Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and Richard Dansky
I’m not going to lie, Richard Dansky is one of the coolest people that I have ever had the pleasure of speaking to on the podcast. I’ve talked to writers. I’ve talked to video game developers. But this is my first time speaking with someone who does both, in addition to developing tabletop RPGs. Becasue why do two things when you can do three, right?
Look up “nerd’s renaissance man” in the dictionary and you will probably find a picture of Richard Dansky.
At least I managed not to gush this much during the recording session.
Topics under discussion include:
People doing terrible things to Vaporware
Vaporware as a parable on work-life balance
Insights into the game industry
Creative approaches across mediums
Do games need narratives
Finding Bigfoot / Reality TV
Hashtag War #RejectedVideoGames
Check out people doing terrible things to Vaporware here
Check out Richard Dansky’s website here, and follow him on twitter here.
Welcome to the final Adam Versus Steam Greenlight of 2013. Damn, where did the year go?
For anybody new to this series, each month I randomly pull three games out of my Steam Greenlight queue; whereupon I publically answer the core question of Steam Greenlight, “Would you buy this game if it were available on Steam?”
As there seemed to be some confusion on that last point in Volume 6 of AvSG, let me reiterate that these are not reviews. The point of this post is to look at a game’s promotional material, and see if it evokes a “shut up and take my money” reaction. Hopefully, that clears things up for anybody who might think that I am attempting to review a game based on trailers and descriptive copy.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s bring on our first contender.
Earth: Year 2066 by Don Quixote Studio
Earth: Year 2066 (codename Project: Earth) is a first person sci-fi apocalyptic open-world RPG game inspired by such video games as Fallout and Half-Life 2.
You play as a survivor of a nuclear war between USA and China. You became a half zombie because of radiation. You need to get to the safe place, called “GOD’S HOUSE” to survive. Dangerous journey is waiting for you.
At the time of this post, there is no trailer for Earth: Year 2066. I’ve included the game play footage that the developer has offered to date.
First question, what engine is this game using? Is this the Source engine? I ask because I want to know how impressed I should be by these visuals. If DQS built their own engine for this game, then what’s offered here rates as considerably more impressive than if they’ve layered Fallout-ish textures on an existing engine.
What is absolutely unforgivable is the pew-pew rifle’s sound effects. As I could barely handle that racket for the length of a tech demo, I can’t imagine enduring it over the course of a game. It reminds me of the gun effects from the terrible video game adaptation of TekWar.
Considering Earth: Year 2066′s inspirations, I’m feeling like the presentation is falling short of making me care about this game. If the current build is not yet in a state where it can show off character models, combat, crafting, and the like, then the descriptive copy needs to do more than talk about half zombification from radiation (what is the this, the Marvel universe?) and give me an all-caps destination. Ultimately, there’s nothing here to tell me why I should play this game instead of New Vegas.
Thumbs down. However, I’d be willing to take another look at it once the development, and marketing, get a little more robust.
1heart by Chicken in the Corn
1heart can be described simply in four short points:
1. Beautiful and unique painted visuals.
2. High level of difficulty.
3. A plot full of surprises.
4. 90′s Gameplay with the addition of hidden objects.
In addition to the above:
Over 66 hand-painted locations.
Over 120 collectable objects.
Over a dozen original cutscenes
Over a dozen difficult and unique puzzles
Steam and/or ingame achievements
“Hi haters and true indie gamers?” Really? That’s the binary? I understand the desire to create an inclusive tone, but I question if that was the wisest way to go about it. It invokes a little too much of George W. Bush’s overly simplistic “You’re either with America or you’re with the terrorists” dialogue for my taste.
Leaving that alone for a minute, the trailer for 1heart is impressive. There’s a nice balance between creepy and captivating in the art, and it hints at just enough of the story to make me want to know more. As was the case in the last game, the descriptive text isn’t doing its job of telling me why this game will be unique. Since this isn’t the first point-and-click adventure game I’ve seen on Greenlight, 1heart should oblige its potential audience with more than the usual boiler plate of game marketing.
While I wouldn’t recommend other developers look to 1heart’s Greenlight page as a model for drawing a crowd, it piqued my curiosity. I’ll give it a conditional “thumbs up” knowing that I would wait for a steam sale before buying my copy.
Astral Terra: Adventures on the Planes by Tethys Interactive
Astral Terra is an Indie, fantasy-themed sandbox RPG in a beautiful smooth voxel world that’s generated on the fly and completely editable. No two players will have the same experience as everything from the skills you learn to the world you play in is fully unique and customizable. Gather resources for crafting and building, journey among the planes to find lost temples or libraries full of knowledge and power (scrolls and tomes) or just explore for the sake of discovery. From character progression with experience points, level and skills, to the terrain and environments, every inch of the game is procedural and editable. Shape your world and your character the way that YOU want. Fantastic creatures and epic adventures await you in this magical journey in a world limited only by your imagination – Astral Terra! Astral Terra is a small fantasy sandbox with RPG elements.
This is a tough one. The description hints at a final product that sounds really cool. Who wouldn’t want a procedurally generated Skyrim – assuming it cut out all the boring BS of Skyrim and made a game more like Morrowind. If only Astral Terra’s trailer presented a game that looked half as fun as it promises on paper. All I saw there was running and terra-forming, and then running some more. Also, there was a monster running into a wall while the player character ran in the opposite direction. Then, there was some building of houses and castles. None of those things really grabbed my attention, especially in light of all the competition among procedurally generated sandbox games.
Certainly Astral Terra lives up to its claim of being beautiful, but I’m not seeing anything that would keep me playing this game for the long haul. Personally, if I want to build things in a procedurally generated world, I’ll play Minecraft. If I’m feeling destructive under similar circumstances, I’ll fire up Guncraft.
Thumbs down, for now. However, if ever there was a game I wanted to prove me wrong, it is Astral Terra.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that. One out of three, not the worst AvSG, but not the best either. Make sure to come back on Friday for my “Best of 2013″ post, or possibly podcast if I can work a few things out.
I’m usually spot-on when it comes to gauging how much time I have spent with a particular video game, for good or ill. With Spelunky I was genuinely surprised when Steam informed me I had poured nearly fifteen hours into the game. Where did the time go? Post-revelation I tried to get a handle on many times I’ve gone from “Ready Player One” to “Game Over” in this procedurally generated platformer/dungeon crawler. Assuming I don’t derp out and die within the first two minutes of a game – it happens more than I want to admit – I usually last about eight minutes per play through. So a conservative estimate of my deaths and reincarnations in Spelunky numbers at least 100, and I keep going back for more. This is the kind of old-school game compulsion I haven’t felt since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade machine, or that year in university when the student union rented a Starship Troopers pinball table.
Some game history: Spelunky is the creation of Derek Yu, a game designer who released the title as freeware back in 2008. For the record, I probably spent about five hours playing that version of the game before having a “Shut up and take my money” moment and buying the HD version, which was released on XBLA on July 4th, 2012 and then on Steam in August of this year.
The design is simple but absolutely elegant. The player guides one of about twenty unlockable characters through an ever changing and completely destructible series of levels. Along the way you collect treasure which can be traded for basic climbing equipment, bombs, or an arsenal of weapons and gadgets. Health is limited, easily lost, and difficult to regain. A plethora of booby traps urge caution as a player descends from platform to platform, but an unseen timer – manifesting only as a change in music that heralds a ghost whose touch causes insta-death – drives a player forward where they might otherwise be inclined to creep along.
Part of the motivation to keep coming back for more is the daily challenge feature. Each day players from around the world get a single shot at the same procedurally generated level. I’ve haven’t yet to be able to break the daily top 500. But knowing that every day is another shot at defeating whatever Aztec/Mayan/Indian god(s) is/are controlling Spelunky’s vertical labyrinth is a pretty strong mobilization of player ego. The fact that success is measured in level progression and treasure accumulation adds another layer to the ongoing competition. It’s tempting to break the bank on a rocket pack, knowing that I can’t take the money with me when I die. But the issue at hand then becomes living long enough to recover the cost of the investment. Alternatively, I’ve played it safe, hording my money to drive up my standing that way.
These sorts of quick decisions form a nucleus from which all of Spelunky’s brilliance emerges. A lot of games talk about player consequences and decisions but still end up in the same place – I’m looking at you BioShock. Spelunky makes those consequences immediate and only occasionally catastrophic. Do you save the girl trapped on the level, knowing that she will bestow some precious extra health, or do you sacrifice her on Kali’s altar in exchange for a jet pack? Do you buy climbing gloves to stick to the walls Spider-Man style or spiked boots for to jump on things with all the gusto of Super Mario? Sometimes you’ll make the right decision and set a new benchmark for progression. Other times you’ll live just long enough to regret the mistake. Either way, you’re probably going to die and the experiences that you gained won’t matter because the next board will usher in a new set of variables.
Know then, dear reader, that you are going to die, be it from arrows, spikes, or the shotgun of an angry shopkeeper who has just had his store smashed by an Indiana Jones boulder that fell from the walls after you snatched a golden idol. Spelunky is probably going to kill you more than Dark Souls ever could. The difference is Spelunky kills with a smile, knowing that a player’s death is part of the game’s seemingly endless arcade charm.
Think you’ve got the right stuff to be a treasure hunter? Here’s a link to the freeware game. Enjoy your weekend.
Well so much for doing an Adam versus Steam Greenlight post as a monthly feature. Ah well. Let’s get back in the swing of things with a quick two-game edition of AvSG. For the benefit of any newcomers to this series of posts, this is where I pull a few games out of my Steam Greenlight queue and publicly decide if I would buy the game were it to appear on Steam. On that note, here’s the first contender.
Ultimate Space Commando (USC) is an old-school turn-based strategy game that focuses on actual field tactics as a small group of elite commandos become engaged in a deadly conflict with a yet unknown, but rather ravenous species of aliens. Make relevant strategic choices, develop tactics and equip your soldiers as you see fit, try to survive and give the aliens hell in the single-player Campaign. Build and customize 4-man squads to play various ‘Single Missions’, Scenarios and ‘Defend the Base!’ actions alone or in a hot-seat or TCP/IP multiplayer session with up to four players, either man vs. aliens, man vs. man or even mixed, with various objectives, official scoring system, and much more. A full-fledged and truly Random Map Generator makes every mission you play unique and challenging.
Interesting, very interesting. Ultimate Space Commando has the look of a game inspired by X-Com while being primarily concerned with producing a deep table top role-playing game experience on the PC. From the trailer, the game engine seems to make graphical concessions in favour of dice rolling and stat management. The key question for me: is this game going to be complex or complicated.
Ultimate Space Commoando’s detailed information boasts a “plausible” combat system with 4 character properties, 9 skill attributes, and a detailed weapons system featuring 18 weapons and various ammunition types. But wait, there’s more. We’re also being promised a crafting system and RPG style unit customization. Assuming I won’t need to read a fifty page manual before I can sink my teeth into the game, this sounds very promising. But there’s a fine line between a game that gives me the freedom to tinker, and one that piles on the micromanagement as a stand-in for meaningful gameplay.
The other thing that strikes me as somewhat odd is USC’s gameplay footage running at a faster than normal speed. I hope that’s because the developer wanted to show off as much as he could. My fear is that it’s an attempt to cover up a painfully slow paced game.
The Bottom Line
My love of rich RPGs outweighs my fears that this game might prove dense for the sake of dense.
Play in your own ways in an immersive world is all a Role-Playing Game (RPG) is about. And that is exactly what AuraviaL is trying to achieve! With its randomly generated worlds filled with secrets and wonder, and its non-player characters programmed with artificial intelligence, become a hero in your own ways in a universe of magic and spells. You will also be able to manage your wealth, reputation and friendships. Finally, recover the meaning behind “AuraviaL”, because after all, how can a RPG exist without a storyline!
I don’t know how much fun I’ll have in a game where one of the big selling features is setting up spell casting macros. Mechanics along those lines were fun for two hours in Magika; then I got bored of doing the same old shtick. I should also mention that I quit playing Fable because I didn’t really feel like spending my precious gaming time on managing friendships with AIs. And as much as it appealed to me, I quit playing EVE Online because I didn’t have the time to manage a fake financial empire. All of these things lead me to think that AuraviaL isn’t quite right for me, at least not from what I have seen so far.
In the proper proportions, I will admit to enjoying all of the above mentioned mechanics. I’m fairly certain one of my undergraduate girlfriends broke up with me because of my fixation with Egosoft’s X2 – The Threat. But balancing an interesting procedurally generated world, meaningful story, interactive NPCs, a free market economy, and a combat system is a tall order, especially in a one person operation. If there’s a meta-lesson to producing indie games, it’s that the best ones are truly excellent at one or two things and ignore the rest.
The Bottom Line
Much as I admire this developer for his/her ambition, I don’t know that I would roll the dice on this game without knowing a bit more about it.
Verdict: Pass, for now.
Next month, we return to the usual three game per AvSG formula. And as always, if you’re a game developer with a game on Greenlight, then send me an email so I can shed some light on your game.
Greetings, programs. Welcome to the second, and hopefully final, installment of Adam’s “Oh God Why Won’t This Headache Go Away” series of half-sized posts.
The exigencies of a Hiigaran dreadnaught-sized headache that just wouldn’t quit prevented me from getting this post put together for Monday. Had I met that goal, I suspect this bit of signal amplification would have been a bit more meaningful to Void Destroyer’s developer, Paul Zakrzewski. At any rate, Monday saw Zakrzewski meet a kickstarter goal of $20,000 for the production of a space combat/real time strategy hybrid game. That sound you just heard was my jaw dropping as I marvel at a game that wants to bring together the best of Homeworld and X-Wing.
Here’s the most recent trailer for Void Destroyer.
Having logged countless hours into Homeworld and subsequent “Homeworld Complex” mods, the RTS interface for Void Destroyer seems very familiar; this is a good thing, mind you, as Homeworld had one of the most efficient UI’s of any strategy game I’ve ever played. The demo also shows off some of the game’s advanced physics. Though I have to admit it can be a bit much when space sims go whole hog on momentum, some attempt to work within a flight model that recognizes Sir Isaac’s contributions to science proves essential in creating immersion in the outer space setting.
If Void Destroyer looks good on the tactical side, it’s appears positively glorious from the cockpit/bridge of a starfighter/starship. The aspect is reminiscent of what I remember of the X-Universe games, though somewhat improved therein. Specifically, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a space combat sim that offered visual representations of how a ship is thrusting along its axis of movement. Here’s the video.
As of this post, Void Destroyer is in a “late alpha” phase of development. According to the kickstarter rundown, it will move into beta “about a month after the end of the…campaign.” Six months after that, the game is slated to go live. Not to put any pressure on Void Destroyer, but I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a game since X-Com Enemy Unknown.
Currently, Void Destroyer is up for consideration on Steam Greenlight. Click the link to check it out, and give the game an up vote.
Friday we return to our regularly scheduled programming with a guest post from SF and Horror writer Matt Moore.
So I thought to myself, what’s more fun than doing a video/screencast review? The answer: waiting for about three hours while the video encodes in Windows movie maker and still doesn’t have the decency to register on youtube as HD compatible. Seriously, before I do one of these again, I am going to have to invest in some better software for video editing. At any rate, I present you with my first ever video review. Up on the block is Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine.
I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much; however I will say here that this is a top-down stealth/heist game from indie publisher Pocket Watch Games.
And do feel free to leave me some comments on what I could have done to improve on this review. I already have some thoughts in mind on what I might do differently for my next video review.
Welcome back for this, the fourth installment, of Adam versus Steam Greenlight. For anybody new to the website, this is a monthly feature where I pull three games out of my Steam Greenlight queue and answer the quintessential question of Steam Greenlight, “Would you buy this game if it appeared on Steam?”
This month, however, I decided to do something different. Rather than taking the top three games in my Greelight queue, I pulled out the first three fantasy themed games I could find. Let’s see how it turns out.
Legend of Dungeon by RobotLoveKitty
Release Date: March 2013
Robotlovekitty’s website describes Legend of Dungeon as, “part Beat’Em’Up, like those awesome old-school 4 player arcade games (it plays a little like TMNT and X-Men) and it’s part RogueLike, in its setting and content generation.”
Here’s the trailer.
It seems like yesterday when FTL: Faster Than Light hit the market, and with it “Rogue-like” returned to the common gaming parlance. Now nary a month goes by without a new Rogue-like game is cropping up from indie devs and big studios, alike. Personally, I think this is a great thing. There’s a certain allure to the un-winnable game, at least for gamers who grew up with weekly (or daily) trips to the video arcade.
A quick look at the trailer for Legend of Dungeon immediately puts me in mind of a side scrolling Gauntlet. The game’s primitive aesthetic hints at a considerable retro charm paired with modern design sensibilities. What’s more important is that I could actually see my friends and I playing a few rounds of this in between big games at a LAN party.
Verdict: an enthusiastic yes.
Click here for Legend of Dungeon’s Greenlight page.
Legend of Eisenwald by Aterdux Entertainment
Release Date: April 2013
Here’s the official rundown on Legend of Eisenwald
A unique mix of RPG and strategy set in a realistic medieval world, Legends of Eisenwald combines dynamic campaigns with fast-paced, yet strategic, turn-based combat.
Take on the role of a baroness, a knight or a mystic as you liberate or rule over the world of Eisenwald. Against a backdrop of danger and intrigue, you will complete compelling quests and fight in fierce battles that will change the outcome of your story.
When we go to the trailer the game seems to deliver what it promises.
Now I love a good fantasy game as much as the next guy. I’ve sunk a positively embarrassing amount of time into Dragon Age over the last couple of years. Despite that, I have some reservations about this title. From the trailer alone, this game looks a lot like King’s Bounty.
King’s Bounty was the sort of game which worked well in concept but fell short in execution. For an ostensibly non-linear game, it used “high level” areas to build an artificially linear experience. After five hours of hex based “army” combat, the game’s core mechanic began to feel as exciting as watching two AIs play Battlechess.
That’s not to say this game will be the same. Eisenwald’s graphics engine seems impressive enough. As well, the presence of a skill tree hints at a bit more depth than King’s Bounty ever offered.
I suppose this one would come down to price point for me. Aterdux’s website lists a pre-order price of $15. If it stayed at that cost upon releasing on Steam, I might roll the dice. Were it more expensive, I don’t think I could get past my King’s Bounty phobia.
Verdict: a hesitant yes.
Click here for Legend of Eisenwald’s Greenlight page.
Mage’s Initiation: Rage of the Elements by Himalaya Studios
Release date: Q1 of 2014
We wrap up today’s fantasy themed AvS with Mage’s Initiation: Rage of the Elements. Here’s the quick rundown.
Mage’s Initiation is a 2D Point & Click Adventure Game / RPG hybrid, set in the fantasy medieval land of Iginor. In the tradition of Sierra’s classic “Quest for Glory” series, you may choose to play as one of four character classes (Fire, Earth, Air, or Water Mage), each with unique spells, abilities, quests, and puzzle solutions!
First reaction: Oh, well that seems interesting enough. I do like me some point and click adventure games. Then I watched the trailer.
Post-trailer reaction: Holy shit! That was an amazing trailer. Do I really have to wait a year to play this game?
As somebody who completely missed the Quest for Glory series (hey a guy can’t play everything) this looks absolutely amazing. Moreover, the trailer has bestowed upon me the rarest sort of moment when I realize I’m lusting after something I never knew I wanted. I loved the Space/Kings/Police Quest games. I also love role playing games. Never has it occurred to me that the two of them could work as an effective mash-up. Well done, Himalaya Studios.
Verdict: Shut up and take my money.
Click here for Mage’s Initiation’s Greenlight page.
Three fantasy games and three up-votes. I think I should do themed editions of AvS more often.
Some months ago Steam Greenlight appeared on Valve’s digital video game distribution service. This community driven feature quickly became the answer to the question I asked game developers when I started writing The Page of Reviews: who do you have to kill to get your game on Steam? The developers’ answers would often include words like “Pagan Rituals” and “blood pact with Gozer the Gozerian.” Perhaps taking its cues from the democratization of game development through crowd sourcing, Steam Greenlight allows members of the Steam community and general public to vote on what upcoming games should be included in Steam’s catalogue.
In Valve’s own words…
Steam Greenlight is a system that enlists the community’s help in picking some of the new games to be released on Steam. Developers post information, screenshots, and video for their game and seek a critical mass of community support in order to get selected for distribution. Steam Greenlight also helps developers get feedback from potential customers and start creating an active community around their game during the development process.
As I looked through my Greenlight queue, judging future games based on screenshots and trailers, I thought to myself, why not do this right? Why should I limit debate to my inner monologue when I can draw some public attention to developers who have put the fate of their product into the hands of a fickle gaming community?
Gather round then, good citizens of the boundless digital empire. Cast your eyes upon these three games which would prove themselves worthy of your love and coin.
Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold Episode 1 by Replay Games
Replay Games describes Fester Mudd as “a three-part comic saga of exploration, reunion, and redemption…and a love letter to the classic adventure games of the 90s.”
Let’s go to the video.
With a projected release date of Q1 2013, I think we can assume Fester Mudd is a finished game looking for a home. I like that the devs took it upon themselves to make an actual Greenlight trailer, rather than going with something generic to show off the game. As a guy who once went to school dressed up for Halloween as Roger Wilco, hero janitor of the Space Quest games, there’s really no way I could not want to play this game. The interface looks good. What little we see of the script and overall aesthetic seems appropriately light hearted and clever. Perhaps most importantly, Fester Mudd represents a niche of the gaming market that is due for a renaissance. Since I can’t see a lot of big publishers optioning a game style older than their target audience, Fester Mudd seems perfect for release via steam.
Verdict: Unequovical thumbs-up. If you’re a gamer whose old enough to buy their own alcohol, or somebody who likes Community then you would do well to pay attention to a game which draws its sensibilities from greats like Sam and Max, Full Throttle, and Space Quest.
NB: After giving my thumbs up to Fester Mudd I discovered that Replay Games is the studio responsible for the upcoming rerelease of the Leisure Suit Larry series.
MaK by Verge Game Studio
Verge calls MaK a “…physics playground – A sandbox world with engaging game modes built on top of it. We wanted to make something that gives you a sense of discovery and wonder – where creativity is king – a place to explore and experiment – to compete and cooperate – with your friends. The major features that define the game experience, so far, stem from these concepts.”
MaK’s Greenlight page offers five videos that showcase the game in its current pre-release Alpha build. Here’s one of them…
I won’t deny this game looks cool. From the footage alone it is obvious MaK does some interesting things with gravity. Despite the sandbox feel, the developers are promising multi-player support as well as a “… non-linear campaign that wraps around an intriguing central plot.” However, I’m not getting a “shut up and take my money” feel off of this game.
Since the success of Minecraft a lot of indie studios are working with variations on said theme. Certainly MaK is charting its own unique direction, but from what I’ve seen I don’t know if it’s quite my style. Personally, I’d rather build a castle than a dancing robot.
Verdict: Thumbs Down. I think this is something a lot of people could have hours of with, but I don’t know if I’m one of them. When the essential question is “Would you buy this game if it were available on Steam?” my answer is a hesitant “only after I read the reviews.” That said, I’d be happy to review it, but I just don’t think I would buy it based on what I’ve seen so far.
MaK is scheduled for release in Q4 of 2013. Check out MaK’s Greenlight page and you can tell me how wrong I am about this game in the comments.
Haunt by ParanormalDev
This is the initial description on Haunt.
Haunt (originally named Haunt: The Real Slender Game) is independent adventure/horror game project inspired by Parsec Productions “Slender: The Eight Pages”, which was based on Victors Surge “Slender-man” idea.
Apparently I don’t run in the right circles on the internet because I have no idea what the Slender Man is, or why it has led to ParanormalDev doing their own take on another studio’s game, which at the time of this post is still in beta. Let’s go to the trailer.
So walking and a flashlight…is this another Dear Esther? The Greenlight description frames this game as “First Person Horror”. However, the trailer gives me the distinct vibe of a game intent on coming up with various ways of yelling “boogie boogie boogie” at me in an attempt to startle me out of my crappy Ikea desk chair. Games like that have never really been my scene; seriously, I didn’t even bother to finish the first Silent Hill. I don’t scare easily, and I’m often too cynical/clinical to buy into the underlying ghost/paranormal mythos that drives games of this spectrum.
One other paragraph within the game’s description caught my attention.
More important thing is that “Haunt: TRSG” that uses slender-game gameplay has become some kind of prototype for much more bigger project, that will provide unique story, gameplay elements, environment and will be inspired by many paranormal activities that appeared in our world. Yes – we will do anything to keep it free – even in case of Haunts successor. It is all in your hands!
Two things: first, you guys at ParanormalDev should call me the next time you do a press release, I’d be happy to do a pro bono copy edit; second, the game is free. Free is good, especially in the case of games which seem highly experimental.
Verdict: Thumbs up to Haunt. Since the developers are dedicated to keeping this game free, as well as using it to build a larger project, which too will be free, there’s really no reason not to up-check this game.
Since its release, FTL: Faster Than Light has become something of a darling in indie publishing, and perhaps with good reason. As stated in a recent Penny Arcade editorial, FTL is one of the first PC games to go from kickstarter campaign to finished product. This fact alone makes FTL a noteworthy achievement. Yet it just so happens that FTL is also a fantastic game. In fact, what really sold me was a realization that occurred ten minutes into my first play through. Therein, FTL is almost exactly what I imagined for myself the first time I turned a refrigerator box into my own personal starship.
In simplest terms, FTL is a rougelike starship simulator. Players take command of a ship, enter a procedurally generated universe, and must get from point A to point B lest the Federation fall into rebellion. As is the case in most rougelike games, death is a permanent thing. More often than not your ship’s crew members will die, and your ship itself will quite likely explode. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A single start to finish sitting of FTL takes about two hours. I’ve managed to log about twenty hours into the game, and in this time I’ve never yet managed to save the Federation. Oh and did I mention I am playing on easy?
FTL revels in denying a player easy victories, and believe me when I say this is not a bad thing. FTL doesn’t cheat per se, rather as a game system it is indifferent to a gamer’s success. Random encounters within the game are governed by chance as much as they are strategy. Case in point, rescuing a mentally unstable castaway on a planet might result in him killing one of your crew members. But on another day the same scenario could lead to him joining your mission. Many a time FTL has made me pound my fist on my desk for its seeming lack of fairness – an enemy ship jumps away with two of my crew aboard, my mechanic gets ganked by an invasion of space bugs, a lucky missile takes out my ship’s door controls so that my pilot is left to die from a hull breach. And as I watch my ace shipmaster’s life trickle down to nothing, a voice in the back of my head reminds me, “Life’s not fair.” Chance can often undermine the best laid plans of a would-be captain. Hear me now when I say that if you are the sort of gamer who can not handle losing, you’re probably not going to like FTL.
Amid all the responsibilities and consequences that go with commanding a starship, FTL is also about resource management. That may not sound particularly fun. However, FTL draws on some classic game mechanics to ensure upgrading the sensors, a seemingly inconsequential act, is a weighty decision. This design aspect is very much in the spirit of an old tabletop starship combat game called Leviathan. One of the core rules to Leviathan states a ship will never have enough power to run all its systems at the same time. Such is the case in FTL. There’s no way to maximise everything and create a Death Star. Spend too much scrap, the game’s main resource, on upgrading the ship’s components, and there won’t be enough left for weapons and ammunition. Want to have a fully powered cloaking device and three sets of combat drones in simultaneous play? Then I hope you enjoy sucking hard vac because your shields will likely be paper thin. As is the case with the rage gamers, short sighted min-maxers need not bother with FTL.
Beyond weighing consequences and scrounging for resources, lay the game’s greatest strength: its nature as an incubator for a player’s internal narrative. The reason people play something like X-Com twenty years after its release is the fact that it lets gamers create their own story. FTL does the same thing in a similar manner. Naming a ship and its crew members may not sound like much, but doing so knowing said ship and crew may die forges a sort of familiar agency. As crew members gain experience in their shipboard duties (weapons, piloting, shields, engines, repairs, hand-to-hand combat) so too do they become more than throw away props.
On one of my recent missions the HMS Archon nearly defeated the enemy flagship, thus saving the Federation. Ultimately though, the battle became a standoff which saw neither ship able to deliver a knockout blow. In managing ship board fires, raiding missions to the enemy ship, and more hull breaches than I could count, I lost six out of my seven crewmen. Brave Captain Shaftoe was the first to perish when a missile hit the cockpit. First officer Hudson Hawk perished trying to manage a fire in the weapons compartment. The Rock monster twins died en route to sick bay after beaming back from a raid to the enemy flagship. In the end, half the ship was depressurized, due to hull breaches and my decision to blow the airlocks as a means of coping with fires; the remote door controls were destroyed, so the airlocks were stuck open, and only Chief Engineer Wil Wheaton remained alive. He died on a suicidal run to repair the cockpit so that he might jump the Archon back to base. And there I had it: game over. Until I started a new game, with new characters, and began a new story. In this, FTL harnesses the pure creative joy that comes with turning a refrigerator box into a Star League Gunstar, a Rebel X-Wing, or a Constitution Class starship.
There are a couple of minor things I would want to see in subsequent updates to the game. An occasional option to plunder a captured enemy ship’s equipment would be helpful. Additionally, I’d like the chance to rename crew members when they join my ship. But beyond those two very small details, FTL is a well balanced (in so much as any game that is out to kill you can be) and magnificently polished title.
The two-man team of Justin Ma and Matthew Davis has created something genuinely fantastic in FTL. The game is accessible enough for anybody in terms of interface and controls. Yet given its focus on consequences, command decisions, resource management, and permadeath it is likely to attract a certain type of mildly masochistic gamer. At the same time, FTL is equally a conduit for the sort of creative energy most people pack up with their childhood.
Now if anybody needs me, I’ll be in space.
FTL: Faster than Light was developed and published by Subset Games. It is available on Steam and in DRM-free format on Gog.com
NB: For those who missed it, click here for my “First Hundred Turns” review of Endless Space.
A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, a little studio created a game that would become a phenomenon. Who knew that Master of Orion and its sequel Master of Orion II would become the gold standard against which all other 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) strategy games would be measured. In the intervening years, a slow trickle of games have attempted to recapture the Master magic; with relatively few exceptions, these games have been terrible. In Endless Space strategy gamers can finally rejoice in a title that gives the genre’s progenitors a run for their money.
Endless Space keeps quite true to the established 4x formula. Players can choose from one of nine playable factions or construct their own custom species. From there, they have one planet, one colony ship, one scout, and the freedom to play as they like. Conquer the galaxy, unite it under a common purpose, or transcend the petty matters of corporeal beings; the choice is yours. This may sound like a complicated task. However, even the greenest of stellar despots need not fear this game’s learning curve. Endless Space boasts is a comprehensive tutorial system that explains about 95% of the game’s mechanics as players naturally work through the ins and outs of galactic governance. Additionally, most points of confusion can be answered by zooming in on the galaxy map or hovering a mouse over the confounding element.
Not only is Endless Space’s interface as intuitive as it is subtle, but it’s also the key to some stunning artwork. From the main screen, players can scroll back to view their procedurally generated galaxy as a boundless collection of stars. Zooming in closer shows star systems with their connecting space lanes and wormholes. Zoom in further still to glimpse fleets and a given star system’s construction project.
Everything you need to know to manage your empire can be found on one easy to read screen.
Clicking a star brings the player to a system overview screen. Endless Space finds the perfect micro/macro management balance in focusing the health of an empire around star systems rather than individual planets. Though there are always a number of planets orbiting a given star, improvements to food, industry, science, and dust (the game’s currency) apply to all colonized worlds within a controlled system. The only choice a player has to make with respect to individual planets is if they should focus on agriculture, production, research, or commerce. This brilliant decision on the part of Amplitude Studios allows for at-a-glance evaluations of a system’s role within an empire. The other benefit to this management mechanic is that the late game need not become a dull process of turning planetary development over to the AI – an option that remains available if you are so interested, but you probably won’t be.
Speaking of AI, if ever there was something that might turn into Skynet…
Protip: Add two levels of conventional difficulty on to whatever the game says you are playing. Even on “Normal” Endless Space’s virtual foes show no mercy. The AI is methodical, but also sensible. Sensible in what way you ask? In many other 4X games an AI will start to make outrageous demands of its allies once the galaxy fills up. In refusing these demands, a human player will sour the relationship with their AI counterpart until the negative feedback amounts to a suitable pretense for war. Endless Space’s AI is smarter than that. So long as the computer controlled race’s alignment matches up with the player’s, the AI won’t sabotage an alliance for the sake of a military win. Instead the AI might shift its tactics toward a diplomatic or scientific victory. Failing that, it will just use the alliance as a means of running up its score. PS: to the devs, please give us an option to play out a game to the bitter end rather than a 350 turn cap.
Combat, an essential part of the 4X experience, is something to behold in Endless Space. On the surface, it may seem like a particularly cinematic rock/paper/scissors experience. As fleets close on each other they pass through ranges where each of the game’s three weapon classes are most effective. Yet the long/medium/close ranges only add bonuses to missile/beam/kinetic weapons. Endless Space demands either balanced ship loadouts or mixed vessel fleets for long term success. Adding another layer of complexity to the combat is a card system. At the start of each battle phase a selected combat card will buff a player’s fleet or hinder the opponent. There are some scenarios where one card will outright cancel another. Defence cards, for example, will balance out attack cards, but a sabotage card will actively counter attack cards. As fleets gain experience and an empire’s technology improves, more combat card abilities become available. The only trouble with this system is that you might spend a little too much time watching the utterly majestic ship battles and forget to assign a combat card. So Endless Space might not have the Lego block ship customization of Galactic Civilizations, but it more than compensates with a genuinely unique combat engine.
Remember to pick your combat card before watching the fireworks.
Hero characters, which can serve as either fleet admirals or system governors, add yet another twist to the game. As these characters level up, they unlock a variety of abilities that can influence a system’s resource production, citizen happiness, the ability of a planet to resist a siege, or range/damage bonuses in combat. The catch is that as heroes evolve they become more expensive to maintain. Additionally, even the most fantastically wealthy faction has a limited number of heroes at their disposal. Finding the balance between civil development and military command can be a key to success.
Even Endless Space’s multiplayer, a feature not generally well done in 4X games, proves to be a rewarding experience. Matchmaking is simple enough: either host a game on your own or join somebody else’s. Though a full game with eight players in a large sized galaxy would probably require an afternoon’s investment in time, the AI is able to substitute for any human players who drop the match. It will even go to the trouble of maintaining pre-existing alliances and strategic plans. The vacant seat can also be filled by someone willing to join mid-game. The only obvious shortcoming to the multiplayer is that there’s no private chat between empires. Any wheeling and dealing has to be done through the in-game diplomacy menus or a public chat. The prefixed diplomatic options are suitably robust for player vs AI matches, but lack the subtlety necessary for crafting complex intrigues.
The only shortcomings with Endless Space are the sort of sundry things that could quite easily be patched in future updates. There are no real options for inter-empire espionage or sabotage. The former only becomes an acute issue due to the game’s scoreboard. At any point a player can see how their empire is shaping up against all the others in the game, regardless of if those other civilizations have been discovered. When military might, colonial holdings, wealth, and technological progression can be distilled into a score, the importance of diplomacy is somewhat devalued. An option to turn off this scoring would enrich both the multiplayer and single player games. Building in an espionage system to replace the score board would be even better. After that, the only other thing that stands out as an oversight is that random race selection in single player can often lead to duplicates of the same faction. If I order up an eight player game, I don’t want to see three different versions of the United Empire.
Save for what’s mentioned above and a few odd AI fleet names, there’s something particularly demoralizing to losing a space battle against a fleet called “TerranTemplate25-ver1”, Endless Space is a fantastically crafted game from start to finish. While the development team has pulled no punches in creating a challenging AI, they’ve clearly demonstrated a desire to bring newcomers into the 4X subgenre. Nostalgia may have inspired this team, but the game and its fascinating lore stand tall on their own merits. Endless Space is positioned to join a very elite club of 4X games that not only appeal to veterans of the genre, but also welcome in a new crop of players.
Endless Space is available via Steam for $29.99 USD. The “Emperor” edition, which offers some extra skins, a custom hero, and greater input in Amplitude Studios “Games2gether” program, is available for five dollars more. NB: There is NO difference in game play between the standard “Admiral” edition and the “Emperor”.