Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Tomorrow War Review

The Tomorrow War, developed by CrioLand and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Large universe, nice marriage of arcade and simulation physics, pleasing combat, space-to-planet transitions, lengthy campaign
The Not So Good: Strictly linear, LAN-limited multiplayer, missing audio files, vague objectives
What say you? A space combat adventure game limited by its linear campaign and translation issues: 5/8

You know, tomorrow is always a day away (and this concludes the musical portion of Out of Eight). But, we will never reach tomorrow, because tomorrow will eventually be today and then the day after tomorrow will be tomorrow. Before our collective brains explode, let’s move on to the inspiration behind this apparent paradox: The Tomorrow War. This game is based on a series of books unknown outside of Russia (meaning I’ve never heard of them). The space combat adventure genre has been fairly strong on the PC, assuming you look in the right place, and The Tomorrow War is another game that aims to let you reach for the stars by blowing up a bunch of stuff.

The Tomorrow War was apparently released in Russia several years ago, but the visuals are still impressive enough. The ship designs are nice and varied with high-resolution textures, although most of the time you’ll be far enough away from everything that you won’t notice. Space is also plausibly rendered, with lots of stars but no cheap, showy nebulae. Passing through the rings of Saturn for the first time is an impressive act, as the asteroid belts are impressively populated with tons of dangerous rocks. Explosions are nicely done, as are the combat effects. The textures used for planet surfaces could be more detailed, though. In all, though, I was satisfied with the graphics. The sound, on the other hand, is underwhelming. A lot of the audio seems to have not made the transition from the original language, as most of the radio chatter and ship communications effects are either completely missing or entirely in Russian. You will have to rely primarily on the subtitles to understand what to do, and reading is for suckers. The remainder of the effects is pretty generic in nature: nothing notable here. While translation problems limit the sound design, the visuals of The Tomorrow War hold up very well.

In the future, the universe splits into two factions, one of which goes way old-school and starts to worship Zoroaster (finally!). You are a lowly fighter pilot for the good guys (the ones obviously not bowing down to some guy who lived thousands of years ago...get real, people), jetting throughout the galaxy to visit strange, interesting people and shoot them (in the face). The Tomorrow War has a long campaign consisting of over thirty missions that takes a while to complete (especially if you encounter one of many bugs that break a mission or otherwise inhibit your progress). This game is combat-heavy, featuring none of the trading or alternate occupations that many space adventure games feature. So you will be spending all of your time shooting things and flying in formation. There is no character growth and the missions are very, very linear. This becomes quite an issue as it's easy to “break” the game if you don't do exactly what the developers want in exactly the right order. These arbitrary limitations are something I would expect to find in a mediocre point-and-click adventure game from ten years ago, not a more modern space sim. Not helping things are the vague objectives and subtle hints to join formation, only relayed in the subtitles at the top of the screen. When in doubt, always join a formation. You will spend a lot of time in formation, flying around, waiting for the next trigger point and wave of enemies. The first ten minutes of The Tomorrow War is boring as heck: just let me fly around and shoot stuff already. Although I must say that navigating through the rings of Saturn is visually stimulating, if a bit annoying. You can save your progress at any time, a bright spot in the features list. In terms of multiplayer, you can play over a LAN, but that's it.

Your ship's HUD is generally quite useful, putting all of the pertinent information right on the main view: all of your systems (life support, navigation, power, engines, fuel, temperature) and a list of ships, separated by allegiance and type. You are given multiple autopilot options, from flying to an object to docking with an object. You will use autopilot almost all of the time your aren't engaged with enemy aircraft. The game will also inform you of fires and you can access the map to be completely confused as to where you are located. Your trusty ship is outfitted with a variety of weapons: guns (lasers, plasma, shells), missiles, torpedoes, and bombs for planetary targets. There isn't that much of a strategic difference between the various weapons, although more powerful targets require more powerful weapons.

The Tomorrow War features lots of hotkeys, like any good space flight simulator. You can pilot your ship using the keyboard, mouse, or a joystick; the inclusion of mouse-driven piloting is always welcome. It takes a couple of hours to digest all of the controls (lots of pausing the game and checking the key bindings), but there are options for any action you would want to perform. The controls are standard for the genre, although your ship is equipped with both planetary and orbital engines; this is initially confusing, as you must hold down “control” to go fast in space, but once you realize the distinction, it becomes a useful separation.

The gameplay of The Tomorrow War is a nice combination of arcade and simulation and fairly easy to learn. The third-person camera jumps around a bit too much, leading to some disorientation. Combat is chaotically fun when a lot of ships of different sizes are involved; it is quite reminiscent of Freespace 2, and that is meant as a high compliment. It's too bad the rest of the game can't hold up to the enjoyable fighting. The transition from space to planet has been done before, but it is still impressive in its seamlessness. Despite the highlight of the actual space combat, the rest of the features and the issues with translation limits The Tomorrow War to an also-ran in the genre.

The Tomorrow War has a nice outline for a space game, but it falls short in a couple of areas. First, the good news: the game strikes a nice balance in difficulty between arcade and simulation and the lengthy campaign will keep you busy for a while. The graphics have also held up quite well in the couple of years since the original Russian release date and they compare favorably with any other recent space simulation. The universe of The Tomorrow War is filled with planets and other objects that contain a nice level of detail, and the transition between open space and planetary atmospheres is smooth and believable. Unfortunately, you cannot freely explore any of it because the game limits you to the task at hand: you are not able to do anything outside of the mission parameters, such as docking with space stations or landing on planets. If it's not in the mission, it's not allowed. This type of linearity is simply outdated in today's realm of open worlds. On top of this limitation, The Tomorrow War has constrained multiplayer capabilities to shorten the shelf life of the game. In addition, the mission objectives are commonly vague and don't clearly explain what to do next. The Russian roots of The Tomorrow War become an issue with many bugs related to missing audio files and an incomplete movement to the English language. The potentially engrossing gameplay has been lost in translation.