Aquanox Deep Descent, developed by Digital Arrow and published by THQ Nordic, blends the arcade-style submarine-to-submarine combat of Aquanox (and its sequel, AquaNox 2: Revelation) with a linear, narrative-driven progression. It’s a combination that can be fun in short bursts but feels shallow and limiting the longer you play. Admittedly, once you’ve upgraded your ship and got your hands on some new weapon modules, manoeuvring across the rugged seabed and engaging in combat can feel great. Unfortunately, dealing with the other gameplay mechanics and a rigid progression system is far less enjoyable.
The developers describe Aquanox Deep Descent as a “re-imagining of both the gameplay and world of the original AquaNox-series” but, given the amount of time that’s passed between those games, it works well enough as a prequel (set well before 1996’s Archimedean Dynasty). As such, it’s a fine starting point for those interested in the IP. You take control of a team of amnesiac “cryos”, each with questionable employment histories, placed in suspension just before the surface world was destroyed. After a violent awakening and desperate escape from the Bionts (Aquanox’s human/alien hivemind villains), the crew sets out to discover the role in the mysterious “Project Nammu”.
They’re “saved” and taken in by the secretive Captain Okabe who clearly has his own agenda. With few clues, they set out to find the legendary “Nemo”, gaining supplies and new information by completing missions for multiple factions. What follows is a 15-ish hour string of primary missions, with the opportunity to tackle a few secondary quests and simple bounty contracts. All too often, this involves disregarding ethics, while the crew argues they have no other choice but to follow every lead they can get – don’t expect any player-driven morality choices or different quest outcomes.
When docking with large ships and outposts, a simple menu system allows you to tinker with your ship upgrades or weapons, buy or sell various crafting and upgrade materials, check your journal and “aquapedia”, or interact with fully-voiced characters that’ll assign missions, dole out rewards, and provide new leads. Although it has no bearing on the story, you can typically select from several dialogue options that represent the opinions of your diverse crew. To its credit, Aquanox Deep Descent does have a fairly interesting premise, with several flashbacks and encounters that do a much better job of fleshing out the lore and the state of the world than its predecessors (which came with hefty manuals to read).
Aquanox Deep Descent is at its best when you’re going up against a horde of nimble, well-armed craft or slowly taking down larger beasts while keeping yourself intact.
When exploring the seabed, Aquanox Deep Descent plays most like a conventional first-person shooter, albeit one with no regard for gravity. You can hunt smaller ships through winding ravines on the seabed or climb above them for open combat (just not too high or you’ll run into the “nano-plankton” swarms that prevent access to the surface). Although you can upgrade ships to improve their hull and shield capacity, manoeuvrability is still paramount to survival, allowing you to dodge missiles and torpedoes, while keeping a bead on fast-moving ships or the weak-points of larger vessels.
You have access to a dozen ship-mounted weapons, but they all fall into conventional FPS categories: think rapid-fire, low-damage machine guns; low-fire-rate, high-damage shotguns; and slow but deadly missiles and torpedoes. With two weapons slots – along with deployable mines, missile barrages, and turrets on larger ships – you can mix and match your loadout to tackle any foe. Unfortunately, when you’re not engaged in combat, Aquanox Deep Descent’s secondary gameplay loops feel limited and underdeveloped.
When you’ve docked with outposts or larger ships, it’s always a good idea to sell off abundant salvage and stock up on rare components for ship upgrades. Everything is handled through a simple but intuitive menu interface.
Far too often, you’ll find yourself zig-zagging from salvage spot to salvage spot (conveniently marked on your mini-map) on the way to the next mission marker. Salvaging is essential if you want to craft ammunition or repair kits on-the-fly or have enough resources to further upgrade your ships. Disappointingly, it involves little more than hovering above a spot while your ship completes a scan, then you collect the salvage with the press of a button. I got bored of this repetitive loop within the first region, but you’ll never receive enough cash from missions to both buy crafting material and pay for upgrades without it. Missions are at least more diverse, but even they slowly devolve into the typical fly-there, kill-them, scan-that, deliver-item-here routine (along with several escort missions where the survival of your charge is more random than I cared for).
My biggest issue with Aquanox Deep Descent is the sense of progression and how – despite the large environments and impression of freedom – every element is railroaded. Despite the ability to cruise to any point of a map, you’ll only be able to dock with outposts or use jump-gates if you’ve progressed the story far enough along. New ships, ship upgrades, and weapons are only unlocked when you’ve completed certain missions (or salvaging as a mission objective). Now the prior games weren’t fully open-world, but they gave you the ability to focus on bounties, scavenging, and trading first, allowing you to purchase and upgrades ships at your own rate and gain an advantage over enemies in the story missions. In Aquanox Deep Descent, there’s no ability to break away from the main mission path, your progress through the world feels predetermined, you’ll not encounter megafauna or massive ships until past the mid-point of the campaign, and there’s little incentive for replays.
Yay, more salvaging to afford the next incremental upgrade the game doles out to me at its own pace.
What Aquanox Deep Descent does well – despite being a mid-tier release – is presentation, writing, voice-work, and controls. It’s not going to blow your mind, but the developers get a lot of mileage out of the seabed setting and diverse ship designs. With a subdued musical score, the visuals and ambient audio do a great of generating atmosphere – even if most of the time you’re looking at similar topography with a different coloured haze. The weakest element (from a combat perspective too) is the nano-fauna, fast-moving, green-tinted variants of normal sea life that just looks cheap (and are boring to fight). Combat, especially if you engage at mid- to close-range, is a vibrant display of neon lighting, bullets tracers, torpedo trails, and explosions. It’s also great, albeit mostly pointless, that you can free-look around the fully-rendered cockpits of the ships you purchase.
I didn’t expect to be engrossed in the story – which does, I’ll admit, go a bit batshit by the end – but it’s well written and the voice work is solid enough to carry it (in stark contrast to the dialogue in the prior games!). Unfortunately, there’s not joystick support as seen in the originals, but the gamepad layout is excellent and swiftly became my preferred way to play. Mouse-and-keyboard works fine, but with relatively sluggish movement relative to typical FPS games, I preferred the sensation of steering with analog sticks and using the triggers to fire.
There’s only so much you can do with the hazy seabed template, but Aquanox Deep Descent can look fantastically atmospheric at times.
Overall, my feelings on Aquanox Deep Descent are mixed but edge towards positive. Several hours in, with several ship and weapon upgrades, I found myself enjoying the combat and opportunity to take on larger targets. Unfortunately, the linearity and sensation that I was being drip-fed content at the developer’s pace felt increasingly at odds with the free-form combat and more open environments. At a $30-equivalent price, I’m inclined to be a little more forgiving and recommend the game to fans of the original, so long as you’re willing to reign in your expectations and accept a more linear, story-driven experience that dictates the pacing.
Aquanox Deep Descent was reviewed on PC and can be purchased here for £24.99. Not got a PC do not fret you can purchase and play the game on PlayStation and Xbox.
Enjoy the review? want to read more of our reviews? then click right here to be whisked away to the realm of our opinions.