by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
League of their own
When THQ Nordic first hinted at a new AquaNox game, I wasn’t quite sure if that was what gamers wanted. Back in the day, the AquaNox games were in a league of their own. No one had done an underwater combat sim for quite some time and certainly not one using 3D graphics. Back then I thought of AquaNox as being an underwater alternative to the space shooter Privateer, but it never quite reached the same heights - pardon the pun. But would that type of gameplay able to stand its ground in 2016? I could not say for certain but I was hoping THQ Nordic would pull it off.
As it turns out, they did not need to - Aquanox Deep Descent is a complete rethink of the concept. It pushes the game into the modern age, leaving the old fashioned gameplay very far behind. I imagine a number of fans shouting “Noooo!” now, but before you run off in disgust, fill the bathtub and switch of the bathroom lights to simulate your own AquaNox, please hear me out. You see, it’s all good. The mission-based gameplay with fixed maps has made room for a completely open world where you are free to roam where you want, and do whatever you please. Well, as long as you don’t piss too many people off at least.
The story remains largely the same. The Earth’s surface has become uninhabitable and mankind has turned to the depths of the oceans for its survival. But even the oceans aren’t safe from man’s destructive tendencies. Factions are constantly warring over the sparse resources and many of the underwater settlements can barely scrape by. Worse still, biodiversity is decreasing - we’re making the oceans uninhabitable too.
You control a small submarine and are in charge of a small team of 4 pilots. Each pilot has a specialization and, if you are allowing your friends to join you via the 4 player drop-in co-op, their own agenda in the game’s storyline. There are two pilots who specialize as fighters, one who is stealthy and one who is a skilled technician. The pilots man various stations and assigning the right person for each task influences the efficiency of your sub.
Even more interestingly, lead designer Norbert Varga encouraged us to see the submarine as the main character and the pilots as part of the sub’s stats. Looking at how deep the customization goes, I could see where he was going with that. A sub has 2 primary weapon slots and 4 secondary ones. As you would expect, torpedoes are a popular choice for the ship’s loadout but alternatives include a shrapnel cannon and a bio-repeater that fires sticky canisters filled with explosive goo. The secondary slots can be equipped with lighter versions of the primary weapons and, if one so pleases, fully automated.
Besides weaponry, there are a number of other parts that can be bought, stolen or salvaged. You can sell these, but also use them to further customize your ship. Think along the lines of upgrades to your range of sight, additional air pockets that can be released to quickly dodge incoming torpedoes and hull integrity upgrades that will allow you to dive into deeper areas. And should you be diving too deep without those, the game will let you know - first by the screeching sound of metal being put under too much pressure, then by showing cracks in your cockpit window, next by loud alarm bells and lastly by… well, you get the picture.
Navigating a sub is not like piloting a plane or flying a spacecraft. Water is dense and when large objects move through water they will do so a little sluggishly. The game reflects this in multiple ways. Moving about, you will never dash off like a medalist in the 100 meters at the Olympics, nor will you be able to stop on a dime. The physics behave differently for smaller ships than they do for bigger ships. Your surroundings form an almost constant threat. If the pressure of the water isn’t trying to kill you, then rocks and outcroppings are. Bump into something a little bit too fast and you could be kicking the bucket. And that’s just the natural environment. Other subs will be plotting your demise and stealth is a major component of underwater warfare. With so much darkness around you, enemies could be lurking anywhere. Sneak up on someone from below and fire off a load of torpedoes - if your aim is true it will turn into an instant kill. You could be targeting an AI player, but if the dev team at Digital Arrow can keep the performance up to scratch it will be possible to have up to eight human controlled subs in a game at a time.
The perfect Aquanox
If you would have asked me a year ago to paint you a picture of the perfect Aquanox, I might have come a long way to describing Aquanox Deep Descent. But the devil is in the detail, and it is in that detail where Aquanox Deep Descent shines. You can mine gases and harvest plants to craft ammo. There are factions to ally with, there is diplomacy and choosing sides in conflicts. There are minefields to avoid and to lay yourself. But the best part is the vibe. The underwater world is beautiful and alive, yet menacing and wrought with danger. I expect many a late night session with only the ambient light of my submarine cockpit to guide me through the deep darkness.