at the end of the game, he will receive a bonus of 350000 points to his current score).
In Descent, the goal of each level is to find a series of keys, usually in the order of blue, yellow, and red. Each key will correspond with a door of that color. Beyond the red door is the reactor, which itself will fire back at the player, and the area is also heavily defended by robots. By severely damaging the reactor, it will set off a countdown timer. The player will have to find the route back to the exit tunnel before the countdown expires and the reactor's meltdown vapourizes the entire mine. If the player cannot escape, but has extra lives to spare, he can proceed to the next level and be forced to start with minimal weapons.
In the seventh and twenty-seventh levels, the reactor is replaced by a boss robot, which similarly triggers the countdown after it is destroyed.
Descent's handling of weapons in multiplayer differs from most first-person shooters. When a player is killed, all the powerups (weapons, etc.) acquired thus far will be strewn about the area of death waiting to be reacquired. Instead of respawning primary weapons, which could potentially allow several players to pick up the same weapon over time, only one player can have it at a time, forcing his opponents to destroy him in order to acquire it.
The original Descent uses indexed 8-bit color in DOS's display mode 13h, using 320 × 200 resolution. Unlike its sequel, it uses only one 256-color set during gameplay, rather than a unique set for each level set; these colors tinge red during damage and purple during fusion charging. The Macintosh and later PC versions allow higher resolutions, such as 640 × 480. The default engine uses a software renderer in which the perspective transformation for texture mapping is only performed once every 32 pixels, causing textures to appear to pop or shift when viewed from certain angles. The software renderer also uses 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.
The engine for Descent is a portal rendering engine, operating on the premise of interconnected cube-shaped sectors. 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. Descent introduced an elaborate static lighting scheme as well as simple dynamic lighting, where the environment could be lit with flares - another advancement compared to Doom.
The game uses 8-bit, 11 kHz sound effects, including some vocals. On slower computers, the sound settings could be reduced to allow only one door sound, only one laser sound, only a few enemy sounds, and other simplifications. (It also would make only one sound play per frame, which would potentially slow down things more than it could help them.) The PC version's soundtrack is a MIDI score, while the Macintosh version uses Redbook audio and the Playstation version uses CDXA audio.
Numerous open source projects based on these source releases have appeared on the Internet. The most popular early project was D1X, which added many new features such as the ability to change resolution, customizable primary and secondary weapon priority, and many other features that were previously only available in Descent II.
Following the release of the Descent II source code, the D1X project sparked another project called D2X, which went on to enhance the gameplay and compatibility of Descent II. D1X and D2X also made it possible to play the games on different platforms like Linux. However, eventually, work on the D1X and D2X projects became stagnant. The latest version, D1X 1.43, added support for OpenGL and Direct3D graphics as well as TCP/IP multiplayer, and runs under Windows XP with few problems. There are source code projects for Descent that are still active, like D2X-XL and DXX-Rebirth.
Volition, Inc., one of two studios formed after the division of Descent developer Parallax Software, started work on Descent 4 but it was canceled early in production, owing mostly to disappointing sales of Descent³. Some fans believed that Volition was working on Descent 4 only to turn the game into the first-person shooter Red Faction; Descent's opening briefing made a reference to a "Humans First" strike where the miners rebelled against the new robot technology, and the games share plot features such as nanotechnology, an evil faceless corporation, and the virus they are attempting to harness. Descent 4 was planned as a prequel to Descent , and incorporated those elements. This reportedly served as a basis for Red Faction, although Mike Kulas (president of Volition) stated in an interview that the Red Faction and Descent universes are strictly separate. However, he did admit that code that was meant for Descent 4 was being used in Red Faction.
Descent: FreeSpace — The Great War, also by Volition, shared the Descent name, but otherwise had no connection to the series; it was given the "Descent" prefix to avoid trademark issues (in Europe, it was released as Conflict: FreeSpace — The Great War). FreeSpace was a space simulator, and while it was still technically a 3D shooter, it for the most part did not retain Descent's trademark six degrees of freedom. Some early drafts of the FreeSpace story had the pilot searching for Descent's "Material Defender" , but the story of the finished game was unrelated.
Descent: FreeSpace — The Great War had a sequel in the form of FreeSpace 2 (without "Descent"), but like Descent³, it was not very successful despite positive reviews.
However, a 6DOF game similar to Descent is in development. Core Decision, developed by High Octane Software, is highly anticipated by many Descent fans. Its schedule for release has been delayed, but the developers maintain indications of progress on their website.
In 2008 Interplay announced plans for developing more games from its previous franchises. The Descent series was mentioned as well.
Interplay also commissioned Brian M. Thomsen to package some official Descent 3 stories to post on their web site. The stories were eventually taken down. One story, "A Thousand Years", is available on the author's web site.
One thing that lends credence to this Descent movie is a filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office of a 2000 abandoned trademark filing of Descent with the "Goods and/or Services" being listed as:
International Class: 041 entertainment services, namely, production and distribution of live action theatrical, motion pictures and television motion pictures and animated and live action television series featuring action, adventure and science fiction stories.
Another thing that lends credence to this Descent movie is an April 15th, 1998 Variety article mentioning the announcement of Tom Reed as president of Interplay Films, the division of Interplay Productions set up to produce movies based upon their popular IP. Variety reported that Reed's strategy for Interplay Films was to have "feature adaptations of Interplay's most popular computer game titles -- such as Fallout, Descent, Stonekeep, Carmageddon, Earthworm Jim and Redneck Rampage." and quoted Reed as saying:
I don't want this company to become pigeonholed ... A lot of games are action, adventure or fantasy based, and we have great product in those areas. But the company also will pursue spec scripts, books, articles and other idea sources.