Whoever thought that strategy titles of today have lost their way in overlong cutscenes and hand-holding tutorials hasn’t played FTL Team’s FTL: Faster Than Light, a Kickstarter project which also found its place on Steam and into the hearts of many indie gamers, festival juries and old-school rogue-like fans alike. If the hype is justified and it’s also a fun game for the less initiated and casual audience remains to be seen…
FTL: Faster Than Light (PC)
(USA 2012, developer/publisher: FTL Team, platform: PC)
As a commander of a single ship in pursuit of rebels, life-saving information has to be delivered to the allied forces.
In a galaxy far away from the trek
There isn’t much of a story to talk about or character development to dwell on. In a nutshell, the premise is pretty much identical with the main goal in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but without any memorable scenes or characters. This is mainly due to the randomization process which creates different events with each playthrough. It obviously adds to the replay value, but it also prevents the storytelling to become anything more than a means to an end, which is a shame, because in this way, there isn’t really a connection to the crew members, the ship or the story progression. Visiting other planets might have a bit of a Farscape vibe attached to it, but as the encounters with the aliens are usually kept quite short, there isn’t a lot of development with these either. Fortunately the gameplay makes up for most of these narrative shortcomings.
RTS-ing in space
Despite its Star Wars influences, the gameplay is all about strategy in space battles and evokes the feeling of commandeering a big vessel as in Star Trek. By having a constant overview of the ship’s interior and an interface which shows how each segment is powered, the player has to keep an eye on how much power is attributed to the weapons systems, shields, etc. while ordering his crew to repair these parts if the ship gets hit. This can become quite hectic in the heat of battle when fires break out, oxygen runs low and the whole system is quickly falling apart if one isn’t careful and thorough enough. Hull breaks have to be fixed as well, and there’s a constant risk of the engineers to die during repairs, making it an even more aggravating but also tense experience.
Combat is in real time, but pressing the pause button can turn it into a turn-based affair, which greatly helps with so many things to do at the same time. Battles occur both outside and inside the ship. The former shows the parts of the opponent’s ship one can hit with either missiles or other weapons. As these always take some time to recharge and can also miss their targets, success is a bit dependent on luck or upgraded weapons. The latter is a bit more chaotic when enemies try to overtake the ship and destroy its systems from within. Sending the crew to fight usually results in unnecessarily annoying tank rush strategies, although one can also upgrade the ship with better doors which can hold the enemies off a bit longer.
RPG-ing in space
What’s better integrated than the chaotic RTS elements and requires a lot more strategic planning is the RPG system. It’s actually more like an upgrade system which relies on the concept of gathering scrap from fights or other events and then using this “currency” to have better shields, weapons, doors, oxygen systems, etc.. As scrap is also used for buying missiles, doing repairs on the hull of the ship and investing in more equipment, it becomes even more difficult to decide in which direction one wants to develop the ship.
Interaction with the different species on various planets or in space also adds to the decision-making process and is a bit reminiscent of Mass Effect, although meeting new races never amounts to more than receiving some trade-offs in the form of weapons and scrap, having a smaller impact on the relationship between the player and world-building which is again something of another missed opportunity, because there’s certainly a lot of potential with each new encounter. It usually ends up as a help-or-ignore situation, which can also happen again after some time, making these random encounters feel less realistic.
Random encounters of the third kind
The structure of the star system is quite interesting, as not only are the encounters randomly created, but the whole jumping-from-one-to-the-next-point idea makes for another strategic part and builds up additional tension when the enemy approaches from the left, closing in on the player. If the ship gets caught in its radar, more and more fights ensue which ultimately lead to a game over if one isn’t fast enough to reach the exit on the right. But even after arriving there, a certain amount of time has to pass before the FTL drive for fast space travelling can be activated, making the turn-based gameplay more suspenseful but also more frustrating.
Something which turns up the difficulty a notch and two is the concept of old rogue games in which dying means game over. Only one save game is possible, and it only loads automatically after quitting the game. If the ship is destroyed, that’s it, i.e. one has to start from scratch with a new ship, going through all the upgrading and planet-hopping again. This is extremely frustrating, considering that the random nature of the game makes some playthroughs easier or more difficult than others. There is the option of playing an easier version with more scrap to collect and fewer vicious enemies, but it doesn’t distract from the fact that it’s a game for the hardcore strategists and RPG fans.
The old days of graphics and sound
The presentation is, like most indie games, a compromise between low-res graphics and pixellated characters. Still, the ship design is quite nice, even though one shouldn’t expect high-res explosions or other fancy effects. Even the effects for hull damage or fires breaking out are realized in an unspectacular way. The same can’t be said about the music which is very atmospheric and enhances the feeling of being in an endless space simulation. Voice acting is absent and so are cutscenes, again highlighting the fact that this is more about the gameplay than storytelling.
Hardcore gaming for sci-fi fans
Despite the very high difficulty curve and a rather lacklustre story with forgettable characters, FTL: Faster Than Light is strangely addictive and hard to put down. The learning curve is pretty steep, but in a rewarding way, because with each new death one learns a little bit more about the inner workings of the ship and the upgrades system. It might not work as an engaging space opera, but as a hardcore strategy title to make the player feel as part of an unforgiving universe and the commander of a ship in the best Star Trek fashion, it more than succeeds to stand out from the strategy crowd.
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