Saturday, July 09, 2011

Solar 2 Review

Solar 2, developed and published by Murudai.
The Good: Gravity-based puzzles and expansion are unique
The Not So Good: Tedious slow growth, difficult missions with imprecise keyboard controls, no direct combat interaction
What say you? Growing an asteroid into a black hole is more of a novelty than a full-fledged game even with outrageously challenging side missions: 4/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Coming straight from the dark of Uranus is Solar 2, a sequel to a game that was released on something called “Xbox LIVE Indie Games,” which I think is some sort of sterilized environment where a single corporate entity determines which games you can and cannot enjoy. Anyway, the sequel is out on the PC, so now we have a chance to check out this physics-based puzzle game where you control planets, starts, and other objects in a quest to combine with other objects and complete missions in an ever-expanding universe.

Solar 2 takes a minimalist approach to space and it works well. The game is played in a top-down 2-D perspective (full 3-D would have been way too confusing), and it features a variety of star and planet icons that give life to the universe. Solar 2 is low on the nebula scale, and the subtle backgrounds never clash with the more important foreground. There are some small effects with combat (lasers, explosions), and simple color-coded icons make ships easy to identify. The sound design follows similar lines: while there is no voice work and effects are simple at best, the atmospheric music does a great job fitting the setting of the game. Overall, I found no issue with the graphics and sound design of Solar 2.

The “goal” of Solar 2 is to complete missions while growing from an asteroid to a black hole. A randomly generated universe is your playground, where other asteroids, planets, and star systems exist to be conquered. Starting out as a little asteroid, you absorb nearby smaller asteroids Katamari Damacy-style to grow into a small planet. Then, asteroids are carefully caught in orbit to grow into a life planet, small star, medium star, large star, and black hole. This process is obviously very linear (just move and capture stuff) and quite slow: I would have liked to “level up” in about half (or a third) of the time it took. Thankfully, you can start a new game as any previously attained object, so you don’t have to completely start over.

The missions of Solar 2 are extremely challenging. To trigger a mission, you follow the on-screen directional icons to a dashed circle, which then activates a short, sometimes vague description of what you are to do. The missions usually involve movement, avoidance, defense, or offense, and they start immediately, a problem when you are not prepared for whatever lies ahead. You should make sure you are near the highest mass for each object type (there are separate missions for asteroids, planets, stars, and black holes) and, if you are a star, have life planets in order for defense just in case. Overall, I had a tough time successfully completing any of the missions at any object level, and since this is the overall goal of the game, this level of difficulty could discourage a lot of players.

Part of the blame for the outrageous mission difficult lies with the keyboard controls. While you can use a console gamepad if you choose (in which case we shall revoke your PC gaming membership card), the keyboard doesn’t offer the accuracy required to complete most of the missions. Some of this is due to the Newtonian physics employed by the game, with inertia preventing instantaneous changes in direction. The inclusion of some mouse-based scheme would make things easier, I would think. Still, I found hitting, capturing, and avoiding objects to be far more difficult and tiring than it should be.

The controls allow you to move, absorb asteroids or planets into yourself, or absorb asteroids into orbiting planets (so they can grow life). With the aforementioned control scheme, you end up running into planets (and especially asteroids) more often than you’d like (which reduces your mass, requiring you to capture even more asteroids and planets in retaliation). In addition, the gravitational forces often cause your orbiting planets to run into each other, destroying your hard work in a meaningless act of violence. Still, it is cool to have a star with several life planets in orbit, automatically defending themselves against incoming threats. However, you have no direct control over these ships and defenses, and when two systems are at war, the bigger threat with more life planets will always win. There is no room for strategy here, simply grow and add mass over time. In the end, I suspect there will be few players who will have the patience for tedious growth and frustrating missions.

There are basically two things to do in Solar 2: get bigger and complete missions. Getting bigger, advancing from asteroid to black hole, is a tedious, drawn-out process that involves running into or capturing lots of other objects into your orbit. However, capturing things, especially as a star, requires a level of finesse the keyboard control scheme lacks, making this aspect of the game monotonous and repetitive. The other half of Solar 2, the missions, is an assortment of demanding tasks that require careful movement for success: while as varied as you can expect, the lack of verbose instructions and high level of difficulty (especially if you tackle the tasks before fully leveling up and collecting many objects in orbit) leads to a lot of frustration. The automated system combat also means the one with more life planets will always win, leaving no chance for luck and skill. While the originality of Solar 2 is certainly appealing, the repetitive nature of stellar evolution and frustrating missions reduce the overall appeal of the game significantly.