Over a year ago a team of developers split apart from Star Citizen to build a game with a peculiar working title. Ships That Fight Underground was all that was known of this new venture. However, any 90s era Descent fan surely put two and two together from the start. Fast forward some months and we’ve been playing the Early Access alpha build of Descent: Underground; a game that is going beyond recapturing game nostalgia and attempting to establish itself as a the most immersive game of 2016.
At the moment the production build of Descent: Underground is an online multiplayer arena. There is a continual stream of updates, map additions, balance tweaks, and other content on a regular basis. The game’s engine was impressive when released to EA, and more so now. It is clear this game is trying to push the Unreal 4 engine to the max, including enabling experimental DirectX 12 support. In all of our testing this new API works as advertised with all settings at their highest settings. Framerate is silky smooth and never drops under 60fps.
Watery puddles glisten on heavy metallic flooring. Lens flares refract off your ship’s canopy with fluidity across multiple light sources. Particles and fogs further illustrating the stagnant and confined mining corridors soon to be filled with elusive fighters. The surrounding rock formations are filled with crags, bumps, and reliefs that are impressively shaded as you fly by them. Showers of laser lights reflect off every surface with sublime smoothness, as ships flood into caverns unloading their firepower at each other. While most of these graphical features are nothing particularly new; it is clear that utilizing the new API allows for all settings to be pushed to their fullest without impacting FPS in the slightest. With Oculus Rift and VR support already included, the dizzying immersion can be pushed even further.
Not only does this new Descent look impressive, it plays as smoothly as its predecessors. Controls on either keyboard and mouse, or controller perform admirably. Dodging and eluding in any direction feels as natural as ever. Maintaining a perspective of where you are on the map, and the various escapes appears far easier in Underground. Piloting around massive columns and eluding enemy fire through and around various escape doors and tunnels is a definite highlight. Mixed beneath the visual splendors are pulsing atmospheric soundtracks to drive the action home.
Multiplayer code is also fine tuned, and does not feel like an alpha game while dog fighting online. Multiplayer modes come in team deathmatch and deathmatch, and my personal favorite Capture the Core. Capture the Core splits players into two teams as they vie control for one central location. Using your mining laser on the core will siphon additional points. Holding onto to the core itself tends to shift between tense close quarter combat within the core and spacious chases outside of the core. Nothing like trying to hold the center of a core with four online players firing all their missiles at you from the outside.
It is understandable that at this stage of the game, there are many aspects that require polish and enhancements. Weapon effects can appear dull and underwhelming. Green balls, yellow lines, or red ones, that’s mainly it for main attack weaponry. A slow moving missile light guides it’s way towards an enemy, but mostly underwhelming at the moment. Explosions have been tweaked and are starting to look more impressive but there’s room for improvement. Simplistic brightly colored icons spin in mid air for ship pickups, while a throwback to older Descent games, they stick out like a sore thumb amidst the surrounding details.
I experienced some crashing and loading issues, but that is too be expected. I hope Bot AI is improved, as right now they simply charge at you firing wildly when spotted, until either you or they die. It would benefit the single player campaign to see a wide array of AI behavior from enemy units. As well as full controller support in all the user menus throughout the game would also be a pleasant fix. While there is a variety of ships to choose from they vary every so slightly from each other, but not enough for strategic exploration of any kind. Nor is it clear which weapon is better suited for what task; you pick up a new one and just fire, it all feels about the same.
Most of these improvements and changes I am sure will come about before the final release of this game. The game has only been out for Early Access testing for three months, but it’s alluring potential for greatness is palpable. Descent: Underground will feature a complete single player campaign as well as a multiplayer one. I am hotly anticipating getting to play a complete Descent single player campaign more than anything utilizing this advanced game engine. However there is plenty of entertainment to be had, dropping proximity mines in all the right places, and zero’ing in on an elusive pilot to introduce a mega-missile in his aft with this game. It is an impressive early access alpha that demands to be followed.