The third game in the venerable Descent series, released in 1999, was a much larger and more significant leap over its predecessor than Descent 2 had been over the original game. Where D2 was little more than a large number of gimmicky features laid over a map pack for the original game, Descent 3 was a complete overhaul of the Descent experience in every way, from the cutting-edge 3D engine to the vast and intricately scripted single-player levels to the new ability to play over the Internet without resorting to an intermediary such as Kali.

The Engine

The engine for the original Descent had been designed in 1994 for 386-class machines, and for the time it was quite advanced. Descent 2 ran on an updated version of this engine, and while it had significant improvements (notably in the switch to floating point instead of fixed-point math) it was still roughly the same engine, lacking features such as colored lighting, texture filtering, and transparent surfaces that were beginning to appear in other games with the onset of consumer-level 3D graphics accelerators. For the third game in the series, Parallax Software (who along with Volition had been spun off from Interplay after Descent 2) ditched this engine entirely and started over.

The new technology was named the Fusion engine. Like its contemporary Quake 3 Arena, it was one of the first games that relied on a 3D accelerator and would not run without one installed. The engine's most notable feature was its ability to render both heightmapped terrain and portal-based solid geometry in the same scene, allowing Descent players to venture into the great outdoors for the first time and flit back and forth between twisting hallways and massive landscapes complete with animated skies and precipitation effects - up to and including rain spattering on the windshield of your spacecraft. When indoors, hardware acceleration allowed for massively higher polygon counts than in previous games. Squarish passages and caverns sculpted from a handful of flat surfaces gave way to detailed corridors and high-tech underground installations, operating mining equipment and the superstructure of massive starships. The engine could generate procedural textures and use them for shimmering liquids and forcefields. A particle system filled the game world with fire, smoke, or sparks flying from damaged machinery or enemies (following in the footsteps of the previous games, virtually every enemy is a robot). The engine even supported a limited form of volumetric fog, suffusing the vast spaces with relatively subtle color and atmosphere.

Of course, there were many improvements made in fields other than graphics. The Redbook and MIDI music from the previous two games was replaced with a context-sensitive system that allowed different themes to accompany different areas in the same mission and seamlessly blend as the player moved. The player's spacecraft now had a mission log that kept track of the tasks you had been assigned and even an inventory (how this was supposed to work in the game world was never really made clear), in which on-demand powerups and quest items could be stored. Descent 3 was one of the first games to use advanced collision detection, with the effect that shooting a robot in the arm resulted in your shot actually impacting on the robot's arm instead of on an invisible bubble surrounding it (this ability becomes critical when fighting certain bosses). The engine was equipped with a scripting language called DALLAS that could control events and puzzles in single-player missions, complete with audio updates sent by your distant allies. This, combined with non-interactive cinematic cutscenes and slightly mediocre CGI movies, let the game tell a more detailed story than its predecessors, with the Material Defender playing an active and evolving role.


The story of Descent 3 picks up as the Material Defender's disabled ship is rescued after the hyperdrive accident he suffered at the end of Descent 2. He's been rescued by a team from the Red Acropolis Research Facility on Mars, who prove to him that the "accident" was a deliberate attempt on the part of a PTMC executive named Dravis to eliminate him and get out of paying him for his work quelling the robot rebellion and alien invasion in the first two games. From here, he is sent to help the RARF gather intelligence, fight off the CED (Combined Earth Defense) who side with the PTMC, counter the continuing threat of the robot virus, and (hopefully) collect from his deadbeat boss. These tasks will take the Material Defender from a corporate data warehouse on the moon to the ancient caverns of Mars to a fuel refinery on Europa to a final showdown deep beneath the surface of Venus.

The first impression of Descent 3's missions is invariably "psychedelic". The game uses colored lighting in seizure-inducing quantity, variety, and intensity- it's not unusual to be firing a brilliant yellow laser and missiles leaving sky-blue contrails at a robot covered with flashing red lights hurtling towards you down a muted green corridor while orange Mars lights pulse and purplish explosions bloom. Unlike the previous games, there was often a clear orientation to the areas you explored; it was generally obvious which way was up, often because of the presence of an outdoor area with a visible sky. The higher polycounts allowed by the new engine let the levels contain much greater detail, making it easy for the designers to give each area an obvious purpose and theme. Where Descent or Descent 2 would have a featureless room with the occasional slope, lump of rock, or random crevices, there were now rooms clearly identifiable as hangars, warehouses, skyscapers, starship maintenance areas, and mines that actually looked like mining could be performed in them. The missions also used the engine's scripting abilities to create much more complex tasks than "blow up the reactor and run"; among the highlights:
  • Spring a scientist from a high-tech prison by flooding the place with toxic gas and bringing in a shuttle to grab him in the chaos.
  • Disguise your ship as a courier by gathering parts from a military datacenter, and steal a file from the central server.
  • Defend the critical systems of a space station under attack long enough for the crew to be evacuated, then escape yourself.
  • Escort a cargo carrier into the heart of an enemy spaceship factory, and protect it while it steals the parts to build a new fighter (which you get to fly in the next level).
These missions are conveyed to the player in noninteractive briefings much more elaborate than those of the previous games, as well as periodic audio updates triggered when specific tasks are completed.

Another major change from the previous two games is that you have a choice of ships to pilot during the missions. The game begins with the same Pyro-GX the Material Defender used before; it's a good balance between power and agility and is usually the best choice for all the missions. A third of the way through the game, the Phoenix interceptor becomes available. This craft is faster and more maneuverable than the Pyro-GX, but can take less punishment and has weaker weapons (this ship was reviled in network play for being especially prone to warping that made it difficult to hit). Two-thirds of the way through, after the cargo ship mission described above, the Magnum heavy attack fighter appears. This is a big bruiser of a ship with very powerful weapons, but it flies slowly and is a larger target.

Each of these ships can use the same 20 weapons, although they will behave slightly different depending on which ship is firing them. The weapons are divided into two groups; the player may have one of each group ready at any time. Most of the "normal" guns are fed by your ship's supply of energy; the available varieties are:
  • Laser: Your basic laser (in the sci-fi sense). It can be upgraded through 4 power levels, and the Pyro-GX can pick up a power-up called Quad Laser that makes the gun fire 4 beams instead of 2.
  • Vauss Cannon: An upgraded version of the Gauss Cannon from Descent 2. It fires a rapid stream of exploding shells that knock your target around. It's also one of the few non-missile weapons that doesn't consume your ship's energy, relying instead on its own store of ammunition.
  • Microwave: This bizarre weapon does about the same amount of damage as the lasers, but fires much faster. When it hits an enemy, the target undergoes a nifty shimmering effect; when it hits the player the entire world shimmers in a similar manner.
  • Plasma Cannon: A classic gun left over from the previous games, it fires bolts of green energy that cause massive damage (although seemingly less so than before; this was likely changed so that there would be a reason to use the rest of the arsenal).
  • Fusion Cannon: An interesting "risk vs reward" weapon that also appeared in the previous games. The fusion cannon must be charged up to fire by holding down the trigger- a longer charge time leads to more damage when the blast hits an enemy. But as the stored charge builds up, the player's ship begins to vibrate, throwing off his aim and eventually taking damage.
  • Superlaser: A larger, more powerful laser- you can tell because it's yellow and makes a different sound when it fires. It can also be upgraded by the Quad Laser.
  • Mass Driver: The massive spaces and open terrain of Descent 3 necessitated the inclusion of a sniper weapon. The mass driver is a railgun that fires a single very powerful hitscan shot. The game does not have a zoom command per se, but holding down the trigger produces a momentary zoom that helps make those long-range kills.
  • Napalm: If making those pesky robots explode isn't enough, try setting them on fire. Burning robots take a while to completely disintegrate, though, and can set fire to other enemies or the player if they happen to collide. Don't try this at home.
  • EMD Gun: Very similar to the plasma cannon, this gun trades some damage potential for a limited ability to home in on enemies. This is a godsend for destroying the tiny, fast-moving enemies that buzz around you like flies and whittle away at your shields.
  • Omega Cannon: This weapon fires a pair of glowing tendrils out of your ship which, although limited in range, will latch onto enemies and steal shield energy from them- as damage is done to the enemy, your shield is recharged. The cost is that this gun takes a tremendous amount of energy to fire.
The second group consists of missiles and similar devices, which can be carried in limited quantities but generally do much more damage.
  • Concussion missile: Standard dumbfire rockets, which fly out in a straight line until they hit something and explode.
  • Homing missile: These babies have the same payload as a concussion missile, but are equipped with a guidance system that steers them towards enemies.
  • Smart missile: Another holdover from previous Descent games, this missile releases what is effectively a volley of guided Plasma Cannon shots when it explodes. This ability is good for making "bank shots" on enemies hiding behind obstacles.
  • Cyclone missile: Descent's take on the MIRV principle. After flying a short distance, these missiles release a swarm of miniature guided missiles.
  • Mega Missile: The guided missile's big brother.
  • Frag Missle: This one throws out a cloud of shrapnel when it detonates. Deadly in cramped areas (but don't get caught in it yourself as it can easily destroy your ship).
  • Guided Missile: Introduced in Descent 2, these missiles can be remotely piloted- control of your ship is suspended and the keys affect the missile, while the missile's view is displayed on a section of the HUD.
  • Impact Mortar: Spaceship-sized grenades. The impact mortar, when launched, floats out a short way in front of your ship and then explodes. You can put some english on the shot by firing them while in motion, and they'll ricochet off walls.
  • Napalm Missile: This missile's explosion produces a handful of blobs of white-hot goop that will stick to anything they touch. These globs are one of the few things in the game affected by gravity, strangely enough.
  • Black Shark Missile: Upon detonation, produces a miniature black hole which sucks in everything that's nearby and movable (enemy robots, other players, power-ups, the unfortunate player who fired it) before exploding.
There are a wide variety of items available for your new inventory, ranging from the traditional mines and colored keycards to portable gun turrets, somewhat ineffective missile countermeasures, and a nifty gadget that can display a "live" image from elsewhere in the level. The video feed powerup forms the basis of a memorable stealth level where the player must make his way through a CED facility by destroying security cameras without entering their field of view, and can be used to keep tabs on a friendly ship during an escort mission. The guidebot from Descent 2 returns as an inventory item- he can be launched from your ship when you need him and sucked back into the cargo bay at any time (and you can see through his eyes remotely as well). He's gained some new abilities, most notably a habit of remaining near your ship if you aren't following him, thus removing one of the major irritants of the previous game. There are even some powerups that can be applied to the guidebot, giving him the ability to fly faster, or extinguish your ship when it's on fire, or hunt robots with a laser cannon.

The enemies in the game, like those of Descent 2, cover a wide range from wimpy to deadly, tiny to massive, malevolent to just plain oddball. The new engine gives enemies the ability to stick to terrain or surfaces in the game world, so in addition to the traditional floating enemies there are gun turrets, tanks, and spider-like robots that clamber over walls and ceilings to hunt you down (cementing the franchise's reputation as barf inducer). There are enemies that fling pretty much every weapon your ship can carry back at you, as well as of course several that use the time-honored technique of charging up to your ship and hitting it with sharpened parts of themselves. Most of the enemies can move quite fast, which leads to them being very good at dodging sustained fire at long range and running rings around your ship when toe-to-toe (this is counterbalanced to a certain extent by your hitscan, explosive, and fire and forget weapons).


The original Descent and Descent 2 were limited to network play over IPX networks and direct modem connections; third-party solutions like Kali mitigated this problem but were cumbersome to use. Descent 3 did away with all this with a completely revamped client-server system built around TCP/IP and using Parallax's matching service, PXO. The game allowed players to provide custom logo images that would be uploaded to other players, who would then see that image on the side of the player's spaceship when it came into view; the game also allowed this to be done with short audio clips that could be played back with a set of macro keys (this was not true streaming audio, but rather gradually propagated to the other players and played locally).

The network experience was quite a change from a normal first-person shooter as the zero-gravity environment allowed players to attack each other from above and below and circle strafe at all kinds of crazy angles. Level design was also radically different from most similar games as there was no need to identify floors or ceilings, and corridors could extend and twist at any imaginable angle. There were several traditional and less-than-traditional gametypes available:
  • Anarchy: Like a surprising number of games, Descent has its own supposedly clever name for the familiar deathmatch mode. Kill everyone!
  • Team Anarchy: Kill half of everyone!
  • Capture the Flag: This mode is just like CTF in other games, except that it's played in zero gravity.
  • Monsterball: Soccer with spaceships. Floating somewhere in the level is a large green ball. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to shoot and/or ram this ball so that it drifts into a region denoted as the enemy goal. Naturally, the other team is trying to do the same thing in the opposite direction (and you're also trying kill each other).
  • Entropy: This unusual gametype required a good deal of cooperation, communication, and knowledge of the rules and map layout- thus making it practically impossible to find a decent match on public servers and making its name all too descriptive. Your team had to locate a container of virus (in the informational warfare sense) and transport it into the enemy base, thereby infecting them with the virus and scoring a point.
Descent 3 is not quite a first-person shooter and not quite a space-combat game, and remains a unique experience as traditional FPSes become less and less original and space combat games opt for harder themes and more realistic flight models. Any PC considered decent as of this writing should be able to run it without breaking a sweat.

My own experience with the game.

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