Friday, September 14, 2012

FTL is an instant classic in space sims (FTL review)

This is the game I've been waiting for.

I'm not what you call an early bird, but this morning I woke up at seven as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. I checked FTLgame.com to see if the game had gone on sale earlier than I expected. It had! Maybe it was a glitch, but the price tag was only $9. I tipped them an extra dollar and received my Steam key within seconds. Two minutes later, the game finished downloading. Five minutes after that, I'd finished the tutorial.

The gameplay is as deep, but picking it up is easier than Microsoft's Freelancer. This is a game that would be perfect for mobile operating systems like Android and iOS (and a comment made by one of the site admins suggests it will eventually make it there).


There are three crewmen available from the start. I name one Grant (he'll be the captain, of course) and keep the randomly generated names for the other two: Sem and Maria, who primarily man the engine room and the shield generator respectively. So we set sail into the wide unknown, pushing the outer edge of the final frontier. I don't care how nerdy I sound right now... who the hell hasn't dreamed of piloting a friggin' starship?

After a couple of dogfights which couldn't be avoided, a distress call turns out to be a pirate ship wedged between a couple of space rocks. It'd be easy to blast the wounded ship to oblivion and collect whatever scrap and cargo survives, but I remember Captain Picard's policy of keeping the peace. Unfortunately, the trapped ship is destroyed during my attempt to save it, anyway. I then make the light jump to the next destination, satisfied in knowing I did my best.

Then there's a decision to be made. While the evil rebel fleet is hot on my ship's trail, we can travel through a hostile sector or try to make our way through a nebula, which will shut down certain portions of the system's electronics. I decide it's better to risk the nebula and, hopefully, avoid a number of space battles in the process.

Traveling through a nebula is eerie, not to mention dangerous. Despite the simple graphics and the cheerful chip tunes, the ship's sensors shut down and I'm piloting more or less blind. We encounter a few hostiles along the way, but most of the time we can use the nebula as cover and slip by.

Most of the time.

The worst encounter in the nebula involves pirates who board the ship. Because the sensors are down, I don't know what's going on in the ship beyond the rooms that contain crew members. So, blindly, I open all the outer doors and try to flush the hijackers out. Did it work? I have no idea... but then the door to Maria's shield room turns red as the pirates breach it. I command her to escape into an adjacent room and open all the doors between the outside of the ship and the shield room. The hijackers run out of oxygen just in time. Another narrow escape.

Every escape in this game is narrow.

Scrap is currency in FTL's world. The more you fight and survive, the more scrap you earn. I'm more interested in flight than fight, however. I avoid encounters whenever possible and help wounded enemies rather than capitalize on their misfortune. I don't make much scrap as a result. I come across some good deals in the cosmos, but can't afford to partake.

One distress call turns out to be a planet on which an infectious disease is spreading. The government there can use our help, but it would be wise for my crew to keep moving. I send a party down to the planet, anyway. Seriously, though, what would Captain Picard do? (WWCPD?) We successfully help them stop the infection from spreading further, but one of my crew is showing symptoms of the illness himself. I'll be damned if it isn't Captain Grant.

Sem and Maria leave him behind and share piloting duties. Things go pretty smoothly despite Grant's absence.

Maria's later killed when asteroids rain down upon the ship during an escort mission. Sem narrowly escapes, but helps a wounded ally to safety. For the first time the ship is wealthy in scrap. At the next stop, Sem hires two alien crewmen to take up Grant and Maria's duties. All is well until they encounter a seriously overpowered rebel drone in the most hostile of environments. There's no hope for Sem and his alien crewmen, but they put up a hell of a fight.

There is no loading of previous save points. No second chances. "Game Over" truly means your game is over. FTL truly is rogue-like in that respect and I only wish there was some end goal to obtain. Otherwise your only goal is to see how far you can get, how much you can explore. In the end, I've destroyed ten ships, collected more than four hundred units of scrap, and responded to forty-eight distress calls.

I also wish the game recognized who you consider the captain, the lieutenant, and so on. It'd be great if you could ask other members of the crew for advice when difficult decisions have to be made. Nonetheless, FTL is one of the best games of the year and it will more than hold me over until Tuesday's release of Borderlands 2. In fact, if you're a fan of frequently returning to Freelancer, you're likely to get a lot of mileage out of FTL.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have another ship to command.

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