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Descent 3 - Getting started with Descent 3
Written by roncli   
Tuesday, 30 June 2015 16:53

(Originally written in 2002 for PlanetDescent.)

Spaceorbs, Sidewinders, Precision Pros, Thrustmasters, Cyborgs. These are some of the more advanced - and in some cases more expensive - controllers out on the market. For Descent, total 3D control is key to success. If you want to survive, you need to be able to move in any direction on the turn of a dime.

Perhaps the most overlooked controller that offers this type of flexibility is another Microsoft product, but not what you think. It's the Natural Keyboard Elite. Now I know what you're thinking, keyboard players suck. Well, for those of you that have played me, you know that I'm no newbie. The learning curve for keyboard players may be longer, but the top of the curve can get quite high.

There are four topics I'm going to discuss, the first of which is the transition of keyboard players from D1/2 to D3. The second topic will be why to choose the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite over other ergonomical designs, and why it works for my setup. And The third topic will discuss my setup in general, and why it works for me. The final topic goes over how to become a better pilot with the keyboard.

Some people may argue the biggest problem with using the keyboard as a controller in any Descent game is that it is a digital controller. It's either on or off, no in between. Fortunately, Parallax added in a feature to compensate for that in the heading, pitch, and banking controls, which is known in Descent 3 as "Keyboard Ramping". Basically, think of it as acceleration. You start from zero, and work your way to full speed. The time it takes in Descent 1 and 2 for this to happen is approximately 0.35 seconds, depending on a number of factors.

Descent 3, which has customizable everything, allowed the customization of this time. The default is 0.35 seconds to emulate D1/2. However, this can be changed from anywhere from a full second down to no time at all, and everywhere in between at 0.05 second intervals. Being able to set lower ramping times is a breakthrough for keyboard players, largely because it helps us to turn quicker, and we're not wasting time trying to ramp up to speed. While combination joystick/keyboard users want to choose a value of 0.00 here, I choose a value of 0.05 so that I can fine tune aiming a little easier. Your preference may vary, and with lower framerates, you may want to think about setting it up to 0.20 seconds and work your way down.

So now that keyboard players are able to turn faster and react quicker to real time situations, the question becomes why should you switch to the Natural Keyboard Elite? There are three main reasons for this. First is it's N-Key Memory. The Natural Keyboard allows for three simultaneous keypresses, more in most cases, on most configurations. Some other keyboards allow this as well, but others only allow certain combinations of keystrokes, which results in putting a cap on your play. For example, when playing in Stadium on my old ergonomical keyboard, I could charge my fusion (Left Control) and go forward (A) at the same time, but I could not slide up (Num Pad 8), change my pitch (Arrow Keys Up and Down), or use my afterburner (Caps Lock). With the Natural Keyboard Elite, I can do all of that. Also, the Elite is a USB keyboard, and the USB port is better able to detect - and prevent - annoying keyboard lockups that force you to disconnect and reconnect your keyboard while your pyro helplessly flies around in circles. Note that the operating system you run determines how many simultaneous keypresses you get as well. If you run Windows NT, 2000, or XP, you will notice a significant improvement over Windows 95, 98, or ME. Finally, make sure the keyboard's model number, listed on the reverse side underneath the keypad, reads E06401COMB. Anything else, and your sacrificing a good amount of N-Key memory. I found this one out the hard way the last time I had to replace my keyboard. Fortunately, a friend of mine had the keyboard I needed, and I just traded. You may find that other keyboards will do just as good of a job for you, but this is the board I prefer.

Secondly is the design of the arrow keys. I use them for heading and pitch. The way the keys are designed is in a diamond shape instead of the traditional upside down T shape. That way, it's a lot easier to hit two keys at once using just your thumb, so you can dodge those three incoming mega missiles easier.

Lastly is the oversized bottom row. It is a lot easier to hit my primary (Left Control) and secondary (Left Alt) weapons. And because they are so oversized (the space bar doesn't start until between the C and the V keys), it is virtually impossible to mistaken one of them for the Windows key! Getting bumped out of the game for the start menu is not a fun experience.

Finally, my setup:

- Down, Pad 2
- Left, Pad 4
- Right, Pad 6
- Up, Pad 8

Heading and Pitch, Arrow Keys

- Left, Q
- Right, E

- Forward, A
- Backward, D
- Burner, Caps Lock

- Primary, Left Ctrl
- Secondary, Left Alt
- Cycle Countermeasures, , and .
- Countermeasure, B
- Flare, F

Cycle Items, [ and ]
Use Item, W
Headlight, V
Taunts, Y, U, I, and O

Hand rest position:

Left hand
- Pinky, Primary Fire
- Ring, Burner
- Middle, Forward
- Index, Backward
- Thumb, Secondary Fire

Right Hand
- Thumb, Heading and Pitch
- Index, Slide Left
- Middle, Pad 5 (not assigned)
- Ring, Slide Right

The pinky is not used on the right hand in this configuration.

First of all, the hand rest position is more natural with an ergonomical keyboard. This comfort is a must, as if you're in the wrong position for too long, you're going to mess up your wrists.

Descent is all about the six degrees of freedom. My setup puts four of those degrees exclusively on the right hand. All the right hand does is turn horizontally and vertically, and slide horizontally and vertically. The similarity between those sets of movement makes it easy to control a few of these degrees at the same time. One of my favorite maneuvers to get out of the way of something quickly is to pitch up, turn left, and slide right at the same time. Once I'm at an angle, I then add moving forward and sliding up to tricord away from the danger. Right there, I'm dealing with five degrees of the six in a single move. And the best part is, the only finger I'm using that's not already on a home key is the middle finger. To reproduce this move on a joystick, you have to yank your stick down and to the left and move your hat to the right, and then move your throttle forward and your hat up and to the right. The keyboard wins out here on the finger movement to pyro movement ratio, by a long shot.

The left hand concentrates on the other two degrees. It's no accident that the banking controls are above the movement controls. That keeps movement simple and less complex. Firing is done with the thumb and pinky, leaving three fingers to easily control two degrees.

It's interesting to note that I don't assign any keys to cycling of weapons. This is a preference of mine, because you don't know what you have at any one time, and you have to remember what you picked up for the cycling to be of any use. However, since I only prefer changing my primaries in the heat of battle, I can very easily divert a finger to the 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 keys to quickly switch up weapons with little loss in movement. Although it becomes difficult to change secondaries, I find that I'm able to adapt to the secondary I have selected at the moment. I rarely change secondaries, unless I need to do something special, like use a guided missile, or mortar the other team's base. The taunts are also hard to reach, but if you're taunting in the middle of a battle, you deserve the MD shot you just got. What is easy to reach is the flare, headlight, and countermeasure. Using the index finger, you can hit any of those very quickly and get your finger back to the home key.

Now, you have your keyboard, you have it setup, either like mine or what you're used to from another game, and you're ready to go. The first thing you need to learn is that although your keyboard is flat, the map you're flying in isn't! As I said in the first paragraph, total 3D control is the key to success. Get above your opponent, and when you do, look down at them and fire. Confuse your opponent by spiraling to the ceiling to release a smart missile right for their nose. Turn off auto mine leveling and learn to bank. Banking allows you to angle yourself better for easy tricording, as well as being able to quickly react to any situation. Only through time and practice will you be able to learn how to do moves that will baffle the average joystick user.

Finally, remember that the game of Descent does not lie in the controller you use. It lies in the head game. Knowing what an opponent is going to do next will allow you to take advantage of their predictability. And once you have them where you want them, hopefully this article will assist you in knowing how to take them out quickly.

See ya in the mines!


Last Updated on Friday, 03 July 2015 11:10
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