Archive for February, 2012

Fleet Action

The golden age of the space combat sim is behind us – we’re probably not going to see a resurrection of TIE Fighter or Wing Commander anytime soon. However, there are still developers out there keeping the dreams of starfighting glory alive. One of those developers is Seamless Entertainment, who have recently released their take on the classic genre.

Set in a far future when Earth’s sun is burning out, SOL: Exodus puts you in the cockpit of a United Colonies of SOL fighter as you lead the remnants of the UCS military forces against the Children of Dawn, an army of militant religious zealots bent on wiping out anyone who doesn’t embrace the destruction imminent in the dying sun. As you lead the eponymous Exodus, the CoD forces will harry you and make your life miserable every step of the way.

Blowing up reactors makes you feel like Wedge Antilles.

The gameplay is fairly easy to pick up, and falls on the more arcade-ish side of the space sim spectrum, lacking complexities like subsystem damage or customizable loadouts. Still, the game doesn’t do all the work for you, and you’ll have to pull some fancy flight maneuvers, hack transmission nodes on enemy vessels, and switch between targets on the fly, as well as keep steady aim (enemy gunships make sure that your missiles can’t do all the work). The hacking mechanic is well implemented, forcing you to target a hack point, then watch for the code that appears and then select the code. This can have cool effects like turning missiles against your enemies or revealing the ship’s weak points – however, you can only do it at certain scripted points and can’t, say, take out the frigates in the tutorial with it.

The game doesn’t offer you a choice of fighters, offering only the standard Hades starfighter, but this is justified by being part of a ragtag remnant fleet. Your ship is adequately equipped with a pair of automatic guns, a hard-hitting energy weapon called the MAG cannon, and a complement of guided missiles (which were unfortunately nerfed a bit in the last patch so you can’t really “fire and forget” anymore). The enemy fleet has a bigger variety of ships, ranging from cannon fodder fighters to upgraded gunships and elite fighters, as well as capital ships and the specialized ADD, which is like a robotic leech that attaches to your own capships and transports.

The controls for the game are fully customizable, and I used my joystick/throttle setup (a Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas X) through the campaign, which played without a problem. I also replayed the tutorial with the Xbox 360 gamepad, which also played smoothly and was easy enough to get into. The game also gives you the option to play with mouse and keyboard, but I’d recommend a stick or, if you don’t have a joystick available, a gamepad.

The game features 8 missions including the prologue/tutorial, with a decent variety of objectives in each, although many of them boil down to “protect the Atlas” (your home base/carrier) and “destroy the enemy capship”. There are usually secondary objectives which, when accomplished, will add to your mission score and possibly net you bonuses that can be used to upgrade your fighter (although some of the later mission challenges are daunting). There are also a few missions which are less about defense and more about pure dogfighting, and I have to admit that these were my personal favorites.

Graphically, the game is competent and often colorful, although as it uses the Unreal engine it is occasionally prone to texture pop-in. They mostly stay smooth at full settings (with the exception of the final mission in early releases, although this has since been remedied with a patch). The fighters and capships all have interesting designs, and I particularly love the launch deck, which is reminiscent of the Viper launch sequences in the original Battlestar Galactica series. The character portraits are also quite good, with the UCS all having a military bearing, the sole civilian having a professional appearance, and the CoD all looking appropriately insane.

The sound effects are what you would expect. No, sound doesn’t travel in space in reality. Willing suspension of disbelief applies here as in most science fiction. Of course, the game would seem a lot less lively without the whoosh of afterburners, the electric splash of the MAG cannon and the beep of the incoming missile indicator. In addition, the voices are very well done and fit the characters well, with special note to the deliciously hammy Children of Dawn commanders. Their frequent proclamations of your impending doom fit their villainy well, and make for some fun bad guys.

Sometimes you'll get a little help from friends - like this missile launcher.

The initial release of the game was riddled with bugs and balance issues, but the Seamless crew have been active on the Steam forums, and more importantly have been listening to user concerns (including some of my own issues with framerate in the final mission, which were resolved in the 02/01 patch). The team has shown that they’re willing to make the game more user friendly – refining the tutorial to make it a more comprehensive example of how to fly and fight, as well as dealing with issues regarding the hacking feature.

The Final Verdict

The game is not the second coming of Wing Commander or Freespace, and coming from a small independent team I don’t know why so many are expecting something of this magnitude. It’s a rather short game, with only 8 missions in the campaign (clocking in at 6 hours for me), although you can go back to replay any mission after you’ve completed it. It offers a nice challenge for newcomers to the genre and a fun diversion for veterans. It’s not perfect, but it’s a genuinely good game made by a team with some serious love for sci-fi space combat. At $9.99, SOL: Exodus is definitely worth checking out.

BNBGAMING Recommended Award
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