Posts Tagged Space
Space, the final frontier. To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Such is the continuing mission of the starship Enterprise, but it could be yours too. Or at least that promise helped FTL: Faster Than Light‘s Kickstarter gather over $200,000 back in March, no less than 2000% of its initial goal. Now, some five months later, the roguelike is finally available on Steam, making it one of the first Kickstarter projects to reach commercial release and, it seems, success. In light of this, it’s impossible to assess FTL in isolation. Its quality, but also its reception, will inevitably set standards for future projects. How does the actual product compare to the vision that was sold not so long ago, and how will backers respond when the two differ? How has the game benefitted from going so far above and beyond its first humble goal? And of course, what of the game itself?
The goal of the project was to capture “the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy” and with those lofty ambitions in mind FTL can only be called a partial success. While you certainly get to feel like the captain of your own vessel, ordering around the crew and redirecting power to various subsystems, it would be wrong to say that said vessel is exploring the galaxy. In order to save the federation from evil rebels, your ship needs to deliver an undisclosed secret to federation headquarters by racing through a narrow, if randomized corridor of sectors. Exploration within individual sectors is somewhat more open, but still limited by the constantly advancing rebel fleet. Rather than letting you roam the vast distances of space, FTL puts you on a straight road with a clear goal. Its focus is not freedom, but combat and upgrading.
Your trip across the galaxy is no mere milk run, and most of the randomized encounters travelling from system to system will pit you against another ship. While combat in other space games is mostly concerned with navigation, FTL instead tries to simulate the interior of the vessel. To keep your boat running, let alone fighting, you need to keep a whole host of subsystems manned, powered and in repair, while trying to disable your enemy by attacking those same subsystems. FTL’s most ingeniously atmospheric achievement lies in making you realize just how frail a contraption your spacecraft really is: You’re never more than one or two unlucky hits away from big, big trouble. Hull breaches and fires might force you to surrender parts of your own ship, boarding parties and drones are dangerous to your crew.
FTL is full of wonderfully tense moments, whether you are forced to abandon all posts to fight back intruders while still taking missile hits or when you need to fight fires by opening entire sections of your ship to space. Unfortunately, the pressure to keep moving, fighting and upgrading means there’s no way to really recover from such a hit. The resources you need to pour into fixing your hull and hiring new crewmembers should be spent preparing you for the next fight. Without those upgrades, you’ll probably end up taking more damage, meaning you’ll have to spend more resources on repairs, meaning you again can’t upgrade and take more damage. Especially early on, such unfortunate events can send you on a vicious cycle. Half your crew burned up by solar flares, your ship smashed up in an asteroid field. Whether you go down now or limp away, you probably just lost the game.
But even though surviving by the skin of your teeth is frequently a vain triumph since the game affords you no respite, the frantic tension of trying to hold your boat together with duct tape and sheer force of will only adds to the atmosphere of FTL‘s tactical combat. The game is far more linear than its Kickstarter has led me to believe, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. To demand that there simply should be more of the game is criticism on a very high level. This little indie gem bears a very fitting name: FTL is quick, nimble and bright.
Do you remember 3d Realms? Of course you do, their name alone has become a form of inside joke among gamers. Their failure to develop Duke Nukem: Forever in over ten years is an hilariously funny caricature of delayed release dates, except it’s real. And what’s the punch line? Duke Nukem: Forever, a game that doesn’t exist, has gotten more attention than a game they actually released while developing the former. I’m talking, of course, about Prey.
Now, while this project managed to hit shelves, it is by no means a stranger to 3d Realms delayment prone management. Prey was first announced all the way back in 1995, with early trailers released in 1998. Considering were talking about a game that was only released in 2006, a close 11 years after the development had started, one could be forgiven for thinking that by the time Prey made its way onto our hard drives, the main mechanics and graphics were already dated. But the truth of the matter is that when this game was first thought up, technology wasn’t ready to bring it’s sheer innovative power onto screens.
Are you familiar with the saying “Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.”? Then you’re one step of Domasi “Tommy” Tawodi, the game’s Cherokee protagonist: He desperately wants to leave the reservation together with his girlfriend Jen, though I doubt he planned to leave earth while at it. He, his girlfriend, his granddad and large parts of the regional populace are swept into a giant spaceship by an alien race that feeds on humans. Luckily he manages to escape and starts searching for his abducted girlfriend all over the alien spaceship. Literally.
At the time when Prey was released, and even more so at the time when it was first presented, there were a couple of distinct rules and forces in the genre of shooters that simply weren’t messed with. Gravity. Space. Then along came 3d Realms and completely distorted our vision of how these things can work. You see, this alien spaceship the game takes place in, is quite unlike any other spacecraft you may have seen before. It’s basically a large, mostly hollow sphere and its workings are so bizarre and crazy that just wrapping your head around them is part of the enjoyment of this particular title. There are parts where there’s no gravity, there are parts where you can influence it and there are parts were you can defy it. And then there’s the portals, seamlessly connecting parts of the game, which can appear out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere and even might start moving around.
Combine all of this, add a large taste of Doom 3 and you get the first few hours of Prey: An experience that is as much spot-on, as it is completely mind-bogginly confusing. There’s eye-opening moments of outright brilliance that will completely change your perceptions of what’s possible for a game to do, like this one: You come into a room and notice a small stone inside a glass box on a pedestal, then a portal opens and upon walking through you find yourself, shrinked, on the small stone you just looked at, running around it Super Mario Galaxy-style. Then a common enemy, now seemingly giant looks at the glass box, screaming, warps in and you start fighting in this pocket world.
But as strange as this sounds, even such events get old after a while. The first few hours of the game are brilliant, but that is mostly based on the fact that everything it shows you is still new and exciting. The core shooter mechanics are functional, and fighting enemies while both of you are upside down, taped to the ceiling is just as entertaining as it sounds, but it does slowly get loaded down with ancillary nonsense. This might really be one of the few occasions were a game has had too much innovation going on, seeing how somewhere between the reality distortion, puzzle elements, supposedly epic story and vehicle sections, it quickly loses sight of just what it wants to be.
Take the story, for example: Initially it seems to be going for a scifi-horror themed approach. If you hadn’t already noticed by the grotesque monsters and man-eating aliens, then the possessed children certainly gave it away. But during Prey‘s progress, it slowly opts for a more spiritual approach, making full use of Tommy’s cultural heritage. Then, by halfway point, most of the things that were established are completely thrown over and a whole new set of plotpoints is brought up without the previous ones being finished (and indeed they never are). I don’t doubt that somewhere in there was the recipe for an enticing plotline, but upon trying to be everything at once, the good parts were buried beneath overambition.
Before release Prey was advertised as a kind of shooter/puzzle game hybrid wherein solving gravity based conundrums would take up the majority of your time, but there’s really only a single occasion in the game where I had to think to solve those “puzzles”. For the better part, they just challenge your perception, since the solution to your problem can be quite literally anywhere: Floors, walls, ceilings. And you know what? That could have been enough. The game could have functioned perfectly just by messing with my head and letting me vent my frustration on the occasional enemy. But then they had to bring out the vehicle sections.
You know, vehicle sections are supposed to allow the protagonist to travel in more interesting ways, not less interesting. Here we have a guy who can walk on walls and ceilings, travel through the very fabric of space, bend and break gravity: How is stepping into a shuttle and using good, old-fashioned flight an upgrade to that? There’s no portals while in the thing, gravity has to stay stiff and downward facing for it to work and there’s no puzzle solving. We’ve just traded an innovation-festival for a generic insipid shooter experience.
But I’m beginning to ramble on. And no matter how much the game lost pace in the second act, I can’t honestly bring myself to dislike it. The first half alone, with all its brilliant design and mind-blowing mechanics is more than enough reason to play the game. In fact, every flaw here is irrelevant: You have to see this for its utter reality-bending factor alone.
Bottom Line: If you haven’t seen Prey already, then you should definitely check it out. It may not be the best shooter out there, or even a good shooter, but it’s unique, it’s surprising and it will have you smack your gob and stare.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
The Lord of the Rings movies are awesome. There, I said it. Put the pitchforks down people, I know what you’re going to say: Yes, they had their flaws. Yes, they omitted Tom Bombadil and plenty other parts of the story we love so much. But on the whole I think we can definitely agree that Peter Jackson’s attempt to turn the fantasy classic into a movie was very successful. Isn’t there something about the battle scenes that makes you want to be there and be epic? Well, the official Lord of the Rings: Return of the King video game allows you to do both, without having to risk your face getting bit of by a Nazgul.
The game’s premise is simple, really: It puts you in the shoes of several characters from The Lord of the Rings and in the middle of those dramatic battle scenes, allowing you the reenact the whole thing yourself. And since I just circumscribed that the game is about hacking and slashing your way through legions of orcs, it should come as no surprise that gameplay largely takes the form of hack’n'slash mechanics, mostly copypasted from previous examples of the genre. It has virtually nothing unique about it, and as functional and inherently entertaining as the mechanics are, they also have this crudeness about them that leaves the connoisseur unsatisfied. Firstly, for the better part of the game, literally all you’ll do is mash blindly away at your buttons. Sure, they introduce combos, but all that means is that you’ll be mashing a different pattern from then on. Perplexingly enough, though, gameplay really isn’t what I should be talking about right now.
Let’s talk about atmosphere people, because this is the one point where Return of the King truly shines. If you’re the sort of person who enjoyed watching both the battle for Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, who got the goosebumps during the rousing speeches, who ever found themselves humming parts of the soundtrack, then this game won’t so much immerse you in the experience as completely drown you in it. In fact, every single part of the game experience is geared to make it come as close to the movie as possible. The in-game models, while crude by todays standards, carry a lot of resemblance to the cast, the voice acting is done by the original actors, the original soundtrack makes an appearance and in-game cutscenes seamlessly merge into clips from the movie. This game sure makes no bones about its movie tie-in nature. Once you start thinking about it, the connection to the Lord of the Rings movies is the only thing that keeps the games out of the realms of mediocrity.
That being said, having such a close connection to movie nature also brings a lot of issues. For one thing, on account of following the movies narrative, the difficulty curve wavers up and down a bit too much for my taste. There’s one frustratingly hard boss fight very near the beginning that makes the final boss pale in comparison, while most ordinary battles occupy roughly the same level of difficulty. And once you dribble out just how many times I had to replay the same missions time and again, the game is actually pretty short too. But this is one of the rare cases where I don’t hold it against the developers. Firstly because that’s simply the material they were given to work with, but mostly because it seems they were well aware of that problem and tried to fight it. There may not be a lot of iconic battles in the movies that they could base additional missions on, but at the very least they threw in a couple of interviews with the actors, bonus characters, even two completely made-up levels.
And then there’s this thing with the two player coop. It’s a welcome addition and can make for barrels of fun with a good tag-team partner, but the fact that the balancing isn’t changed in the slightest to adjust for the additional sword involved makes it a bit too easy. About the only downside in terms of balancing is the fact that two players will have to split up the experience and level slower, but that one is easily accounted for by the fact that they can (unlike in single player mode), go back and redo previous levels. Apart from that, two players mean two health bars, plus one respawn, and twice as much attack force easily solving all the tricky situations in which a lone wolf would have had to split his attention between several tricky objectives.
So is Return of the King a good game? I guess that depends on what exactly you are looking for. If you want a hack’n'slash game with great mechanics and satisfying combat, well then the actual game parts of this game might disappoint a bit. But if you’re mainly interested in the title because you liked the movies, then I can tell that it is likely what you’re looking for. And let’s be honest here: Who didn’t like the Lord of the Rings movies? To my own experience, most people who claim it actually mean “I liked them, but…”. If you want a feel of the energy portrayed in some of the greatest cgi battles scenes done to this date, then by all means, grab a copy, a friend and have the time of your life.
Bottom Line: Well worth the investment for fans of either Lord of the Rings, or coop fun. Not so much for fans of the hack’n'slash genre.
I’ll be honest with you here: I didn’t plan to review Elements. In fact, reviewing is quite the opposite of what this game made me do. There I was, three days before my self-set deadline, none of the reviews finished and I continued to waste hours of my life away through some browsergame. And why? Because it’s a really good browsergame.
Elements is, at most basic level, a browser-based trading card game, borrowing very heavily from Magic: The Gathering. The game offers an abundance of cards, split into 12 different colors. You use those cards to fight turn-based battles against either A.I. or human enemies. Upon winning these battles you are awarded a few (in-game) coins you can use to buy new cards. Then you repeat this cycle, ad infinitum. That’s just how trading card games work, and safe for the money-absorbing aspect, that’s how Element works, too.
Now, I can imagine two different reactions to the above paragraph. The first one can be roughly summarised as “A free trading card game? Coolio”, the response of anybody who ever tried their hand at one of them. But if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter, I guess you’re currently asking yourself “Where does this get fun?”. To be honest, this is less entertainment than it is an obsession. Finding and perfecting a working strategy and cleverly responding to enemy actions are core parts of the experience, as is constantly searching for new cards and strategies that could either be implemented into your own playstyle, or that you need to learn how to defuse. Those workings tickle the RTS-enthusiast in all of us, and Elements very efficiently transports them to browsergame nature. Battles don’t usually last longer than five to ten minutes and, especially when compared to the big players in this market, the amount of cards available is actually pretty tiny. But the game isn’t any worse of for it. In a genre that’s dominated by battles of epic proportions and rule books resembling bricks, Elements‘ quick, straightforward and clever little matches are a welcome change.
So everything’s slinky, right? Well, no. The game is free, and as such I’m inclined to forgive quite a lot, but there’s one thing about Elements that really irritates me, and that is grind. I guess they needed something to replace all the money you’d normally sink into this sort of thing, but the amount of time you’d need to spend on this game if you want to see everything, is nothing short of outrageous. Victories only award minor amounts of cash, sufficient for buying starter cards, but most cards aren’t even available for sale. You have to hope you’ll randomly be awarded one after winning. Then there’s the option to upgrade your cards, an incredibly costly procedure you’ll have to repeat with every single card in your deck, even duplicates.
And to what end? The balancing of the starter cards is great, but once upgrades and rare cards come in, the whole thing is largely askew. There’s only two types of PvP matches, one that doesn’t allow any upgraded cards and one with no holds barred. Wandering into the latter with just a few upgraded cards is close to suicide, so you won’t really have anything of the procedure until you’re close to finished. Why even bother? At best, the balancing at this stage is as good as it was in the beginning and the few additional tactics don’t make it worth your while. But maybe I’m just bitter for all those times I undeservedly lost a match just because my opponent pulled a rare Deus ex Machina card out of their arse.
What’s a little harder to forgive are the few mechanical issues. Luck has always been a factor with this sort of thing, but with Elements, it goes a little extreme. As with most games of the like, your fortune in battle will depend largely on drawing enough resource cards in the beginning. Not doing so will result in a slow starting phase in most other games, but this game is so quick that by the time you make it out of your dry spell, you’ve already lost. Also, the game is perhaps a little bit too enthusiastic about rock-paper-scissor balancing. With every action and tactic in the game there’s corresponding tactics that will reduce you to shreds in a matter of seconds and others that will suffer the same fate at your hands. The problem is that there’s often literally no way to be ready for such events. You can only ever have one deck at a time, you can’t adjust to your enemy before you go into battle, nor can you seek him again once you did. It’s like entering an advanced rock-paper-scissors tournament, with complex rules and around 40 different manoeuvres, but you have to limit yourself to just three for the course of the entire competition.
Bottom Line: All in all, Elements is fun and free, making it a definite recommendation. It’s a nice take on the trading card concept and clever enough to keep me interested. You could do a lot worse, unless of course you discover it when you should be writing a big review project.
Space. The word should really only bring the association of physics in all its applied and theoretic forms, but the word rings a certain bell within us. It tells of freedom, uncharted territory and an undaunted sense of exploration and adventure. I believe that it’s because, deep down, we realise that the exploration of space might again give us the chance to live in such wonderfully eventful times as they are long over for our fully explored planet. It’s like you look back at the time when humanity knew of nothing but the small set of land they lived on, except now it’s the future and everything’s shiny and stuffed with blinking lights. The first time period is a well-trodden ground for the incredibly amazing Civilization series, so how come nobody ever made a game about the latter? Whoops, turns out they did, and it goes by the name of Galactic Civilizations II.
Actually, now that I’ve created a loveable feeling of excitement I have to backpaddle quite a bit, because any excitement within Galactic Civilizations II will be: A) completely unintentional and B) largely taking place in your head. The game is very enthusiastic about charts and graphs, to the point where it feels like a management game even. The main premise of the game is right up there in the title, in that it’s like Civilization, but on a galactic level. Gameplay revolves around managing every detail of your empire (or federation) from colonizing new planets over research to economic decisions and diplomatic negotiations with other races.
The game presents an interesting counterpoint to current trends in gaming: instead of dumbing down an incredibly difficult task like governing billions of people, it keeps incredible amounts of depth and complexity to the subject. The logical conclusion you might draw from this statement is that Galactic Civilizations II is incredibly hard and constantly demands input for every minute detail, but surprisingly enough that isn’t really the case. The game pulls off an incredible feat by managing to keep almost all depth and complexity completely optional and voluntary. If you want to, you can pick the maximum number of competing civilizations and make the A.I. brutally intelligent. In that case you’ll need to assume full control of everything and anything, lest you want to see yourself assimilated into a superior culture. But if your less of a masochist, you can always pick fewer contenders and set the A.I. to halfway retarded, then graze towards full control of the universe in no time.
But while the option is nice to have for checking out what the game has on offering without being constantly frustrated, ignoring the hundreds of choices that present themselves turn in and turn out isn’t really something you’re gonna do. Oh sure, you’ll do it once, but then you’ll realize that full control of the universe isn’t entirely so satisfying when it was more or less handed to you on a silver plate. At this point the game starts fastening its grip around you, because, as you turn up the masochism-meter slightly, the amount of interesting decisions you suddenly need to take ramps up to staggering heights. It’s not just that there is choices, every other game and their dog have choices along the lines of what unit to build or what project to pursue.
It’s that behind all this immediate effects your decisions carry, their sum allows you to take influence on an incredibly high, well, galactic level. Whether your civilization turns into a fast-growing, wide-spread, technologically lacking race of halfwit warmongers or a highly advanced culture revolving around economic production and diplomatic values is completely up to you. Galactic Civilizations II doesn’t simply ask you what kind of civilization you want to create, it leans back and watches how you prioriate your decisions, what actions and measures you take and deduces. One decision leads to another and eventually you end up in a relatively clear defined position. It’s an incredibly open and rewarding mechanic, but as with so many other aspects a lot of effort is demanded on your part.
Galactic Civilizations II isn’t big on storytelling. Actually that’s still stretching things a bit. Galactic Civilizations II is void of any story safe for what you bring to it. And surprisingly enough it doesn’t cripple the game too much. I, like so many of you, am part of this “Games are Art” movement, an erudite prick who demands backstories, believable plots and decent characterization. But it is worth remembering that some game concepts really are strong enough to work without any of that. Of course this changes the target audience quite a bit. If you are the sort of person that, when confronted with an RTS, goes straight for the campaign, this is likely not the right game for you. But if you are the sort of gamer that will play skirmish battles, even if only A.I. enemies are available, then you’ll find Galactic Civilizations II to be a slightly crude playground filled to the brim with tactical possibilities, cleverness and rewarding experiences.
Yes, now that I’ve danced around the subject for four paragraphs, it’s time to admit that the comparison to Civilization was not just true in terms of concept. It does quite a few things differently, but ultimately Galactic Civilizations II is a worthy contender to the amazing Civilization series. But of course it’s still far from perfect. Even considering all the things you can set to autopilot, you’ll spend a large part of the game experience with tedious micromanagement. The random nature of things can get annoying, especially when a new game starts you with severely skewed resources and territories and you only get to find out half an hour in. Also, this might be one of the first games in which the A.I. can be too smart, since it seems to agree that peace is a superior option to war. A bold step ahead in the development of morally evolved artificial life perhaps, but it isn’t very exciting. Even the preassembled power-hungry race of warmongers is reluctant to fight and since there’s no way to tailor A.I. behaviour you are often left with the mind-boggingly boring scenario that is galactic peace.
But the biggest problem is the specific mindset it requires. This really isn’t the kind of polished game experience that encourages you to go on and on, it’s attitude toward the player more resembles a disapproving grandparent shrugging and going “Fine, have fun if you must”. From the moment you begin a new game to the moment you crush all opposition, it’s always up to you to truly make the most of the experience. You don’t get a balanced map, lest you reroll a couple of times. You don’t get to fight, lest you start one. You won’t make the most of your technology, lest you manually design new ships. On the one hand it’s part of what makes Galactic Civilizations II great. On the other hand the heavy reliance on your will to go through all this can get tiring really fast.
So it isn’t perfect, but one simple reason renders this irrelevant: It’s the best game of this sort out there. Since the Master of Orion series fell from grace with the third installment, the genre of space and turn based strategy was confined to the realms of mediocrity, while Galactic Civilizations II is good enough to keep the interest of an audience with no prior exposure to the substance. So if you like strategy games with lots of different tactics and unique gameplay mechanics, I wholeheartedly recommend Galactic Civilizations II. And if you don’t, I wholeheartedly recommend getting an attention span longer than a minute and starting to like it.
Bottom Line: An experience like none you have ever had. definitely worth a look, long as you can tolerate turn-based games.
A long long time ago there existed a genre called space sims. It had the ambitious goal of combining the adrenaline fueled dogfights from flight sims with the vastness and futuristic atmosphere of outer space. For a while they were quite popular and trod some of the most well-known sci-fi ground before slowly dying out through the last decade. Some think space sims were left in the dust of the roadside because the games industry was too busy following a whole set of new trends. I personally believe it has more to do with the fact that they were already past their peak. In 1999, you see, a game called Freespace 2 hit the shelves and brought the genre to a new height.
Fast forward a couple of centuries into the future: Humanity has colonized quite a few systems and planets by way of subspace travelling. On the way they met a civilization of aliens called the Vasudans, started a nice little war but eventually had to join forces with them to fend off a unambigiously evil, but technologically highly advanced race they dubbed the Shivans. They somehow managed to pull it off and didn’t hear from them ever again. Or at least not for the next 32 years. Fast forward some more, Terrans and Vasudans have formed an alliance, there’s a rebellion going on and the Shivans are about to return. So there’s plenty of room for conflicts. Freespace 2 puts you in the shoes of a Terran pilot and consequently in the cockpits of a variety of fighters and bombers.
Let’s get one thing out of the way here: No, Freespace 2 doesn’t realistically portray the workings of vacuums. Forward momentum is lost very rapidly instead of hardly at all and there are audible explosions. So it fails to be a realistic simulation of outer space. Luckily that’s not what you came here for, you want to see a game. And if nothing else, it tremendously succeeds in being just that.
What really made Freespace 2 an unforgettable experience for me is that it fills exactly the niche I want a space game to fill. Most games of this kind that have been released in the last decade fell in two categories: Management games with a space-flight part tacked on or Ego-shooters in which the main character happened to be a spaceship. Freespace 2, by contrast, focuses on space warfare entirely, and thankfully it also understands that there’s more to a good space game than just the setting. It’s the little things, like the possibility to divert energy between your main systems. Or charge specific sections of your shields. Or that you’ll have to order your wingmen around. It may seem like these were pointless additions or that they could get in the way of the fun, but really, this is the fun.
Which links me neatly to my next paragraph: Immersion. If there ever was a game that rang true to the spirit of sci-fi television shows it would be this one. And I’m not just talking about the sci-fi side of things, though Freespace 2 does include its most important components. What’s more important is that it also features many aspects of a television show: Your briefings all get read out in a very important-sounding tone of voice, there’s dramatic music whenever enemies warp in and both visual and sound effects are pretty good. It really gives the feeling of being in the middle of one of those CGI space battle scenes sci-fi shows always have. The amount of satisfaction people who, like me, genuinely enjoy sci-fi shows can draw from this is outright amazing.
One thing the game shouldn’t have copied from tv though is the quality of writing. To the game’s credit it handles pacing, buildup and drama quite well, but it still loses a lot of points for a basic premise as idiotic as “Evil aliens appear out of nowhere”. And it doesn’t just stop there either. While each individual mission has a nicely written briefing and midmission radio chatter the main storyline is, for lack of a better term, whacked. Your main enemy’s sole motivation is a burning hatred for all living things. And then there’s the human insurgent who unironically plans to join forces with them. And somehow he gathered millions of supporters for this crazed plan despite having the charisma of a black hole. His monologues are a special low of the game where all pretense of intelligent writing has long been abandoned. It’s hard to take him for anything other than a saturday morning cartoon villain when he calmly announces his intention of genocide.
Surprisingly enough the retarded parts of the story don’t hurt the game too much and are quite easy to ignore. Partly because the cutscenes are a lot less frequent than the relatively well written briefings, but mostly because the mechanics of the game work so darn well. The dogfights themselves are a ton of fun, surprisingly challenging and leave enough room for tactical planning. But the point where the game really shines is when simple dogfights aren’t at the center of attention. The campaign sends you on a variety of missions ranging from escorts over raids to stealth missions in enemy terrain, but the true highlights are the huge space battles. And I don’t use the term “huge” lightly here. Capital ships and cruisers in Freespace 2 are easily several hundred to thousand times bigger than your fighter. Even just flying around them can take several minutes, let alone destroying them.
I can’t compliment the game enough for how much those gigantic ships add in terms of atmosphere. You get to see them warp into the system right in front of you, explode dramatically and fire their turrets. Most importantly one enormous cruiser will often square off with another enormous cruiser leaving you somewhere in between. Now take a look at the picture to the left and imagine what it’s like to be in between those cruisers. With all those laser, flak, beam and rocket turrets firing at you and easily a dozen enemy fighters headed your way it’s easy to forget you’re not actually piloting a spaceship. The intensely gripping atmosphere the game creates in this kind of space battle alone is more than enough reason to check it out, even if your interest in the genre is only remote. You might even warm up to the genre, though chances are equally good you find yourself appalled by the rattail of space sim conventions that plague the game.
Controls are an obvious first candidate for this subject. Freespace 2 continues flight sims proud tradition of having every button on the keyboard do something. I’m giving to understand here that there’s a total of 7 ways to acquire a new target, most of which you’ll never use. But while the knowledge of all those possibilities isn’t essential to your success, the game still requires the use of a lot of buttons all over your keyboard. Unless you’re the kind of person who can type blindly with just one hand, you’ll spend a lot of time uncomfortably fumbling for keys or mispressing. Apart from that, being unable to save midmission can get pretty frustrating and the user interface feels pretty cramped. One could say that all of those flaws can be attributed to the very nature of the genre, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying. But all in all those are just minor faults that can be easily forgiven. As a matter of fact I’m not even sure space sim enthusiasts notice this kind of stuff.
Bottom Line: A definite recommendation. Freespace 2 is simple enough for the uninitiated demographic to enjoy, while including enough depth to make space sim enthusiasts fall in love. I know I have.
It’s hard to say so without coming off a tad xenophobic, but games from the greater Russian area tend to be, well, different. Production value is usually not quite so high, bug count usually is and translation has a tendency to go awry. That being said, there’s still a lot of potential among our friendly eastern neighbours. S.T.A.L.K.E.R originated in eastern Europe, so did Mafia and the game I want to talk about today comes straight from Mother Russia.
Star Wolves is a strategy game, unsurprisingly set in space. It plays a lot like Homeworld but with less units and more RPG elements. Basically, you assume control of a group of up to six mercenaries and their mothership and lead them through their various missions and battles. In between those missions you get to buy and sell equipment, manage their ships and weaponry, level up their skills and decide which mission to tackle next. All this so you can eventually achieve your ultimate goal of … wait, come to think of it there isn’t even an ultimate goal. As with many strategy games, the story is probably the weakest part. It’s a special shame here since there is some genuine potential going on with these interesting characters, quests and well-written dialogue, but it just doesn’t make much sense on the whole. This self-serving bunch has no motivation to being mercenaries past trying to get by and a sense of adventure. Yet even by the time their incredibly well off and have had enough adventures to make another fortune off the movie rights, the thought of just retiring never once crosses their mind.
But to most people the plot of a strategy game will never be as important as gameplay, and this is the point where Star Wolves shines. Its biggest feat is an absolutely sublime difficulty curve: Every single mission is challenging, but manageable. Proper use of missiles, skills and tactics is an absolute must if you want to stand a chance against your enemies and if you intend to complete a mission, you best have a plan prepared. This initial hardship makes glorious triumph all the more rewarding and the RPG side of things works wonders in stringing these individual jobs together, turning Star Wolves into an all-around addictive experience.
Thankfully the great balancing is the only thing the missions have in common; the nature of your tasks differs greatly. They range disjointedly between escorts, ambushes, smuggling, assassinations, espionage, raids, theft and huge space battles against giant cruisers. Many of them feature small choices that allow you to influence the outcome and your reward. Usually you get to decide between complete egomania and ordinary egomania with the occasional touch of altruism.
The amount of different playthroughs possible through this system is huge, but it doesn’t add anywhere near as much to longevity as you might think. In the world of Star Wolves, with most choices comes one, clearly superior option. Accepting new mercenaries for your team is better than rejecting them, helping people is better than refusing. Some of the possible paths you’re allowed to pick aren’t even feasible. With most new mercenaries you’re given the opportunity to either welcome them to the team or tell them to get lost. And while it may be possible to complete the game with maybe one team-member less, there’s just no possible way to finish it with just the three mercenaries needed for the story to work. It’s extreme, but by no means the only example of how Star Wolves allows you to maneuver yourself in situations there’s no escaping from. Lose a couple of expensive ships in one mission and you’ll have a harder time beating the next one. Do this often enough and you’re probably completely unable to continue playing the game.
Sadly, the problems don’t stop there. For one thing, random chance is a much bigger factor than you’ll like. Especially during the first few missions, when you have only three ships and hardly any special abilities, luck will play a huge role in determining the outcome of most battles. Even late in the game enemies will score the occasional lucky shot and in the most rare of cases it might even happen that one of your guys accidentally shoots a teammate down. Also, the scripted events most missions feature add a great deal of variety, but their unpredictable nature makes it a bit hard to be prepared. Put the two together and you get Star Wolves biggest flaw, its fascination with trial and error. I’m not saying all scripts require you to reload instantly, but most of the time, when the game throws an unexpected additional eight enemies into the fight, you’re screwed. Every so often you will have to reload and try again. This certainly isn’t helped by the fact that the sheer amount of time you have to spend waiting is enormous, even if things go right. Despite being able to speed the game up to four times its normal speed, travelling from place to place usually takes a couple of minutes and your mothership can easily need anything up to eight whole minutes to repair itself.
And then there’s this issue with the third dimension. It does make the fights much more spectacular to watch and serves as a nice reminder that the game is actually set in space, as opposed to some space-themed chessboard, but it also has the most unnerving tendency to get in the way when you really don’t feel like it. Enemies often respond to direct confrontation by flying diametrically upwards and trying to maneuver your ships outside of the horizontal plane their currently in feels a lot like trying to make a friend take notice of a specific spot in midair by pointing at it from a distance.
But I’m being overly negative here. To the games credit, no matter how often it forced me to replay entire sections, I always came back. Partly because I felt challenged, but mainly because it had completely caught me. Star Wolves is very immersive game on account of the decent voice-acting and incredible soundtrack. The music to the game is a very interesting mix of electronic beats and classic rock’n'roll guitar shredding that actually sounds like something that might get popular in the future. It’s of really good quality and genuinely enjoyable. Above all, it succeeds in transporting a sense of urgency during fights and a somewhat relaxed attitude in quieter sections. The games visuals aren’t too shabby either. Admittedly, the only thing the game does well in terms of graphics are effects and explosions. Luckily, since the game is set in space, that’s also the only thing that matters as you’ll hardly ever see anything up close.
One of the thins I liked best about Star Wolves is that you can clearly see there have been some clever people behind this. And I don’t just mean people who are good at making games, but actually clever people. For a title like this, the writing isn’t exactly the most important part, yet they absolutely nailed it. It is succinct, but very effective and has a lot of self-aware charm to it. There’s a bit of true brilliance close to the end of the game, when you find yourself caught in a face-off between the mega-corporations and the imperial navy and they suddenly start blaming each other for various things you did.
But I’m beginning to ramble on. Perhaps the most important factor in whether or not you’ll like Star Wolves, is the degree of abuse you’re willing to take from a game. Make no mistake about it, this game will frustrate you. When you unexpectedly lose a ship in the last few moments of a long drawn-out fight and have to replay the entire thing yet again the temptation to simply quit is huge. I’ve been there, and I couldn’t blame you if you left the game for good. But if you decide to stay in there, you’ll be rewarded plenty.
Bottom Line: If you’re into strategy games and don’t get frustrated too easily, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.