Friday, March 02, 2012

Lunar Flight Review

Lunar Flight, developed and published by Shovsoft.
The Good: Authentic physics, multiple camera views, nice graphics
The Not So Good: No automated piloting systems to ease in new players, repetitive mission design
What say you? Challenging, realistic control will appeal to enthusiasts and deter everyone else: 5/8

4.52 billion years ago, a large object approximately about the size of Mars slammed into the Earth, breaking off a piece of our home planet which then coalesced into a sphere, forming the Moon. Unlike most planets that feature captured asteroids as their moons, the Moon is a piece of “us”, so it is our solemn duty to conquer it for economic benefit. According to outlandish proposals by the certified insane, it's about time we colonized the Moon and use all of the natural resources it contains. You know, the same exact resources we have on Earth where they are a whole lot easier to obtain. But it'll be fun! Exhibit A: Lunar Flight, an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of moon-based flight in your trusty lunar lander. Does Lunar Flight found a new world, or just make another crater on the surface?

For a $10 game, Lunar Flight has some impressive visuals. The Moon has detailed terrain, high-resolution textures, and rocks strewn about the landscape for an immersive feel. The bases could have more distinctive designs (they all look identical), but overall your flight environment looks fantastic. The lunar module itself is quite detailed, looking like it was lifted from NASA’s space program. The smoke and fire effects are plausible as well. In space, no one can hear you scream, but they can hear your radio chatter, which gives Lunar Flight a more plausible setting. The music is also fitting for the environment, rounding out the package. Lunar Flight far exceeds its price tag with solid graphics and sound design.

In Lunar Flight, you complete three types of missions on the Moon’s surface: transporting cargo, finding lost cargo, or surveying an area. The three missions offer very limited variety: you’ll take off, fly somewhere, and then land. You can also try to attempt the fastest transit time between two bases, but more mission types with different characteristics would be greatly appreciated. You can compare your scores and progress against others online, just to see your relative level of incompetence, but there are no cooperative missions. Money and experience points are earned as you successfully complete each mission; XP is spent unlocking upgrades for your lander (improved thrust, fuel capacity, stability) and money is spent purchasing items (extra fuel, in-flight repair) or restoring your lander to optimal flying conditions. You’ll start out in an introductory area, but two additional maps (with more difficult terrain) will unlock as you gain experience. I would like to see more variety in mission design to increase the replay value of Lunar Flight, but overall the game’s features fulfill its $10 price.

The controls of Lunar Flight are typical for a flight simulator. You can use a joystick, gamepad, or the trusty keyboard to pilot the lander’s pitch, roll, yaw, and thrust. Precise thrust control is very difficult using the keyboard, although the rest of the controls are intuitive. There is an option to lock thrust at a specific value (allowing you to easily maintain the same vertical velocity), but Lunar Flight lacks any other aids for controlling your craft. There are online video tutorials that teach the very basics to controlling your craft, but no auto-pilot features to ease you into the physics of landing. While I certainly commend the seemingly authentic nature of the simulation, the developer should still allow more casual users to enable some help as they learn the game.

The cockpit view is certainly a plausible representation of what the interior of real lunar lander might look like. Filled with data displays (for fuel level and speed in all directions) and multiple view screens that show pertinent information, you are not at a loss of information while playing Lunar Flight. The navpoint and velocity cameras show the current waypoint and destination based on your current trajectory respectively, and a helpful target cross is superimposed on the former camera view to allow for knowledgeable adjustments to your velocity. This makes it easier to get near your destination: just put the cross near the landing pad by making subtle adjustments to your vertical thrust and forward/backward/left/right velocity makes landing is easier (though still not easy). A chart showing the amount of thrust required to maintain vertical velocity is also provided. If (when) you come into contact with the Moon’s surface at high speeds, the hull, engine, or displays may suffer damage. The game uses a high-fidelity physics model that delivers realistic movement with the Moon’s low gravity and lack of atmosphere. And despite the several displays and thrust lock, Lunar Flight is very difficult to pilot. I still don't have a complete handle on how to slow down and land properly, which is half the game. Flying a plane is at least somewhat intuitive, but piloting a lunar lander is something completely different. The lack of auto-pilot settings means you’ll have to learn by trail and error (mostly error). Worst of all, if you miss your landing, you might run out of fuel, crash your vessel, and then have a negative balance in your career file. Lunar flight is not for the faint-hearted, that's for sure.

Lunar Flight is a truly authentic simulation of moon-based navigation. It's just too darn hard. The controls are not exotic, using the same translation, pitch, roll, and yaw as a traditional flight simulator. However, once you add in the moon physics where there is little gravity and no atmosphere, flying exponentially increases in difficulty. There is a helpful thrust lock to keep you at the same altitude, but Lunar Flight lacks any other assistance to level or slow down the lander: an auto-pilot would go a long way easing new pilots into the game. As it stands, you'll have to learn the hard way, crashing into the landscape more often than you'd like. There are plenty of displays to show how terrible you are doing, but they aren't helpful if you can't recover from an undesirable trajectory. I had to reset my profile more times than I care to remember because I didn't want to be stuck with the cost of a new lunar lander after each unsuccessful landing attempt. Lunar Flight can have all the visual and navigational computer aids it wants, but if newcomers can't figure out how to slow down and land, all is lost. The missions are repetitive (fly here), but there are a number of upgrades you can purchase, assuming you complete a mission. The graphics are quite nice and detailed, successfully mixing the barren gray of the Moon with the detailed technology of the lunar lander. Ultimately, people who can overcome the extreme learning curve will be the only ones that will enjoy Lunar Flight, but a potentially satisfying, realistic simulation lies within.