Wednesday, February 08, 2006

FlatSpace II Review

FlatSpace II, developed and published by Cornutopia Software.
The Good: Multiple professions, no arbitrary restrictions, automatic bounties earned for eliminating bad guys, the Scarrid are hermaphrodites
The Not So Good: No tutorial, not much mission variety, a contact list would be helpful, ship information could be organized better, no overarching storyline, poor AI
What say you? Some good ideas are offset by limited variety: 5/8

People (and by people I mean console idiots) say that PC games are dying out, slowly being replaced by cheaper consoles that feature hardware available on the PC four years ago and at lower resolutions. I can see the appeal! Several PC genres have slowly disintegrated over time, becoming shadows of their former selves: adventure games, simulations, and space trading and exploration. The latter member of that list has seen sort of a renaissance (French for “surrender”), including the recently (if you consider November recent) reviewed Evochron Alliance and Weird Worlds. Another member of the space adventure genre is FlatSpace II, the sequel to FlatSpace, where you fly a ship around space and do stuff. Oh, how I love stuff!

FlatSpace II takes place in a two dimensional galaxy (the whole “Flat” thing); all of the views are from overhead and there’s no annoying z-axis to worry about. I’m certainly comfortable with simpler controls, and a lot of games are too unwieldy because of their use of 3-D. The detailed graphics in FlatSpace II are almost too small to enjoy. You can’t zoom in to take a close look at any of the ships, but all of them have little details and effects you can enjoy from the fixed vantage point. It’s easier to design good-looking ships from a distance, and FlatSpace II avoids criticism by preventing you from zooming in: pretty shrewd. FlatSpace II does have a problem with repetition: the space stations and other objects in the galaxy are exactly the same in every system, so it seems like you end up going to the same police station every time, which takes away from the game experience. The sound consists of several sound effects (several being 100) and some appropriate background music: nothing too terribly ground breaking. FlatSpace II shows it’s modest roots in the graphics and sound departments, but they both turned out above average.

The goal of FlatSpace II is to destroy all the enemy space stations, quite a task when you start out with just a modest beginner’s ship (it’s obviously a long term goal). You start by choosing a profession, which will determine the initial ship you are given. Traders trade, mercenaries complete missions, bounty hunters and police officers hunt criminals, assassins assassinate, and scavengers mine cargo. You can actually complete several different tasks utilizing just one starting profession, which is good from a variety standpoint. And then you’re off, with no guidance or suggestions. The game features no tutorial or storyline, so you’re left on your own, for better or for worse. This is the double-edged sword of open-ended gameplay: you can do whatever you want, but you may not be sure of what to do. The missions in the game could have had more variety; at it stands, they are either transporting a person (or item) or killing someone. That’s it, so you can imagine that FlatSpace II could get boring and repetitive very quickly. The real appeal of the game is to earn money to upgrade your ship, and as long as you envision this as your long term goal, completing the same mission 50-100 times might not get as annoying.

I will say that FlatSpace II has more things to do than most games, mainly thanks to apprehending (in addition to killing) criminals. You can mine asteroids, transport goods from one system to another, and arrest and/or kill bad people. A nice addition is that you are provided an instant bounty for eliminating bad guys no matter what your profession is. This is because all the criminals (including yourself if you choose that path) in the game have a bounty on them, dead or alive, dependent on their skill level. The better villains with bigger ships will make quick work of you, but you can mostly deal with the smaller enemies. It is rather easy to defeat a lesser or equal enemy ship because of the game’s questionable AI. Essentially, the enemy ship steers toward you or circles around you, constantly shooting their weapons. If you can avoid them long enough, they’ll run out of ammunition and you can make quick work of them, similar to how Homer Simpson won all those boxing matches. The AI will also run into you instead of going around, a problem near space stations: I was fired upon (and died) when a ship ran into me and the space station perceived that as an attack on the other ship! When do you decide to go on the offensive, it takes more work than it should to find enemy ships: I wish there was a contact list similar to Independence War II. You can hit a button to target the closest enemy ship, but sometimes this isn’t the ship that’s firing at you, which tends to be a problem. I do like, however, that you can select a base as your target: it makes finding the space stations easier, especially since there isn’t really a minimap of any kind in the game (only a sub-par radar).

Probably the part of FlatSpace II that will keep you going is upgrading your ship, and there are a lot of upgrades available. You can select from hull enhancements (like armor and shields), offensive weapons (guns, stun weapons, missiles, turrets), defensive weapons (flares and counter measures), and individual fighters for the larger capital ships. These are all available at the various space ports in the game, and you purchase them from a text menu. It is sometimes hard to tell which are the better weapons except for the increasing price, and there can be five or so varieties of the same weapon, resulting in some long lists you need to scroll down. You can also hire crew to man your guns or provide medical or engineering assistance if you are docked with a space station. While in space, you can communicate with other ships by using the radio, which is a neat feature. You can send out a distress signal, call for backup if you are the police, or intimidate the criminal element with threats of arresting them. As you can see, there are some aspects of FlatSpace II that are new to the genre, which is always a good thing.

FlatSpace II is a decent space exploration game that fits somewhere between Weird Worlds and Evochron Alliance in terms of difficulty and approachability. The overhead nature of FlatSpace II works for the game, and even though there are some shortcomings, such as the inadequate AI, less than friendly menus, lack of a tutorial, and absence of a storyline, the game’s level of enjoyment at least equals its low price (the arbitrarily specific $24). The missions do begin to grind on you (since they essentially fall into two categories) and the money doesn’t flow in quite as quickly as you’d like, but the game is still moderately fun. There are various careers you can undertake and the peaceful apprehension of criminals is a nice touch, the game just needs more polished trimmings. There is an entertaining core game here that has promise, and FlatSpace II can deliver the amusement we so long for, if you are serious about space exploration games.