Tuesday, January 31, 2012

SOL: Exodus Review

SOL: Exodus, developed and published by Seamless Entertainment.
The Good: Near constant action, a few ship upgrades, some nice graphics, only $10
The Not So Good: Brief campaign with very repetitive and boring mission design, really precise short-range shooting required, limited 2-D radar, no difficulty settings, no custom skirmish battles, can't save mid-mission, questionable AI, distracting scanning mini-game, limited weaponry, no multiplayer
What say you? Tedious missions, repetitive gameplay, and missing features abound in this space shooter: 4/8

As mainstream gaming seemingly ignores space-based combat games in favor of horse armor and an endless parade of military shooters, the indie developer must continue the tradition of destroying many things in the vacuum of space. As the second such game in the span of two weeks, SOL: Exodus could signal the rebirth of the space combat genre. Or it might be coincidence. Whatever. Anyway, SOL: Exodus brings large-scale battles with capital ships and fighters around our solar system, reminiscent of classic titles like Freespace. Does SOL: Exodus become master of the universe, or get stuck in Uranus?

The graphics of SOL: Exodus are the highlight of the game. The ships are nicely designed with high-resolution textures, and the weapons scream across the map with futuristic fervor. Explosions are a bit repetitive and capital ships break apart in scripted ways, but overall combat looks good. The various backgrounds utilized in each map vary in quality: while asteroids and planets are nothing special, space stations are notably impressive in their level of detail. Overall, SOL: Exodus far exceeds its $10 price tag in terms of graphical design. Sound is more average, with forgettable but not atrocious voice acting and background music accompanying the chaos of battle. Still, I was pleased with the overall look and sound of SOL: Exodus.

Your job: fighting “religious nutjobs” (a redundant term), after the heroic suicide (complete with “NOOOOO!!!” from your character) of your commanding officer, around the hotspots of our solar system. It's never really explained why you pilot a fighter even after being promoted to commander of the capital ship, but there you are, buzzing around in a tiny ship. The campaign only consists of eight short (around 20 minutes each) missions and SOL: Exodus resorts to lazy mission design, as you are up against lots of inferior fighters. I guess some people think blasting mindless enemies is fun, but I'd rather have less, but more intelligent, opponents myself. The tedious missions send wave after wave of fighters and bombers that mystically appear in mid-air (mid-space?) until the scenario designer decides enough is enough. When a glimmer of variety appears, it is quickly extinguished by yet another wave of enemy fighters. And then, oh look, another wave of enemies. Hooray. The objectives (other than “kill everyone”) are occasionally vague and leave out key instructions (like engaging capital ships with cannons) that may cause you to fail and repeat the entire mission. You can’t, of course, save your progress during a mission, and you can’t, of course, adjust the difficulty. The lack of difficulty settings really irks me, as you could easily increase or decrease the number of enemies. Not all players have the same skill level, so why do developers assume they do? You can make slight upgrades to your guns, hull, and afterburners between levels, but the options are limited there. Once you are done with the campaign, SOL: Exodus is over: there is no customizable skirmish mode and no multiplayer to enjoy. Even for only $10, I would expect more flexibility.

SOL: Exodus lets you control the game using the mouse and keyboard, a gamepad, or a joystick. The game seems to be designed primarily for the mouse and keyboard, though, which is my preferred method of control anyway. Controls are pretty typical, though the thrust is bound to the mouse wheel instead of using WASD for movement (“W” is for missiles, which I kept launching by accident…oopsy!). You can also target the enemy nearest the center of the screen using the spacebar and cycle through enemies using the “2” key; though I did not find a button to choose the closest enemy, the game automatically picks it when your current target is destroyed (although it might choose someone behind you). Your fighter is (only) equipped with three weapons: the machine gun, missiles, and a cannon. The machine gun requires really precise aiming, and a lead indicator for enemy units only appears when you are dangerously close to the enemy. Overheating also commonly occurs, slowing down combat at the most inopportune times. I do like firing missiles, however (hold down “W” until it locks on), but it’s just luck whether the missile hits or not as there are no countermeasures. You can occasionally (when the scenario allows you to through heavy scripting) scan enemy ships and disable or switch systems (missiles, engines) to your side, but in order to do so, you must input a code that slowly appears in the corner of the screen. Excuse me, but I am kind of busy shooting enemies, I don't have time to read and remember a four-letter code.

Engaging enemies in SOL: Exodus is not enjoyable, partially because of the crippled machine gun and partially because of the substandard AI. The 2-D radar makes it really hard to pick out enemies that are located above or below you, and it will quickly become something to ignore. SOL: Exodus is only difficult because of the sheer number of enemies you have to engage simultaneously with little to no help. Luckily (I suppose), the enemy AI is really dumb. They are seemingly given an objective when they spawn and they head straight towards that ship, ignoring you along the way. This is meant, I think, to cover up some odd behavior that AI exhibits when left up to its own devices: enemy pilots like to run into things, don’t return fire or scramble effectively when engaged, and seemingly just waits to get shot. You aren’t given enough missiles for the number of enemies you have to personally dispose of, so you must go back to your mothership occasionally to repair and rearm. If you do happen to come too close to an enemy ship and it shoots you by accident, an escape pod is automatically deployed, giving you another ship after a short delay. How nice! Although, after dealing with the second-rate gameplay, you might not want to respawn.

SOL: Exodus could have delivered massive, impressive, large-scale space combat. Instead, it delivered repetitive missions against lots of magically spawning enemy fighters. Each mission is the same: you start, a certain number of enemy waves come one at a time, and then you move on to the next planet. You are rarely given any meaningful assistance (and if you are, they don't do anything of note), although the fighters are so inert that it doesn't really matter: rarely will they engage you effectively, instead going after their primary objective in a linear flight path. Combat is not fun, thanks to a useless aiming reticule that doesn't appear until you are right on top of an enemy and frequent overheating that is frankly unfair when engaging with so many enemies at once. The 2-D radar is atrocious and disorienting, a grave sin in the 3-D of outer space. The scanning minigame is misplaced and distracts you from fighting all those enemies. The shortcomings don't stop there: there is no skirmish mode, no multiplayer, and you can't even save your game in the middle of a mission. Sure, the graphics are nice to look at, but pretty pictures can only distract you for so long from a space shooter that falls short in so many areas. When the shooting is poor, the AI is poor, the mission structure is poor, the interface is poor, and the features are poor, there's no reason to save the solar system, even for only $10.