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The Slacker's Guide - Descent 2 Soars Again

by Chris Barylick
September 2nd, 2005

It began almost 10 years ago in high school and escalated from there.

Three of my best friends (hefty and profitable contributors in terms of damage done for the psychiatric community) became involved in a blood feud via a new 3D point-of-view fighter/maze/science fiction game called Descent. As high school progressed, the days were filled with cries of victory, screams of vengeance yet to come and the gnashing of teeth over last night's victory or loss.

Of course, this is high school, where your best friends routinely do things to you that count as war crimes according to the Geneva Convention, and this kind of thing is to be expected. How I got pulled into it, I'll never quite be able to explain, but within 20 minutes of playing on a cool fall night, I was hooked.

A familiar logo.
For starters, Descent, by Volition's Parallax division, was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. As first person shooters such as Doom, Quake, Heretic and Marathon began to surface on the market, the gaming world was led down a new path, one in which the player literally had complete control over the movements and actions of their character. Your movements were theirs and a fast computer with a good frame rate only amplified this experience.

What Descent was able to do was break the laws of physics established by the first person shooters of the day by asking what would happen if the laws of gravity could be shattered. Here, there would be no up or down and the player would have to take a constant set of mental pictures of the terrain around them in order to survive. Long story short, the player who kept thinking they had to travel along a level surface would find themselves constricted in their movements and tactics, especially in an environment where the enemies didn't play by the same rules.

From a networking perspective, Parallax's work with the series was ingenious. Different game modes (Anarchy, Team Anarchy, Robo-Anarchy, Capture the Flag and Cooperative) allowed players a wide variety of play styles and UPD/early TCP/IP protocol support made the game both freely playable to anyone with a modem, but also easier to set up than competing games at the time. True, this wasn't as simple as a browser system which effectively locates, tracks and updates existing multiplayer matches, but it was easy enough to set up a game along a small LAN or type in an IP address if necessary.

Top this off with an edge unlike almost anything that's been seen in any video game. Unlike other first person shooters, which may have rewarded a player bonus points for finishing a level in a timely manner, the Descent series made time an absolutely critical factor. Once the player had located and defeated the level's core reactor, they were given about 90 seconds in which to find their way to the exit and escape.

A full cockpit view of the action.

Even if you had fought your way through an almost impossible level and took pride in this fact, there was the inevitable dread that you'd have to find the exit and leave within seconds while klaxons wailed, every turn seemed to be the wrong one and swarms of enemies, guided by a cutting edge AI, desperately tried to kill you. It was this element that made the game both infuriating, impossible to put down and like having five simultaneous seizures as you wrestled with the controls to try to get out with only seconds to spare.

Just a few of the attack robots placed to make life a bit more interesting.

Spark a shared interest on the Internet and anything can happen. The D2X project -- a group committed to bringing Descent and Descent 2 (now discontinued and released as open source games) to the Mac, Windows and Linux platforms -- has returned Descent 2 from the grave with the help of its contributor base. A small 8 MB download, the program features the full Descent 2 game and requires Mac OS X 10.2 or later to run.

The full program, once installed, occupies a paltry 16.7 MB of hard disk space and features OpenGL-based graphics, iTunes support that taps into playlists named "D2X" to randomly play songs from there and better support in the current 0.2.6b13 version. Like other open source efforts, the D2X Project is open to those who wish to contribute their talents. Simply e-mail to join the list or download the latest version of the Mac port's source code from here. Online source code for the game can be found at the project's CVS page.

So, there you have it. The classic is back, free to all and ready to play. And for lovers of the game who realize what they're up against, cheat codes never hurt anyone. Or at least not seriously.

That's all for this week and, as always, if you see anything cool out there in the Mac universe, let me know. And with regard to tactics worth employing in Descent's multiplayer modes, try for something stealthy and memorable, then repeat this as necessary until your opponent concedes defeat by going fetal. Physical wounds heal, but psychological ones are there to treasure forever.

Chris Barylick covers games for The Mac Observer, and has written for Inside Mac Games, MacGamer, UPI, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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