Wednesday, 1 July 2020

AquaNox (PC)

AquaNox title screen
Developer:Massive Development|Release Date:2001|Systems:Windows

This week on Super Adventures I'm still in the early 2000s and I'm still on PC, but I've jumped ahead by one year to play 2001 submarine shooter AquaNox.

I own this one on CD with a proper box and a proper manual, but I'm playing the Steam version instead because Windows 10 apparently wants nothing to do with its SafeDisc DRM. A lot of the games on my PC shelf have the same issue, which is a bit of a pain seeing as I didn't get them just so they could take up space! I got them so that they'd be there when I was ready to play them in a decade or two.

Speaking of the box, I got it out to have a look and there's no mention on it anywhere that this is actually a sequel to a 1996 game called Archimedean Dynasty. It apparently has "34 dangerous missions", an "atmospheric 3D soundtrack" and "an absorbing storyline that provides depth to the relentless action", but there's no hint that it's game #2.

There's actually three games in the AquaNox series, though AquaNox: Deep Descent is supposed to be out any day now, which will bring the number to four. There was going to be a PlayStation 2 game as well, AquaNox: The Angel's Tears, but that was outright cancelled for not passing Sony's software quality assurance test! I'm sure the developer could've fixed it, unfortunately they'd already been closed down by that point.

Anyway, it's been a long time since I played Archimedean Dynasty and I've never played this before so I'm not 100% sure what to expect here, but I'm optimistic. I like space shooters and some sky shooters, so I think I could find the fun in a sea shooter.

Finally a game with a plankton detail slider!

I think I'll be maxing all of these. The game was so demanding at the time that you'd be lucky to get 30 fps from a brand new GeForce3 card running at 1024x768 on default settings, but I'm from the future and I can get more fps than I know what to do with. I mean seriously, I'm going to have to use RivaTuner and lock the frame rate to get it out of the thousands.

Getting the controls set up was a bit of a pain though. I had to keep starting up a quick dogfight, see what I'd mapped to the controller correctly, then quit back to the menu to swap things around, invert a few things, tweak the sensitivity, and try again. The PC Gaming Wiki helped me out here by giving a suggested control scheme to start from, but it still needed some work before I was comfortable with it. Well, mostly comfortable.

The game begins with a CGI intro video narrated by Archimedean Dynasty's protagonist, Emerald "Deadeye" Flint, the most talented and cynical hardboiled international sea pilot under the seven seas.

Archimedean Dynasty started off with Flint telling the tale of how his ship was destroyed while defending a freighter from pirates, with lots of action and drama. This time though he's mostly just rambling on about the state of the world and what he thinks about it. I feel like he skipped the part where he explains why everyone is living underwater these days though. I guess either Andrew Ryan's Rapture concept took off in this timeline and everyone wanted to build cities under the sea, or us humans went and made the surface uninhabitable, like a bunch of idiots. It's the second one isn't it.

The game's set five years after Flint saved the human race from the Bionts, but I get the impression he mostly did it for the money, because he doesn't seem all that impressed by what the rest of humanity are up to. Rogue scientists keep bio-engineering prehistoric sea monsters and the techno bourgeois are techno addicted to techno drugs, or something. I haven't heard the word techno repeated this many times in a five minute video since Eurodance was a thing.

Oh by the way, this intro's over five minutes long and the only bit of story in it comes at the end when Flint reveals that he got his awesome end game ship stolen and is back to square one.

AquaNox loading screen
Hey it's her from the box! Not the game box, the graphics card box.

That's a nice futuristic wetsuit she's wearing, looks very organic and reptilian. And green.

The loading's over, but it seems like the green is sticking around for a while.

This is Emerald Flint himself, having a conversation with some guy he knows about his ship getting stolen. The first game let me pick his responses occasionally, but this time all I can do is sit back and listen to them talk.

Okay cool, they're done, now I get to play with a menu screen.

It's that mysterious woman from the loading screen! She's just a giant face on the screen right now though, she's not actually saying or doing anything. So that's a bit weird.

Huh, this is weird, it's not letting me use my controller in the menu. It's definitely recognised it, I did a bit of instant action dogfighting earlier to get it set up properly, so the game's just being awkward now.

Right, I can't pick 'DOCK' yet, 'options' is confusing me with its lower case letters, and I've only got 2000 credits so I'm too broke to visit the 'SHOP' or get a new 'SHIP'. I thought there might be some commodities here I could haul, but it doesn't seem like it's doing Elite/Freelancer style space trading. Though there's probably going to be a job for me in the 'TALK' option, because there's nothing else for me to do here.

I found two people waiting in the TALK menu and neither of them were very helpful. It's just like chatting with random NPCs in an RPG. Also I can't tell if that option at the bottom means exit from the station lounge or exit to the station lounge, and it's bothering me. I want to know where I am!

At least listening to the dialogue has unlocked the 'DOCK' button so I can finally head out in search of money and gameplay. Also Flint's stolen ship, I should probably try to find that as well.

Hey these are all the same places as in Archimedean Dynasty! Though in the first game you can sometimes choose your own destination instead of it being given to you.

Alright let's set sail to Topo's Asylum then, seeing as it's the only place I can go. I hope this isn't one of those games where you have to point your ship in the right direction and then go read a book for 20 minutes. I mean I doubt it's going to have jump points or wormholes underwater, but a Wing Commander style autopilot with time skip could work. Or just time acceleration in general.

Oh, I just teleported to the Asylum instantly and now I'm looking at an identical 'TALK', 'SHOP', 'BUY' menu except with a different building in the background. Hey, didn't the first game pull this trick on me as well?

Though a new location means new conversations and the faces just keep getting better!

To be honest, the voice acting's often weirder than the faces, as a few of the actors are putting on stupid voices. Plus they sometimes put emphasis on the wrong words or disagree on the pronunciation (is Flint's stolen ship the Succubus or the Zuckerbus?) It doesn't help that the translation seems a bit wonky at times.

Anyway after all the talking I was able to access the dock again, where I found I had one job waiting for me.

Next Mission: ASYLUM

Mission Objective:
- Eliminate scrap at nav point

Oh the green wetsuit woman is my AI sidekick! Flint's very own Cortana. Well that's one mystery solved.

I'm sure I'll get to drive around and do stuff in a moment, but right now I'm watching an in-engine cutscene showing off my replacement submarine. It's alright for a cheap piece of crap I reckon; it looks practical.

Though graphically this would've been pretty stunning at the time. Maybe not this particular shot, but the game in general. They made a benchmarking tool out of it (AquaMark 2) so people could test how well graphics cards could handle its advanced DirectX 8 effects and pixel shaders. This was as flashy as games looked in 2001. Or so I've been told.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2)
Personally I think Metal Gear Solid 2 looks a lot more impressive (it has reflections on the wall and floor in this shot!). It's kind of tricky to compare the two properly though, seeing as AquaNox apparently has no interest in ever rendering an interior.

Alright, here I am sitting behind my holographic HUD ready to shoot some scrap.

It's telling me to go to the way point I've started off next to, that yellow crystal from The Sims over there, but it's not disappearing when I fly into it. I was expecting it to trigger a new way point that'll lead me to the junk that needs obliterating, but nothing's happening.

By the way, I like how the radar sonar is a projection of the sea floor with all the buildings on it. I'd rather have an old fashioned TIE Fighter radar that makes it immediately obvious where things are in three dimensions, but this is pretty. Also it's covered in red lines for some reason... wait is this stuff floating around me the scrap I'm supposed to destroy? Seems a bit risky firing my Vendetta 1 cannon right next to a pressurised underwater base 3164 meters below sea level, but if that's what they want!

I can't cycle through targets so I guess I'll just start shooting at anything that looks trashy.

Archimedean Dynasty (MS-DOS)
Here's the beautiful rendered cockpit of the first game as a comparison. It's not generally a good idea to obstruct this much of the player's view, but for a submarine I think it actually enhances the feeling of being underwater. That, plus the way that you bob around a bit. In AquaNox you do not feel like you're underwater, even though you can see the rippling surface above. Wait, are you supposed to be able to see the rippling surface when you're 3km underwater?

Anyway, atomising all the floating bits of scrap wasn't too hard, but then the music from a Wipeout game came on and I was told to go save a freighter from driving into some other cloud of debris. I have to race over there because if it hits too much scrap it'll sink!

Don't worry, I've trained for this! I can follow way points and shoot garbage now.

I'm still trying to get used to the controls though, because it doesn't play like I expected it to. It's somewhere between a space sim and a first person shooter: I can tilt the stick to dive or climb, but I can also strafe to the side, and if I let go of the movement stick I stop pretty much instantly without any momentum. At least that's how it works in this sub, I don't know what the others are like.

I saved the boat, then shot down a lone Biont craft that was hassling it, and that was it for mission one. I got the option to 'Activate Dipol', so I did that and was sent back to the station lounge menu, 2000 credits richer.

Next Mission: TERROR

Mission Objective:
- Prevent Attack

I skipped through a few more conversations back in Magellan or Topo's Asylum or wherever I was, then departed on a new mission. It seems like that's going to be the routine from now on; the game's just a linear series of missions with some chat in between. There's chat during missions too actually, but it's mostly just the computer talking so far as Flint is strangely silent once he's in the cockpit.

This time I'm trying to save a statue or something from a Neopolite hobby-terrorist with synthohol in his veins and manga in his sub's boot. Uh, I guess that would be 'trunk' if you're American, and 'das boot' in German.

I like his sub by the way, it's going to be a real shame to destroy it... partly because of how bloody long it's going to take. My Vendetta 1 fires slowly and is mostly effective against literal junk.

Fortunately all I had to do was blow up that one guy and that was the end of the mission.

What, I didn't get paid for it? But I spent ages plinking away at that thing with my crappy pea-shooter! Well, until I got bored and wasted all my torpedoes on it anyway.
El Topo was Flint's boss in the first game as well, at least for the few missions I played, but I don't really remember what he looked like back then.

Archimedean Dynasty
Oh, I guess that explains why.

Archimedean Dynasty does a much better job at pulling you into its world though, mostly because it actually shows interiors. AquaNox tries to paint its world through daft conversations rather than images and it makes me feel like I've been left in the car, listening in on everyone else doing more interesting things elsewhere.

I love how representative the two games are for their respective eras though. They are exactly of their times. I mean you can tell just from these screenshots that one's obviously from the late DOS era and the other came out somewhere between Omikron: The Nomad Soul and Beyond Good & Evil.

Next mission: BIONT SCRAP

Mission Objective:
- Escort for scrapyard workers

Nice god rays, though I wish I didn't have to look at them; I hate it when enemies fly above me in this. The trouble is that my sub controls kind of like someone wearing a jetpack, so I feel like I have to hold down the ascend button to get on their level instead of trying to chase them like a plane. I'd say it was like piloting a helicopter... but they're actually fun to fly around in.

In this mission I'm fighting off pieces of scrap again, only this time it's belligerent scrap. Apparently the debris from the last war with the Bionts has started to come back to life and needs to be re-disintegrated. Fortunately my gun's pretty good against junk, and the enemies are very stupid, so this has been no trouble at all so far.

Damn, the 'TALK' option is crowded today. I'll be here forever with all this.

I have to admit that I'm only half paying attention to what they're saying at this point. These conversations with NPCs are my only window into this world aside from what happens during gameplay, so I can see why they're there... but I don't really care about these people, their world, or the story right now.

In fact I'm not sure I've even reached a story yet, just a lot of separate conversations with people that Emerald runs into as he hops between two bars trying to find somewhere he can chill out and destroy himself with dystopian future food.

I had to go through about 40 boxes of conversation before I could get back to my ship, and they weren't all as mercifully brief as this. Apparently some of the other customers are convinced that low frequency communication towers are liquifying people's brains, and in this world I don't doubt it.

At least I managed to get my payment for that job I wasn't paid for earlier. 2400 more credits in the bank.

That's brought me 1.3% closer to buying this new boat! I've earned 8940 credits during the last three missions, and this thing costs 189100 credits, so either my pay is going to get better soon or this is going to take a while.

Anyway, my next mission is... protect the low frequency communication station from pirates! It's fine, there'll probably be a twist later in the mission where I learn all the stuff I already learned in the bar and realise that I've got to do something.

Next mission: ELF-TERROR

Mission Objectives:
- Fight pirate Scouts
- Protect ELF-stations

Hah, the mission's called operation ELF-TERROR!

I've been told to follow the cables to find the pirates attacking the ELF-station, so that's what I've been doing, but my new wingmen keep blowing them up first! I really need a better ship. No, wait, better guns! Part of the problem I'm having is that it's hard to see where my shots are going and whether they're hitting the enemy at all, so it's hard for me to adjust my aim to lead the target. (Another part is I'm doing first person shooting with a game pad and no auto-aim.)

Anyway that wasn't hard at all. I kept waiting to learn the dark secret of the ELF network, but nope. I just shot things and pretty soon it was over.

Right, I've had enough of my puny Vendetta 1 cannon now. I was trying to save up for the next ship, but I'm just going to blow all my cash on guns instead.

Oh, it turns out that buying better guns will actually have absolutely zero impact on my savings, because I can sell them for the same price I bought them! I learned about this when I bought two Vendetta 2s and discovered you can't have two of the same gun equipped, so I had to give one back. You switch between guns in this, you don't fire your entire arsenal at once.


Mission Objective:
- Prevent looting of the jumpship

Okay there's been a bit of a jumpship accident and it's up to me and some guy called Picollini to keep the pirates busy while the rescue ship docks. Picollini seems like he's got this covered all by himself with all the kills he's getting, and this is a bad thing, because he won't shut up about it! Every time he shoots one down he yells "Yeeaaaah! That one's headed for the bottom!" EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Though he did stop for a bit to talk about how the shady corporation seems more interested in their possibly illegal cargo than the safety of the passengers, so there's a bit of story going on; it's not just mindless shooting. Though it's mostly mindless shooting. The combat is so stripped down and streamlined I can't even give my wingman orders!

After a while I got a short cutscene of the ship finally docking, and then some more ships teleported in for me to shoot! Or decloaked maybe? I'm not sure. All I know is that it turns out that cutscenes are skippable! Well, fast-forwardable. Close enough.

Okay the rescue ship's leaving now, and I'm still here shooting pirates.

The enemies are mostly focused on the mission critical target over there, but I'm sure sending a few shots into their hull will get them to notice me. Trouble is I probably get shot right back because I keep forgetting I don't have any momentum. In any other space sea shooter the two of us would be swooping around all over the place, making me a harder target for anyone else to hit. Here though they're just parking in one place, and I'm often parked right next to them as a sitting duck.

In my defence I'm also trying to minimise my movement to maximise my accuracy and finish them off as soon as possible. There is kind of a time limit here and I have no idea how much health the rescue ship has left.

Oh, I guess it had no health left. I tried loading the auto save and it put me back at the dock before I even left, so I guess I'm playing the mission from the start again!

I don't know what's worse, the feeling that I didn't make enough mistakes the first time for a second attempt to go any better for me, or the fact that I'm going to have to keep hearing Picollini shouting "Yeeaaaah! That one's headed for the bottom!" again. Look he's doing it right now! Hey, if Picollini shot down so many ships, why didn't we win?

Actually, better question, how did he shoot down so many ships? Is it because he brought torpedoes? Maybe if I stopped being a stingy cheapskate and got some new torpedoes of my own I could kill an adequate number of pirates too. But... I want to keep hold of my money, so I won't. You don't even get a free restock when you return to dock; you have to buy new torpedoes every time you fire them.

Next mission: MAGMA

Mission Objective:
- Scout target area
- If there are any Bionts, eliminate them

Good news! I stopped being an idiot, bought the torpedoes, and beat that rescue mission on my third try. Now I'm hanging around the lava zone chasing down Bionts with my other wingman Bonham.

Though the first time I opened fire my computer started yelling at me to stop! Turns out my wingman's ship looks a lot like a Biont ship from a distance and I got them mixed up. It's fine, no one exploded, we're all good.

By the way, see the double yellow arrows on the left of the circle that point me to my next objective? The HUD also gives me red arrows when there's an enemy target for me to aim at. It's the fun alternative to having an immediately clear and readable radar to work from! Sonar. Whatever.

Trouble is that it doesn't seem too bothered about which way those arrows should go, and my brain is not prepared to process reverse arrows. When I see arrows next to my crosshair telling me which way to turn, I turn towards the arrows, because that's what you do in every single game that has them. But I guess here I'm suppose to pull away from them? I don't even know!

Anyway a larger Biontic bomber has turned up and that's apparently going to be a problem for my crappy scout ship.

Well, it's a tough bastard, that's for sure. Though my ship's fairly tough as well it seems. I got bored trying to turn this into a dogfight so now we're just parked nose to nose unloading ammo directly into each other's armour. It's been going on for a while now.

If I'm reading these gauges correctly, I still have half my health while the bomber's almost down to his last red bar, so I can win this fight! This is obviously not the best way to win this fight, but the game hasn't really inspired me to give it my all.

Oh, it turns out I was incredibly wrong about which gauge was measuring my health, as I blew up right after taking this screenshot. I checked the manual and it turns out that the green bars on the four sides of the screen each refer to my kinetic shields on the respective sides of my ship. So the thing had been weakening my left side shields somehow.

Or maybe it was that jerk over on the left who was shooting me!

Anyway, doesn't matter now, I'm turning it off now. It's not that I'm stuck, I only blew up here because I was deliberately being an idiot. I've just seen enough of the game now to satisfy my curiosity. Though I've still got the rest of this manual to look through, maybe there's something more interesting in here.

Hmm, there's an Encyclopaedia Aquatica in the back which explains some of the terms, a Submarine Glossary, The History of Aqua, some suggested battle strategies... and a pair of quotes right at the front:

Some might say that it's a bit pretentious to attach a Lovecraft quote and a bible quote to a brainless shooter, but I'm not sure. I mean they're not technically part of the game, they're in the manual, and the manual's actually got some substance to it! Also there's that Nietzsche quote about fighting monsters and gazing into the abyss in there as well, so there's actually three quotes.

The next page is better though, because the writer finally admits that this really is a sequel to Archimedean Dynasty!




The trouble with AquaNox is that's it's about three things:
  • "True adrenaline-rush action for today's gamers."
  • Cutting edge DirectX 8 visuals
  • Immersing the player in a complex and unusual post-apocalyptic underwater dystopia.
But the only thing it really nails is the graphics... probably. I mean it doesn't look bad for a 20 year old game, if you're into the colour green, but I feel like I've seen better from 2001. I gotta agree with the reviewers who said that it's really not worth getting a GeForce3 card for.

I didn't find the gameplay to be much of an adrenaline rush either, possibly because it's hard to be too excited when your ship takes forever to turn and blow things up, possibly because I was distracted thinking of other games where I actually was drawn into the action. Like TIE Fighter, that's an obvious one. TIE Fighter has a bit of depth to its combat, as you can manage your shields and power, examine the map to get an overview of the battle, and go for hidden objectives that reveal more of the plot. AquaNox mostly just had me flying over to shoot the closest bad thing. You won't find shallower gameplay at 5423m below sea level.

I also thought about about another game I played recently: Ace Combat 2 on the PlayStation. Like AquaNox, it was designed to be an accessible, stripped down arcade game more about shooting than thinking. But it's addictive because of the gameplay loop of swooping around, getting a lock and then watching a pair of homing missiles fly off to sort out another problem for you. In AquaNox I didn't really dogfight, as it controls a little bit like you're a first person shooter guy with a jetpack. But there's no rooms and hallways to dart around here, no walls and furniture to duck behind, just some hills and a few buildings that I never had reason to think about. I just tried to keep the bad things in my crosshair while dodging the shots they were sending back at me, like we were a pair of floating bricks dancing around in circles. Except for all the times we both just sat there instead, because moving makes it harder to aim.

Then there's the story. AquaNox is set in a grim future straight out of 1996, filled with shady corporations and techno drugs, but the setting's clearly had a lot of thought put into it. Unfortunately the developers decided to lock it all away behind a wall of green-tinted menus and only let you interact with it through conversations. And by 'interact', I mean you get to press the button to move along to the next dialogue box (though it'll do it for you if you don't). So the sections between missions are a bit like a visual novel, except without the visuals, or much of a plot so far. Plus the voice actors are often too much voice and not enough acting, and the quality of the words they were sending my way discouraged me from paying much attention.

In fact I have to be honest, playing an hour of AquaNox took me forever because at no point did it ever grab my interest. It also took forever to write about, for the same reason. Though I admit that 6 out of 34 missions isn't much to judge a game by... so I checked some magazines to see what people thought about it at the time, and it apparently stays shallow and repetitive until the end. Or until the point where the reviewers had enough and quit anyway. Though I've been meaning to play this for ages and I finally have, so at least I can cross it off my list now.

I rarely try to talk anyone out of trying a game for themselves and I won't do it here, but if you're in the mood to play a flashy sci-fi action game from 2001, my advice is to go hunt down Hostile Waters instead. It's not underwater and it's a bit of an RTS, but it's good. Though if you want something that's just like this but better, there's always the original Archimedean Dynasty!

Thank you for reading my words! You have now earned the opportunity to share your own thoughts on AquaNox, or Super Adventures, or to take a guess at what the next game will be.

But this time you don't have to leave your replies in the comments box below. I mean I'd definitely appreciate it if you did, but now you also have a second option! Well at least until I decide it was a terrible idea and pull the plug.

I use Discord a lot, it's the fun alternative to IRC, but the trouble I've been having with it lately is that I haven't joined enough servers yet. What I've been wanting is another renewable source of unread messages to distract me from all the writing I need to get finished. Then it occured to me - I could just make my own server! So come visit my brand new...

I wish I could tell you that it's a friendly and welcoming place, but I'm only just opening it up so I suppose I'm relying on you for that.


  1. Man, I played the sequel to this and felt exactly the same, the game never grabbed me. So I guess don't give that one a try.

    Next game is Smurfs in Tron.

    1. Don't worry, I've got no plans to buy the sequel. Wait, hang on, it's already in my Steam library? But... how? Why?

      At least Smurfs in Tron hasn't magically appeared there. Though I should probably check my Epic library as well just to be safe.

  2. That HP Lovecraft quote gives me hope that somewhere around mission 16 this game goes mental and starts popping out the Deep Ones and Cthulhus, because HPL loved his underwater monsters as much as he loved being racist.

    Then again, The Dunwich Horror is one of the stories that has zero connection to anything to do with the sea, so it's probably nothing. Oh well.

  3. That's the moment that i have been waiting for.
    Joining the Discord Server soon

    1. This is the correct reaction, everyone should have this reaction!

  4. I was expecting an Equinox sequel. Reality of often disappointing

  5. I remember that this felt a lot like Battlezone, the late-1990s reboot. It had similar ship movement and off the top of my head one of the weapons could snipe the enemy pilots. Or was that the sequel?

    Except that Battlezone had a creepy atmosphere and was very tense, and it had much more depth, whereas this game felt like a step backwards. The character art is good though.

    Hey, you haven't done Battlezone. It's frustrating but great fun. It was remastered a few years ago. It was the long-delayed answer to the question of what would happen if you could drive to the mountains in the distance (the answer is that there were more mountains).

    1. Battlezone's not a bad idea. I'm sure I must have gotten it with a graphics card years ago.


Semi-Random Game Box