Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: FTL

FTL: Faster Than Light
FTL (Faster Than Light) is an indie Sci Fi game available on Steam.  A prototypical kickstarter game, it shows how more and more low budget titles are now successfully making their way to market, completely ignoring the old AAA megapublisher paradigm, and the computer gaming world is better for it, in my opinion.  This game really demonstrates what happens when it all comes together.

The premise of FTL is that you control a ship and crew carrying vital intelligence out of enemy territory back to your fleet, and the enemy "Rebel" fleet is dogging your heels every step of the way.  Over the course of your flight to safety, you must fight, trade, investigate, recruit and befriend your way across the galaxy as the challenges you face grow steadily more difficult. 

This being an indie title, it's not surprising that the graphics are a throwback to earlier times - though for what they are, they are very clean, smooth and well implemented, making it feel more of an artistic choice than a limitation of talent, budget, or tech.  The sound and music is also quite retro-future in feel, reminding me in some ways of Star Control 2.  Again, they add to the experience rather than date it. 

The game really brings together some well thought out ideas and puts them together into a very engaging game.  There's a management sim with RPG elements in that you can purchase upgrades to your ship, and some systems function more effectively with crew manning them, and crew members improve in their ability to run said systems with practice.  For example, having someone man the engineering station makes your ship dodge better and able to FTL jump sooner, and the more practice that crewmember has manning that station, the better those bonuses get.  Most of the time, your wants will naturally far outstrip your limited cash resources, so you'll have to pick and choose what upgrades you take, and even then you might not have the cash to upgrade your reactor to provide power to everything all the time, so you'll have to manage power distribution on the fly in real time (though you can always pause the game with space bar and issue orders while paused).  You also select targets for your weapons and time their firing, and you must send crew to repair hull breaches and damage systems (another thing they get better at with practice!), and you can even send and defend against boarding parties. 

Fighting a slug vessel.  Shields down. Ouchy.
The game might frustrate some people because it is actually very difficult, or gets there very quickly.  There are two game modes, and even on easy mode, winning is difficult.  On normal mode, it's rare I can get past stage 5, much less complete the game successfully.  A complete playthrough, however, only takes an hour or two, so losing is less horrible than one might think.  Personally, I do find it kind of refreshing to play a game you can lose at, in a video game market full of unlimited tries and infinite do-overs.  And the game can be brutal.  Your crew members are individuals with names and talents, but for them, death is permanent - there is no getting "knocked out" to be revived later after combat.  Really, the game is often called a "roguelike" but I find it has very little to do with Rogue style gameplay.   To me, it is much more akin to Oregon Trail - you have to balance risk versus reward in making decisions and overcoming obstacles, you have to manage the individuals in your party and any deaths are permanent, and really you expect to lose more than you win because the journey is that difficult. 

And even all that aside, there are some genuine gripes I have with the game, as no game is perfect.  Frankly, a bit more of the game is subject to simple random chance than I would have liked - the only deciding factor in the success of some endeavors such as navigating an asteroid field is down to the flip of a coin, or in happening to have the right systems equipped - which itself is also a flip of a coin or roll of the dice to determine if the game has even decided to grant you the opportunity to purchase said system.  So there comes a time when you hit the ceiling of what you can accomplish with skill and judgement, and the degree of success or failure of your mission is determined by how kind your computer's random number generator is feeling today.  Indeed, the game gives you the illusion of plotting your own course across each sector, it is merely just that - illusion.  The outcome of any path you choose is largely random, so there's almost no point in there being a choice at all, other than to decide whether or not you go through nebulas.  Also, while the short nature of the game helps soften the blow of losing, and the random nature of events helps replayability, it would have been nice to also have an alternate, longer sandbox or campaign mode to play in - something akin to the old Starflight or Star Control games. 

But, those things notwithstanding, it's still an excellent game and a steal at ten bucks.  I know I often say you could do a lot worse for a lot more money, but it's true - and you also get the bonus of the smug sense of self satisfaction that you are supporting "indie" gaming and sticking it to the big fat cat publishers who continue to rake it in while they ruin games you love (cough*EA*cough) or dispense the same sequelitis year after year. 

Final Verdict: A solid A. Don't miss it.

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