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Aquanox: Deep Descent - Afterplay Review

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I've just finished the Aquanox: Deep Descent, a subaquatic first-person shooter developed by Digital Arrow and released in October 2020 by THQ Nordic, and, being a fan of AquaNox series, I was left with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, we have a well thought out and rich background setting (originally created by Archimedean Dynasty / AquaNox series), pretty decent graphics, sound and special effects, as well as classical AquaNox-style gameplay (that I personally do not see as a bad thing) and interesting (if not unique) levels design. On the other hand, we've got awfully written dialogs, sloppy and repetitive quests (both, main plot related and secondary), weak plot and clearly noticeable unfinished content.

And while the game itself is not the worst of the worst (as many angry reviewers say), in my opinion, it surely does have more cons than pros, and this is why I would like to share my personal thoughts on the subject and on the game's problems, especially, while trying to be as objective as possible.

Atmosphere and level design

We could argue which one of the previous releases of the series was the worst. For me it probably was AquaNox (yes, even though it was a complete commercial failure, IMHO, generally speaking AquaNox 2: Revelation overall implementation as a game was way better than its immediate predecessor). But all three (Archimedean Dynasty, AquaNox and AquaNox 2: Revelation, all developed by Massive Development) had a unique atmosphere enriched by the Aqua universe setting. All previous games offered large open spaces with big parts of flat seafloor and relative water transparency, where the former could certainly be attributed to the limited technology available at the time and the latter to the attempt to help the player's vision of the surroundings. While both of the mentioned aspects being somewhat unrealistic (for those realism lovers), such level design allowed the player to feel the vastness of the ocean and that there is more out there with the player being just a small tiny piece in this new post-apocalyptic undersea world - something that hooked up so many people that later became series fans.

Unfortunately, most of the described above has been disregarded by the Deep Descent's team. Aside from familiar faction names and some references to the previous games of the series, the game delivers a completely different atmosphere. And in huge part due to its level design. While being pretty complex, more realistic and more 3 dimensional than ever, I felt that in many cases it was overdone. Every level feels like a small box filled with 3d labyrinths of rocky caverns. And though the caverns are a real eye pleaser and are fun to explore, every attempt to move outside this box (literally up, down or horizontally) is prevented by the infamous zone limiting rocky walls or conveniently put deadly nano-plankton, that I have serious suspicions was hastily merged into the plot just to justify this arena-like level design. That and the inability to see beyond your nose (even with your boat's flashlights on) brings the ultimate claustrophobia nightmare throughout the entire game. And the feeling that you're trapped inside this box is so strong that it overshadows everything else. A good analogy to what I've described would be the 1995's Descent (I wonder if the actual concept and the title "Deep Descent" was inspired by this old classic), just in water and in almost absolute darkness.

Gameplay

As was mentioned in the beginning of this review, in spite of a sloppy story line and dumb quests, the game offers a relatively solid gameplay. The boat control is intuitive without unnecessary complexity or clunkiness and the action is enjoyable. There are three major negative points in this category though.

First, it greatly upset me that though many dialog lines and cutscenes imply that you swim along with your 3 crewmates (each in a separate boat), in reality you are on your own. Aside from occasional station patrols and a few exceptions, there are no NPC ships around to help you. This greatly reduces the atmosphere and the whole concept in general, because even in Archimedean Dynasty and later in AquaNox 1 and 2 you always felt that you are part of a crew, some faction or a strike force. Here you are almost always alone, making history and saving the world from the incoming darkness. I also have strong suspicions that the crewmates' boats existed initially, but were cut off later due to awkward pathing problems related to level design complexity.

Secondly, boat and weapon selection is really weird. There are too many weapons that do the same thing, use the same ammo pool and just slightly vary in stats. Once you acquire a gun, you cannot sell it, so when you try to switch guns during battle, especially by the end-game phase when you have plenty of them, it results in an unending cycling through dozens of useless guns until you find the one you actually want (and God help you if you've cycled over). The boats selection offers the basic stuff: fast & weak, balanced and strong & slow. But here the things also get weird after a few upgrades, as some of the boats become basically the same in stats with one critical exception: among all available boats in the entire game only one is capable of carrying two automated turrets (besides your main guns). You'd say maybe it's the slowest and the toughest one (Morrigan)? Wrong! Maybe it's the "ultimate" one (Nemesis)? Wrong again! The correct answer lies with second boat you get almost in the begging (Hummerhead). By its stats this boat is considered the "balanced" option (in speed vs toughness terms). So basically, after you get it, because of being balanced and its ability to equip these additional automated turrets, the rest of the boats you obtain throughout out the game become worthless and are just a waste of your time and money.

The third problem is related to the so highly anticipated scanning/scavenging system that was advertised on the kickstarter and in all promotional videos. Its existence in game is highly questionable at best. Aside from several cases when it's used for actual wreckage scans in quests that makes sense, 99% of the time all the wrecks and containers out there are just for additional resources and occasional encyclopedia info. But as a completionist you'll be swooping every damn level for hours just to get them all, since money is a problem (especially in the beginning and until you find an infinite money bug :]) and also because some of them could contain parts of the Encyclopedia entries or even a new gun that you couldn't get otherwise. Also, since some quest related events can make scavenging much more difficult or even impossible due to your boat being teleported to another location without any warning, usually you'll be wiping the seafloor of each level with your boat's belly inch by inch (vertically and horizontally) before doing anything meaningful on the location. This process does not only add about 70% of gameplay time, but also seriously undermines immersion, since you'll be thinking in location scripted events terms all the time instead of just enjoying the game. The bottom line here is that the scavenging system in reality was just implemented as a cheap way to extend the time required to complete the game, and the only thing it does well in practice is adding more tediousness to an already pretty tedious gameplay.

Sound and music

I do not have much to say here except that, surprisingly, the sound effects are pretty decent and make a good job in reflecting the surroundings and everything that happens. The soundtrack, however, is awfully generic and unmoving and is miles away from the memorable music that was present in Archimedean Dynasty or AquaNox 2: Revelation. Probably the worst here is the battle soundtrack that immediately kicks in when someone is attacking even before you see the actual enemy (cough, cough, TES series). What makes it worse is that this particular soundtrack is quite loud, invasive and always the same.

Quests, dialogs and secondary content

While the main plot tries to appeal to the series' fans and more or less appropriately uses the Aqua universe setting, the actual story is very short, the related quests are mostly repetitive and become somewhat consistent and interesting only by the end of the game.

One of the main problems with the plot's development is it's pace. It is super slow, badly explained and repetitive (did I say "repetitive" again?) throughout the whole game and, suddenly, in like 5 minutes before the end it becomes an end-game events spree without a single breather. Unfortunately, it seems, something that wasn't an issue in the 90s and early 2000s, these days it is, and Deep Descent is not an exception.

Another thing that is immediately noticeable is that only a handful of characters you can meet on stations (mainly plot related) have portraits and voiced dialogs. The rest are replaced by awkward generic pictures that look like in-development placeholders (and they probably are): creepy and out of place. Also (minor spoiler alert), aside from Okabe, character development is simply non-present. There are some hints that there is maybe more going on (Mia's wanting to return to IPF, Hannah having a crush on Kaelen, Fletcher having his own agenda, etc.), but we never get to see anything. Most of the Tupilaq's crew will only speak to you once (and this considering that you'll be traveling with this ship almost the entire story). The rest of the dialogs is even worse, just horribly written straight-to-the-point some quest related clunky lines and that's it. The game does not make you want to remember any of the characters, less to have any kind of attachment to them or understanding of their motivations. All characters you meet are just static portraits (sometimes not even that, e.g. Flint) and when something happens to them you just don't care and it even feels kind of ridiculous because you just keep asking yourself "Who was that again?" (and I thought AquaNox 1 dialogs and characters were bad). The generic backgrounds on ships and stations does not help either and make you lose all track of the locations you visit (and we are talking about some memorable locations from the series). All that, plus some extensive "created for nothing" semi-empty level areas is an obvious evidence of the fact that the game had been rushed with tons of secondary stuff and small things being left unfinished.

Summing up

While the game shows an extensive effort and love put by the dev team into the level design and graphics, there are many things that are sloppily implemented, cut off or simply were left unfinished. The saddest part is that the huge amount of work on visuals (i.e. engine, models, textures, animations, effects, sound, etc.) and the gameplay (i.e. writing, controls, logic, etc.) that took the devs almost 4 years to complete was almost in vain it seems. And many things like: longer story line, main plot quests, interesting secondary and character related quests, etc., as well as small things like: non-plot character portraits, ship/station backgrounds, dialogs, texts, etc. would not take much effort to finish/evolve. Most of these could be done by using the already existing assets and maybe some additional static pictures with a relative ease and in a relatively small amount of time. Have they spent a few more months attending at least some of the mentioned issues, the game could have been a hit and a worthy successor to the series.

Aquanox: Deep Descent was a brave attempt to resurrect a classic and once awesome but long forgotten franchise, but alas it has failed.

Summary

Pros:
- Good graphics, visual and sound effects
- Comprehensive, easy to learn controls and game mechanics
- Classical Aquanox style gameplay
- Complex and truly 3d level design (the undersea caverns are just gorgeous)

Cons:
- Weak plot
- Very badly written dialogs
- Unmemorable generic characters and locations
- Repetitive and uninteresting quests
- Unnecessary salvaging system that will occupy more than a half of your gameplay time
- Unmemorable soundtrack
- No secret content (the areas that you can clearly see on the radar do not count) or bonus objectives
- Tons of unfinished secondary content
- Too easy, the game poses no real challenge even on hard difficulty
- Claustrophobia warning

Overall:
- A failed attempt to resurrect a classic and once awesome but long forgotten franchise
- Another time-killer for Aquanox fans (I know you'll still play it)

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About xeelwarbeastone of us since 9:11 PM on 01.04.2021