Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Moon Breakers

So I tried playing Moon Breakers, which is free on steam. I dusted off (literally, it was covered in dust from disuse since I stopped playing Wings of Prey) my joystick and plugged it in, then fired it up. Well, I should have saved myself the trouble. It doesn't use joystick.

A flight simulator, that tries to insinuate itself as the spiritual successor to Wing Commander... has no joystick support.

Ok, leaving that aside... there are further annoyances. It is 100% online, but you can't arrange games with friends or even control the game type with your own lobby. The game shoves you into a lobby and picks your side and the type of game at random. There's no way to arrange to play as a team with friends, you're just stuck with 29 or so random internet asswipes every time. There's no single player, either, so there's no plot. The game is "There's the Government and the Pirates and they fight over H3! FIGHT!!"

There are basically 3 kinds of game: Team deathmatch, destroy the enemy carrier, or capture the flag. The game type is chosen at random or perhaps on a rotation, and if enough players click "veto" on it in the scant few seconds between the start of the lobby and the start of the game, it will change, but I never saw enough vetoes for it to happen. Then you pick your craft, and you're launched. Every game has a 15 minute time limit, so often the game will end just as things are really starting to get good.

There are many craft available to fly, and by available to fly, I mean available for purchase. Oh sure, you can earn enough points eventually to unlock a ship without paying for it, but... well, the cheapest ship I saw was 160,000 points (or "cred" as they call it)... and on average I'd say I got about 2-4 thousand points per match (and I saw plenty of poor suckers who made less than a thousand every round). I don't see how I could possibly ever play 40-80 or more rounds of this game without going insane. And that's for one of the more modestly priced fighters - I saw some big badass ones for over a million cred. Compare that to League of Legends, a true free-to-play success story, where you could conceivably unlock a new character (granted, a cheap one) after 5 or so games, depending on performance.

Anyway, the ships are separated into light, medium, heavy fighers and bombers. Light fighters are agile and fast, but lightly armed and armored. They don't do a lot of damage and can't take a lot of damage, but in the hands of a skilled player can jink enough to survive. Medium and heavy fighters trade maneuverability for firepower and armor. You can take more hits but it's harder to dodge... and dodging is often a better defense if you've got more than one attacker on you. Bombers are the slowest of the bunch, and only have moderate offensive capability versus fighters, but they carry torpedoes which are the only weapons that can do damage to enemy carriers. The torpedoes require time to arm after firing, so you can't fire point blank, and travel slow enough to be shot down by fighters and/or turrets on the carrier itself.

Let's get some praise out of the way - the game looks sharp, and it can be pretty entertaining. While I lament lack of joystick support, flying by mouse is pretty easy and intuitive. Ships are good looking, and asteroids and broken moons are both pretty and functional as there were many times I shook an attacker by darting around a huge chunk of rock or zipping through a tunnel. There are some definite echoes of Crimson Skies here.  I especially liked the torpedo paradigm - them being able to be shot down and relatively slow moving definitely adds to the experience because it gives light fighters a defensive role and means teamwork is still essential to attack a carrier because the turrets need to be destroyed or at least distracted by other targets, as do any fighters on defense. I also have to say the game had pretty much no latency-based problems that I could tell, and I ran into no bugs at all while playing it. That's impressive. And the voice acting in the background is a nice touch and actually sounds natural and in context - something else you don't always get these days.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned lack of control over game lobbies is not my only gripe with the game. And the lack of joystick support. The instrument panel is nice and easy to read, but it needs a radar. Little arrows with names around the edge of the screen do not suffice - I need operational awareness in under 9 square inches. Also, more cues about things like torpedoes headed for your carrier would be nice - for instance, it could be a feature of light fighters that they automatically track and draw attention to enemy torpedoes in the HUD. The missiles carried by fighters always seem to dumbfire no matter what I do (I don't even know if they are SUPPOSED to lock on and track, there's practically no documentation on this at all). The afterburner reservoir seems to be a little on the small side... and yes, I know SPACE FLIGHT DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY but it's a game mechanic I can respect - a limited burst of speed to be used sparingly. But I still think it could be a little less miserly with the boost juice. I am highly aggravated that the targeting reticle for anyone I do damage too changes from red (enemy) to grey. I realize they're trying to go for a way to differentiate who you're attacking with a kind of automatic target flagging, but white/grey is the WRONG COLOR for that. Maybe a brighter shade of red or flashing red and orange or something... other games have hardwired my brain to equate a grey target with one that can be ignored... and indeed, against all that space-rock backdrop, sometimes it's all too easy to lose track of grey text. Most of all, I find myself irritated by the blatant "pay to win" business model the game employs - people who spend real money to buy the better fighters are at a distinct and immense advantage over those who stay free to play - to the point where really, the only pragmatic purpose the "free to play" players have is to be the legion of mooks the paying customers blow out of the stars by the dozen. Other free to play games (such as League of Legends or Team Fortress 2) take special care to balance what you can buy against the default, but this game clearly does not.

All in all, I don't find this game to be worth my time. Sure, it's free to play, but that comes off as an excuse for shortcomings rather than a genuine selling point. The gaming experience is shallow, the interface doesn't have a lot of thought behind it (indeed, some of the menus look like a website from the 90s... I AM AWARE OF WHAT MY WEBSITE LOOKS LIKE SPARE ME THE COMMENTS, PEANUT GALLERY). The inability to control your gaming experience with personalized lobbies and setup controls is a big minus (and of course, such lobbies would require bot support if you wanted to just play with a few friends).

Oh, and it needs joystick support, of course.

Grade: C minus. And that's the word from Bandit Camp.


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