The spirit of Descent lives on in this modernised blast from the past.
Revival Productions is probably the video game equivalent of The Blues Brothers, this after the band got back together to make and release Overload, a spiritual successor to the timeless six-degrees-of-freedom shooter, Descent. If you grew up with a controller or mouse in your hand during the mid-1990s then it's probably a series that'll be familiar to you; it did good business on PC and PS1 20-odd years ago, spawned a bunch of sequels, and set the standard that similar shooters had to aim at for years thereafter. The question is, then, does this reunion end up a barnstorming revival or should the former Parallax Software devs have left the past in the past?
First impressions aren't hugely encouraging and the story slowly unravels via text on the screen. We're treated to a perfectly adequate narrative and it's delivered via voice acting that's actually done to a higher standard than we were expecting. It's set in the distant future where humanity is spread out into the solar system, and during the campaign we find ourselves in various deep space facilities battling sinister-looking drones. It's not long before the people on the radio and our AI companion are sending us on missions and we're constantly looking for keys to open doors so we can access new areas. It's also not long before we've given up hope of a compelling narrative experience, our suspension of disbelief shattered by the gamey feeling of the objectives and the lifeless environments. You can tell that Overload is classically trained.
After a couple of missions, however, we emerged through the other side of our scepticism and realised that we were actually having a lot of fun. While we would have liked a modern story with a more dynamic structure, ultimately it doesn't really matter because Overload isn't about compelling storytelling and weighty moments of morality; it's about shooting the crap out of robots in twisty corridors out in the deepest darkest depths of space. And when it comes to shooting robots in space, Overload is pretty damn good.
It doesn't take long before the enemies you meet in these dimly lit space tunnels start getting dangerous. We quickly found the straight-up one-on-one laser battles soon made way for waves of robots that spew forth from destructible enemy spawn points. Before long we were back peddling from gangs of weaponised drones, using the environment around us to provide cover wherever possible. In fact, the environment is a hugely important part of Overload, and the fact that enemies can come from any direction means that you're always kept on your proverbial toes. Being aware of your surroundings is important, then, which makes it a shame that so many of these space stations are functional but uninteresting places to explore.
One of the things we particularly enjoyed was the smoothness of the movement. It felt effortless to glide through the levels, rolling around corners and strafing enemies as they attacked, sometimes in large numbers. Things can get really frantic, and it can be hard to keep track of where every enemy is in relation to your ever-shifting position (and it doesn't help that in some of the more dimly lit areas it can be hard to see your opponents). By picking up different weapons while you explore you can expand your tactical options, and the difference between life and death often rests on the clever use of your weapons and the diligent collection of energy/health.
There are skill points found mid-mission that you can spend to upgrade your ship's systems as you progress through the campaign. There's surprising depth to this part of the game and if you're after a more linear experience then you'll likely have fun scouring these environments for keys and supplies, especially if you like the old-school approach to exploration that sees you constantly referring to a 3D map to find your way. Cleverly, Revival knows precisely when to hold your hand and when to let you work things out, and there are certain moments when an AI guide leads you to safety. For the most part, though, Overload wants you to figure things out for yourself.
The campaign could have been a touch more dynamic, but the missions themselves were solid enough, even if they are just vehicles for the combat. We probably had more fun when we jumped into the wave-based challenge modes. Infinite delivers a constant stream of enemies and therefore it's all about endurance, while Countdown forces players to be economical with their actions and take out enemies as efficiently as possible. Unlike the more elaborate campaign maps, these tightly designed arenas play host to more focused combat scenarios. We found that when the narrative was thrown out of the airlock we were able to more easily kick back and enjoy the game for what it is. We also enjoyed the fact that we could swap out the weapons as we saw fit, experimenting with different builds as we tried to climb up the leaderboards. There is a multiplayer part of the game too, but we weren't able to find fully-populated matches the couple of times we tried. The free-for-all Anarchy mode was at least playable with a handful of pilots, but it's fair to say that Overload has yet to really take off as an online experience.
We played on a mid-range laptop and a much more capable desktop PC, and on the laptop we had to turn the quality of the textures/visual effects down because Overload is actually quite demanding from a technical perspective. In fact, even on settings that we expected to facilitate a smooth experience we still experienced dropped frames, even during calmer moments. The graphics are otherwise pretty crisp and some of the particle effects are really eye-catching. Overall we came away impressed with the visuals despite the fact that the environments often lacked a bit of personality. Indeed, we thought the whole presentation was thoughtfully done, and even the futuristic beats of the soundtrack were made with previous collaborators, adding to the feeling of authenticity.
Overload manages to perform that rarest of tricks; it looks like Descent does in your mind's eye. Revival has done a decent job of marrying reverent design with a dash of much-needed modernity. The enemy ships, for example, are very much inspired by the designs of yesteryear but their AI often comes with a modern twist. Similarly, a lot of the visual effects feel like modern updates rather than redesigns, which helps the studio perfectly capture the essence of the series upon which this is based. Fans looking to revel in an experience that harkens back to classic 6DoF shooters of old will find that here in spades. Overload is a faithful reworking of an oft-forgotten genre and it's well worth taking a closer look if you fondly remember Descent.
You can also play Overload in VR using an Oculus Rift or Vive headset. However, the last time we tried to play a 6DoF shooter in virtual reality it made us feel so sick that we needed to lay in the fetal position and whimper for an hour. So yeah, we didn't test that.
8 / 10
Great visual effects, nice controls, engaging tactical combat, fun wave-based modes.
Environmental design isn't particularly exciting, multiplayer seems DOA, campaign could have been more dynamic.