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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Somethin' Else Sunday - FTL: Faster Than Light

I know we don't usually do 'Vidyo Gaims' around here, but Steve and I have been playing this so much we'd have nothing else to write about anyway!

The name of the game is FTL: Faster Than Light. You can find their website here.



Synopsis
It is tough to describe the game in terms of standard video game genres. It is a Real-Time (yes, you can pause it - thank the stars), Tactical, Space Adventure game that plays like a board game you never knew you wanted. You command a 'Freighter' or 'Corvette' sized ship, with 3-8 crew members, fighting & questing your way through 8 sectors of increasingly treacherous space. It is brilliant in its simplistic, yet random design and you will play a completely different game every time you fire it up. In common sci-fi parlance, it's Firefly/Serenity scale with Star Trek themes.

Oh, and it's only $10.

Plot

The 'plot' of the game is pretty straight forward - no real spoilers to be had here. There is a galactic civil war between the Federation and the Rebels, and a massive Rebel fleet is on it's way destroy an unprepared Federation fleet. You are a Federation captain and you have just discovered the Rebel fleet. Your job is to take your ship and fly through several sectors of space to reach the Federation fleet and alert them before it's too late. When you arrive at the final sector and alert the Federation fleet, the first wave of Rebels arrive right behind you. The only hope for the Federation is to have you find and destroy the Rebel flagship before the rest of the Rebel fleet arrives.

Okay, so that last line is kind of a spoiler, but you'll be glad I told you because that flagship is not to be taken lightly.

While the plot is very simple, it provides the game with a sense of urgency and allows the game to build the mechanics pushing you towards that eventual destination - even if you're not ready for it.


Gameplay

You start each game session by selecting your ship, and optionally naming your ship and crew members. Initially, you have only one ship design and layout to choose from. Through in-game quests and achievements, you can unlock 8 additional ships and 1 alternate layout for each of those ships, giving you 18 variations on the same starting point. Each layout/ship comes with a completely different 'floor plan' for your ship and a different set of crew, weapons, and ship systems.

Your Starting Ship: The Kestrel
Each ship comes with a set number of built-in systems with additional slots that can accommodate new systems purchased throughout the game. These include 3 'subsystems': Piloting (Helm), Sensors, and Doors; and 9 'main systems': Shields, Engines, Weapons, Life Support, Medical Bay, Drone Control, Teleporter, Cloak, and an Artillery Beam (only found on 1 ship). All ships come with the 3 subsystems installed, and most other ships will come with 6-7 other systems installed by default. This can lead to a variety of different tactics as you progress through the game.

For instance, the Stealth Ship begins with a cloak system, but no shields; the Engi Ship starts with weak weapons, but additional Drone Control slots; and the Variant Mantis ship starts with no weapons, but has a Teleporter and Boarding Drones.

All of these systems can and will be upgraded via the collection of Scrap, the main 'currency' in the game. You are also required to power all of these systems via a Reactor on the ship that is also upgradable. All systems and reactors have a fixed limit to how much they can be upgraded, and your reactor is not capable of powering all systems at full power all the time. The more you upgrade a system, the more it costs for the next upgrade.

What? No Marshmallows?
This leads into one of the cooler aspects of the game: power management. For example, certain weapons require a certain amount of power from your weapon system to charge and fire. Don't have a big enough weapon system? Can't turn it on. Don't have enough reactor juice? Gotta power something else down to fire it. More powerful weapons require more power. Since each upgrade costs you vitally important scrap, you need to plan your upgrades carefully.

There are also a variety of events that can cut power to certain systems, reduce total reactor power, and even crew members that provide an extra bar of power to whatever room they are in!

There are 6 races of crew available, with the most common being human (who have no special abilities). You can acquire or start with Mantis, Rockmen, Slugs, Engi (sentient robots), and Zoltans (those energy guys) - all of which have their own advantages and disadvantages, allowing them to fit into specialized crew roles.

Some of your systems (Helm, Weapons, Shields, and Engines) can also be 'crewed', which improves their functionality. Your crew members also gain experience with each of those systems, along with Repair and Hand-to-Hand combat, increasing their ability to manage those systems as they gain experience.

Your starting ship and crew are about the only things fixed in the game, as all 8 sectors of space you travel through are randomly generated each time you play. Technically, 18 sectors are randomly generated to create a webbed path for you to 'choose your own fate' (much like the old Star Fox games) and each of the sectors are classified as friendly, hostile, or 'unexplored nebula'. Each sector consists of 20-30 jump points that you travel to and from to reach the exit of the sector and then jump to the next.

A typical fight against a pirate vessel.
Each jump point contains a randomly generated 'encounter' - which (depending on the system) could be an enemy ship, a non-combat encounter, a distress signal, a store to trade scrap for weapons/crew/drones/ship systems, etc. Combat is carried out in real-time, with charging weapons, rushing your crew to repair damaged parts of your ship, and venting airlocks to suffocate fires. Your abilities in combat rest largely on the equipment your ship brings to the fight: a teleporter allows you to beam crew members aboard their ship to fight hand-to-hand, a drone control system allows you to launch automated attack drones, and that improved shield generator will allow you to resist laser/beam fire better. There are a lot of semantics that go into a combat, but all of them are pretty straight forward. There are a wide variety of weapons allowing for different 'combos' that may be more or less effective given your target. For instance, you might think teleporting your crew aboard an AI Automated ship would be a good idea (Who's there to stop you!?!) - until you realize there's no oxygen on the enemy ship!

Doom da Doom Doom Doom. Doomy Doomy Doom.....
"Non-combat" encounters are very well done. A situation is presented to you in a small text box, descriptive enough that it provides you with an interesting situation but short enough that you can read it in 15 seconds. Nearly all of these encounters come with two options, usually one to 'help' or one to 'leave be'. For example, there is an encounter where you receive a distress call from a nearby station - it is under attack by giant spiders. You can choose to leave them to their fate or attempt to assist them. Leaving them alone obviously has no risk, but also no reward. Choosing to help could land you some scrap, fuel, missiles, or even a weapon - or you could end up losing a crew member in the fight (with no reward). In addition to these two options, 'blue' options appear (called this because they are presented in blue text) that are available depending on the systems/equipment/crew races on your ship. In the provided example, if you have an Anti-Personnel Drone on your ship, you can send it down to the station to eradicate the spiders with no risk to your crew. These blue options are (thankfully) always superior to any of the standard choices.

Okay, maybe not always superior for everyone.
Some of the encounters spiral out into short 'quest lines', requiring you to visit specific jump points. Many of these quest lines require a particular piece of equipment or crew from a particular race, and since each store you find has a randomly generated set of crew/equipment/weapons/systems to sell you, you'll never be able to get everything in a single play-through.

In addition to the random nature of the game, you also have the Rebel fleet which is hot on your tail the entire game. In each system, the Rebel fleet moves across the map, pushing you towards the exit jump point. It's statistically impossible to visit every point in each sector - in fact, you'll probably only be able to hit half of them before you have to jump out. If you do get caught by those rebels, you'll be forced to fight a particularly powerful ship - and even if you destroy it, you earn no scrap for it (no time to collect it, you've gotta run!).

I'll see you in Hell!
The entire game is essentially a huge risk-reward equation that you slowly learn to maneuver your way through over the course of multiple play-throughs. Each play session lasts from about 15 to 90 minutes (although I did have an epic 2.5 hour game once), and it is HARD. There are two difficulty options, normal and easy, and I highly suggest starting with easy. If you don't, at least it won't take you long to figure out you need to switch. The only save game mechanism in the game allows you to "save & quit" - meaning you can't save the game before you fight those spiders, then load back if you don't like the results. This cutthroat mechanic, coupled with the 'hope' of a more 'player friendly' randomly generated world on the next play-through makes you hungry for the next game.

Personal Thoughts

Now why didn't I think of that....
I cannot believe how addictive this game turned out to be. When I think about my review here, it's hard to imagine that I wanted to play another round of it after playing for 90 minutes only to be utterly destroyed by the end boss. And then another round after losing my 90% of my crew aboard an enemy ship when it blew up. Or after that time when my ace gunner was eaten by giant spiders (they are no joke). Or after that time when an enemy missile hit my life support system and set fire to my ship, consuming all of the oxygen and killing my crew by asphyxiation. But it's that very challenge that makes it oh so difficult to pay attention to your wife, take out the garbage, or properly feed your 1 year old daughter.

You'll just have to play it yourself to find out. Did I mention it was only $10? And that you can buy it right here?

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