AquaNox Deep Descent feels like it’s supposed to be a love letter to space combat fans…except, well, it’s underwater in a submarine. If you’re unfamiliar with the AquaNox series, it was first published as “Archimedean Dynasty” by Massive Development in 1997. Finally, after a successful Kickstarter launched in 2015, AquaNox Deep Descent makes its debut helmed by an independent game development company, Digital Arrow, and published by THQ Nordic.
AquaNox Deep Descent takes place on Earth in a dystopian future where a cataclysmic event known as “The Last Day” befalls mankind and forces all of its surviving inhabitants to underwater stations indefinitely, now known as the world of Aqua.
Your squad, formerly land dwellers, were put into cryostasis before the event and now find themselves waking in the future with no memory of their previous life. They must piece together memories of their past along with discovering what their new life’s purpose will be within the world of Aqua. This leads them on a journey of discovery with several warring factions across the entire globe, from large government alliances to pirate organizations, confrontations with gargantuan capital ships, all while manning customized fighter ships and struggling for resources to survive.
Deep Descent’s story, on paper, seems like it could be incredibly immersive. You have giant, futuristic living and breathing underwater stations as well as capital ships all vying for world domination from beneath the sea. What are the people like onboard? Does each station and ship feel different with its own distinct culture? Will your interactions affect other storylines down the road?
Unfortunately, the static station and ship locations feel like an afterthought, which breaks immersion. To be fair to the team at Digital Arrow, though, it does appear that there was a Kickstarter goal for this and it simply didn’t reach the funding level, so we have to consider that.
Regardless, there’s no ability to explore each location, only a HUD of sorts that let’s you toggle which location you’re in, such as the “Quarters,” which is where all the story-driven conversations will lie. You couple that with some stiff voice acting and it can feel like a stab to the chest. There’s just so much potential here! I will say the voice acting grew on me over time, but just be aware that it can be cringe-inducing. That being said, I really felt like the story made a stark turnaround in the latter half. If I could make one recommendation to you, it would be to power through the first half and get to the good stuff.
Gameplay Controls & Elements
Underwater Movement and Exploration
The idea of underwater vehicle gameplay probably leaves some pretty skeptical. They think of large plodding ships taking ages to turn around and being hampered by the friction of H20. I won’t lie to you, there is a bit of that here, but when using boosters or after upgrading the speed of the AquaNox ships, they become much more fun to use. Exploration missions go much quicker and therefore aren’t as daunting. Why the ships aren’t a bit faster from the outset, I’ll never know. There’s also no joystick and throttle support, which may disappoint some.
Inside Your Ships and HUD
Your view compromises of a cockpit detailing your current guns, secondary modules, which are effectively cooldown abilities, coupled with a HUD detailing the map, health and shields, and remaining ammo for each gun. It works fairly well, but you do find yourself dropping your eyes down to your health and shields quite often. There’s an option to have them attached to your reticle, but I find it takes away from the underwater visuals.
Speaking of health and shields, there are also hull repair kits and shield kits that offer instantaneous repair, but on a controller they are oddly mapped backwards on the d-pad. In other words, looking at the screenshot above, you see that your shields are on the top and your hull health is on the bottom. Your hull repair kit is mapped to the up button on the d-pad and the shield kit is mapped to the bottom d-pad. Not the end of the world, but makes me wonder if this game was rushed out, which explains some of my future misgivings for the game.
Scrolling around on the map in the HUD is incredibly choppy when using a controller. It’s not as simple as just scrolling around using a thumbstick. It’s basically like moving through a video frame by frame to get the information you’re looking for. I also was disappointed to see that when I checked the online mode to see potential co-op availability that I was stuck and couldn’t back out. The only solution was to switch back to a keyboard to escape the screen. Lastly, loot drops are not easily trackable. It’s difficult to gauge whether they are above or below you, which is odd considering all of the enemy ships detail that information within the HUD map.
Combat in AquaNox Deep Descent is a bit of a mixed bag for me. Mainly, you’ll be using your two primary weapons, switching between each gun based on the enemy type or situation, and then going into battle. Your enemies also have their own shields, so that’s something you have to contend with, especially when being surrounded. Further, your secondary weapons are set to auto fire, so you have to remember to turn them off in order to not give away your position. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but interesting. Throughout the first half of the game I didn’t find the combat that engaging, maybe even repetitive, but things seemed to have changed for me during the second half when other enemy types were introduced. Enemies started hiding behind cover and methodically making their way around the landscape to get the jump on me. It actually took some strategy to stay alive. One must-have request, though, would be to save weapon loadouts for quick swap rather than scroll through my entire gun inventory every time I want to switch guns.
One glaring issue is that of enemy pop-in. I really noticed it on a mission titled “Civil War,” but have seen it happen multiple times. You can be in an area with virtually nothing around you only to have five ships appear feet away from you with a sudden indicator on your coms that enemies have arrived. That’s not great game design, my friends. Again, makes me think this game should have still been in a beta phase to work out these kinks. Really does a disservice to the immersion.
The upgrade system in AquaNox Deep Descent is the same that you’d expect from space sims and the like. Firstly, each ship has unique properties and specializations in terms of stats. One may have high shields while another is speedy and prone to getting blown to pieces. Ship upgrades can be purchased with credits (in-game currency), including increases to your hull, shields, speed, secondary weapons, et cetera. I would say the majority are useful, barring a few of the cooldown skills, so there is some pleasure in getting your feet wet here 😀 (not sorry…).
Another issue that comes to mind: Lack of secondary weapons on all the ships! In AquaNox, there’s only one ship (there’s supposedly two, so I may have missed it) that I received in my playthrough that was even capable of using secondary weapons, which forced me into using one specific ship rather than experimenting. That’s egregious to me. Again, it makes me think maybe this game wasn’t ready for prime time because of the lack of customization. Big misstep…
Multiplayer & Co-op Modes
There is multiplayer and co-op modes, but I’ve had a terrible time finding a match. It’s a real shame because the map layouts are pretty interesting too. If you can find a buddy, I’d highly recommend checking out co-op, as I think the gameplay may be enhanced, but finding that experience with a stranger looks to be unlikely at the moment.
Any time a game is released, there’s usually a bit of disparity between the original press hype screenshots and what the game actually looks like. That’s the same here. When you take a look at some of the development and Kickstarter photos, you’ll notice an extra level of fidelity, especially in the release trailer video below, that makes the game look incredibly immersive. It makes me question how fantastic this game could have been had it only had the proper backing.
But still, there are some locales that are vibrant with color and something to behold. From giant underwater statues to underwater cities to expansive capital ships, there’s certainly some eye candy here that should garner applause. One thing that would really work in AquaNox’s favor and immersion is being able to actually see yourself dock onto these giant vessels or stations, especially in VR, which is oddly missing. Unfortunately, you simply hit a button prompt and the game loads you inside, which seems a bit hasty. This world is teeming with life, so I want to see it all!
As far as pacing, you’re looking between 10-20 hours to complete the game, maybe longer if you choose to do every side mission available. I found myself sticking to the main storyline after a while and powering through, but I can say that the second half of the game seemed more engaging to me. You couple that with much-needed upgrades to ship speed and suddenly you have a more engaging game. As mentioned above, my advice is to power through the main storyline until at least the 50% mark (you can see your progress at the save screen) and then determine whether or not to do more side missions.
AquaNox Deep Descent is a great example of what could have been. I’m happy to have gotten to scratch the itch of my love for space flight simulation games, but really am disappointed with the end result. There is a world here teeming with life and nuance, yet it just falls a bit flat at times in presentation. Stiff voice acting and the cookie cutter integration of docking into capital ships and stations really takes away from enveloping yourself into the world of Aqua. You couple that with questionable game design choices, what seems like rushed content, and a dead ecosystem for multiplayer/co-op, you get a lackluster experience. We should note there might be very good reasons for how it either was rushed or there just simply wasn’t enough financial backing to get the job done properly, though. Regardless, I do hope there is another AquaNox in the future. Still, if you can get past its shortcomings at the current price of $29.99, there is something here that may be worthwhile to you, especially if you’re a diehard fan of space flight and/or sea battle.