Saturday, September 15, 2007

3030 Deathwar Review

3030 Deathwar, developed and published by Bird In Sky.
The Good: Large “alive” universe, neat graphical design, simplified controls
The Not So Good: Painfully slow travel times, difficult with slow tedious progress, limited jobs, unintuitive interface, limited tutorial and no multiplayer
What say you? A sluggish, boring pace and high initial difficulty hurt this space adventure: 5/8

I think most trading adventure games take place in space because it’s an interesting setting, as opposed to, say, Delaware. There have been quite a number of space adventure games released in recent times: Space Trader, Parkan II, SpaceForce, DarkStar One. Now we get to experience the full fury of 3030 Deathwar, a top-down game from an independent developer. Now, it obviously won’t have the graphical splendor of the big budget titles, but it can make up for that with innovative and entertaining gameplay. Will 3030 Deathwar push the genre forward, or just suffer a death war of its own?

For a top-down 2-D game, 3030 Deathwar actually looks pretty good. I really like the overall presentation of the game: there are number of nice effects with the various maps and icons, zooming in and out and such. This attention to detail makes up for the lack of spectacular 3-D vistas. While the game is played at a fixed low resolution, the maps are nice and the universe of 3030 Deathwar looks nice when you are around stations. In open space, the game is very drab with hardly any background images to look at: realistic to be sure, but not very stimulating. The background does light up as you approach a star, so that’s kind of cool. The game shows the interior of each station from the side, but the game layout is used for the every station, making them all run together and losing a distinctive feel. Still, for an independent developer, the graphics of 3030 Deathwar are about as good as you can expect for a 2-D game. The sound is pretty generic: none of the dialogue is voiced, but 3030 Deathwar comes with a good assortment of effects and pleasing background music that fits the genre. While neither the graphics nor the sound are impressive, they do their job and give 3030 Deathwar a characteristic feel.

3030 Deathwar is a single-player only game where you follow the misadventures of John Falcon. The story is generic for the genre: lone wolf gets mixed up in galactic conspiracy. The game has the potential to incorporate a massively multiplayer aspect to it, but honestly the single player mode works just fine and you’d probably never run into anyone else anyway (since the universe is so large). The game comes with a tutorial when you start a new game, but it doesn’t explain a lot of the icons in the game (and neither does the manual); more explicit clarifications would be appreciated. 3030 Deathwar also lacks an editor, but the game is expansive enough to not really need one. The overhead view from which the game is played lends itself to simple keyboard controls. However, the Newtonian physics (with a strict application of inertia) makes it difficult to control the ships in the game, actually more so than in most space games where piloting is fairly intuitive. It takes some getting used to the controls in 3030 Deathwar, and the less-than-comprehensive tutorial and manual don’t help matters. You are given an auto-fly mode (if you purchase it) that will maintain the highest speed possible to make life easier, and the split-drive makes traveling large distances easier (but, as you’ll see, not nearly easy enough). The game limits you to saving while in a station and not in an active mission. While this might make for smaller save game files, it is a frustrating limitation (more on why later).

The HUD is confusing at first, as icons representing stations, planets, asteroid fields, ships, and systems are displayed around your ship. The HUD shows heading well but not distance, as everything over a screen’s width away overlaps. The map makes finding objects easy as it is organized well. Flying to a distant station is a matter of choosing it on the sector map and then flying towards the heading. The docking procedure is neat: you must maintain a slow speed and follow the lights into the station, which will tick off as you get closer to your destination. The stations themselves offer a trade screen (for trade) and a job screen (for jobs), plus a load of NPCs that are usually there for mission purposes. On the trade screen you can purchase goods for trade, new ships, upgrades, or repair and refuel your vessel. You will need to purchase fuel on a regular basis as you will go through your supply very quickly. Upgrades are very, very expensive which slows down your progress through the game dramatically. While this gives you a longer experience, it is annoying that you must complete a ton of missions just to afford a slight improved gun. Jobs usually consist of bringing someone (or something) to another station; there isn’t much variety here. Still, 3030 Deathwar offers the most believable space world since Independence War II (still my favorite game of the genre): the stations are buzzing with activity and it’s much more believable than most of the other space games that only have one or two other ships flying around. Unfortunately, travel times in 3030 Deathwar are a little too realistic. Even with the split drives, it will take upwards of ten minutes to reach a destination in another star system. I don't mind waiting in a game like Microsoft Flight Simulator (that's part of the game), but watching your ship just fly in 3030 Deathwar is unnecessary and annoying, especially when there is nothing to look at and absolutely nothing to do. You just sit there, as your engines are on maximum and your heading is already set. You won’t run into any enemies or discover any cargo: you just sit and wait for time to pass. This is exacerbated the fact that your split-drive is actually slowed down if you are anywhere near a star. If you are somewhere on a star’s map (ot near a station, star, or planet, mind you) you are limited in your speed. Why would the split-drive speed be lowered when there is nothing to do and no reason for it? Eventually the game speeds you up to make trips a bit faster, but you've still wasted time staring at a blank screen. Sure, it's realistic, but that doesn't mean it’s fun. And speeding up interstellar travel won’t change the game, because during this time you are just waiting anyway. It’s really annoying and genuinely frustrating because there is absolutely no reason why you can’t just instantly zap to a new system.

There are a handful of things to do in the 3030 Deathwar universe: trading, bounty hunting pirates, exploring derelict ships, mining asteroid fields, and taking missions. The mission pay is very weird and seemingly arbitrary: you can actually get less pay for longer or tougher missions. You will have to engage in combat (usually against pirates), and you are given access to missiles and other weapons, assuming of course you can afford them (which you can’t for a while). You even need to purchase an upgrade to target enemy ships. I guess money is the driving force of the future. 3030 Deathwar features frustratingly difficult gameplay, especially at the beginning of the game. Let me tell you a story. I wasted 30 minutes flying (yes, I spent thirty minutes just flying between two stations in the game...sigh) a mission only to be destroyed by a friendly station that was shooting at a pirate ship. Awesome. I couldn't save the mission halfway through because the game wouldn't let me, so now I have to waste another half an hour and hope I don't die again. Having to attempt the third mission in the game FIVE TIMES (after being blown up by a pirate ship, a friendly space station, another pirate ship, and another friendly space station) before surviving is not what I call an entertaining experience. What are pirates doing in the first few systems anyway? Why not ease the player in? You certainly can’t afford high-priced weapons, ships, or shields to defend yourself. The combination of long travel times, expensive ship upgrades, and no concessions for beginners makes 3030 Deathwar exasperating when it shouldn’t be.

3030 Deathwar has the potential to be a very entertaining game, but a couple of oddball decisions ruin the overall experience. I haven't been this frustrated in a game in a long time, because I can see how good it can be, but the various areas of disappointment suck all of the fun out of the game. The basic design is good, with a good implementation of a 2-D universe with simple controls and some nice graphical effects. But, the insane travel times and overly difficult pirates (with friendly stations that just happen to shoot you) make playing 3030 Deathwar a very trying experience. If you enjoy staring at a mostly blank screen while not doing anything, then 3030 Deathwar is the game for you! Luckily, I think most of the problems with the game can be easily eliminated by allowing for faster split-drive speeds, especially when you aren’t near anything (which is the case almost all of the time). It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, but a thirty-second trip between two systems is a request that I think is reasonable. Ten to fifteen minutes for a one-way trip is ludicrous, especially since there is nothing to do while you are traveling other than to wait. Speed up the game and 3030 Deathwar would become a much more appetizing title, but the slow speed makes the game too boring to enjoy.