The Challenging Deep

HIGH The Leviathan Fight.

LOW Having to swap through my weapons one at a time.

WTF Swarms of glowing super-sharks everywhere!

While it’s a standard thing for developers to reference their influences, it’s rare to see the brazenness with which Aquanox Deep Descent does. Putting “Descent” right there in the title makes clear which mantle it intends to pick up.

Set in a distant post-global warming future, A:DD puts the player in charge of the crew of a deep sea vehicle. They’re not from the world they inhabit, though. The adventure opens with them being thawed from cryogenic suspension and suffering from narratively-convenient amnesia, allowing other characters to explain the plot without the exposition seeming too contrived.

Where the original, unrelated Descent from 1994 involved exploring low-gravity environments in deep space while fighting insane security drones, Aquanox moves a similar kind of 3D action below the waves where humanity is clinging to existence.

Players engage with Aquanox’s world from the pilot’s chair of their deep-sea vehicle, and the devs have done a great job customizing the ship cockpit to give it character. Instead of relying on HUD indicators, the player is asked to glance around the screen and look at readouts for the condition of their shields, armor, and weaponry. It’s a great trick for making the players feel connected to the world, but it left me wondering why the developers haven’t offered a VR mode, since the presentation is absolutely begging for it.

In addition to various deep-sea vehicles flitting around and looking for trouble, players will contend with enormous (and hostile) underwater creatures that wreck anything technological in nature.

The ‘natural’ threats are A:DD‘s more interesting conceits — the world’s oceans are gradually being transformed by a nanotech swarm that mimics the flora and fauna of ancient times. This strange, invasive life form has a distinct menacing glow that starts as a stunning bioluminescent display and gradually transforms into a warning. Players quickly learn that the brighter an area is, the more they have to worry about something devouring them.

A:DD‘s combat is fairly standard for this type of 3D ‘flight’ sim. Players can move their ship in six directions, use a quick-dodge to avoid enemy fire, and lock on to enemies in the dim abyss. One interesting development, though, is just how close-range combat is.

Since Aquanox takes place at crushing depths, every weapon has to push its way through tons of water resistance before it can strike enemies. Under these conditions, most fights happen within fifty meters of the opposition — even super-powerful railguns can’t strike anything over a hundred meters away. This also provides a strong narrative reason for enemy projectiles to fly slowly enough for dodging to work as a strategy. When this deep underwater, pretty much everything happens in slow motion.

Aquanox‘s plot follows a fairly linear course. Early on, the crew meets a pirate captain who offers to help get their memories back if they help with his pet project, and from then on it’s mostly a series of missions based around traveling to undersea caves and blowing up enemy ships. Every now and then they’ll be asked to find a few bits of technology or rescue an ally, but even those missions feature plenty of ship-to-ship combat.

While the missions may be a little repetitive, it’s worth grinding through them to get to the setpiece boss battles which use enemy scale to great effect. I won’t spoil the details, but I can promise that these encounters are visually impressive and satisfying to play. However, there’s a fairly large glitch with one of them — a certain boss moves so quickly that the ship’s lock-on abilities become useless. This forces the player to dumb-fire all weapons. It’s entirely possible to beat the boss, but I’m guessing it’s more annoying than the developers intended.

That issue aside, the combat is solid enough that Aquanox‘s PVP mode proves to be a welcome distraction. The enemy AI isn’t particularly bright — they tend to either charge or stand and deliver — so battling enemy ships capable of using cover and dodging my shots was a pleasant change.

In the end, Aquanox: Deep Descent does everything it has to, but it doesn’t stand out from the crowd. The combat is thrilling, but the story and quests fail to intrigue, the environments don’t have much variety, and there just generally isn’t much to it — it’s a solid 3D shooter set underwater, and not much else.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Digital Arrow and published by THQ Nordic. It is currently available on PC, PS4 and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. 2 hours were spent in online modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB this game is rated T and contains Blood, Mild Language and Violence. The swearing is so mild that I barely noticed it, and the only blood players will see is from strange alien creatures. I think this one is safe for even younger teens!

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played much of the game with the sound off and encountered no difficulties. There are onscreen indicators to cover all alerts, and all dialogue is subtitled. Text cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Daniel Weissenberger
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