Recently I've started playing Descent the way it's meant to be played, that is cold starting every level and making sure to get every robot (matcens not necessarily), rescue every hostage and not die even once. Here's some general impressions on experiencing the game that way. As of writing this post, I've beaten up to level 9 inclusive.
I must say that playing Descent has never been so rewarding, even though I've been with the game for at least 15 years. I feel like I'm only now starting to do it how it's meant to be done, and deriving immense joy and satisfaction from improving at the game, overcoming my limits and proving to myself and to the designers of Descent that it's not beyond my difficulty, even though it's an extremely difficult game at times. Nintendo-hard one could say.
The skill improvement derived from this approach is really vast. Your aim will improve and dodging and fast movement will become second nature to you. Therefore I recommend this way of playing to any pilot who feels they're lacking, provided of course they've got the perseverance and can overcome frustration - of which there will be plenty. In my case though, it could only deter me for a few minutes at a time before I gleefully started another attempt at the level. Obviously, once you hit a wall, you'll spend a lot of time in the level that gives you trouble, which comes with the benefit of learning the level very intimately. You'll know it through and through. And once you've spent enough time inside a hard level, earlier ones will feel like a breeze. Level 6, as can be predicted, initially kicked my ass big time. But after finally managing to beat it without dying and moving on to 8 and 9, the experience I gained there made me so good that once I retried 6, I was able to beat it on my first try, and it didn't feel that difficult at all. Here's what I think about the harder levels I've conquered thus far. Skipping 1-5, as there's really not much to say about them. Easy peasy.
Level 6: While it does present a definite difficulty spike compared to all the levels before it, a lot of what makes this level hard does so only seemingly. It's a play of appearances meant to fool you into thinking this level is hard, while in fact most of its superficial difficulty can be overcome very easily with basic foreknowledge. A person running into this level blind is definitely going to die a lot, as the ambushes are dreadful compared to what came before. But most of the terrifying Class 1 Drillers can in fact be dispatched without them ever seeing you, and those few that can't can still be destroyed before they do much or even any damage. There are two parts of the level that remain uncomfortable and uncertain for me - the area with the blue key is an obvious one, with two Medium Hulks and little room to dodge their fire. Sometimes a run-inside-guns-blazing approach will let you jump and destroy them, sometimes waiting outside the door to their area for them to come to you is the better option, but alas, neither is reliable 100% of the time, because of how unpredictably they can move, or stay still on you when you fully expect them to roam. Another hard idea is the colored doors hub, with 1 driller lurking in the left branch, and 3 in the right one, with a Spider to mix things up. It's very difficult to avoid damage in that area. The areas beyond the colored doors themselves are very easy though - beyond the blue door everything comes to you and you can snipe it from a safe distance, though it's nice to have foreknowledge of how many robots exactly will be coming. You can also take care of the medium hulks through the grate. The "death trap" beyond the yellow door is easily handled, since you can just make a dash for the hidden area behind the red key and grab the cloak, while if you're low on health you can just take the cloak from the lava pit. The reactor room is easy, since you can leave the invulnerability for it, and even couple it with a cloak. So yeah - this level is definitely tricky, but it's not among the hardest in Descent at all, even though it might feel like it is initially.
Level 7: No roaming drillers makes this level a cinch, only weak enemies inhabit it for the most part. The hard part are the roaming medium hulks in the area beyond the optional blue door, but these can be sniped through the grate enclosing the tunnel you take from the mandatory blue door area to pick up the yellow key. You'll snipe at least one, and if not the other, it'll start trying to get where you are, which'll make him roam into the open and be easy pickings. This level has plenty of wide open areas which makes maneuvering easy, and never has robots attack you from more than one side - except of course those two lifter matcens, but they're not that bad, not to mention the robots drop lots of shield orbs. As for the boss - he was never very hard, and hardly feels like it has the 5000 HP that the HAM file of Descent 2 lists for it (maybe it has something to do with that nerf of the boss in patch 1.4a of Descent). But yeah, this level in general is definitely easier than 6.
Level 8: Significant spike in difficulty compared even to level 6, but this level can be learned through rote repetition quite nicely, and is predictable for the most part. Even still, I died in this level way more times than I did in 6 and 7 together. There are roaming drillers, but they can be destroyed pre-emptively much like in level 6. Once you get used to dealing with Advanced and Secondary lifters, you're halfway there. The initial hub is easily cleared, problems start with two areas in particular: the entire blue door area and the area with a tight energy center tunnel that leads to the room where the exit is, and to the secret door to the smart missile. These areas either contain lots of enemies outright, or in the latter's case, are very conducive to robots roaming and surprising you. I died a lot of times in this level to the lowliest of robots, simply because of how they can just spring on you when you least expect it. The upside to that is that when robots roam, you won't have to deal with them later, so yeah. The blue area can be cleared through luring given enough patience, and all three blue door entrances are viable spots for luring robots. The reactor room is a non-issue thanks to the invulnerability nearby.
Level 9: I had been struggling with this level for the past week easily, only to finally beat it today. Gosh, what a level! Definitely the hardest so far (at least from cold start), and I'm pretty sure I had to attempt it more times than even level 8 combined with all the previous ones. This level is basically the opposite of level 6 (kinda like number 9 is, eh?) - it doesn't appear hard at all, but it very much is, and you learn it very soon. Plenty of lowly class 1 drones and advanced lifters, no drillers present at all, only a single medium hulk that roams, which can be taken care of before that happens... how hard can this be? Well it is infernally hard, 's how it is! The tunnels are very narrow, so there's little room to dodge fire, but that's not even the biggest problem - that would be the fact that most of the level is one huge interconnected area not separated by any doors, so robots can and will follow you through the entirety of that area. If you're not super careful or lucky, you'll get sandwiched from both sides in a tunnel, which spells instant doom. There are only a few areas where you can find respite, and cloaking devices not only aren't 100% guaranteed to drop from the cloaked lifters, they actually encourage the robots to roam even more. I guess this level would be much easier for super patient folks, but the thing is, while you're patiently waiting for the robots to come to you, your concentration absolutely cannot lapse even for a second, your reflexes must be as sharp as ever if you're hoping to react in time. Due to this level's open nature, I've tested several routes and approaches - I've managed to beat this level only once, so I'm still not sure if the way I went was the best I could have gone. Or if I'm able to replicate this success, let alone reliably. But once the open area is cleared, the areas beyond the colored doors themselves aren't much to speak of, luckily. Still, easier said than done. This level should be easy, because it contains easy bots - but it defies this expectation completely, Takes a lot of skill and practice, but still, when I beat it, I couldn't help but feel "this should have been so obvious". Glad I'm done with this level, much longer and I'd probably have gone Insane. Ha ha. Still, I've grown to quite like and enjoy it, and I can't deny the sense of satisfaction beating it gave me.
Feel free to post your own impressions. I'll keep updating this thread with any subsequent levels I manage to beat, and I wouldn't like to double post