Sublevel Zero, a worthy heir to Descent

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While many others were playing Doom, chasing each other with the BFG, I was playing Descent…which was Doom in a spaceship. And it was awesome.

That’s not to say I didn’t play Doom, heavens no. I was a frag master, as it were, but while using my chainsaw was fun, nothing beat flying around the caverns of Descent shooting my friends out of the sky. I’m not sure Descent will ever get the credit it’s due.

Descent into madness

Descent was as close to an arcade flight simulator as you could. At the time, flight simulators were becoming more popular. Games like Jane’s were great if you wanted realism for flying an F-14 or something, with all its switches, cow flaps and landing gear. But me, I just wanted the fun of flying without all the worry, and Descent did just that.

As you might expect since Descent was a game that took play in space, there is no “down” – no ground – so you could fly anyway you wanted. What was “normal” to you was upsidedown to someone else. Even though the levels never changed, every player knew it differently and could exploit it as such. Everyone thought they had it figured out but none really did.

I worked at a small computer store in high school and Descent was our LAN party game of choice. After the store closed, we all retreated to our respective PCs and layed waste to each other for hours on end. God, it was fun. And one thing that added to the fun was the extra peripheral – the flight stick.

Joystick

If you’re flying, you need a joystick.

You didn’t need a joystick to play Descent but my friends and I all had one. In fact, and no pun intended, but the size of your joystick was definitely representative of skill. We were all young with lots of disposable income and considering we worked at a computer store, we had access to some top notch joysticks for not a lot of cash. Gear up!

I used a combination of joystick and keyboard. The joystick controlled your flying and weapons while the keyboard gave you forward/back and strafe motion. I had a joystick with tons of extra buttons so I could switch weapons and launch missiles without worrying about the keyboard. Using a joystick effectively really made you feel great, like you were able to do something others weren’t. Anyone can play with a keyboard and mouse, but a joystick? It was a sign of a true diehard.

But like any good game, Descent faded out. It had its short list of sequels with bigger guns and larger levels, but in the wake of the first-person revolution that was Quake, Half-Life and others, Descent just didn’t stand a chance. I guess everyone wanted to shoot and stab people rather that deal with the challenge of spaceship combat. Of course, I followed suit, so I contributed as much as anyone but Descent always held a special place in my heart.

Sublevel Zero

Now we scoot ahead 20-years or so and we’re still sitting in the middle of a FPS world. It seems like every other game is a shooter and if you ask me, it’s starting to get a little stale. Frankly, I thought it had gotten stale by the time the Call of Duty craze came about but that’s only because I had been playing Dooms and Quakes on my PC several years prior. It was new-ish to the console world. But where’s Descent?

It looks like the upcoming game Sublevel Zero is picking up the Descent torch and running with it, and I couldn’t be happier.

Sublevel Zero is still in development but all the previews and videos I’ve seen have it looking great. It truly appears to be a Descent for the 21st century. It has the best parts of Descent mixed in with all the new trends and technology that have made shooter games great over the past 10 years.

You’re still flying your spaceship shooting robots and friends. You still have an armory of weapons and you’re still flying in any direction through a maze of a level. But it’s the new touches that will make Sublevel Zero everything Descent couldn’t be.

Descent, like many other shooters, had static levels. You got to know them very well and in many ways, that added to a lot of the fun once you had a group people that could do the same. Sublevel Zero, on the other hand, has randomly generated levels so no board is ever the same. On one had this sounds like a great way to keep things fresh, but you kind of lose the skill of knowing a map…is that a good thing?

The brochure says Sublevel Zero also offers a crafting feature that lets you build and upgrade weapons and armor. Old Descent had your standard power-up drops and that’s it, simple. We’ll have to see if the tediousness of crafting detracts from the arcade action or if it really does make it more engaging.

Naturally, these days games are played with massive dual-stick controllers, like Xbox or Playstation…but I for one would love to play Sublevel Zero with my joystick, just like old times. It’s hard for me to think about how to play a flight game without a flight stick. Maybe I’m just choking on nostalgia but I can’t wait to try it out. Although I’ll need a new joystick since PCs don’t come with game port anymore!

So all of that stuff is great but Sublevel Zero has one ace up its sleeve that Descent never had hopes of achieving – virtual reality. Okay, okay…I know, VR now feels as much of a con as VR did in the 90s, but I’m pretty sure it’s much better now. Sublevel Zero boasts VR ability through Oculus Rift and all I can say about that is – barf. Man, classic Descent was disorienting enough to give me headaches and make me dizzy. I can only imagine playing in VR mode would make you feel.

Where’s my joystick?

Thanks to parenthood and other grown-up things, much of my gaming has been reduced to iPads and phones. That’s not bad, per se, but experiences are limiting and no where near what Descent offered. Now Sublevel Zero might give me an excuse to hop back on the PC gaming horse. And of course you know that means I’ll have to buy myself a new flight stick.

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Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

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