Friday, March 28, 2008

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition Review

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition, developed and published by 3000AD.
The Good: Comprehensive game universe, smart auto-pilot, progress is automatically saved, believable physics
The Not So Good: Archaic user interface, ambiguous objectives, confusing controls, tedious tutorial, no skirmish or quick battles, no dynamic universe to explore at your own pace since the campaign is limited to missions only, plodding pace, annoying music, outdated graphics with unrealistic and distracting backgrounds
What say you? Only the hardest of the hardcore need apply: 5/8

The space adventure genre, once a bastion of PC gaming, is now populated by a number of independent space sims, like Arvoch Conflict. Apparently big publishers are more concerned with making console games with pretty graphics and big guns than more epic fights in the dark reaches of the universe. Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is the latest iteration of the Battlecruiser/Universal Combat universe, taking a more action-oriented approach to the genre. This is the second edition, as the first was a GameTap exclusive and now the space adventuring is available, with some addition development, to everyone. How will this space game stack up against the competition?

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition certainly looks like an independently produced product. The graphics are outdated and static. The cockpit looks more like a 2-D skin, rather than an obvious 3-D environment that’s been present in the genre for a while now. The planets look good from a distance, but up close the surface textures are underwhelming. Planets are detailed if you are flying in their atmosphere (with some nice ocean effects) and the city textures are taken from real satellite images, but they tend to repeat often. The background stars in space are too large and too bright to be remotely believable; I don’t mind a little artistic freedom when it comes to space, but the distractingly bright orbs that populate the universe make you wonder if the developers ever looked at a realistic space image. The sound design is functional at best: the tutorial and some radio transmissions are voiced, but they are not accompanied by subtitles so you really have to pay attention when the game is talking to you. The sound effects are basic as a whole, and the background music is atrocious; I quickly turned the music off. In short, the presentation of Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is underwhelming at best. While this would be forgivable for a company’s first release, 3000AD has been at it for a while and I would expect a more solid effort.

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition revolves around the 16-mission campaign that features a linear order and some background story. This is the first in a series, so one would assume that later entries would include more missions with different ships (the manual makes this suggestion). While the game automatically saves progress, you can’t completely quit a mission (this includes the tutorial). This became an issue when I wanted to stop the tutorial (for reasons I will explain shortly) and start the campaign; I could not, so I had to create a whole new profile. Proceeding through the campaign will net experience points which translate into ranks and medals; you won’t gain any bonuses from being higher in rank, but it’s nice to feel like you are accomplishing something. It would be nice to have a dynamic universe to mess around with, like every other contemporary (and even not-so-contemporary) space simulation features. At it stands, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition feels very restrictive with none of the freedom featured in many other titles. The game does feature multiplayer with cooperative play and a “base wars” mode featuring destructible stations for team-based play. You can populate the universe with AI characters to create a more believable setting. This almost makes up for the lack of skirmish battles, except there was never anybody to play with when I logged in. As with most games in the genre, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition has a steep learning curve; this is not helped with the underwhelming and generally crappy tutorial. You have to print out the tutorial, unless you want to listen to the computerized voice that gives instructions at set time intervals instead of where you actually are. You can read the PDF files in the game, but they are very laggy and essentially unusable. The tutorial covers most of the bases in a very boring and slow manner. At one point, the tutorial wants you to “leave the controls alone and for about five minutes, watch as the fighter performs an escort flight profile around the carrier.” Sit there and watch for five minutes? Uh, no thanks. I would like to learn how to play the game, not be bored to tears. It’s better to read through the manual and tutorial files and just try to fly the missions. This is where a skirmish mode would be helpful, as it would allow the player to fly around with no set purpose and try out the controls. As it stands, you had better know the difference between SSR, VID, VDD, WTS, NIR, TRS, and SMD (plus tons of other abbreviations) before you start playing.

The interface used in Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is pretty standard for any flight simulator on the PC. Your HUD displays shields and armor information, wingmen tasks, target info, and heading. The multi-function displays act as a map, radar, and visual camera. Most of the systems the ships of Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition have are rooted in modern fighter planes, so anyone who have played one of those simulations will quickly adapt to the information presented here. Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition does feature a right-click menu system to select any system, planet, or target possible; while I appreciate the comprehensive nature of this menu system and how it substitutes for hotkeys, the sheer amount of options may prove to be overwhelming to some. Still, having everything a right-click or four away is a nice feature. It’s odd, then, that Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition does not allow you to interact with any of the displays with the left-mouse button: if you click on a display, nothing happens, so you must resort to the use of keyboard controls.

Like a lot of flight simulations, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition features a lot of freaking keys and it takes a while to remember how to do things. The lack of mouse interaction I mentioned earlier makes life a lot more difficult; pausing the game to look up a command is a sadly frequent occurrence. Forward motion is done with the thrust; choosing a key 0 through 9 will pick a percentage of thrust and holding down W will add afterburners. Having a key that just enabled full power would be much better than having the hold down W for minutes at a time. Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition does support joystick and mouse control in addition to the keyboard, so some of the key-pressing issues could be alleviated. I prefer mouse control, and Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition allows you to switch between mouse selection and mouse control with a simple press of the ALT button. One thing that does take some of the arc out of the learning curve is the all-inclusive auto-pilot. The on-board computer can handle pretty much everything on its own, from navigating to and in planets to actual combat. This is a very nice feature, since simple actions require ridiculous command combinations. For example, to track a missile on radar, you have to enable the VDD with the V key, cycle to the RTM mode, press 7, then press F10. Most games would simply bind it to a single button press, but not Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition. You really need to dedicate a lot of time to learning the controls in order to make the game playable.

The universe of Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition uses real-life space locations, which is pretty cool. The universe is also quite large and detailed, creating a believable environment in which to blow things up. The fact that planets have orbital and surface features (and usually an assortment of them) is pretty impressive. This is one of the highlights of the game, and the plausible setting creates, well, a plausible setting. Each of the planets in Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is connected by jump gates, wormholes, or flux fields (which actually transport you to a random exit point…how thoughtful!). Navigating to far-away lands can be as simply as selecting a target and having the auto-pilot hyperspace to it. You can also manually set up waypoints yourself, a process that I can’t get to work completely. What you need to do is press “add,” pick a type (proceed to next waypoint, intercept, strike, patrol, search and destroy, suppress enemy defenses, combat air patrol, escort, defend, mine sweep, repeat actions, wait, halt, or land), and select the location. So I did that and my ship said the waypoints don’t exist. Sigh. Maybe I didn’t save them or something, but neither the manual nor the tutorial make the process any clearer. Planets can be entered so that you can blow things up on the surface (there are a lot of targets to choose from) and you can dock (or, you know, blow up) space stations for repairs and rearming purposes.

Combat in Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is pretty straightforward: pick a target, pick a weapon, and fire. You can set up a list of priority targets to filter out friendly or non-threatening objects. Since the game is called Galactic Command, you will normally be commanding a squad of pilots. You can give them attack orders in addition to all those waypoint orders I mentioned earlier. The AI and enemy pilots behave intelligently enough, although most of the NPC actions are heavily scripted. The game’s physics are seemingly accurate and produce some interesting dogfights. Once you learn the game completely, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition can be fun, but getting past that initial curve requires a lot of effort that most people probably won’t bother exerting.

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is a game designed for experienced players who don’t mind a steep learning curve and lots of terminology. You will have to commit the various key commands to memory (or have a list of them handy) in order to play, since most of the interactions can’t be made with the mouse, outside of selecting objects and systems. It’s sad that Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is limited to the campaigns and multiplayer that nobody uses; a dynamic universe that gave the player more freedom would be much more preferable. Plus, it would take a lot of the sting out of the tedious tutorial. Offsetting this is the quality auto-pilot system that behaves very intelligently. The graphics should look better and the backgrounds are distracting. Those who have played any of the previous 3000AD games will be more accustomed to Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition, but the new players I think the game was geared towards will be left in the dark. In the end, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is more of a slight modification of previous efforts rather than a unique title, and the generally unapproachable gameplay that divides the PC gaming market is still present. Those people who liked other 3000AD games will most likely enjoy Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition, but if you didn’t enjoy them before, you won’t now. Well, I got through the entire review without mentioning Derek Smart. Wait, does that count?