Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Wreckless Review

The Wreckless, developed and published by Duct Tape Games.
The Good: Massive large scale battles, challenging Newtonian physics, custom skirmish mode
The Not So Good: Usually unfairly outnumbered, limited variety of ships, very brief campaign, lacks multiplayer, lacks polish in some areas
What say you? This combat space flight simulation delivers impressive arcade battles, but is a bit rough around the edges: 5/8

One of the most renowned space combat flight simulations was TIE Fighter, a pleasing mix of stirring battles and movie licensing. Many (well, at least several) games have tried to recapture that spirit, but nothing approaching universal acclaim in the PC gaming world. Leave it up to the independent developers to fill a niche: Duct Tape Games have produced The Wreckless, a space combat game that focuses on large scale battles where you gently influence the outcome with subtle means. You know, by using big freaking lasers. Does this combat-heavy simulation obliterate the competition, or is it simply stuck in drydock?

The Wreckless has opted for cell-shaded graphics, using thick borders for ships (and bright red for enemy vessels for easier identification) and bland textures otherwise. While the choice does make for a distinctive look, it's not that visually impressive as the ship models could have used better textures than the monochrome gray and occasional line of paint. The weapons consist of dots with glowing tracers that do look impressive during large battles, common in the title. Explosions, however, are impressive, with most ships disappearing into a fireball and the larger capital ships breaking up into two or three pieces that disappear soon thereafter. Scenario locations involve the occasional asteroid field and space port with backgrounds that include planets and stars; nothing too notable here. The sound design is fairly standard: understated sound effects and electronic background music accompany the mayhem. The Wreckless does include voice introductions to each level, somewhat impressive for an indie game. Still, The Wreckless delivers an appropriate amount of graphics and sound quality for the $10 price tag.

The Wreckless has you protecting the titular capital ship around the universe of the course of around fifteen campaign missions. While the missions have different objectives, most boil down to attacking all the enemy ships while defending all the friendly capital ships. Being a combat-only title obviously limits the variety The Wreckless has to offer, since there are no mining or exploration elements to be found (though asteroids are commonly present as obstacles). The missions are also very short (on the order of five minutes or so) and you can’t save mid-mission, but since most of the scenarios are so short, it really doesn't matter too much. The game could also supply some better instructions in some scenarios, as I am sometimes on the attack too early or too late, leading to early defeat by not fulfilling occasionally vague objectives. You can customize the difficulty by adjusting friendly and enemy ship populations…to an extent. Even when setting the enemies at the minimum and friendlies at the maximum value, you can still be greatly outnumbered. If you’re going to give the player the ability to adjust the number of enemy and friendly ships, make it so they can change it to completely unfair populations in either direction, instead of restricting them within small windows. Your ships include fighters and bombers; although most scenarios have capital ships present, you cannot directly control them, which is a bit disappointing. “Research” can be conducted between missions, but it is simply unlocking a new ship class for the next scenario. The Wreckless also offers a skirmish battle simulator for campaign-free combat. You can customize four different ship squads and one capital ship type, with up to eight vessels in each squad, but while having more ships leads to more impressive battles, it also makes for more chaos, as the default (and unchangeable) initial spacing is clearly not designed for so many ships, with most vessels running into each other for the first seconds of a skirmish battle. You can’t have better results online, as The Wreckless lacks multiplayer of any kind.

The Wreckless relies on tradition first person shooter controls: the WASD keys, plus boosting (using shift) and braking using the spacebar. Given the chaotic nature of the game’s battles, this method works well and is intuitive. Ships are equipped with shields, which regenerate very slowly, and the hull. It only takes a couple of direct hits to destroy a vessel, and capital ships have a surprisingly low amount of health and can be easily defeated by a squadron of fighters (which is part of the reason why it's so easy to fail the missions, since your capital ship also has low health). When your ship is destroyed, you can thankfully continue the scenario in any ship from your squad. Ships are equipped with cannons, missiles, and bombs; a lead indicator is provided to assist in targeting, and a missile lock is eventually granted if enemy ships are kept in the crosshairs. You can press the “R” key to target the closest enemy unit, useful in the heat of battle. Because most combat involves guns (due to limited supplies of missiles and lengthy lock-on times), The Wreckless emphasizes strafing during battles to avoid the incoming hail of bullets, a tactic employed most commonly in first person shooters. The Wreckless employs a physics model that preserves momentum; although you can apply brakes (which fire rockets in the opposite direction), you’ll keep moving even when you let off the gas. The result is interesting flight combat with plenty of ships and bullets screaming past your view. While the AI holds its own during battles, producing a spectacular array of lasers and missiles, the computer-controlled ships aren't quite as adept at holding position or avoiding environmental objects when they have been given strict scripted commands by the scenario designer, constantly running into each other or asteroids until they become spaced out. The AI also seems to attack the closest enemy ship, rather than prioritizing the current objective. Because of this, success in most missions is highly dependent on your actions, which can be difficult to complete due to the typically high number of enemy ships to contend with.

The highlight of The Wreckless, the battles, are done well, but the rest of the package lags behind. Utilizing a physics-based momentum system, the battles are large and dogfight-heavy, using guns more than missiles, producing delightful combat. The first person shooter control scheme works well in this context, and it's my preferred method of engaging the enemy. The Wreckless includes fighters and bombers that the player can control, and large capital ships that are less than formidable. The AI, while it attacks well, does a poor job prioritizing targets based on current objectives, leading to a lot of failed missions as you simply can't engage and defend every important target simultaneously. Shortcomings in the AI are also evident when enemies are not present, with the various ships running into each other and flying out of formation in strange directions. The campaign is short and repetitive, offering up the same “attack everyone while defending” objectives each time out. You can customize the difficult by increasing the number of friendly ships while decreasing the enemy's, but in some cases it's not enough to offset unfair odds or poor instructions. The skirmish mode is a bit limited and multiplayer is not present. Still, I think fans of action-packed space flight sims will overlook the unrefined aspects of the game and instead will focus on the pleasing combat, which, for $10, does deliver some space-bound thrills.