26 May 2007 20:51 GMT

"Minerva clones" - those are words I haven't seen in a long while.

Before Descent 3 came along, Minerva in all its variants was by far the most popular multiplayer level for Descent 1 and 2. Why, I'm not completely sure. Supposedly it was a balanced level that allowed strategy - there was always more than one way out of a room. There were no Mega

Missiles, Cloaks or Invulnerability powerups. Everything was dodgable, so you couldn't rely on one weapon to do the job.

But it wasn't the first Descent level to do this. Somehow it just became the most popular - and by extension the most hated. It was one of the most boxy, boring and ugly levels that became popular for the game, superseded only by Dark Halls in pure mediocrity. When Descent 3 came out, it was several months before anyone dared to port the level to the new engine. And when they did, no-one played it.

Yet the most popular levels for Descent 3 became not only as ugly as Minerva, they were both poorly balanced and designed. With a new polygonal engine and high-resolution textures, Descent had never looked, or played, worse. It was a cruel joke on those who treasured eye-candy.

"Minerva clones", or levels that followed the same juxtaposed-box composition of Minerva, were the accepted way that multiplayer levels were done in Descent 1 and 2. Almost everyone was doing them. There

were a handful who broke the mould and looked for some more interesting compositions, most of them single-player mission builders who were more inspired by Parallax's imaginatively contorted geometry in the official Descent 2 campaigns. Luke Schneider was probably the most well-known, and became one of the level designers for Outrage's Descent 3. Other notables were Delirium, Solrazor, Kam Sheffield and, owing to Obsidian, Sirius and myself.

Building these levels, oddly enough, was not any great stretch of the imagination. I saw an idea that I liked and

copied it, but in my own style with my own additions, construction and texturing. Whole levels were done this way. Obsidian's levels drew primarily from Solrazor's "Project: Mandrill" and Luke Schneider's "The Entropy Experiment". They were usually a lot more convoluted than either of these, however. 90 degree angles were avoided - they were scientifically boring.

Two years later, in The Apocalyptic Factor, I was more interested in copying atmospheres conveyed by Descent 2's official Counterstrike and The Vertigo Series missions, and

to a lesser extent the Descent 1 campaign. Again ideas were copied - level 5, Tefoleg Crater Dig, had components that could mostly be traced back to Vertigo Series levels between 7 and 10. Level 13 was built like Descent 1 levels 19 and 21 with no apologies. But the exemplar of what I was trying to achieve was in level 3, Serduta Munitions Bunker. I was trying to make the sewers feel like sewers. Like video game sewers. Not just where biological waste is piped to treatment plants, where mutants creep through and scheme evil things.

You'd keep going back to them. It was obvious - a trapezoid cross-section with a central concrete barrier travelling through the middle of the water. Rather clean water compared to what you'd expect, but robots don't leave much behind. You saw fragments of them at numerous different stages of the level. The lighting was intentionally dark, and the textures desaturated. Eventually, you'd open up the whole system, and three boss robots would lurk in different parts of the tunnels.

The boss robots barely fit in the low corridors, and they were

among the easiest in the game to kill. The hardest part of the level had actually been surviving the long hike to the energy centre, which I'd left until about halfway in. But there's something special about being chased down dingy sewer tunnels by maniacal robots with 5-metre diamond-plated swingarms, apart from just being scary. Scenarios like this are the defining points of the game.