There are a couple of things you can generally count on when dealing with sequels: 1) The title usually has a number following it, and 2) It’s little more than a remodeled version of the original product (take X-COM: Terror From the Deep, for example). But in the case of Descent II, only one of these examples hold true, since it boasts such an impressive range of improvements that it’s almost like a new game.
Even though it was marketed as a Doom-killer, Descent was much more than a first-person shooter in a new environment; it was a whole new way of looking at the genre, providing gamers with an unprecedented 360 degrees of control, fast-paced action, and truly innovative level design. Descent II delivers those same thrills, but in exciting -- and sometimes subtle -- new ways.
Let’s start with the most obvious improvements. For Descent II, Parallax has enhanced the graphics with three gorgeous, high-resolution Super VGA modes, and they’ve replaced Descent’s chunky animated sequences with beautiful, 3D-rendered cutscenes that are actually worth watching. You’ll need a little more hardware muscle to get the new graphics running smoothly, but on a Pentium, the 640x480 mode runs quite smoothly and looks great. Other options include the top-of-the line 800x600 mode and support for 3D accelerator cards using the S3 Virge chip. The robots are more lifelike, the environments are rich with color and detail -- and while great graphics still don’t have much to do with gameplay, you can’t help but grin a little when you get your first glimpse at the improvement.
While some designers would’ve been happy to stop at improving the graphics, Parallax didn’t leave any stone unturned in making Descent II a sequel worth playing. Gamers who found the more diabolical levels of Descent a little too disorienting will be happy to know that the new game features a clever little robot who can lend a helping hand if you get hopelessly lost. This little guy, called a guidebot, helps you find your way around, leading you through corridors to the nearest power-up or inventory item, locating keys and enemy robots, and pointing you towards the exit when the mine you’re in is about to blow. If you’d rather take your chances and explore on your own, the guidebot will even leave you alone.
There are more new robots than we’ve got room to mention here; most are variations on Descent’s original cast of baddies, but there are a few truly unique and frightening ones as well. There are missile-firing juggernauts that, when destroyed, break apart into smaller, deadlier, missile-launching shards; and a flying power-plant
that tries to cook your ship from the inside out with a jolt of high-voltage energy. There are countless others, in all shapes and sizes -- so many, in fact, that after a few levels, you’ll find that just keeping track of the ones you really need to watch out for can become a full-time occupation.
If those badass ‘bots start to get you down, you can always take on a friend or two. Descent II’s multi-player features are another improvement over the original; now you can disallow certain weapon types, let additional players to join a game in progress, and even monitor your opponents by placing map markers throughout the level. These little additions, don’t mean much if you stick to the single-player missions, but if you haven’t experienced a truly thrilling multi-player experience, you haven’t tried multi-player Descent II.
Like Doom II, Descent II is substantially harder than its predecessor -- too hard, in fact, on all but the easiest difficulty settings. For example, you’ll have to face a monstrous boss robot on the fourth level, usually before you’ve discovered any of the really effective weapons. As much as I enjoyed the game, having to resort to saves every other minute was a little frustrating. (For a little help with Descent II from your friends at PC Gamer, check out this month’s Strategy Central.)
As a whole, though, these are just minor flaws in an otherwise enjoyable package. Descent II is a great new experience, with superb graphics, helpful new features, and improved multi-player features that will no doubt keep it in the spotlight for a while.