Played on Windows
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, and macOS.
In 1994, Descent came out, and it was unlike most games at the time as the industry was slowly moving towards 3d shooters in the wake of Doom’s success. However, Descent made a name for itself as a game where not only were you able to shoot 3d enemies, you were also able to move and look in all three directions but you were able to rotate your ship around on any axis, allowing you to fully explore the mines in which you’ve found yourself in.
That was a unique game and 13 years later a group of people, many connected with the original Descent franchise or the Descent: Freespace franchise, formed Revival Productions and created a spiritual successor, named Overload. It has the same look and feel of Descent but as a game, it has been brought forward to the current generation.
I’ve personally struggled with Overload for a while. There’s a big issue that comes up with me reviewing this game. The team who created this game is made up of almost all former employees of Volition, if you’ve followed me you may know that I’ve worked at Volition a long time ago, on Saints Row 2, Red Faction Guerilla, and Red Faction Armageddon, and I’ve worked alongside many of these creators in some capacity, as well as one of them being on the group who hired me and changed my life. I instantly contributed to the Kickstarter without a second thought, just due to both a love of the series and the fact that these are people I know closely and you help your friends when you can. In fact, Freespace was one of the reasons I initially applied to Volition.
I’ve thought quite a bit about this and realized I could never give this game an impartial review, If I somehow disliked this game I wouldn’t have covered it, and since many involved in the new venture gave me my first job in the industry, I think officially I shouldn’t review it.
But then again, I actually am a huge fan of this game, I’m old enough to remember the original Descent playing it with a flight stick, and thus might be one of the few people who this game was made for. It’s been a while since this game came out and I believe the company has been scaled down, even potentially closing, but I decided I still want to talk about the reasons why I enjoyed Overload, and what made it stand out for me. I may not review the game, but we are here anyway so I still can talk about it.
Overload is a rather impressive looking game. Most of the game is played on developed asteroid outposts of corporations. They are essentially mines, but they are more developed than Descent. Each area filled by “auto-ops” which are AI-controlled robots, that will attack you on sight. However, these locations are well designed and look great. They feel like they could be real bases, though admittedly they seem extremely large for what a corporation would use, though the player does fly in a rather large spacecraft which makes the distances work better.
The locations though are interesting to sort through and there’s a number of different versions, mostly revolving around the corporate housing, magma-based lairs, and even colder style ice caverns. Each level looks different and in fact, I almost never felt like I was seeing rooms I had already traveled through on different levels.
Levels look futuristic and interesting while still feeling believable.
Due to the fact that the player is able to rotate in all three directions, it’s important for the rooms to both standout and helps orient players even if they’re coming into it oriented differently and I found that there were a couple of times that I found this to be the case. Entering a room that looked familiar, even though I was rotated 90 degrees or upside down, this helps create a sense of spatial awareness for where I was, even as I was flying around a large base.
In addition, the enemies themselves are all unique, and the game will slowly show you more and more of them. Quite a few feel like they’re built to be battle platforms, but enough enemies feel like they’re modified robots that the bases have created to deal with you, such as the dangerous “Grinders” who use a single grinding wheel and charge at the player suicidally.
While the player usually won’t get too close to the enemies they do look great when you accidentally get close to them, and they still have that great design similar to the Descent models, with almost a face on each enemy.
Overload’s story is the one place I’m not sure about the direction Overload has gone. Much of the game is focused on discovering what has happened on these distant bases and you keep hearing the name Kantor, who used to be what appears to be a corrupt executive of a space corporation. At least that’s what the player hears early on.
Sadly much of the story is delivered in briefings like this.
Over the course of the game, you do get a lot more information. Many of the mines hide little audio recordings which allow the player to dive deeper, and I believe some of these are more illuminating of the main story, but sadly I missed many of them, I believe, and at the same time they tended to appear as I was getting into a major conflict so I was unable to focus my full attention on them.
However the story is a lot more nuanced than it appears, and I actually did find parts of it interesting. Gabriel Kantor as a villain is more than just an evil menace but much of this is paced between rather long missions or hidden away as audio logs, the pacing of the story is a bit of a problem, the story is delivered between scenes almost like a loading screen instead of a full story.
And yet as the game moved on I was more interested in it, and the final levels have a small change but definitely felt more impactful because of the events of the story, I just wish there was more consistency to the delivery.
Sometimes you will find audio logs, but they’ll play in the middle of a fire fight.
I know there are fans who have delved heavily into this as they explore every inch of the space station and if you’re looking for a game that you can do that with, Overload is it. However, personally, I wish there was perhaps more cutscenes than just voice-over narration on a screen with white text and a black background.
If there’s one place I was very happy that Overload delivered on, it was the gameplay. Descent was a very unique game, and while I’ve played a number of games that attempted to have a similar feel or experience, it’s very hard to get that same feeling from a game.
But sure enough, Overload does it efficiently and quickly, after about thirty seconds a huge smile appeared on my face, and I was loving playing Overload because it reminded me of Descent, exactly as it promised. This may be updated to a modern style and control, but also has some of the best controls and a ton of great moments. Players are able to almost slide around the 3d mining environments as they want and take out enemies.
The 3d environment really feels unique.
The entire game of Overload is set up like this. Players are able to move their ship forward and backward and slide to the left and right, but also can reorient it around each of the three axes or even just fly around using both control systems. If you point your ship in a direction and press forward that’s the direction your ship will go. It’s a great system and really gives the player the feeling of freedom of movement.
Overload does attempt to orient players in one of the cardinal dimensions of the three dimensions, meaning any of the 6 points of the X, Y or Z axis. With a controller, players are also able to easily hit a button and execute a 90-degree roll, to right or flip their ship as desired, and otherwise can move pretty freely around the remaining axes with the mouse or right stick of the controller.
This may sound confusing and to people new to this style of game, it probably will be, but it’s what set Descent apart from other games and Overload does a great job returning to that strange control scheme and finding new life with it. In addition, there’s the same primary weapon systems as well as secondary systems of rockets and mines which rely on ammunition and that’s still an interesting set of weapons.
Overload wanted to try to remind people of the reason why Descent was a major game and it certainly does that. The first level has the player enter a mine and is tasked to simply destroy all the “Auto-ops” in it, meaning to kill every robot, and after that point, the game simply tells the player to get closer to the surface to be warped out. While this is a good tutorial level, it is a departure from what Descent fans remember, the goal of most Descent levels, is to destroy a mine’s reactor and then escape from the ensuing explosion.
The first level appears to have a reactor, you’re not able to reach it and the change here is odd. It’s only made odder by the fact that a majority of levels end exactly the same way as the original game. It’s only the first and the final levels that avoid this, and the reason for the earlier level feels off, though perhaps it’s to avoid the frantic rush on the first level.
By this I mean that after you destroy the reactor, the player is only given a short time to escape the facilities. This was the most hectic and wild parts of Descent, and Overload seems to have a similar feel, however out of quite a few levels, only two levels really had a long escape through the facility. Most levels have the “Emergency exits” close to the reactor and you need to sprint to them but they’re almost always close, and the time limits are rather generous.
You can also rescue some humans as you play through the game.
Still, those couple of levels in Overload with the player flying through the entire level to escape does ring true to the original games, and most levels are really well designed. Though there are other updates, such as a new upgrade system, which is extremely overwhelming at first. There’s a wonderful auto-upgrade system which I relied on early in the game, but later found out how much of a mistake it was. It seems that the upgrade system likes to upgrade weapons and special items, however, that will leave the player weaker. Whereas if the player chooses to improve the armor or energy drainage of the ship, it’ll make the player almost invincible.
I’m not sold on the upgrades, but they do give the player a reason to go for almost all the bonus objectives and hunt for items. Without the upgrade system, the player only misses out on new weapons when they skip hunting for items and people to assist which will be easier to get later.
Overload is also a bit difficult too, I found it challenging at least, and as the game goes on, the enemies continue to appear in new types and eventually are very strong. I stuck with the lower two difficulties out of five and had a good time with it, though I did find myself stuck in one level after a particularly long experience where I ran out of armor. I had a choice of restarting the level or trying to find a way to take down the last area which wasn’t happening.
However, the player does have a third option. Overload still has cheat codes available. There are at least 20 cheat codes in the game that does everything from making the ship invulnerable to creating larger explosions, and it’s a great callback to what used to be almost a standard of the video game industry. They do appear to disable achievements, but I honestly didn’t mind losing out on that as I was able to change a few things in the game and enjoy it my way.
Of course with the new style of movement around the world, and being able to orient yourself in any direction, players may feel lost, but luckily there’s even a guide available that will show the player the way through the level. This is a very powerful navigation system that I avoided most of the time since I wanted to explore, but it’s nice to know that if you feel completely lost, the game will lead you to your next objective if that’s what you want. Initially this function is left off and that allows the player to make a choice if they need it. It’s something many games don’t do, but I particularly appreciate it here.
There’s a lot that I really enjoy with Overload. And honestly, if there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s that almost every level began with me grinning like an idiot and thinking “This is Descent”. Even when the game’s later levels really go off the deep end in a few ways that I’ll avoid talking about this for spoilers, I still had a blast. The experience of flying around these worlds are like nothing else. It’s just an amazing experience and it’s one I didn’t realize I had missed so much.
It’s been over 25 years since the original Descent was released. It’s great that people still remember it, but it’s even better that the guys who created it, revived it at least one more time. This might be their one attempt to recapture that magic, but in my opinion, I really think they did.
But as I said, I won’t be reviewing this game, officially. It’s more of a retrospective, a look at the game to talk about what I think. Though I think it’s clear I really enjoyed Overload, and it reminded me of what I enjoyed as a teenager. If anything I’ve said or talked about interested you, I would recommend checking it out, either as a call back to a great franchise or just as a different type of game. I wanted to talk about this game because it does stand out as something unique, especially when so many games are sticking to well-populated genres.
As for me, I’ll be back very soon with a new review, but I just wanted to talk about something special to me in more than one way. Thanks for reading.