I’m not that much of a gamer. At least, that’s what I like to tell myself. And my family and friends. But I’ve come to realise that actually, I play more computer games than I think. I was given an xbox for Christmas last year, and I shudder to think how many hours I’ve spent playing Skyrim. And The Witcher 2. And Portal 2. And Lego Lord of the Rings. And I’ve got Angry Birds on my iPhone, of course, and Cut The Rope, and all the other stupid little things that pass the time. Oh, and I’ve downloaded Baldur’s Gate onto my partner’s iPad, so there’s that, too.
But PC? Not so much. Every so often I’d coax my computer into running Alpha Centauri or Age of Empires – I’m old-school, me, if by that you mean stuck in the past – but that was about it.
And then I discovered Kickstarter. And somehow, I don’t know how, I blame the drink, I ended up backing about a dozen games. Some because they looked cool, some because I’d played the original and wanted to see the creators succeed, some because they just popped up. Until Elite: Dangerous, when I suddenly realised that all I really wanted was a new Elite game. I haven’t backed another one since then. Still, that leaves me with a bunch of games that will appear on my PC over the next year or so, and I suspect I’ll hardly play them.
But, but… the first game to actually be delivered was FTL (Faster Than Light). And I love it. I’ve been playing it, off and on, for months. Last night I played it for two hours, when I could (and should) have been working/reading/talking to my partner. But there’s an element to the gameplay that really tickles that ‘just one more’ instinct, and time gets away from you, then you die in a fiery explosion and you go ‘Next time‘ and you’re off again.
FTL is a deceptively simple game. You are the captain of a Federation spaceship, you have vital information for Fleet Command, the rebels are chasing you and you have eight sectors of space to cross. Starting off with few resources, weak weapons and hardly any crew, you jump across a system of stars, frantically trying to keep ahead of the rebels and not run out of fuel. In each system you jump to, something will happen. An enemy ship might attack you, friendlies might give you some scrap, you might find a new crew member – or be put in a position where you’ll lose one – or, well, almost anything. Your choices make a difference – do you go and help that civilian ship, thereby perhaps receiving some extra missiles as thanks, or does the ship that’s attacking them look too tough? Do you send a boarding party to that space station to hack information from their scanners, or do you slowly back away? Most of this stuff is done by text choices, and after playing for a while you do begin to see the same things again and again, but the writing is atmospheric, and the tension when you take a risky decision is surprisingly effective. And you do need to take risky decisions – if you don’t upgrade your ship and crew, you’re going to be in real trouble when you reach the next sector…
There are various types of sector as well – civilian clusters, nebula, systems under alien control, Pirate sectors – and the range of options and events in each is nicely different and defined. If you have a Rockman crewmember, then going to a Rockman-controlled sector means you might come across an event with an option that wouldn’t be there if you were all pasty fleshy humans. But then again, not all Rockmen are friendly…
The heart of the game, though, is the combat, which is again deceptively simple, but actually very tactical. You have your ship, with power to your systems and your crew doing their thing. And on the other side of the screen, not moving, is the enemy ship, on which you can – if you’ve upgraded your sensors – see their crew running around. Or OH GOD NO they’ve got a teleporter, and here they come…
Assuming that hasn’t happened, you wait for your weapons to charge up, and hope that theirs will take longer. Will you target their shield generator, or their weapons systems, or their Oxygen supply? Your laser will charge up first, but do you wait and use it to take down their shields so your beam can actually do some damage to the crew? But they’re thinking the same things. If you take your crewman off weapons duty to go and fight the fire that’s broken out in your engine room, the weapons will take longer to charge and be less accurate. But that fire, left unchecked, could spread to other parts of your ship. And if you forget to repair the oxygen supply, things get nasty very very quickly. It can get quite frantic, as you try to contain a fire, repair your systems, prevent your crew from dying from oxygen starvation, repel boarders AND remember to keep firing tactically on the enemy. Defeat the enemy ship, and you’ll get some plunder. But how many hits can you take before you have to visit an expensive repair shop? And will you even find one before the enemy fleet catches you?
I’m only scratching the surface here. You start the game with only one ship open to you, but as you play more – get the right events, complete the right achievements – more become unlocked. There are 8 ships in total, each with two distinct layouts and starting equipment, and your style of play has to change radically as you move from ship to ship. Starting off with a teleporter and a tough crewman but no real weapon is very different to a ship with cloaking but no shields. There are eight different races as well, each with their own benefits and disadvantages. What looks like a very simple concept actually provides far more play-time than I would have guessed. It isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no backtracking or saving. You die, you die and start again, right at the beginning. On ‘Easy’, I can complete the game one time in five or six, if I’m lucky. On ‘Normal’, I have yet to manage it.
That’s all a little off-topic, but for an SF blog, here’s the point – the game has a solid (if slightly derivative) setting and idea, has some great writing and encounters, and is very easy to start, and difficult to finish. It’s insanely cheap, and I recommend it if you fancy a little short-term SF action. Here’s their website. Go quickly, before the Rebels catch up!