The First Descendant Hands-on Preview
If you’ve followed my byline for a while, you’ll know I’m a complete Destiny 2 addict. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve spent over 1,200 hours on Steam getting killed by The Architects over and over again. However, right now, I’m not playing the game religiously for the first time in several years.
It’s actually been quite nice. I’ve had time to play a few decent indies. I’ve been hitting the gym more. I got married recently. But even after my nuptials, I’ve had an existential feeling of emptiness. I need to chase something. I need to bang my head against infuriatingly frustrating RNG. I need a new Xur.
I thought, for a moment, The First Descendant would fill that void. But after some time with an early access build of the game, I don’t think The First Descendant has the depth to offer anything different or meaningful to an increasingly crowded looter shooter genre.
The game is a one-four-player third-person shooter, similar to Warframe or Anthem. You play as a Descendant who’s dispatched to deal with a multitude of problems, usually involving monstrous baddies who are up to no good.
After a brief orientation mission, I got introduced to combat, which involves shooting a range of guns like assault rifles, SMGs, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Navigation is mainly done on foot, but you’re strongly encouraged to use a grappling hook to fling yourself around like a futuristic Spiderman. This makes for pretty interesting battlefield decision-making regarding positioning, and pushing hordes of enemies back.
For instance, if a bunch of melee-focused enemies overruns you, you can simply zip to higher ground, or zip to another spot to put distance between you and your foes. While not novel, the execution of the grapple is fairly decent, so you have to commend developer Nexon for that. Where I think everything falls apart is the lack of mantling. If you need to zip up to a tall platform, you need to use your momentum to position yourself, as you can’t pull yourself up, if you just about hit the edge.
After defeating a big boss enemy, which is called a Colossi, you’re packed off to the social space to listen to a chunk of exposition about the universe The First Descendant occupies. I took notes, but I’ll be honest, the lore felt pretty impenetrable at this stage (and I’m the kind of guy that likes to hang out in r/DestinyLore and r/RaidSecrets).
I was told to go to Albion, and off I went to go and rid the world of baddies. After loading in, the game pointed me toward a beacon, which, when activated, started a mission. All of them felt like patrols from Destiny 2. Some of them were to kill 15 enemies, go to a specific place, and stand and defend a specific spot. Other missions involved collecting certain items, and others involved killing waves of enemies and then killing a big bad one at the end of it. Each mission was interlaced with some dialogue, further embellishing the plot.
Of course, I was playing a tech test of the game – so I reserve the right to change my mind when I play a later build – but at this stage, The First Descendant’s core gameplay loop felt quite repetitive and bland. The missions all felt like things I’d done in other games before, and by the time I’d done 20 or so runs, I was fed up.
Even the world missions – which serve as end-game content at level 40 – were pretty dull. One of them, in the Red Desert region, was to survive 21 waves of enemy combat in order to earn some loot and XP. There were other, bigger, missions that required you to matchmake with other players to tackle bigger and boss-like enemies, Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test this out as I wasn’t able to matchmake in this early build of the game.
Speaking of descendants, 11 different classes are playable, each with their own skills and abilities. In the limited time I had with the game, I only managed to play with two.
The first, Ajax, is a big, tanky boy that’s effectively a titan from Destiny 2. He’s got a fist smash attack, which is just like the fist of havoc super, but nowhere near as good. It’s designed to stun enemies, allowing you and your squad to drop them. Another ability is a barricade, which buys you breathing space when you’re being peppered by enemy fire. Ajax even has a bubble, which you can stand in and be immune from taking damage when inside it.
I also managed to get some game time with Sharen, who I much preferred to Ajax. She’s nimble, fast, and has more in common with a ninja than anything else. Her special abilities are centered around throwing knives, slashing with a claw attack, and just generally moving around the place quite quickly.
Having only played two of them, I feel like I can’t pass a definitive view on all Descendants, but what I saw so far seemed OK. I’d be interested to explore some of the other classes once the game launches to experiment more. I know there’s a chap who does fiery things with his hands, along with someone that has ice abilities. I’d be interested to see the combinations and gameplay elements abilities would bring to the table.
One thing there’s no getting around is how lifeless many of the guns feel. And I think for a game where shooting is one of the core things you do, this is inexcusable. What do I mean by lifeless? Well, if you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing a certain action in a video game, it needs to ‘feel’ satisfying. Take firing Whisper of The Worm in Destiny 2 – it has a thumping wallop of a sound, as each shot leaves its barrel and lands perfectly on a target’s squishy head.
Sadly, many of the guns in The First Descendant lack that wallop. The ARs barely have any kick, sound dull, and feel quite tepid. You’d expect sniper rifles to have a hit of kick about them, or perhaps an earth-shattering shot sound, as you connect with an enemy’s face, but unfortunately, they’re just as tame as an AR.
But I think the most egregious issue The First Descendant has is its complete lack of depth in its gear and endgame. Nexon was generous enough to give me an endgame account to play with, unlocking a suite of weapons and armour and ability-giving tools called runes.
At first glance, there’s a lot to play with. There are dozens of runes that slot into your gear, your guns, and everything else. The issue is, none of them are very imaginative. For instance, one rune allows you to reload your gun quicker, another grants you extra rounds when you switch to a specific weapon, another reloads your weapons faster – you get the picture.
Looter shooter games are the most fun when you get that piece of gear that allows you to break the game a little bit. Take Diablo III: I spent hours grinding greater rifts for that last piece of the Tal Rasha set to rein down meteors, free of charge on my disintegrate build.
In Destiny 2, with the recent subclass overhauls, playing with infinite throwing knives, bonk hammers, or volatile rounds made me enjoy the game more because I felt more powerful and crucially: it synergised with my abilities and gear.
From what I saw in this build of The First Descendant, none of what I’ve just described exists. And that’s a terrible shame because they’ve spent a lot of time creating lots of gear, but ultimately, none of them ‘feel’ very powerful.
The First Descendant is a visually striking and exciting-looking game. It’s got a great art direction and at a first glance, it looks like it could compete with some of the big behemoths in the looter-shooter genre.
However, when you peek behind the curtain, the flashy surface-level appearance gives way to critical issues, such as poor gunplay, uninspiring loot, and little to no synergy between your abilities and gear.
I think the question I have – and the jury is still out on this one – is whether can all of this be fixed ahead of its launch?
Only time will tell.