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Descent 3 reviews in Action for PC-Personal Computer Reviews Section
 
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     Descent 3 in Action for PC

Descent 3 in Action for PC
Title: Descent 3
Release Date: 14-June-2000
Publisher: Interplay
Developer: Outrage Games
Genre: Action
Platform: PC-Personal Computer (PC)
Rating: 0/5 (0 Votes)
   

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General/Summary:

Descent 3 starts off with a captivating introductory sequence: a semi-conscious pilot floats helplessly in his ship towards a burning star, surrounded only by a great deal of empty space and a siren-esque aria playing in the background (a song so beautiful that I suspect Ulysses would have loosened his bonds to get closer to it). The pilot is rescued by a much larger, unidentified craft, which absorbs his fighter and uses several machine tools to carefully disassemble it. He is eventually pulled from his seat and placed in a medical ward, where he recuperates. The ensuing plot (which picks up right where Descent 2 left off) isn't nearly as mysterious or compelling, but the movie endears you to the vulnerable character so much in the first few minutes that you don't really mind. You actually care about the character you are playing.

The rest of the story is predictable. The rebel band responsible for saving the pilot needs his help and expertise in executing approximately 15 missions. For good measure, a subplot involving the pilot's history is thrown in (carried over from the previous Descent), giving him a revenge motive that helps the story along.

As with most space sims, the plot is given sporadically through summaries at the beginning of each mission, and you can take it or leave it as you wish. A few screens of text lay out the purpose and scope of the trial, and then you are left to fend for yourself. At the end of a mission, you are given relevant stats (how many kills, how much loot, etc.), and the process repeats. The only inclination you have that the story is advancing comes through the text screens. If you've ever played a space sim before, this process should come as no surprise.

If you haven't played a space sim before, then I recommend that you start with this one. Space sims are notoriously weak on plot because their gameplay is so exciting, and Descent 3 is no exception. Full 360 degree movement is something that has to be experienced to be believed. You know that weightless feeling you got in the original Unreal, when you had to jump off of a cliff into the lake below? Well, all of Descent 3 is like that. The feeling never stops. And don't worry: you can do just fine with a keyboard and mouse (although a good controller is never a bad idea). Complete freedom of motion is an awkward task to learn, but after a couple of hours it becomes second nature.

Of course, every space sim offers 360 degree turns. What makes Descent unique is its environments, which offer not only carefully crafted (yet spacious) interior localities, but also fully rendered planetscapes. On almost every level, you can actually go outside of the building you are in and engage in open air combat above the planet's surface. Other space sims supply exterior shots, but they are two dimensional; Freespace 2, for example, lets you fly in open space, but that's all it is: a steady, unchanging backdrop that provides contrast so you can see your enemies better. Still others give you only small interior corridors (check out the woefully disappointing Forsaken, and, to a lesser extent, Descent 2). Descent 3 ups the ante by letting you fly pretty much wherever you want to go.

More impressive than that is how Interplay made it happen. Most games of this sort are made with either a flight sim engine (which allows free outdoor movement) or a room-based, structural engine (which permits the creation of limited, albeit detailed, interior environments). Interplay's fusion engine
combines the best of both worlds, giving you the freedom to blow the window out of a building from the outside, and fly right into it. If you can imagine playing a Microsoft flight simulator that lets you soar right into the airport terminal at the end of the day, you will get a good feeling for this game.

The combination of the two engines is so seamless that the only surprising part about the experience is that you haven't had it before. And, as is the case with many technological achievements, you won't be able to go back. The interior shots are extremely detailed; Interplay wasted no memory in putting together the tunnels, storage silos, secret compartments, and vast rooms that make up the buildings. And the exterior shots are even better. Coupled together with fully-rendered rolling hills are gorgeous, effervescent skies that always manage to have a million visible stars and one prominent moon in them. The stars even blur as you turn (nice touch).

Of course, graphics can carry a game only so far, especially with a space sim. Gameplay counts, and so do your weapons. Descent 3 gives you a total of 20 guns and missiles to pulverize your enemies with. Most of them are fairly standard (lasers, machine guns, etc.), but some are truly unique. A flame thrower, for instance, will not only harm your enemy, but actually set him on fire (I've never seen that before in a sim). And the "concussion missiles" live up to their name: if you fire at a wall next to your enemy, the missile fragments will ricochet and kill him.

The extensive arsenal gives the player a much needed advantage over the AI, which is smart and deadly. I don't think that it is any better than the AI in other space sims, but it does the job…dodging your fire, hiding behind whatever it can, and ramming you only when your back is turned (only one robot does that, and he is really annoying). The explosive weapons help you compensate for a lack of accuracy, which is inevitable when you are responsible for guarding a 360 degree area.

The wide open areas make it difficult sometimes to accomplish your objective, so Interplay put the "guide-bot" back in action. You can release him at will, and provided that he isn't killed in the process, he will lead you to whatever destination you choose. I thought that this made the game a little too easy in some spots, but in others he was indispensable. In the first level, for instance, you have to check roughly ten rooms to trigger several different switches, and some of them have to be done in a certain order. After a half-hour of flying around on my own, I gave up and sent the bot out to show me what to do.

All in all, Descent 3 is a fine addition to the space sim market, and its indoor/outdoor environment is a clever gaming advancement. It doesn't re-define the genre, however, or even try to push the envelope (how about a space sim that lets you off board to interact with characters? Or one that has cinematic movies in between missions instead of text?). What makes Descent 3's status quo even worse is that the line between RTS games and space sims is becoming increasingly blurred, but all of the innovation is coming from the RTS crowd. Given that, I hesitate to recommend Descent 3 to anyone who isn't in the mood for a FPS that gives you full freedom of motion. If you are looking for space-battle sim with a little more substance (more thought, depth, and use of allies), try a newer RTS game, like Battlezone 2.

Overall, I give the game a solid 4. Had Interplay made more advancements, then
perhaps a 5 would be in order. But Decent 3 is a fairly typical space sim, with only a few things to distinguish it from all of the rest. A truly great game combines a good amount tradition and innovation (see Half-Life). In my opinion, Descent 3 is tipped a little too far in favor of tradition.


Gameplay:

As I noted above, a space sim like this is essentially a first person shooter with 360 degree movement. And, like all FPS's, single player gameplay gets a little repetitive about half way through. Descent 3 staves off the boredom longer than that, however, because of its expansive nature. One of the things that made Forsaken so disappointing was its extremely cramped, looping environments: room after room was a clone of the previous one. In Descent 3, you rarely see the same type of chamber twice. Plus, your flight path is never pre-defined (except when you are in a tunnel), and your are hardly ever prevented from re-visiting a place you have already been. A lot of the fun-factor in Descent 3 comes from exploring, and Interplay gives you plenty of opportunities to do just that.

You are required to accomplish some small objectives, which add little to the gameplay. Anyone who has ever played a Quake mutation knows the routine of flipping switches, picking up key cards, and unlocking stubborn doors. Descent 3 retreads familiar ground, but it is understandable. What else can you do in a space ship?

The game shines in multi-player, however, even if you can get roughly the same experience with any other multiplayer sim. Descent 3's multiplayer system allows online play (of course), LAN play, and direct dial-up for those of you who want to go head to head with a sibling in another state. You can play anarchy or capture the flag (among other games), and although there's really nothing new here, you get to enjoy Descent 3's graphics-which are superior to any other space sim. If you're after the best looking multiplayer out there, get this game. If you're content with average eye candy, however, find a cheaper sim in the bargain bin and have at it.

Both single and multi-player offer three different ships (but they have to be "unlocked" in single player mode): a fast and furious fighter (with weak shields), a slow, hulking behemoth (with strong shields), and a nice combination of the two. The selection isn't great, but its more than you get in other space sims.

The single player game takes about three weeks to beat, playing a couple of hours a day. This estimate, of course, depends on the difficulty level, of which there are five. I beat the game playing as a "rookie," and I thought it was sufficiently difficult for my tastes. I can't imagine playing the "insane" level, but for the determined, the option is available.


Graphics:

The interior locations are an enormous improvement over older space sims (like Descent and Forsaken), which sacrificed location sizes for graphical muscle. Descent 3 offers both; even with its spacious rooms the textures are fairly detailed (there's nothing overly impressive, however). You can read computer screens, see the cockpits of your enemies, count bullet holes, and watch your reflection in windows (you can also see a wisp of smoke come off of every downed fighter). The colors are also very nice. To be sure, there are a lot of grays and blues (this IS a space sim, after all), but reds and greens pop up here and there, keeping your eyes alert.

I was most impressed with the use of circles, however, even though the engine clearly cannot draw anything but straight lines (what engine outside of Quake III can do curves?). Something about 360 degree movement demands a continuation of that theme, namely, surroundings that are circular. I don't know why, it just does. With its hard, straight edges, Forsaken felt a little inauthentic. Almost every tunnel and room in Descent is as rounded as the engine can handle, or, at the very least, octagonal. Hence, when you fly through a tunnel, it feels like a tunnel---not an elongated box.

The exterior landscapes are convincing, and every time I thought that they couldn't get any bigger, they did. They aren't quite as large in scope as a regular flight sim, but they are still astonishing. You get to fly out of one building, cross several mountains, fight enemy aircraft, and then fly into another building far below on the horizon. The ground is usually a little bland; it is mostly brown or rust colored, with minimal features (like craters). And, due to the nature of the engine, the ground textures "shift" as you fly over them, making the ground come in and out of focus. This is a little distracting, but it's the fusion engine's first time out, so allowances must be made. The skies make up for the ground's lack of creativity: violet moons, layers of pinhead-sized stars, extra-terrestrial sunsets---you get to see it all.

And in order to see it all, you better have a nice system, or a Voodoo-based card. Descent 3 runs optimally using 3dfx's Glide API, fairly well using Direct 3D, and prone to glitches using Open GL. Interplay swore, on their website, that TNT2 cards with the latest drivers could run the game in Open GL just fine, but I beg to differ. Even with all of the settings turned down, I had a pixel popping epidemic, and numerous clipping problems. Direct 3D worked just fine, however, even though performance takes a sizeable hit when you fly outdoors. In the end, I suspect that everyone with a Voodoo 3 is getting a better show than those of us with a TNT2.

Your processor speed is important as well. I have a PIII 500 and I couldn't run the game with all of the bells and whistles. Of course, it ran very well in lower resolutions with low detail, but the player misses a lot when he starts turning off the treats. The game ships recommending a P200 chip and a video card, and I suppose that it will play just fine with that system. But I don't know that it's worth losing higher resolutions, reflections, and real time lighting just to play the game. If I had to guess
, I would say that any PII 300 or above can handle Descent adequately enough to make it worth having.


Sound:

Sound effects are good, but not any better than the ones in Freespace 2, or any other sim, for that matter. I think that the industry perfected the sounds of missiles and lasers long ago, so Descent 3 couldn't add anything to the mix even if it wanted to. Needless to say, it is thrilling to hear the whir of lasers, the metallic clank of bullets, and deafening rumble of multiple explosions. If you aren't swept up in the mood of the game, it won't be for lack of sound quality.

The background music deserves special mention. Most of the time it is unnoticeable, but when it is noticeable, it counts for something. The soundtrack seems more intelligent than others. For example, when you fly outside for the first time, the music changes from stern to ethereal, making the vision of the planet's surface and sky all the more engaging. When it changes again (still outside), the modulation is subtle, so that you aren't sideswiped by a shift in tone. It's hard to explain exactly how thi
s works, but it does, and I enjoyed it very much.
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