Hi all! You won't remember me, but I've got a bit of a storied history with Descent. This series was one of the first I'd ever played, starting with the Descent 1 (then 2, then 3) demo way back in 1995 or so, on my grandfather's IBM Aptiva. I loved it to death, and some of my first forays into how computer software worked was using the tools and content on descent2.net on those pirated versions. I read planetdescent.com religiously, being too young to register for the heavily-used forums elsewhere. I didn't get a full copy of any Descent game until II...in 2003. I've now several copies of each game on various systems and platforms, including FreeSpace 1/2. To date, Descent is one of my top game series of all time.
Surprisingly, I didn't hear about D:U until a few nights ago -- I'd somewhat written the genre off after Miner Wars 2081(?) was nothing like what I wanted out of a 6DOF game. When I saw it on Steam, I immediately bought in, and just installed it a few hours ago when I had some time this week. I had no idea what to expect, as I'd never played Descent online (only read guides for how to get lower pings and kicking impact mortars around), coming of age to do so well behind the curve of the game's popularity.
Backstory aside, I had the pleasure of playing a few matches with some esteemed members of the community here. I've put together a few thoughts -- this comes through a set of rose-colored glasses that still demand a true Descent 4. It's been 15 years of time since my serious playthroughs of Descent, and since then I've spent thousands of hours of games of all shapes and sizes. Much of this might not make sense in the game's design and its roadmap, but I'd just like to get my thoughts out there.
1. Overall Game Feel
This is really Descent! This is how it should feel, even after all these years! Weightlessness, freedom, speed, explosions, claustrophobia, all of it is very much what I'd expect out of a modern-day Descent title. Friction and speed is spot-on. After setting up some keybindings (still have the keyboard-only setup committed to memory), it was like I'd never stopped playing. This is really a remarkable achievement.
Performance is admirable on a new engine, though that might be due to the souped-up hardware I'm running (R9-380X). Is there a way to lock framerates to certain key values (30/50/60/120)? My machine was going at full blast, and I could definitely afford to drop some frames for the sake of a few degrees off my GPU.
Fonts are excellent, but I'm a sucker for nostalgia. The menus, however, fall prey to being too big. Buttons are massive, and not enough information is presented in each interface item. For instance, on the ship selection screen, the ship selection buttons are huge and don't have any names, so I'm going on shape alone. The stats for each ship (on the right) are based only on icons and have no units...what is two blocks of shield power compared to four? How does that stack up to the Pyro-GX?
Key rebindings took some time to figure out, even though I knew exactly what I wanted to have bound to each key. What does the 'reverse' checkbox mean for yaw or pitch control when I'm using a keyboard key? If I bind left-Alt to sliding, is that a toggle for directional sliding based on yaw/pitch (like in D1-3), or is that going to move me in some direction? Not much is explained. I was surprised and initially concerned to see a typical FPS keybind scheme for the controls. Is there a way to reset everything to defaults? I couldn't find a button for it and had to tread carefully when rebinding everything.
Alt-Tabbing switches between the hangar and the top menu ('Start', 'Campaign', etc), instead of putting me on the desktop. I think it spun up a few extra processes at well, which forced my GPU usage to near-max and could only be killed by the task manager.
The in-game interface is visual candy but, frankly, not useful. A few points to consider:
- Score/objective readouts are fine; consolidating the timer to that area would be very helpful too.
- Don't reinvent the wheel with the radar/ship display! I like energy/shield surrounding the crosshairs a lot, and would like to have that option (or even shrunk to fit tighter around the crosshair as simple gauges). As a vet pilot though, I'm constantly looking down to check my status, and not finding it is landing me in some scrapes I can't handle. Is that blue thing a radar? I don't think we need one at this scale of map.
- The 'STATUS' indicator has too many messages, and too many of those messages are too wordy. Placing kills in the top right area (then move the score/objective to top left, with status in the middle?), where it's generally expected by shooter players, is a familiar and unobtrusive location. Then, strip down status messages to their bare minimum and quantify them (+4 Concussion Missiles, Laser Upgraded to 2, Quad Lasers!). Further consolidation would be extremely helpful when soaring through piles of loot, perhaps down to displaying a collection of icons or assets (see below for that debate). Situational awareness takes a hit when I have to try and figure out how many homing missiles I just picked up.
- I'll get to my frustrations with afterburner ammunition in a bit, but where on earth is my count for that? Did I miss a tutorial where this is all explained?
- Ship selection in-between lives doesn't have names on buttons, and I couldn't find a way to favorite the Pyro-GX and play it every life without interruption. Like I said, sucker for nostalgia, but that's a great ship.
- Hitmarking is great! I'd love to see customizable colors based on hit type (explosive, primary, mines, kills, etc), a la Battlefield 4. It's also not immediately apparent hitmarking is present, though I'm not sure what could be done to improve that at this juncture.
- I really, /really/ enjoy the IRC-esque chat system. Is there a way to switch to general chat while in-game? Will there be separate general lobbies as popularity ticks up?
- What are the colored dots at the very bottom of the flight interface? Under 'proxy', I believe.
- The voice announcing pickups and such is too quiet and distorted to be helpful. I wouldn't mind getting rid of it.
- Lastly, probably my biggest gripe, similar to the menu interface: everything is too big! There's a lot of wasted space and unhelpful messaging or iconography going on that is a challenge to sift through. And again, I feel there's a lot of wheel reinvention going on. I know what every weapon model looks like in the world and in the cockpit in the originals, and in D:U, they're just flat panels. The TRON aesthetic is nice and all, but in striving for simplicity, it's become just too mentally complex to be usable.
As I mentioned above, this is definitely Descent! It's great to get an upgrade. A few things here, I feel, are hampering things overall. These are icons, world/asset contrast, and proportionality.
Icons are, from a quick glance at the forum, a bit of a contentious area. Personally, I think it's foolish to have everything reduced to panels and vastly prefer D1-3's handling of powerups. As a new player to D:U, I haven't the foggiest idea of what anything is until the quiet, distorted voice announces it to me. Descent 3 really nailed this -- I know exactly what I'm going to pick up based solely on the glow surrounding the weapon. As the models crossed the render distance, glows typically remained, which was exceedingly useful when traversing large areas. I think the same principle could be applied here -- uniquely colored glows for each powerup, however subtle, could be a reasonable compromise short of doing away with iconography entirely and switching over to an asset-based design. Granted, constant spinning is kind of dumb in 2016, but perhaps a random rotational angle/velocity on drop with a default value on spawn might help?
Speaking of icons and models, please bring back the old ones for energy and shielding if possible. I know I picked energy up at some point, but I have no idea what it looks like.
Second in the gameplay list is world/asset contrast. It seems to me that hyperminimal icons were the answer to a visual design that is gorgeous in UE4, but does not fit well with what I personally remember as Descent. Rocky detail is a far cry from the simple polygons and small textures of the original games, and that's a tough complexity to work around.
Contrast between light sources, built spaces, and rocky areas is at once vibrant and bland -- it's difficult to judge distance at times. Many locations lack character and easily-navigable layouts, though visual appeal is ultimately very high. Inadequate signage and, to the untrained, a lack of uniformity and definition in what is a door vs. what is a wall is disorienting and results in wasted ammo trying to figure out what can lead to where.
As an aside to the above issues in contrast, I think the level design, though it flows well, doesn't lend itself to be learned easily. There aren't enough geometric landmarks to be distinctive, and the maps I played had a symmetry to them that I couldn't figure out. It is *much* easier to fly irregular and asymmetrical maps than it is to learn a convoluted square or series of rings. Coupled with the visual design of powerups, it is an unnecessary challenge to understand one's physical place in the game -- a challenge the originals did not have (especially on maps this small).
Lastly, ship proportions feel massive compared to the originals and even the levels being flown, and it's just strange, given how little health they appear to have. Perhaps it's the tight level design, but I'm of the firm notion that everything could be sized down by a third and things would massively improve. It's simply too easy to hit and get hit. Large AoE weapons will end up dominating multiplayer unless they're heavily nerfed or it becomes easier to dodge them. Proximity mines are a legitimate threat, which is a really cool change, though they're almost too easy to use. I think D1/2 had the sizing nearly perfect, and could have stood to increase in size by about 10-15%.
Ships are also too bright, along with everything else. Visually, everything just blends a little too well -- I can't really discern anything but massive lighting effects and bright lights against a vaguely gray background.
I decided to dedicate this section to afterburners because I couldn't figure out where else to put them in the two sessions it took me to properly write this up. I want infinite afterburners. I can't find the count of afterburners I have. Is there afterburner fuel? Why is it so little, and why don't the afterburners work all that well? Burners in D2/3 were massive improvements over D1, and rationing fuel for them sends the game back to the stone ages. Fuel counts might touch back on tiny map/huge player proportions, but the system needs work all the same. There's a feeling of uselessness without having afterburners around whenever you need them to make a quick escape or to close the gap to other players.
That's basically everything I have/can remember between two sessions of a write-up. Hope it was useful and not too confusing -- I'm sure I'll get opinionated about plenty more as development goes on. Let me know if I can clarify or expand on anything. See you all in the mines!