Just when you thought...
Aquanox is the sequel to Archimedean Dynasty, a Wing Commander-like submersed action-adventure from way back in 1997. Although the name was remarkable enough to commit to memory though, the game itself wasn't, and I'd long since forgotten the adventures of Emerald Flint and the Biont threat. Within minutes of firing up Aquanox though, if you'll excuse the pun, it all came flooding back. The premise is that Flint's post-apocalyptic Earth has long-since driven humankind to the depths of the world's oceans, and that the Bionts - a mysterious race of hive-like cyborgs - are now poised to overthrow what little resistance remains beneath the surface. This time around the Bionts are gone, making way for a new enemy. An orbiting satellite has caused seismic disturbances and something has awoken in the murky depths. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace from hereon in, told in the gaps between missions and occasionally during them. The characters Flint meets on his adventure also help to twist events. It's easy enough to become immersed, especially if you take on the task of wading through the surprisingly large manual, which is packed chock-full of background information on the world, its inhabitants and its technology. This magnificent fantasy adventure is carried by the game's visuals, which are nothing short of extraordinary. Finally offering something to give my GeForce 3 a challenge, the game uses environmental bump mapping and gorgeous particle effects to breathe life into Flint's world. Texturing is at a constant high standard, although a curious in-game V-sync option should certainly be disabled by default. The overwhelming level of detail is maintained throughout with some beautiful ship, character and architectural designs realized in a way that Archimedean's designers probably thought would never happen…
On the flipside though, Aquanox suffers from a number of issues which condemn the game to a barely respectable score. This game could have been awesome, but instead it merely serves to remind us that the PC software industry still rushes games to market in whatever state they can muster. Let's begin with Aquanox' system requirements. I'm not complaining about the frankly monstrous pre-requisite of a GeForce 3 to truly enjoy the game, nor the 800Mb footprint. Equally, I'm not especially bothered about the minimum 128Mb RAM requirement; the average PC spec has risen lately. But that fact also conspires to smite Aquanox, as the game doesn't support Windows XP. I happen to use Windows XP. After a few days of constant crashes and being dumped back to the desktop, the progressively more frustrating realisation that this game needs an older operating system led to my installing Windows 2000. This copes with Aquanox better than XP did, managing to avoid randomly dropping my session to the desktop within seconds of load-up, but I still recorded two similar crashes. I suppose that's average these days and I should count my blessings. With the exception of these problems, the game was actually extremely stable. But it's still rather annoying - my XP setup easily handles every game I throw at it, other than Aquanox.
Other issues include an unfortunate soundtrack of German techno. Get it away from me! I have trouble with techno at the best of times and after a four-hour trip across the German countryside listening to soul-destroying techno music on the radio one summer during my childhood, I'm one of the least likely people in the world to enjoy this game's soundtrack. That said, tarnished though the game is by its unfortunate music, its array of sound effects is much worse - there's virtually nothing here that fits the underwater setting. I could barely find anything that struck me as a water effect, and the 3D surround sound support almost seems like adding insult to injury. Gameplay also falls short of expectations. Aquanox is an individual and team-based game of underwater combat, with an first person shooter style control system that threatens to drive you insane with its ridiculous yawing all over the place and twitchy responsiveness. Your ship can move forwards much faster than it can in any other direction, and the same is true of enemy vessels. This makes dog-fighting extremely difficult to master because you always seem to end up zooming up and down trying to locate the enemy, only to see him stream past your right ear necessitating another roll. Since rolling is so important to combat, the predefined turn limit on vertical loops seems rather unfair and impractical… Actually, Aquanox' combat system behaves like a bad console first person control system. If you do land that fatal blow, the chances are you were lucky. That said, if you do manage to hit something, the explosions look good.
In Too Deep
Aquanox is a very nice story delivered by a beautiful, sumptuously detailed underwater world. The depths of Aquanox's oceans are matched only by the astonishing attention to detail in the design and art departments. Unfortunately, a combination of lacklustre audio and unwieldy combat - two extremely important and yet fundamentally flawed aspects of the game's design - serve to condemn Aquanox to an early, watery grave. There's plenty of action here, with some 34 missions total and a nice collection of ships to try out, and there are also some neat features, but with barely half the game completed I was already sick of the sight of it. Multiplayer cannot hope to save the game either. In spite of its GameSpy support and plenty of options for deathmatchers, it merely accentuates my gameplay-related frustration. Stripping the game's storyline from proceedings was a bad idea. Some sort of co-operative mode might not have gone amiss - at least you could gang up and not just spin around all over the shop trying to target your enemies - but alas, no. Aquanox shows a lot of potential, but thoroughly misses the target in a number of areas, and its lack of Windows XP support is unforgivable these days. GeForce 3 owners can download the demo for a peep show - it's a nice way of showing off expensive graphics hardware to your mates. Just don't let them try it out for themselves, or they might go back to poking fun at its lack of support again. Support from quality software, not just pretty tech demos.