Tom Quirk plays a lot of video games, but when he isn't, he is reading fantasy novels and watching way more television than is healthy.
Xbox One, PS4, PC
October 16, 2020
The original Aquanox games were vehicle shooters set deep underwater for the PC in 2001 and 2003. Although not huge successes, they gained a cult following, and as with many cult classics, this led to a crowd-funded sequel many years down the line. Serbia-based developer Digital Arrow has developed Aquanox: Deep Descent, a reboot of the series, bringing submarine combat to modern consoles. The end product certainly has some issues, but has enough charm to encourage some players to take the plunge.
Aquanox: Deep Descent is set many hundreds of years after warfare and ecological collapse has rendered the surface world uninhabitable. The remnants of humanity now reside in deep-sea mining stations, calling the underwater world they inhabit Aqua. You play as a squad of four humans who were cryogenically frozen before the end of the world, having awoken in a completely changed world with an inconvenient case of amnesia. These Cryos, as they’re dubbed, travel through the seas and encounter the various human factions in Aqua, searching for answers about why they were frozen.
The actual setting is fairly compelling, with an in-game Aquapedia explaining the various factions, characters and terminology of Aqua. I’m a sucker for good sci-fi world-building, and was excited to explore humanity’s new undersea home. Although few areas are touched on for more than a mission or two, it gave enough of a sense of an inhabited and diverse world to grab my interest. I just wish the story through which the player experiences the setting was more dynamic.
At the start of the game, the Cryos are told to visit a faction to gain some answers about ‘Project Nammu’. That faction says they will help the Cryos if they do a task for them. After completing the task, you are told to go to a different faction. They then ask you to do a task for them. This plot structure repeats itself for about 8 or 9 hours until it feels like the narrative is going somewhere and the player is getting some answers. It didn’t help that the protagonists are pretty thinly sketched, so it felt difficult to get invested in their personal journey of learning more about their pasts.
Many games have survived humdrum plots with fun gameplay, and on that front, Aquanox: Deep Descent mostly delivers. The game is fundamentally a submarine FPS, where you dogfight against hostile wildlife and other submarines. The controls take a little time to master, but before long, I found navigating in 3 dimensions fairly intuitive.
In some of the more open battlefields, I quite enjoyed the sense of freedom of being able to dive into trenches or hide behind rocks for cover, then pop out and fire a torpedo. Players can craft consumables and ammo from resources found around the battlefield. So long as the player is occasionally dodging out of combat for some scavenging, you should always have enough resources to get by.
There is also a somewhat extensive submarine customisation feature, allowing players to swap between different models and upgrade their stats. Upgrades can be quite expensive, but often worth it. That said, I felt the strictly first-person perspective of the gameplay felt like a missed opportunity; it felt difficult to get invested in giving my sub a cool paint-job or new fins if I was only seeing the sub’s cockpit interior during combat.
Unfortunately, Aquanox: Deep Descent has some UI issues that prevent the combat from feeling as fluid as it could be. The act of crafting mid-combat, as well as accessing your journal or quest beacon, is tied to an awkward radial menu rather than a hot-key. It makes some sense for crafting to be tricky to make it risky in combat. However, I can’t understand why it takes so many button presses to access your quest menu or flashlight. The act of swapping weapons also feels oddly complicated on PC, as you can only scroll through your entire arsenal with the 1 and 2 number keys, rather than hot-keying specific weapons that you prefer.
“Although some areas have different colour schemes or specific landmarks, most of the locations look very similar to one another.”
The visuals are sort of a mixed bag. Although some areas have different colour schemes or specific landmarks, most of the locations look very similar to one another. The world can feel quite murky, making it difficult to see very far ahead. Admittedly, Aquanox: Deep Descent is set hundreds of metres below the water’s surface; it’s not especially well-lit down there. However, games like Subnautica showed how you can make underwater environments beautiful and vibrant, yet only a few of Aquanox’s locations felt visually distinct.
On the performance front, it ran quite well without many technical hiccups or bugs in my experience. Friendly AI could be somewhat spotty, however, and were rarely much help in missions where you get their assistance. Aquanox: Deep Descent has both cooperative and competitive multiplayer features, but I was unable to find online players to play with after launch.
At the end of the day, I can’t say I had a bad experience with the game by the time the credits rolled. Although the gameplay can be clunky and the plot takes ages to build up momentum, the actual moment-to-moment aquatic dogfighting felt suitably thrilling and strategic. Aquanox: Deep Descent manages to capture the danger and mystery of undersea exploration, with a handful of fairly good set-piece moments. I can’t say if this is the game that longtime Aquanox fans have been waiting for, but fans of vehicular combat games can do worse than Deep Descent.