Saturday, November 12, 2005

Evochron Alliance Review

Evochron Alliance, developed and published by StarWraith 3D Games.
The Good: Newtonian physics, not restricted in the early game, good planetary transitions, advanced strategic combat
The Not So Good: Too freeform for beginners, low variety of careers, large learning curve
What say you? An acceptable space game for experienced players: 6/8

Space: It’s Full of Rocks. Yes, ever since Galileo ripped off some Dutch guy and made his own telescope, people have been staring towards the sky wondering what’s out there. Eventually, people will find a way to travel great distances in a short amount of time, and colonize the other realms of our universe. From what games have taught us, much of the future will be the same as the world is today, except with flying ships. Along comes Evochron Alliance, where you get to take the helm of moderately sophisticated spacecrafts and see what the galaxy holds. There is a surprising level of competition in the space simulation genre, especially given the fact that flight simulators have all but disappeared. You now have several choices for your gaming dollar, including X3, Battlecruiser, Freelancer, and several other similar games. Let’s see how Evochron Alliance stacks up.

Evochron Alliance has the feel of a game that was developed by a small team that tried hard to make it competitive with higher budget titles (mainly because that’s the case). The graphics in the game, as you would probably expect, are just about 3 years behind the curve, when compared with similar games published today. I think that Evochron Alliance’s graphics are about on par with Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos (a game I really liked), as the effects such as explosions are well done, but the textures don’t hold up, especially when viewed up close. The game has a realistic level of background colors, unlike some other space games that have too many nebulae floating around. The planets suffer from the same fate, as the textures are good when viewed from afar, but the surface becomes a garbled mess when you are entering the atmosphere. Graphics have always been just an added bonus to me, and never made or broke a game (unless the graphics inhibited gameplay). I don’t mind the graphics in Evochron Alliance, and I think they do a sufficient job of painting an appropriate setting. The sound is quite quaint as well, with the requisite battle sounds, spacey background music that’s used in every space game, and radio chatter between ships. We’ve all seen this before in pretty much every game, so no surprises here.

Evochron Alliance has both freeform and campaign missions for the single player. Typically, campaign missions are short, combat-focused affairs, while the freeform mode gives the player the freedom to do what he/she/it wants. The game encourages playing both with the same character as experience and upgrades overlap, which is something that most other games do not have. The freeform mode provides no in-game instructions on how to start, which can result in numerous deaths if you don’t stick to the beginner system (I can die with the best of them!). The text files that accompany the game along with the official website and in-game tutorial give hints on how to proceed, but some beginning players might find the start of the game too daunting. There are multiple ways of controlling your aircraft, using the mouse, joystick, or keyboard. I personally like using the mouse direction (much like the controls in Freelancer), although the mouse sensitivity is set low (and can’t be changed in-game, although this will be changed in the next update), so I have to pick up the mouse and slide it over numerous times to perform a 180-degree turn. That gets really annoying during combat, let me tell you. You can also play online in multiplayer, with both human and AI players controlling the various ships in a MMO-like environment. If enough players were online, you can imagine the interesting games that could develop.

You play Evochron Alliance entirely from the pilot seat of a spaceship, of which there are five classes. Scouts are the basic small craft, fighters are basic combat-oriented vehicles, strikers are advanced combat spacecraft, and transports and freighters are used to transport goods. You can see the basic two career options in the game from the types of ships present (combat vs. trade). During the game, you maintain relations with all the members in the galaxy, and your relationship with each ship in range is clearly indicated. In general, if you attack ships in a particular system, that system will become hostile. Friendly systems can offer you contracts, which are little missions where you go out and kill some ships or transport goods (or kill ships that are transporting goods). This adds a little variety in the freeform mode, and can provide some goals to keep the game moving.

Evochron Alliance has some alarmingly realistic physics. The game uses the Newtonian inertial model to perfection, which makes the handling of spaceships realistic and difficult. Since there is no air resistance in space, turning is handled only by firing engines sideways, which results in a sort of sliding motion. The physics would be extremely difficult to handle if it weren’t for the Inertial Dampening System, or IDS. You craft is equipped with both vertical and horizontal thrusters, and the IDS appropriately fires these thrusters in order to make your ship move in the direction you are facing. In combat, however, you’ll want to disengage the IDS to make your ship harder to hit. Overall, I liked the extremely advanced physics model of the game that holds nothing back; it’s refreshing to see a game that doesn’t simplify things too far to make it appeal to beginners but alienate those experienced players.

When you do run into less than friendly opponents, Evochron Alliance offers some above average combat. Because of the nature of the physics model, the combat is more strategic than other games; you need to use varied strategies to avoid enemy fire by making your ship difficult to hit, while making it easy to engage the enemy. Each of the ships has two different kinds of weapons: cannons and missiles. This is below the variety of weapons found in some other games, which may include lasers, mines, rockets, or other assorted mayhem; there are some other weapons, but they must be discovered and are loaded as secondary devices. Essentially, all of the classes of cannons and missiles behave the same except more expensive models deal more damage. Countermeasures can be used to avoid some of the missiles, but these are less than 100% effective and require some skill in operating them correctly. If an enemy unit has launched a missile or two, it’s bad news most of the time. The user can adjust the energy ratings to give more power to either weapons or shields, tailoring their game plan to the current enemy force. There has been more thought put into the combat of Evochron Alliance, and is definitely more complex than arcade space shooters.

When not blowing things up, you’ll probably want to dock with planets or stations in order to trade and purchase new items. The economic aspects of Evochron Alliance deal with mining asteroids, selling the goods, and trading commodities between systems. Each planet has a different specialty that is of lower cost than other items, and can be sold to other planets or stations for a small profit. Fitting your ship with a mining laser is a must, and you can go to asteroid belts and search for precious stones, and even mine planets. One neat aspect of Evochron Alliance is transitioning between space and a planet. Unlike most games where you magically land on the ground once you enter the atmosphere, Evochron Alliance makes the user pilot the ship all the way to the ground. Landing on planets is really neat, as you enter low orbit, slowly descending towards the planet. As you enter the atmosphere, the gases become denser, and you can burn up if you’re traveling too fast. Each planet has only one city, which is slightly unrealistic. After a while, landing on a planet can get old and seem like an unnecessary hassle, but it’s still a nice addition that most other games ignore.

If you are experienced in space simulations, Evochron Alliance is an entertaining game. The physics strive for realism, but the game lessens the learning curve by adding systems to help you control your spaceship. Eventually, you’ll get used to handling the ships in the game anyway. I think the signature element of Evochron Alliance is the transition from space to land, something that most games show a cut scene for. The game does not have a lot of variety in career options, however, as you can only strive for combat or trade. The initial learning curve, getting started on a new career, is slightly steep and is not helped by less than descriptive documentation; a lot of the tutorials tell you how to do things, but not specifically what to do in the beginning. Players need to be held by the hand as they are learning a new game, and Evochron Alliance just throws n00bs into the deep end (by the way, Microsoft Word thinks a synonym of “n00bs” is “matrimonial.” n00bs need love too!). As long as you’re dedicated to learning the game and not easily frustrated, Evochron Alliance should prove to be a nice distraction. The multiplayer modes definitely have grand possibilities, and the AI in the game is challenging enough. Evochron Alliance is a fine and memorable edition to the space simulation genre.