Friday, November 18, 2005

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space Review

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, developed by Digital Eel and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Very quick games, easy to learn, simple but effective graphics, numerous upgrades, random maps, different ship types actually alter strategy, mod-friendly, strangely addictive
The Not So Good: High score too dependant on meeting trading aliens, slightly repetitious, component information is cumbersome if loaded, radar ruins some of the surprise element, no permanent ship status during combat, nebulae stink
What say you? A fast-paced and surprisingly fun space exploration and combat game: 7/8

Independent developers are the lifeblood of PC gaming. Constantly pushing the envelope to deliver new ideas to the gaming market, they are not confined by the restrictions of big publishers that want the same game published every year with minor additions and the primary purpose of making lots of money. I have reviewed two games by developer Digital Eel in the past, the predecessor of Weird Worlds and the inspiration of an obtainable item in Weird Worlds. Of course, the problem with having sequels is making sure you stay true to the original while making enough improvements to warrant a new version. Fortunately, SAIS was published by a small company and probably flew under the radar of most people, so Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is a new adventure for most. So let’s hop in a space ship, hurtle around some stars, and check out the newest version of the Infinite Space franchise.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space features an overhead 2-D view of space. When compared to the previous version of the game, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space looks great, but compared to other contemporary space games that are alive with 3-D, it falls a little short. Honestly, graphics don’t matter in a game such as this, and I’d much prefer simpler, cleaner, and easier to understand graphics (like those here) than confusing 3-D renditions with bad camera controls. I think there’s too much emphasis on cutting-edge graphics over great gameplay, and Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space leans more towards the gameplay angle, and I thank them for it. When you are talking about games with limited budgets, you really have to choose one or the other, and Weird Worlds is certainly not a tech demo with no gameplay. The sound is OK, a little bare but still fulfilling its duty in the game. You’ll notice repetition of sound effects during each game, but it doesn’t become annoying, and actually fits into the quick nature of the game.

The object of Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is to explore space, discovering aliens, new technologies, interesting artifacts, allies, and generally annihilate things. This is only a single player affair, but you are allowed to customize the game. You can choose from three different ships that allow for different scoring techniques: science, pirate, and military. The science mission gives more points for collecting lifeforms and discovering interesting things. Pirate missions are all about how much stuff you can cram into your cargo hold, the more expensive the better. Choosing the military option provides bonuses for contacting alien races and collecting new technologies. You can also select from three different size maps, which also controls the length of the mission, from about 5 to 20 real time minutes of play. You can also choose the amount of nebulae (which slow you down and are commonly annoying) and the strength of opposition. The game generates a random map each time you play, so the experience is always slightly different.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space also has a battle simulator, where you can practice strategies for combat by pitting various foes against each other. This is a nice addition for those who are really interested in the game, but most people will probably never use it to its full extent. Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space also has wonderful (and highly encouraged) support for mods. The original game had several mods that were developed by fans, and almost everything in the game can be changed. The developers are developing a guide on making mods on their official site, and most of the changes involve making new text files and bitmaps, so nothing too terribly complicated. PC games have become increasingly mod-friendly, so it’s nice to see that Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space continues the trend.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is played by moving your ship from star system to star system. Your ship always travels in a straight line, so there is some strategy in choosing the most efficient path and avoiding less than desirable things such as nebulae (which slow you down considerably) and black holes (which tend to kill you, unless you’ve got a l33t ship). There are other ways of traveling to distant systems, including folding (instantaneous for short distances) and hyperspace (instantaneous for any distance) if you’ve found those upgrades. When you arrive at a system, a radar will display how many enemy units are present (if any) before you commit to orbiting that particular star, so you can gauge how well you might fare against possible foes. Of course, not all aliens are hostile, and you might be missing out on some good stuff if you constantly avoid occupied stars. During combat, you are given the option of retreating, and most of the time you can do so without receiving any damage, so there really isn’t much reason to avoid most systems.

Each star system has a number of upgrades or artifacts that are available for you to take. Upgrades come in four types: weapons, systems (like combat computers, shields, and sensors), thrusters (movement during combat), and drives (movement during travel). Each of these upgrades has their own unique shape and corresponding graphical value, so it’s somewhat easy to tell if the new thing you found is worth exchanging with your current item. The game does not make it easy to see the rating of currently installed items; a mouse over pop-up would have worked well here, as you must click on each installed item to see it’s description and value. Swapping items does take some install time away from your mission, but it’s a great necessity in the game to upgrade in order to defeat more advanced enemies.

When you visit a star system, something will happen. You may engage hostile or friendly alien units, find upgrades or other items that can be held in your cargo hold, find mercenaries whom you can hire for the cost of one item from your hold, trigger an event, cause a supernova, and more. If you do encounter unfriendly units, you will enter battle mode, where the ships will do battle and a victor will be left standing. The combat can be automated if you leave the battles alone, but you must use some simple tactics (and sometimes not to simple) to defeat larger, more impressive foes. Equipping your craft with shiny new upgrades will help your cause, but you can also give simple instructions to your vessels, such as movement, targeting, or to use an artifact. Some semi-advanced tactics can be employed by players who are determined not to die, such as using fast ships as red herrings while your main ship attacks from a distance. You can let everything run automatically, but you won’t defeat more powerful enemies. A ship is destroyed when its hull is demolished, but this information can only be obtained by hovering your mouse over the ship, not in some constant display on the side of the screen. This is cumbersome if you have a large navy and you’d like to keep tabs on each of your ships. After the battle is over, you can spend some time repairing any damage you have suffered to your hull or individual systems; repairs don’t cost any money (there isn’t really money in the game anyway), but they do take time, which can prevent you from exploring that last star system.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is an interesting game. It is very straightforward and easy to learn and would seem, at least on the surface, to be quite shallow. However, the game is extremely fun to play. Even though each game is essentially the same, the random maps and distribution of upgrades spices up the game just enough to make you come back for more. You’re never in a boring part of the game; since the games are so short, you’re always doing something. This cannot be said for most strategy games, where the initial build-up phase is quite uninteresting (see the first 50 turns of Civilization IV for a perfect example of this). Also, because of the three types of ships, you can actually play the same game with three different goals in mind, unlike other titles where there is a set build order that you follow every time for victory. You do, however, need to find the trading aliens every game (they are always located in an adjacent system to your home) in order to have a decent score, which is about the only constant element from game to game (thankfully). I do feel that it’s too easy to avoid death, as you can retreat from overwhelming opposition far too easily and scout how many ships there are before reaching your intended destination. Nevertheless, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is a great space strategy semi-4x game, especially good as a “quick” game to play, when you have 15 minutes to spare before some other non-computer activity (perish the thought!), and should not be overshadowed by more heavily hyped, larger budget games.