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‘Descent’ Reboot Mines 90s Nostalgia While Updating Original Trilogy

“Doom” and “Wolfenstein 3D” get a lot of credit for kicking off the first-person shooter genre (and deservedly so). Sadly, Parallax Software’s 1995 release, “Descent,” is often forgotten for its contributions to the genre.

For those who might have forgotten (or were too young to enjoy them), Parallax’s “Descent” trilogy added six degrees of freedom, creating twists and turns throughout a number of increasingly complex and hostile asteroids.

Since then, space shooters have built upon “Descent’s” foundation. That’s why Descendent Studios began trying to reboot the franchise back in 2015.

“They had originally Kickstarted what was called ‘Descent Underground’ in April of 2015,” says Matthew Scott, CEO of publisher Little Orbit. “They went to Early Access in October of 2015, and then they went to BrightLocker in 2016. They were in crowdfunding hell. They were making enough to keep the game going, but not enough to finish it.”

A blog post announcing a publishing deal with Little Orbit in November 2017 paints a grim picture of where “Descent: Underground” was heading. Descendent was out of money, and staff was working for free. The studio treated its early access game as a live product, which meant extensive support that wasn’t necessary and extended the timeline. Without Little Orbit, there’s no way “Descent” would make its current release window in late 2018.

“We crunched the numbers and realized that without a distribution partner, it would take us at least another two or three years to finish the game we described in the Kickstarter, with folks working for the most part for free,” the studio explains. “We needed a partner.”

At the time Little Orbit entered the picture, “Descent Underground” was envisioned as primarily multiplayer with a small single-player element and only destined for PC, Mac, and Linux. Not only did a publishing deal bring more money to the table, but Little Orbit and Descendent were able to go back to Interplay, which owns the “Descent” IP, to expand the game with a full campaign.

“Our primary goal is to preserve everything that was in the original ‘Descent’—that feeling of exploration, bullet hell, twisty-turny fun—but then add customization and class-based combat,” Scott says.

Now, the game has dropped its “Underground” subtitle, as it’s moved closer to a more faithful reboot. The new iteration still features complex map design and the colored keys-and-doors that are a hallmark of 90s first-person gaming. Descendent has added a number of modern conventions to the mix, including 20 different ships in four classes, customization, progression, and a tech tree.

Little Orbit is also upping the production values, adding voiceover in multiple languages. “Descent” will also be coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It’ll support flight sticks natively, making for a more natural controls for those that don’t want to use mouse-and-keyboard and for whom a controller is too imprecise.

The reboot feels like the original. It still takes time to get used to movement and navigation. However, after a few minutes at the stick, power-sliding and zipping through winding caverns feels natural.

With access to more powerful engines, “Descent” includes some destructible environments. Mining is a key component in the game, and fits the narrative. Earth has run out of resources, and mining the asteroid belt between it and Mars is a necessity.

Enemies are powerful, with different types of drone ships packing a range of weapons. Some rush in with melee attacks or flamethrowers. Others hang back to snipe. Since they can attack from anywhere, learning how to quickly get a bead on aggressors will keep your shields up and hull intact.

In addition to the single-player campaign, “Descent” will offer up a number of multiplayer modes. Little Orbit has an extensive DLC plan, with a new multiplayer mode per quarter. All of the multiplayer add-ons will be free. Campaign DLC will have a price tag.

Four-player co-op is also included, so players can pick ships and go through the entire campaign together. There’s also a wave-based mode, with increasingly aggressive drones gunning for your head.

Traditional competitive modes also make the cut, with team deathmatch and free-for-all part of the launch lineup. Descendent currently has eight modes in mind, though some of those will be dripped out post-launch.

Wolfenstein” and “Doom” are getting a new chance to shine. Maybe the time is right for another throwback to get a shot at revival.

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