Well here's my first review for the blog! This one will take a look at the classic 4+2 secret level campaign, Phobos Encounter, for Descent II by Kyouryuu (earlier named Razor Blade at the time).
Phobos Encounter was released in the fall of 1997, and was the author's second single-player campaign, the first one Chasm also being worth a look. However, Phobos only improves upon what was already good with the former. You get six new levels in total, two of them being secret. The designs are excellently and variant throughout the levels, and they are all of a fitting length. Each of them end with a boss robot, the final being Dr. Phobos himself which the storyline revolves around. The difficulty progression is seamless, as the first level is fairly benign for the most part while there are quite a number of challenges to conquer later on, but a good player can always survive through skill and strategy.
Phobos Encounter offers traditional Descent II type game play, as you find the keys to unlock new areas, all while fighting the considerable (and increasing) robot resistance along the way. There are no non-standard objectives, but the levels and story both flow well. You must encounter the Trac Research Complex, Altaridge Falls Mine, and Magmarock Excavation sites before gaining access to Phobos' compound itself, the fourth and final level. In addition to the normal Descent (II) robots, Phobos Encounter includes three brand new custom robots in addition to the four bosses. One of the custom robots, the BlueX (which is quite a literally fitting name by the way) can come in variant forms, firing different weapons, so you must pay attention to it and properly work against whatever weapon(s) it carries.
A brief account of each level follows:
The first level, Trac Research Complex, starts off partly Descent I-like before later switching to more a Descent II mode. Still, it's a fairly simple and symmetrical three-story complex and definitely the easiest level, with no true challenge until the boss robot at the end (aptly called RedX). The main hub hallway of the complex looks quite nice with a flickering light pattern and in addition to connecting all areas, contains access to the one energy center you'll have for most of the time.
Level 2, the Altaridge Falls Mine, is filled with flowing water, as the name would suggest. The level is probably the most spread out of the four - while it isn't linear per se, it's probably the one containing the most distinct rooms and least connectivity, with each area being relatively separate. The difficulty increases significantly here, watch out! Despite the lower connectivity each area flows well and nothing seems as if it was thrown in out of place. Also this level has the teleporter to the first secret level, but if you don't look quickly for what you might have triggered, it's very easy to get locked out of - hint, no second chances!
The first secret level has a Pumma Sphere-like theme, with a little water. Though not that large, it is heavily guarded and once you enter it, you must destroy it before you can reach an exit, unlike many Descent II secret levels. There are some very valuable goodies but require finding some switches and hidden doors to reach.
After the Altaridge Falls comes the Magmarok Excavation, a generally red hot level as you would expect, though the actual amount of lava you'll see is a bit less than hardcore lava-themed levels. Although there are many individual, non-connected areas, the level is much more "centered" than its predecessor around a pair of intersecting outer rings (which will give you trouble if you hate proxy mine droppers) and a central inner room as well. There are few shields in this level besides those dropped by robots, so you must conserve in the most difficult level of the series yet. Watch out behind the red door, because the boss is going to catch you WAY off guard of you aren't prepared! The entrance to the second secret level, which is comparatively easier to find than the first, is also here.
Secret Level 2, like the first, must be destroyed before you can exit, but on the other hand a good majority of it is optional to explore. It's by no means easy however, with comparatively more resistance and fewer rewards compared to the first secret level. One of the main areas, one that's optional to explore, might spark a sense of deja vu to those who are familiar with Counterstrike!'s first secret level.
Phobos Command Center is the fourth normal level, and also the final level, where you encounter the madman Dr. Phobos himself. The last of the three new robots only makes an appearance here, but it is one small yet deadly creature! Infestation is top of the line here and the challenge just gets tougher and tougher as you approach the final boss. The design is mostly symmetrical, like the first level, with a couple areas that could at least somewhat be considered central. You'll know when you're about to awaken the final boss - it's one big final arena.
Summary: Overall, Phobos Encounter is one of several Descent II missions that remain a classic and must play for any fan. It may consist of relatively standard level designs and objectives, but the whole thing was made to a professional level of quality. Oddly the author omitted any ice level, for all you see is some lava outside of the Altaridge Falls water mine, but in the grand scheme the lack of including all the themes isn't that important when dealing with this quality level of design. This campaign should keep you solidly entertained and interested from the opening story to when the credits roll, at least assuming you don't make the mistake I made for searching Level 2 literally for DAYS on end for the hidden teleporter before I finally looked in an editor and figured out I had missed my (one) chance to see the secret level! And it can't be a full review if I don't mention the soundtrack, which consists of four excellent, fitting all new midi tracks and a new final credits track to boot. This classic campaign has clearly stood the test of time, and you'll probably be left wanting more once it's over. And fortunately there is more - but that's a topic for a future review, not this one.
The final verdict:
Positives - Very good and varied design. Challenging, classic gameplay with a couple nicely done new robots. Should easily keep one interested the whole way through without any problems. A good unfolding storyline, well done briefing scenes, and finally a great custom soundtrack.
Negatives - Not much, the ice theme is never used and the level progression is totally standard Descent, maybe the custom robots look just slightly less professional than the original bots, but that's all really just picking tiny nits.
Overall I give this mission a score of 90%.
Download: Click here to download Phobos Encounter!
Website: Visit the official Phobos Encounter webpage!
Disclaimer: All scores and critique reflect MY opinion and no author or player should take any offense or feel discredited if they disagree.
P.S. As this is the first review, I'd like quickly explain my "scoring scale":
-Missions rated 30% or less are generally quite poor or even bad overall, and not worth looking into. As I only look to play and review generally decent or better levels, you probably won't see this score very often.
-Missions rated 30-50% are mediocre overall - ones that I could only recommend potentially if you're bored and have nothing else to play.
-Missions rated 50-65% are generally ones that lack anything special and are at or just a bit above average, but worth playing nonetheless, especially if you're bored.
-Missions rated 65-75% are solidly good and recommended without being truly special or among what would be considered "classic".
-Missions rated 75-85% are strongly recommended, with usually just a few minor flaws.
-A score at or above 85% indicates a mission that is, in my view, essentially a mandatory play for any Descent fan. Missions rated at these levels offer the real full package, with at most a small handful of minor nitpicks. Generally only campaigns or large collections will receive scores at this level.
-Scores are assigned in 2.5% increments.
All Descent I/II missions are played using DXX-Rebirth unless otherwise noted.
Finally, especially being my introductory review, any thoughts, contributions, and/or suggestions would always be greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading! :)