Wednesday, July 25, 2007

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol Review

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol, developed by Iocaine Studios and published by Atari.
The Good: Unique mechanics, enjoyable tactical combat, wide array of offensive and defensive weaponry, persistent online universe with ship customization, upgrades redistribute stats instead of adding to them, map editor, low price
The Not So Good: High learning curve, needs more novice-only servers, too many stalemates due to strong defenses, could have more production strategy
What say you? A fun arcade tactical strategy game that is something different, though not for everyone: 6/8

While the popularity of strategy games continues, some titles are starting to incorporate pieces of other genres. We’ve seen RTS/RPG amalgams like SpellForce 2 and RTS/FPS mixtures like Battlestations Midway and War Front. Most of these are completely pointless additions to the gameplay, but the oddly named ThreadSpace: Hyperbol (spell check does not like that title) hopes to change that trend. Featuring a mix a strategy, tactics, and shooting, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol will attempt to breathe new life into a genre packed to the gills with World War II games. Will ThreadSpace: Hyperbol provide a fresh product from a healthy mix, or do too many ingredients spoil the pot?

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol has a nice graphical style that features clean futuristic graphics. Most everything in the game is either made of glass or metal, so there are a lot of reflections to be seen. Each of the weapons has a nice level of detail, from the glow of the hyperbol nuclear weapon to the tiny fighters that can take out enemy deployables. The ships themselves look good as well, and each player craft can be customized in appearance using an array of parts. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol certainly has nice looking explosions, and destroying an enemy comes with a nice level of satisfaction when your righteous ammunition engulfs them. You won’t find any overly complex graphical effects here, but the relatively simplistic, though good-looking, graphics make sense and translate well. An advantage of the simplistic level design is the ability to make your own maps with the level editor; the game comes with sixteen maps, and additional creations will provide even more content. The sound is a lot like the graphics: simple but effective. Again, the explosions are impressive in quality. The background music, though typical for a space game with its generic techno beats, is enjoyable as well. For an independent title made by a small team, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol certainly looks and sounds good and you won’t be disappointed by the graphics or the sound.

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol can best be described as an action tactical strategy game. You will deploy a factory to produce offensive and defensive weapons that you will shoot or deploy throughout the map. The mechanics of the game are quite unique, so the game comes with a tutorial that’s essentially required for all new players. There is a small learning curve involved in the game: the controls are different and they definitely take some getting used to. You use the right mouse button (and the WASD keys) for the camera and the left mouse button for weapons. You pick a weapon by clicking on it in the interface (which is well designed, considering how many weapons there are to choose from) then holding down the left mouse button to aim and adjust power. Some weapons need to be activated using the spacebar after they are fired. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol restricts your movement, making the game very tactical: you have a limited radius you can move to, and movement must fully recharge before you can move again. The game emphasizes defense over offense, for better or for worse. After you are done with the tutorial, you can play quick matches against AI bots, which provide decent competition.

However, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is really designed for multiplayer, and the game comes with the Starport, which serves as a central matchmaking utility and allows for creating a character and upgrading ships. Through money you earn by playing battles and defeating opponents, you can purchase items to alter ship stats; every enemy has a bounty dependent on how good they are to prevent repeated killing of unskilled adversaries. You get the most money from kills, but you can also earn some cash in support roles. Every ship, no matter how advanced, has a balanced stat sheet, but you can load components that will alter the distribution of your stats to better suit your tactics. This is a very good system, as it allows for general tweaking while preventing more experienced players from having better ships overall. The game’s persistent universe has a sector map where battles are taking place and winning or losing is based on the actual battles fought, but it’s a superfluous addition that doesn’t affect gameplay at all. There are a number of game types, from objective (like destroying a specific location), last man standing, deathmatch, and team elimination. There are also servers for each skill level: although there are a lot of training servers for the very new (good), there aren’t many for novice players (bad). Servers that allow for all skill levels (which are most once you pass the training phase) have a real problem with elite players ganging up on new players. Since it takes a while to get the mechanics down, this is a big setback. The game lacks any balancing according to experience (just equal numbers of players on both sides), so you will routinely see extremely unbalanced teams skill-wise. A game is not fun when everyone on your team quits because of frustration.

Your ship is equipped with shields and armor that can be reduced by enemy weaponry. Each ship is rated over twelve performance areas, such as build speed, projectile power, fuel capacity, shield strength, and deploy capacity. You are also allowed to choose from fourteen different ship forms that also grant stat alterations. As you can see, there is a lot of room for customization in the game. There is an impressive catalog of weapons to use (eighteen in all) scattered over six categories: ballistic (rockets and lasers), tactical (bombs), hyperbol (nuclear BOOM), impulse (defenses), vex (repair), and gravity. Most weapons in the game have a counter, and fully understanding these counters adds to the learning curve. Weapons are manufactured at your production station, which must be deployed. Each production station can build six modules that will create weapons in one of the six classes. You can build more than one of the same module type (for slight bonuses), although this will prevent crafting weapons of another class. You are also allowed to upgrade one of your modules to access advanced weapons. I would like to see more strategy with the base building elements of the game, since you are done with the production station very quickly.

The gameplay is very tactical in nature (due to the limited base building elements) and rewards the correct use of weapons and countering enemy weapons. I like the mechanics, as it feels different from most of the mess we see in the strategy genre. Once you learn the controls, getting around the game is fairly simple and the methodic and planned attacks required to be successful in the game rewards planning over reflexes (something I personally appreciate). ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is very defensive in nature; there is a deploy cap to limit how many things one person places on the map, but the cap is too high and often games devolve into a maze of black holes and deflectors all over the map. Team games are even worse: it’s a death wise to venture out into the open area, and most objective games result in a stalemate. While I like the restricted movement as it requires more planning, it doesn’t help the overly defensive nature of the game. This is kind of disappointing as I would like a more balanced game. This is potentially a very good team game, since you can use the strengths of several ships in tandem, but most people online don’t coordinate. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is so odd that its appeal will be limited, but it is a fun and unique game.

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is certainly a unique game that successfully combines several genres successfully. While the game has a learning curve due to its distinctive mechanics, once you learn the game and the counters for each of the game’s weapons, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is quite enjoyable. The play between throwing out weapons and items and countering those weapons is interesting, and the ability to customize your emphasis results in a lot of different viable strategies to employ. The online environment is nice, and purchasing tweaks to your ship is a neat feature to have without a subscription fee. I greatly appreciate that more experienced players don't get better equipment, as all of the upgrades just move stat ratings around. There are so many different paths to choose that each game and each enemy you encounter will require a diverse outlook. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol certainly provides enough entertainment for the price. Ultimately, the quaintness of the game will appeal to a smaller audience, but those people who would like to play something unusual will find good value in ThreadSpace: Hyperbol.