Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Faster Than Light

Vocab needed for this review:  The roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement.

Faster Than Light is a roguelike spaceship simulator.  It is available on Steam, Good Old Games or from the developer’s own website, and it costs around £6.  It is also really rather good and I am going to tell you why you should buy it.

The game, at first glance, does not look especially complicated.  The graphics are not super-realistic, in fact they remind me of Mech Quest, and that may put some people off.  You will usually see a plan of your own ship, a few statistics about your current progress and supplies, and possibly information you may have about any enemies.  It’s basic but it does the job because, when you’re playing FTL, you’re going to be too busy worrying about putting out fires, repairing vital systems, keeping  your precious crew alive and just revelling in the whole “I AM CAPTAIN KIRK”ness of it all to be worrying about shiny graphics.

The game is very reminiscent of Star Trek, and I mean that in a really, really good way.  To be clear, I mean the original Star Trek too - none of this “exploring outer space by exploring inner space” rubbish that came along with Jean-Luc.  No.  We’re talking missiles, lasers and “the engines cannae take any more cap’n.” Honest to goodness space combat and exploration – exactly as God intended.  There are aliens, teleporters and lots of boldly going where no man has gone before.  It is majestic.  

The aim of the game is to transport some bit of vital information or other to your federation allies whilst avoiding the chasing rebel fleet who gradually move through a sector -  forcing you to stay one step ahead.  Each attempt is randomly generated, so you will never play the same map twice, and encounters are also randomly created, which can lead to some difficult moments as your pitifully underpowered cruiser is put up against a series of tough enemies -  often resulting in an early, fiery death.  Death is also permanent and means a restart back at your hangar. 

There are 8 sectors to conquer before you get to the end of the game.  On each map an exit is marked on the right hand side and you make your own way there by jumping from star to star.  Each jump uses 1 fuel from your limited supplies – although you can get more by destroying ships, or from stores or other events in the game.

Whenever you jump into a new system you are given a text message to tell you what is there, waiting for you.  Sometimes this is nothing but more often than not you will encounter pirates or rebels or one of the many races which inhabit the universe.  This can lead to combat, trading, investigating a space station or one of a whole selection of encounters.  Once you have cleared the problem, or your FTL engine has powered up sufficiently, then you can jump to the next system and so on.  Almost everything apart from combat is done with text, and by selecting options from a menu – and there’s enough variety to keep you going for a long while.

Combat, however, is where FTL really comes into its own.  Each vessel is made up of a number of systems and a hull.  Systems vary from ship to ship but all of them have an engine, weapons, steering and shields.  Some may have a drone control system, or a teleporter; crews require oxygen and a medbay.  All of these are powered by the ship’s energy supply and power can be re-routed to different systems as and when the player requires (although the total amount is finite, if upgradeable.)  Shields protect the ship against various weapons but, once they are breached or knocked down, any damage is taken directly from the hull value and once that runs out then the ship explodes. Systems can also be individually targeted in order to damage or destroy them, and there is a chance (which varies by weapon) that a successful hit will start a catastrophic fire which can hurt both the ship and any crew.  Once systems are damaged sufficiently then they stop performing their function so, for example, if the oxygen supply is destroyed then the oxygen level in the ship will quickly drop, if the weapons are destroyed you can’t fire them etc etc.

Weapons themselves take many forms in FTL.  There are conventional types such as lasers, missiles, beam weapons and ion guns (which disable systems without doing any damage), but there are also drones available which can repair damage, attack the enemy or defend you from incoming fire.  Some ships even have access to teleporters which can send over crew members to attack enemies in their own backyard.  The game gives you a wide variety of ways to kill aliens, with different approaches needed for different problems.  For example missiles can get through shields easily, but a defence drone will instantly make them obsolete.  This means that you need to tailor your attack to give yourself the best chance of winning - you can't just turn up with one great weapon and always win.

Crew are present on most vessels.  They can come from a variety of races (all with their own advantages and disadvantages) and they are vital to the running of your ship.  Usually they will be assigned to a specific station (such as shields, engines, steering or weapons) and their presence improves the functioning of each of those.  They can repair damage, put out fires, fight intruders or board an opponent’s craft in order to cause them some problems of their own.  Each crew member has their own health, which can be depleted by fighting, fires and lack of oxygen.  Once that runs out then they die, but they can heal by going to your medbay.

Combat is played out in real time, although the player can pause the action in order to think about what to do next (or, more likely, try to think of a way out of the mess they’re in) and this makes it an intense, exhilarating experience.  The beauty of it is that you are constantly trying to manage everything.  Will your shields hold out?  When does your powerful missile battery reload?  Will your crew member put out that fire before they die?  And what the hell just happened to your engines?  Battles can ebb and flow, it’s very rare that one side completely overpowers the other.  You often come away from a defeat thinking “If I’d only done THAT, then maybe it would have ended differently”, and this is a good thing.  This is a sign of a great game.  Combat is tough, it is difficult and you will die many, many times but the game gives you plenty of opportunities to try new things.

The game also has its own economic system, with "scrap" as the currency.  There are many ways to get this.  Sometimes you are given it by a friendly soul, but more likely you take it from defeated enemies, and you can use it to upgrade your ship or to trade at stations.  You can upgrade pretty much any part of your vessel, except for the hull.  Invest in engines and you will avoid more incoming fire.  Invest in shields and they will take more damage before leaving you vulnerable.  Increase your power supply and you can run more systems...  you get the idea.  You can also buy augmentations such as a hull repair arm, or improved scrap retrieval – all with their own effects and advantages.

And, not only can you upgrade your ship, but your crew also become more experienced as they do their jobs.  If they fight off invaders they get better at fighting, and if they fix systems their repair ability increases.  This means that, as you progress, your ship becomes more efficient and more able to face the increasingly difficult opposition later in the game.  However, it also means that your crew become even more valuable than they were before, which adds yet another layer to the real-time combat as you need to keep them safe and alive if you want to succeed.

If you add in that there are 9 different unlockable ships available (each with an alternate loadout once certain conditions are met), that different sectors can be controlled by different races with differing levels of hostility to the player and that missiles and drones are also strictly rationed then we can see that a game which looks so simple on the face of it is actually remarkably complex and requires some definite strategic thought if players want to get anywhere.

And this is where FTL really excels.  It forces the  player to make constant strategic choices.  Do I run or fight?  Do I help them or not?  Is that ship too powerful for me to beat?  Do I spend my missiles on this opponent or save them for later?  Where can I get more fuel from?  This is a proper game which makes the player plan ahead, but also makes them react to what is happening right now.  Juggling everything during a particularly even firefight is absorbing, and balancing attack and defence is vital.  It rewards exploration but also instils a genuine fear and nervousness in the player of what might be lying in wait in the next system.  The difficulty of it is so well-balanced, and the randomness and permadeath work so well, that each run through is new and exciting and the urge to have “just one more game” is almost overwhelming.

FTL is a great game.  It’s not flashy.  It’s not something that needs massive amounts of hard drive space and it’s not something that prioritises showy set pieces over gameplay. Unlike some other, more illustrious, offerings it understands what games are all about.  It presents the player with a challenge.  It forces them to make choices.  It makes them play a bloody game.  It is a wondrous, beautiful creation and I would urge you to spend £6 on it.  It’s one of the best things I have played all year.

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