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Review: The lowdown on Descent 3 for Linux

LinuxWorld

(IDG) -- Back when Duke Nukem 3-D previews were just starting to whet my appetite, another title showed up that bucked the trend and brought the popular first-person-shooter genre to a new level in the PC market. Descent made its mark on gaming history by coupling space-vehicular combat with Doomlike, hunt-for-keys game play. Descent II followed soon after, but was just a revamped edition of the original. Descent 3, though, offers a new approach just in time for the series' ascent to the Linux platform.

Descent 3 is a first-person-shooter crossed with an intense flight simulator in which you fly your craft through deep Martian ravines and claustrophobic mine shafts, eliminating mining bots that have gone loco. Featuring the same full three-dimensional movement and realistic flight effects seen in its predecessors, Descent 3 also boasts outdoor battle areas and intricate level design with mission objectives. I have no doubt that addicts of previous versions will feel right at home in this exemplary sequel.

When we left our hero...

The story of Descent 3 goes like this: you manage to survive the catastrophic blast after blowing up the warp core at the end of Descent II but get hurled into space. Facing imminent death as your craft drifts towards a nearby sun, a PTMC mining ship plucks you from the stars and saves your life. In return, you embark on a mission to eliminate the deranged mining bots that have overrun PTMC turf.

In the meantime, you find out that Dravis, the guy who hired you in Descent II (and left you high and dry) is involved in all of this. He's got something to do with the computer virus that made the mining bots go crazy in the first place -- and now it's payback time.

The levels

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Before you start each level, Descent displays a mission objective sheet that explains exactly what you have to do and what malfunctioning (and hostile) mining bots you are likely to encounter.

There are 15 levels in Descent 3, and it's in how you complete those levels that this version differs from the previous titles. Descent and Descent II required you to find access keys and destroy the reactor on each level. Descent 3 includes evolving mission objectives such as accessing computer terminal or shooting a switch to deactivate a force field. You must employ new strategies as you undertake various duties such as evacuations and where you need to place proximity mines and turrets to defend weak points in the facilities. Such varied game play, which was lacking from the original Descent, makes this version a lot more fun and involving.

Also new to Descent 3 is the use of indoor and outdoor game environments. Previous Descent journeys restricted the player to underground crevices and tunnels that became boring and repetitive after a few levels. Descent 3's new Fusion game engine lets you venture out into the Martian landscape and survey the eerie canyons as well as travel through winding shafts. And yes, the outdoor environments suffer from the dreaded glass ceiling effect, so you can't just fly away into space.

Five difficulty levels to choose from, ranging from Trainee to Insane, should challenge players of all skill levels. Descent 3 also allows you to change the difficulty settings during play, so if you're having trouble tacking down the mining bots at a particular point, you can turn down the difficulty and obliterate them!

The good, the bad, and the guidebot

Also new to Descent 3 (does the list ever end?) is the choice among multiple ships. Instead of being restricted to a single fighter as in the previous Descents, there are now three different craft to choose from: the Pyro, the Phoenix, and the Magnum. The Phoenix is a nimble fighter, fast and agile, and the Magnum is a heavy ship, sacrificing speed and agility for raw firepower and shields. The Pyro, my favorite and the ship that is available in the demo, is a combination of the two. A host of new weapons, including the visually impressive napalm, go along with the new ships.

One area in which Descent 3 has been dramatically improved is the AI. The mining bots are intelligent, and not only do they now use strategy in their attacks but they also have more powerful armament. The bots interact flawlessly with the surrounds, ducking, weaving, and maneuvering in and amongst the detailed levels. The bots will even aid others under attack, so you can't just go around and pick them off one by one. Outdoor areas are particularly notorious for exploiting the new AI tool.

The piping, ledges, and rubble that litter the new level designs can play havoc with your attempts to destroy the rebelling bots. And the AI now efficiently uses the three-dimensional environment to keep you guessing with attacks from all directions. The AI has always been able to use three-dimensional movement, but only in Descent 3 have I seen it become such a prominent combat feature.

With the increasingly large and complex levels, and the inclusion of many different mission objectives, it's easy to become lost during a mission. The guidebot, your automated tour guide, provides a solution to that problem. The bot can lead you to your mission objectives, find powerups (shields, energy and so on), and even extinguish fires. To a lesser extent, the guidebot also helps in combat by distracting enemies so you can go for the easy kill.

Multiplayer

Descent 3 not only boasts wonderful single-player missions but also includes an excellent multiplayer facet. Using strong networking code, it offers a number of popular multiplayer game themes, including capture the flag, an interesting game of vehicular soccer, and team-based play against the computer. Up to 16 players can partake in the Descent slaughter in multiplayer arenas. TCP/IP networking enables LAN play, and Linux fans will be happy to know that they, too, can whoop their Windows counterparts online.

Descent 3 Mercenary

If you own the Windows version of the Descent 3 Mercenary expansion pack, you can breathe a sigh of relief -- it, too, will function under Linux. The new seven-level, single-player minicampaign adds another perspective to the story as you now play the leader of the Black Pyros, mercenaries hired by Dravis to carry out his dirty work.

Also included in the pack are four multiplayer levels created by Loki and a host of single and multiplayer levels made by fans of the game. The bad news is that Loki does not plan to port the included level editor to Linux. The good news is that the source code for the editor is available at the D3Edit homepage, so a port may make it to Linux.

Installation and requirements

Descent 3 requires a 3-D accelerated video card and will run comfortably on a middleweight system. My Pentium II 333 with a Voodoo 3 3000 set on medium detail averaged from 50 fps to 100 fps indoors and 25 fps to 60 fps outdoors. The performance loss on outdoor areas is the same for the Windows version and is a sad sacrifice for the extra game play variety.

As far as 3-D software goes, you'll need OpenGL 1.2 or Glide support. For most, the latest Mesa CVS source code is required (See Resources for a link), as older versions of Mesa come up with funny textures and have trouble with some of Descent 3's graphic features. On top of that, Voodoo owners can rejoice in the inclusion of a dedicated Glide renderer, which dramatically speeds up game play (up to an extra 20 fps in some areas).

Control is a big issue for Descent 3. The three-dimensional environment allows movement in any direction on foot, and the cockpit flight model allows you to roll and strafe in any direction. As you can imagine, that kind of control isn't fun with a keyboard and mouse. A joystick is highly recommended to take full advantage of the available controls.

Descent 3 programmer Ryan C. Gordon recommended the Logitech Wingman Extreme to beta testers. A USB joystick (which can also be used with a regular joystick port) is probably a better buy, as some reports say there may be some conflicts between the game port (joystick port) and AGP bus (your graphic card slot). If cost is a concern, I recommend the Logitech Wingman Attack, which did not cause any problems on my system (and is not USB). For a full list of supported joysticks, see the Linux joystick driver homepage in Resources.

And if joysticks just aren't enough for you anymore, Descent 3 can use the Rock'n'Ride gaming chair. It's a cool idea -- you can sit in a seat that moves and reacts to the game as force feedback does with a joystick. Loki doesn't offer technical support for the chair, but it is nonetheless a cool addition to the game if you happen to have that sort of equipment just lying around.

Loki will release Descent 3 with a GUI installer. Descent 3 takes up around 1 GB of space, including the movies, so Loki has had to rethink the way that the game installs on users' systems. There are four different methods of installing the game, ranging from a complete CD copy that takes the full 1 GB of hard drive space to a bare minimum install that uses CD swapping when the movies are needed. The movies and game data are on separate CDs, so you won't need to swap disks halfway through a mission.

Graphic installation of OpenGL 1.2 or Glide will differ, depending on what card you have. If you have a Nvidia card (GeForce, TNT, TNT2, and so on), the Nvidia X server and OpenGL implementation works just fine. If you own a Matrox card (G200, G400, and the like), then go with the Utah-GLX and Mesa CVS drivers. And finally, if you own a 3Dfx card (any Voodoo), grab the 3-Dfx X server and Mesa CVS (See Resources for links to those graphic requirements). If you're still a little confused about the Mesa CVS and where to get it, the Mesa homepage offers excellent coverage.

The usual Loki requirements of glibc 2.1 and the 2.2.x series Linux kernel still apply. If you don't have 1 GB of hard drive space for Descent 3, you'll need a CD-ROM to play the movies (and to access data files on a bare minimum install). For sound you'll need a supported and configured sound card -- to configure a sound card on Red Hat, run /usr/sbin/setup as root.

Conclusion

Though I became bored with the original Descent, the latest offering is by far the best. Descent 3 will generate a lot of interest simply on the wow factor -- it is visually impressive, fast-paced, and enthralling. Released (theoretically anyway) in late July and costing around $25, this is definitely not a game to miss.




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