Have you missed flying through underground tunnels, firing missiles at bizarrely aggressive mining robots and flying away from exploding reactors?
That was the plotline of the Descent games, a series of 6DOF shooters from the ’90s made by Parallax Software. The Descent games were a huge technological leap for the time: only a few months after DOOM 2 shipped, Descent came along with fully fluid 3D movement, a wide variety of weapons, enemy types, lots of secrets, and if your PC was good enough in the day, a pretty solid framerate.
Descent wasn’t the only shooter of its time – Terminal Velocity was a blockier 6DOF fan favourite that shipped in May 1995, but came with outdoor environments. But there was still a lot of love for the games, and despite the advancements in engine tech and the size of worlds that computers and consoles can generate, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see some of the original devs announce they were making a spiritual successor to Descent.
Overload isn’t the only spiritual successor to pop up recently. Descent: Underground was kicking around a couple of years ago, but the makers removed that game from Steam and GOG’s early access programs in September last year. A post on Brightlocker a couple of months ago indicated that the studio was going into crunch time, and last week the developers said in a Kickstarter update they would be announcing a release date through their publisher “in the near future”.
But if you want a modern successor to Descent right now, you can play Overload.
Overload starts with a somewhat lengthy monologue about Juno Offworld Automation and Chronos Frontier, the latter of which is a subsidiary colony. You’re woken up from cryostasis and told that a bunch of automated mining bots have gone rogue, killing workers, so it’s your job to go sort it out.
It’s the only early mission where you don’t actually have to blow up a reactor, Descent style. After the first level, though, you’re tasked with shutting down all of the Chronos Frontier operations (which involves ‘overloading’ the reactor, hence the game’s name).
So in practice, it’s the same Descent formula fans will love. There’s survivors scattered throughout the level you need to find. Each level is marked There’s a range of powerups and secrets behind hidden doors scattered across the level. You’ve got 30 seconds to piss bolt to the emergency exit at the end of a level whenever you blow the reactor, or defeat the level’s boss, and the entire game is punctuated by the constant flashes and shadows of missiles, energy weapons and explosions.
There’s a holographic guide bot as well, which directs you to the nearest item of your choosing at the press of a button. But the main modernisation in gameplay is this:
Between each level, you’re given the choice of using upgrade and super upgrade points on three areas: your ship, enabling faster flight speed, damage reduction and free use of your flare, headlights and boost; primary weapons that drain energy and ammo; and secondary weapons, which include your guided missiles, dumbfire rockets, mines, and so on.
Once an item is upgraded, you’ll need “super upgrade points”, which are a separate powerup you can find throughout the game. It’s a simple but effective way to encourage you to fully explore the level, especially since your ship takes no damage for bumping into walls. Some secret doors are easy to spot – there’ll be a gap in the middle of the tile – but others you’ll just have to find through trial and error, like the Descent of old.
Descent was built around classic FPS tropes, and Overload brings those through as well. Enemies pop out of hidden rooms the second you pick up a security key. Others might be camping quietly behind blind corners, especially those aggravating bots that charge and grab onto your ship.
You can charge enemies by holding down the boost + primary fire buttons, although it’s not an advisable tactic against bosses.
The most important element: the game controls pretty well with a mouse and keyboard, although gamepad and a joystick/HOTAS are supported as well. Playing Descent and Terminal Velocity on modern systems, even the former with the Rebirth mod, can be a bit of a hassle on Windows 10 because the mouse sensitivity always feels a little off. I ended up using a higher DPI in Overload my mouse than what I’d normally use for other games (1600 instead of 800), but after a short adjustment I was happily leading my shots and circle-strafing to my heart’s content.
There are some neat twists within the story, which you learn more about through audio logs scattered throughout each level. The writing isn’t anything special and the voice-acting is a little flat from time to time, but that’s never a dealbreaker in a game like this. It just adds a little to the ambience while you’re firing rockets everywhere, and there’s a nice quality-of-life touch where picking up a second audio log won’t stop the current log you’re listening to. (You can also go back and listen to everything you’ve picked up in between levels.)
The in-game map uses the same controls as your ship for flight, which makes it a little unwieldy to control. You can lay a single marker on the map, which appears on your HUD as a waypoint, which is helpful for those moments when you get lost.
The kicker with a game like this is the huge tonal shifts: one moment you’ll be strafing and boosting to dodge the flood of shots on your screen, and the next you’ll be hovering around, looking at the map wondering where you’re supposed to go. It’s not an amazing game for people with a poor sense of direction, although you can always make liberal use of the holobot if necessary.
Overload has a challenge mode and a campaign that spans 15 levels, which will take about 15 to 18 hours depending on difficulty and how often you need to restart a level. You can save mid-level at any point, however, which is a nice touch. There’s also multiplayer but I couldn’t find any lobbies to join over the weekend – although that might have been because I bought my version through GOG, which ended up being $10 cheaper than Steam due to the currency conversion.
Either way, Descent fans should be mighty happy. Last week we got a faithful remaster of Forsaken, Overload is pretty much a classic love-letter to the series of old, and later this year (hopefully) there will be Descent: Underground as well. It’s a great little time to shoot stuff in a cramped space. Now, if someone could do me a solid and make a cracking remaster of Terminal Velocity on a modern engine, that’d be tops.