I used to abhor water levels. It started with Super Mario Bros. and persisted until recently. Water slows you down, and makes everything floaty—which is appropriate, but doesn’t feel fun to play. But some games have changed my mind on being underwater in video games—Soma is a great horror game that takes place entirely in the ocean, and Subnautica is all about underwater survival and is one of my favorite games ever. In fact, driving vehicles around Subnautica felt good, and made me excited for further undersea action. I thought that Aquanox Deep Descent would be what I was looking for—sadly, it’s not.
Aquanox Deep Descent is a first person shooter game where you control various underwater vehicles as you fight along the ocean floor. It’s a revival of the AquaNox series, which started with Archimedean Dynasty which was released in 1996 in Europe—it resembled a sort of underwater Wing Commander. The series was never a commercial success, but it seems to have had a cult following, and spawned a few sequels—AquaNox in 2001 and AquaNox: Revelation is 2003. Despite my sometimes esoteric video game knowledge, especially in regards to video game history, I was surprised to discover I had never heard of this series. But the concept is pretty cool: raw materials became scarce on earth, so people resorted to mining deep under the sea. Eventually, the surface world was wiped out by war, and humanity survived by making entire societies under the water. The culmination of a Kickstarter project, the Aquanox series gets a modern revival in Deep Descent. But not everything is better down where it’s wetter–take it from me.
Aquanox Deep Descent, to me, feels like a modern take on six degree of freedom games—just without the ability to be upside down. In fact, the gameplay reminds me most of the Descent series—but a really slow version. Remember when I said I didn’t like underwater games because they’re floaty and slow. Aquanox Deep Descent is a chore to play. Movement is slow, though it’s enhanced with the ability to dash and boost—but moving through water feels painful. This, unfortunately, affects every aspect of the game, from the combat to the exploration.
Most of what you do in Aquanox Deep Descent is fight and explore—mostly in a linear type fashion. There are side quests, but the main story has you move from point A to point B, usually fighting waves of enemies once you get there. The slog of a movement system makes combat sluggish—but it doesn’t help that the AI isn’t that clever. They just approach until they’re in range, and fight until they die. Some enemies are harder to kill, but only because their shields and health are much higher than their counterparts. Also annoyingly, each of your opponents seems to want to loudly taunt you with horribly acted dialogue. It really feels like something from yesteryear, and is just not implemented well.
Exploration is similarly unfun, but in addition to the slow movement, it’s hard to see anything. The water is just so damn murky, even with the view distance maxed, I feel like I needed glasses. The water effect was also annoying, and I wish I could just turn it off. The screenshots make the game look almost open world, but it’s not: it’s just a series of large, murky rooms in which to get lost. Thankfully the navigation system helps show you where to go, but the rest of the UI is a mess.
The in-ship UI needs a lot of work. I appreciate that they kept a lot of the HUD elements as read-outs within the cockpits. But the boost meter and dash meters were so hard to find, I played for a couple of hours before I realized where they were. Still, the cockpits are fully rendered, even if there are only a few craft to choose from.
Between missions you’ll want to restock at the various outposts you run into, or the large “mothership” that you tag along with. Sometimes you have to escort the impervious, larger ship through hostile territory—a task that feels futile, as most of the time I used the larger ship as cover, and let its massive cannons take care of the enemies. These outposts are also where you advance the story, and get new weapons and ships. I was hoping that newer ships would help with the slow movement—and they do, a bit, especially if you upgrade it. But it’s just something I could never get past.
You don’t need to be at an outpost to restock, though. There is a crafting system, albeit an extremely rudimentary one. If you run out of shield boosts or hull repair kits, you can make them from items you salvage in the sea. But that would require hunting for these items—again, something that isn’t a whole lot of fun.
Even with its compelling story, I couldn’t stomach the game to completion. I wanted to know what happened to these “cryos” as they awoke hundreds of years after the fall of mankind, but Aquanox Deep Descent is just a long, boring slog. Luckily, you can play with friends in drop-in, drop-out four player co-op—which could help it be more fun—but it’s certainly something I’m not enthusiastic about trying.
Aquanox Deep Descent takes the AquaNox series into the modern realm, but it needs some work before I can recommend it. You might enjoy moving slowly through water, or enemies that won’t shut up as they make suicide runs at you, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t even think the nostalgia of the older AquaNox series would have saved this one from my scorn.
AquaNox is available today on PC.
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