Aquanox Deep Descent Review
After a long hiatus in the franchise, THQ Nordic revives the AquaNox games with a reimagining of it, developed by a different studio, Digital Arrow. Aquanox Deep Descent (apparently “nox” is no longer capitalized) is a return to the underwater vehicle shooter genre with an emphasis on co-op. How’s the game? It’s like a graphically improved version of the older games, with the same feel of traversing through a bleak ocean, but with some differences in mechanics.
Under the nano plankton sea
If you’re unfamiliar with the background of the AquaNox franchise, here’s the gist of it: humanity, in its never-ending squabble over resources, finally reached its breaking point, utilizing nuclear weapons to end the final resource wars. With the surface world completely irradiated and inhospitable, whats left of humanity chose to delve down deep into the oceans of the world, attempting to reconstitute states and societies. But human nature will ensure that the future will be far from hopeful.
In Deep Descent, we are met with four protagonists, waking up from a long cryogenic slumber: Kaelen, Nabila, Hannah, and Fedor. Conveniently, there are up to four people who co-op the game together at once, which is neat. It’s been many years since you’ve been put to cryosleep, so understandably, you’re dazed and confused. So, when you’re being led by a man to a giant ship you never seen or heard of while being harassed by pirates, you’re not going to be very trusting of the situation. Yet your newfound acquaintances will be your guide to this new world, no longer called Earth, but Aqua, the ocean being the only frontier most of its current inhabitants have known.
If you choose to start with the tutorial first, keep in mind it’s rather lengthy for what it is. Most things that you need to know are intuitive like the controls; what you will need to know the most is that the movement in the game is slow and clunky. And it makes sense, because you’re in a submarine, after all. Turning left or right, descending or ascending, or moving in any direction will have weight to it, perfectly emulating the feel of the previous games.
A downside with Deep Descent’s movement system, however, is that bumping your vehicle into an object too fast will hurt. You don’t need to be speeding for this to happen, either; going at a moderate speed is enough to cause about 200 points worth of damage to your shields, though they fortunately regenerate over time. If you tap the ascend or descend buttons without holding them down, the game will activate a boost that accelerates your ascension or descent, meaning you could accidentally harm yourself if you hit something, so be careful with how you move around.
You’ve a lot of enemies down in the ocean to deal with: the Atlantic Alliance, the High Seas, and the Indo-Pacific Federation, not to mention the mutated fauna. To compensate for those threats, you’re able to strap two weapons onto your ship for the sake of staying alive in any territorial waters you’re encroaching on. There’s a handful of weapons you can mix and match, and they’re all designed with a specific purpose. You’ve a heavy machine gun for stripping away shields, a shotgun for high close range damage, a torpedo launcher for exposed hulls, and a sniper for long range support. You can change between weapons at any time which is important to remember as no single weapon is a one size fits all deal; you certainly wouldn’t want to waste torpedo ammo on a jellyfish, but that pirate vessel over there? Easy pickings.
Hopefully you’re used to how movement and combat works, because there’s gonna be a lot of enemies you’ll be encountering. The gameplay handles similar to a rail shooter, as you’ll always be on a mission, traveling from area to area in a linear fashion with enemies strewn here and there on your course. Besides the pirates hounding you with bullets and the aquatic life constantly fussing at your presence, you’ll need to keep in mind that your supplies are limited: you don’t have infinite bullets, and your repair kits are limited to three at a time.
You could buy more supplies using money you found off of fallen raiders, but what you should be doing is looking around the seafloor of the areas you visit, combing the ground for any breakable supply crates or salvageable ships. With luck, you’ll find resources like fuel and iron, and you can use them to craft your own ammo or repair kits as well as sell the resources off to a port’s trader for cash to purchase new upgrades for your ship.
A vast ocean or a narrow river?
Much of what you will be doing in Deep Descent is linear. You start at one point, move to where an objective is, and then move on to the next objective area. The thing is that you’re supposedly in a wide ocean that should entail the freedom to roam around—which you’re able to do so long as you don’t hit an out-of-bounds area—but there’s no incentive to do so. You can be in an open area with there being different little pathways you could poke your head into to check out, but there’s often nothing of interest to find as some routes you could try and take end up being dead ends. There are times you can take a side quest that provides a reason to stray from the path to your main objective, but you’ll know exactly where to go as the side area will be marked on your map. In fact, there is an always present marker on your screen for your main objective that you will end up blindly following most of the time, causing you to not even give any other detail in the environment the time of day to look at.
The UI in Deep Descent is rather cluttered. Other than the objective marker that won’t go away, you’re confronted by an active quest log that you have to constantly minimize and an update list for both your encyclopedia and quests that is painfully slow to vanish after notifying you. The radar, however, was the main source of frustration for me as the game did not explain the meaning of certain icons, even in the map’s legend. Also, when it displays enemies on the radar, you will know their horizontal position, but not their vertical position. It’s an ocean after all, and they can be above or below you. It’s frustrating to have to search for a single enemy you can clearly see on the radar only to find out it was just a jellyfish you didn’t notice in a cave devoid of natural light.
The story also has an issue of not hooking you, unfortunately. At the start, you’ll understand the events happening, but not the reasons for them. The protagonists know they were put to cryosleep for a purpose, but cannot fully remember it. Any of the characters you speak to will be incredibly dodgy about answering whatever questions you may have, leaving you, the player, just focusing on the quest objectives instead. The characters you meet are hit or miss, too. At best, they pass as a story character. At worst, they’re portrayed as being one-dimensional or straight up bland.
One character, for example, is characterized solely for his hatred for one of the faction’s in the game, the Atlantic Alliance. He does have other traits to him, of course, like being a former pirate and being a capable officer, but the game is going to make sure you know for a fact that he hates the Atlantic Alliance. Also, one of the protagonists, Kaelen, flip-flops between being a team leader and being a douche for no reason. When you speak to someone as him, his dialogue is often a choice between a jerk response, or a less hostile but still snarky answer. Another protagonist, during a conversation with your team, reasoned that perhaps these unknown raiders attacking you may not be that bad of a bunch and have a good reason to be fighting against the Alliance (which they do), but this was after a fight with them where through your intercom you could hear lovely quips such as, “JUST SPRAY AND PRAY!” or, “TAKING HITS? I LIVE FOR THIS!” Decent people, eh?
As a final important criticism to note, this game was designed with co-op in mind and it really shows in the encounters. There are many fights where you are constantly outnumbered by more enemies you’d expect to handle. Being outnumbered in a shooter is normal, but consider that you’re in a slow-moving vehicle while only being able to focus on one target at a time. The opponents are able to focus fire on you and quickly whittle down your shield and hull, forcing you to constantly be strafing and healing up. One particular mission involves you escorting a mining ship to three different sites, having enemies spawn in during each segment. I had this mission fail once for me because I was having trouble locating some of the ships attacking my charge and I, and by the time I found them, they had already destroyed the mining ship, since I was unprepared for their numbers. I highly recommended not playing alone because, while the game is playable solo, it’s just not as fun.
Ultimately, I think this is a decent game, but I came in with expectations that got shot down. I had expected it to be more open world and with an emphasis on rewarding players for exploring optional areas, but the game’s very streamlined with where it wants you to go. That’s not exactly a bad thing, but if you’re like me, you would be disappointed that the concept of exploring a hostile ocean wasn’t more like Subnautica, given that that game is huge on exploration and also featured a system for crafting and resource management as well. If you’re looking for a co-op game to play with your friends and you don’t mind having a more controlled experience, then check out Deep Descent. You just might like it. I certainly loved how my ship had a cheery female announcer whenever my ship is damaged; being told with a smile that my hull is critical or that my ship boosts are depleted is quite delightful in a combat situation.
You can purchase Aquanox Deep Descent on Steam.