You'll come for the pyrotechnics, and you'll stay for an enthralling action game.
As a general rule, PC game sequels fall into two categories. The first (and most common) is the "show me the money" variety, cranked out as quickly as possible to milk a proven cash cow for everything it's worth. Then there are the ones that are truly labors of love, designed not only to give fans the features they crave, but also to push the game's design as far as it can go.
Having seen some of Descent 3 during its development, I had a sense it was going to fall into the second category - but I didn't expect it to set new standards in just about every area of game design you can name. From its incredibly well-designed user interface and thorough roster of gameplay options, to its state-of-the-art 3D effects and extensive multiplayer modes, Descent 3 borders on perfection. You'll be floored from the minute you start playing - and you'll still be finding stuff to "ooh" and "aah" about even after you've spent dozens of hours with it.
At a time when more and more publishers are looking to create online-only games, developer Outrage was adamant about creating a highly compelling single-player experience to go along with a red-hot multiplayer game. Descent 3's campaign certainly achieves that goal. The action opens as the Material Defender (that's you) is about to meet a fiery death as his ship plunges toward a star. You're suddenly extracted from your ship and brought to the Red Acropolis Research Center for treatment. Here you learn that a big shot in the PTMC (the interplanetary mining corporation you worked for) named Dravis has been working with the alien virus that sent the mining robots haywire in the first two Descent games. But Dravis hasn't been working on a way to nullify the virus; instead, his experiments have led to a nano-technology that can re-program those 'bots in seconds to kill every human in sight. Your goal is to put an end to his scheme, and to do that you've got to clear yourself of a frame-up and find solid evidence of his guilt in order to get hold of a ship good enough to penetrate his lair in a final assault.
Each of the game's 15 missions takes place in a distinct environment. Instead of being confined to underground mines and corridors as seen in the previous Descent games, you now explore huge, sprawling installations. You will even travel outside to take out base defenses and find entrances to key areas. Sure, you still get to travel down the occasional mine shaft, but you'll almost always find yourself back in an industrial setting guarded by some of the most wicked robots ever devised for a computer game. As I explored each of these bases, I was constantly amazed at just how authentic each area looked and felt; whether flying down a darkened subway tunnel or skimming along the craggy surface of a moon, the sensation of "being there" was almost overwhelming - especially since your ship is dwarfed by the size of some of these structures.
But Descent 3 is first and foremost a game of combat, and Outrage pulled out all the stops to make this one of the wildest, most gratifying shoot-'em-ups ever devised. You can tell the designers like to see stuff blow up, because every explosion and detonation results in near-psychedelic clouds of smoke and flame followed by showers of debris. Blast a robot with your laser, and before he's blown apart, you can see sparks from short-circuiting wires dance wildly around his frame; fire your microwave cannon at an object (like a generator), and it wobbles and distorts wildly before it finally detonates. Destruction has never looked so good.
Ten new weapons have been added to your arsenal, each with special capabilities and boasting some hot graphical effects. Standouts among the new primaries are the Microwave Cannon, which fires two streams of deadly concentric rings, the auto- targeting EMD Cannon, firing a stream of electrical charges, and the one-shot Mass Driver Cannon, delivering a Herculean punch from long range (thanks to a sniper-style Zoom feature). For heavy-duty destruction, you'll love secondary weapons like the shrapnel-filled Frag Missile, the flame-spewing Napalm Missile, the mighty Impact Mortar, and the Black Shark Missile, which is kind of a mini-nuke that toasts any ship or defensive turret touched by its blue-and-white mushroom cloud.
You'll need that firepower, too, because even on moderate difficulty settings, you're facing a seemingly endless stream of 'bots. On the first few levels, a few blasts from your laser or a couple of Concussion Missiles is more than enough to get you out of nasty encounters, but as you move further into the game the 'bots get bigger and more cunning. The 'bot AI is outstanding - not just because enemies are harder to defeat, but because it gives each of them distinct behaviors. Some hover solemnly in front of an area they've been assigned to guard until you tag them with a few Vauss rounds. Others maniacally track you down in do-or-die fashion. Still others retreat to safety after taking damage, biding their time until you enter their personal space again or they decide to relaunch their attack. The Thief-Bot is as devilish as ever, often working in conjunction with other 'bots to take every good weapon you're carrying, and as an added bonus you'll also come across genuinely harmless robots carrying out routine maintenance tasks. Blow 'em up!
Although there is an emphasis on the outdoor element, it's still easy to get lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the indoor stretches, so the Guide-Bot has been brought back to help you move from one objective to another. You can also send him out to find power-ups, energy supplies, and even use a fire extinguisher on your ship if you've been soaked with napalm. But in a game where everything seems perfect, the Guide-Bot is one of the few weak links. On more than one occasion, I sent my little Guide-Bot to find an objective, only to realize he'd either gotten lost or trapped and couldn't come back to lead me to my destination. Other times I saw him swoop and dive wildly as I waited patiently for him to start leading me along, and one time he insanely fired a flare onto the nose of my ship. The good news is that a patch to increase his efficiency is already being worked on.
With all this going for it, the single-player game alone would be worth the asking price, but Descent 3's multiplayer options bring new meaning to the phrase "replay value." Nine different modes are included, such as old faves like Anarchy (free-for-all), Team Anarchy, and Capture the Flag. But Outrage has also created some pretty interesting variations like Monster Ball (shoot or guide a ball into a goal), Hoard (you earn points for bringing orbs to your base), and Entropy, a complex mode where you must safeguard your bases and use their production to capture the enemy's bases. You can head to HEAT.NET or PXO (Outrage's gaming network) to find opponents, but if you can't find a good connection on one of those services, you'll be happy to learn that the game is supported by GameSpy. And in one last thoughtful touch, Descent 3 features three types of multiplayer architecture: client-server, peer-to-peer, and permissible client server, allowing you to pick the type that'll work best for your computer and connection. The game even includes a level editor.
The somewhat complex controls may make Descent 3 tough going for those who haven't played the previous games, and to see it in all its glory you'll need an extremely fast system (there probably isn't a system fast enough to run the game with everything jacked to the max, in fact). But that doesn't change the fact that this is one incredible achievement. It's definitely a must-buy for anyone remotely interested in the Descent series - and unquestionably a front-runner in anyone's Action Game of the Year list.