Before we get into my nonsense, this week have some proper content from Rik, a review of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion! So go read that first.

Anyways in this occasional series I complain about getting my ass handed to me by the monsters and enemies in various games. Today’s entry is Descent, created by Parallax Software in 1995.

Some gamers class this one as a space-sim. It’s true that you pilot a little spacecraft, but I always thought it was better described as a first-person shooter. Or doom-clone, as we called them back then. The controls and combat are much more like a shooter than a sim, except there’s no gravity and you have a full six degrees of motion (move in three directions, rotate around three axes).

The freedom of movement was a key attribute that helped Descent stand out from other doom-clones, but also meant the game could become rather disorienting. It was tricky to keep your bearings as you spun, pivoted and traversed to keep the enemy in your sights. Distinctions between walls, ceilings and floors often disappeared and it was common to be a bit confused as to how to get out of a chamber you only flew into 30 seconds ago.

The game is set in a series of mines across the solar system. In each one you must fight past hordes of robots, destroy a reactor and make a hasty exit. The game provided me with many hours intense action, hurtling through claustrophobic tunnels and circle-strafing robots across huge caverns. Also, dying a lot.

Class 1 Driller

Image from mobygames.

Let’s talk about the Vulcan minigun for a second. It’s the game’s one and only hitscan weapon. That means, there’s zero time between firing and impact of the bullet on a surface or enemy. Every other weapon fires some sort of blob or energy pulse that takes some amount of time to travel impact. That may just be a second or two, but hitscan still gives an advantage, since you don’t have to lead a moving target in your crosshairs. That is, you can fire where the target is right now, not try and aim for where it will be in a moment’s time.

So the vulcan is an important part of your arsenal. Unfortunately, these little bastards have it too. It doesn’t help that being kind of small and grey, they can be hard to spot at a distance. Your first warning they are present could well be that characteristic shriek that means they’ve seen you and are about to open fire. Dive for cover immediately.


Medium Lifter

You’re making your way along some tunnel, thinking all is clear, when suddenly these horrendous things appear from a side passage and start chopping at you with huge metal claws. Oh and they screech at you like the drillers. The best way to handle the lifters is to put some distance between you and them. The entirely wrong and much more common way is to
1: panic
2: emit an un-manly crying noise
3: lose all mastery of the controls
4: throw yourself into the nearest wall and fire in random directions until dead.


Heavy Hulk

These ponderous, blocky machines don’t move much; they generally don’t need to. Instead, they continuously launch homing missiles. Fighting the hulks is a matter of sliding in and out of cover, squeezing off brief bursts of fire then immediately hiding again before another missile smashes into you.


The big F&*!er

Mobygames again.

This enormous monstrosity is the boss found on level 7 (the end of the shareware portion of Descent). It has a similar profile to other missile-firing hulks but dwarfs them in size, and it gives off an unsettling rumbling noise.

It fires smart missiles, a variant on the homing theme. The missile itself doesn’t steer towards you, but on impact it launches a bunch of bright green energy bolts in your direction. If these hit you, you’re toast. While you’re avoiding these the BF can both cloak, and teleport. So by the time you’re ready to return fire, he’s behind you. And firing another missile.

I don’t know if it has any sort of official name other than “first boss”. My first encounter with it began with loading a savegame on a friend’s PC, that he had titled simply “the big fucker”. I think that’s quite appropriate.


Blowing the Reactor

This one too.

Okay this isn’t a specific enemy, so much a scenario that occurs at the end of most levels. Upon destroying the reactor a countdown begins. You have somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds to find the exit, before the entire place blows up.

You did study the map beforehand, right? Even then the game is liable to lock doors, forcing you to find a new route. More enemies may also appear, blocking your path. Not to mention the entire place is shaking around you, adding to the sense of urgency.

It’s all pretty intense, setting the heart racing as you hurtle down tunnels. You don’t even really try to fight enemies properly, just haphazardly spray them with fire while trying to dodge around. The situation can easily descend into sheer panic if you take the wrong path, as the seconds tick down.

So the escape runs are something I came to both dread, and also appreciate as one of the signature features of the game.