Game name: Aquanox Deep Descent
Release date: October 16, 2020
Available on: Steam
Genre: Vehicular combat
Developer: Digital Arrow
Publisher: THQ Nordic
You know these videogame names that resonate with pretty much everyone? Like the Dooms, Quakes, or even Descents of this world? Well, Aquanox isn’t one of them, despite its similarities with Descent. The original game in this long-running but somewhat forgotten vehicular combat series came out more than 20 years ago (and wasn’t even named Aquanox, but Archimedean Dynasty). Since then, we’ve only had two more games (Aquanox and Aquanox 2), with the series lying dormant for more than a decade until Nordic Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to gauge interest back in 2015. It’s been a while since that happened (five years, to be more precise) but the result of that crowdfunding drive is finally among us, a soft reboot titled Aquanox Deep Descent, and developed by Digital Arrow, a passionate Serbian studio. So, is it any good? Did the franchise deserve its long hiatus?
The world of Deep Descent is similar enough to the one featured in the previous titles that anyone who played them wouldn’t feel like much happened during the past twenty years. An apocalyptic war has devastated the surface of the planet, forcing people to move underwater where they can be relatively safe from the horrors that ravage the Earth. Of course, this new habitat isn’t exactly free of perils, and Humanity hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the past, so piracy and war are still very popular activities for the submariners that populate the world of Aqua.
We play as a group of recently defrosted people who were part of a secret project that didn’t pan out, and as it happens, we suffer from amnesia (if you thought that was a cliché, get ready for the rest of the story, because it doesn’t get much better). With that said, I did enjoy the parts of the game where the player characters can interact with NPCs, as they were a neat touch that added life to a world that was usually either too hostile or too empty for my liking. The same port areas where the player can talk to other characters are also used to purchase upgrades for our submarine (or to swap it out for a different one, once that option becomes available)
Sadly, though you’ll get to talk to a lot of people when docking at said ports, most of them seem to be rather boring and generic characters (much like our protagonists). This issue extends to the foes we’ll face, and in their case, it’s made even worse by the fact that the voice acting from the people that brought most “cannon fodder” enemies to life isn’t exactly super convincing. Honestly, by my fifth hour with Aquanox Deep Descent, I was already wishing that the developers had chosen to go without voice acting, such was my disappointment with that particular area of the game.
Thankfully, while the story and the voice acting leave a lot to be desired, the game’s piloting and combat mechanics are quite sound, and they sell the underwater combat experience even better than the previous titles in the series ever could, as there is a noticeable sense of resistance from the water outside our craft that wasn’t present before. Combat is a very important part of Aquanox, and we’ll be doing a lot of shooting here (though ammunition needs to be crafted from resources found in the game world, so players shouldn’t go crazy on the trigger if they can help it). There’s a fairly good customization system that will let us unlock a plethora of weapons and equipment, and we’ll have plenty of chances to try out new combinations for maximum combat efficiency, as the scourge of the seas is never too far away in the world of Aqua.
Speaking of Aqua, while the game could probably fool a new player into thinking it’s a sort of open world title, most of the areas we’ll explore are constrained spaces that flow in a linear fashion, with few points of interest to discover. This doesn’t mean that we won’t be rewarded for doing side quests or going off the beaten path, since Deep Descent has a fairly important upgrade system that requires salvage found in the ocean floor, but don’t expect to find a lot of life out there. Lore enthusiasts will be happy to learn that there hidden info dumps scattered around the world, and completionists will probably be pushed into playing a lot longer than what’s required for the completion of the critical path, as unlocking certain equipment choices requires comprehensive exploration of the game’s maps.
The one aspect where I was truly let down by Deep Descent is its mission variety, since everything revolves around either murdering everything in an area, blowing up stuff, gathering resources so you can craft new equipment or upgrade your submarine, and doing escort missions. Yes, you read that right, the bane of my existence, the classic “hey, you have to protect this dumb NPC while all hell rains on them and they do nothing to save themselves” objective features prominently in a main Aquanox Deep Descent quest, and I couldn’t hate it more. It’s somewhat less odious in co-op, but still an annoying addition that doesn’t bring anything positive to an already forgettable campaign.
Tech-wise, I didn’t encounter any issues of note (the game runs like a dream on my Ryzen 5 3600, 32GB, RTX 2060 Super, but that’s to be expected, considering it won’t break any visual quality records). On the audio front, I was definitely let down by the voice work for secondary characters, but thankfully the main cast does a good job trying to sell you on the fantasy. Combat sounds could use a bit more oomph, but I assume that their currently underwhelming “punch” results from the game’s underwater setting. When it comes to the online portion of Deep Descent, I only tried the cooperative mode, which didn’t give me any network issues, so I’m quite happy with how that turned out (the game’s campaign is fully playable in co-op).
Ultimately, Aquanox Deep Descent was a mixed bag for me. Digital Arrow‘s take on the long-dormant franchise suffers from poor mission variety and an underwhelming story, but its combat and ship customization systems are solid and entertaining. Hopefully the series won’t disappear from the public eye again, and the next entry will improve on the aspects where Deep Descent failed.
6/10 – Fair.