To boldly go where no man has gone before… cleaning solar arrays! Firstly, people apparently really like DNF’s release date… it’s the most popular article on the blog. Not sure what to make of that. This review here has been done for about 3 weeks, but I was busy with floods and stuff, so you’re only getting it now. At over 3000 words though, I think it’s a decent start to the year.
DisCONNECT, being my personal blog free from corporate control and being largely ignored by the web, can make all sorts of argumentative shit up and nobody will really care. It’s with great pleasure that I delightfully take aim and fire at (Dr) Derek Smart, who has consistently managed to make a shit game since BC3K 2.0, which was the last good game he ever made. Each and every time he completely misses something most of us like to call “the fucking point”, which is Netspeak for “This is why your stuff sucks.” Just look at the 3000AD catalogue of games and see what a tale of broken promises they tell. I’m still pissed off about Universal Combat being a colossal pile of shit and essentially a graphical upgrade on Battlecruiser Millenium, which isn’t saying much.
If you were here right now, you’d probably say “But Soldant, what the hell does this have to do with Evochron Mercenary? It’s made by a different guy! Why are you ranting about Smart?” There are two reasons, gentle reader. The first is because it’s something I just can’t seem to get out of my system, like a latent virus just waiting to break out every few months. The second is because it represents what’s wrong with the space game sector today; too much cryptic bullshit and broken promises. Freelancer, for all its flaws, remains popular because it actually made the freeform space genre fun to play. Sure, the universe was static, prices never changed, you had absolutely no influence on the game world, and after you’d explored a bit the game was largely boring because nothing ever changed. But Freelancer’s space was pretty, it was worth exploring, and it was easy to play. It didn’t take much effort to understand how the game worked. That was mostly because of its fantastic interface, and less because of it being too simplistic (though that definitely contributed).
Since Freelancer we’ve had probably only two really good attempts at the genre. The first is the X series, which on its own has been going around for quite a while. The latest one, X3 Terran Conflict, hits a lot of the right notes for the space trading genre, and then some – completely dynamic universe, control everything from a fighter to a massive carrier, command fleets, build your own stations, destroy stations, create your own faction, take part in AI wars, the list goes on. Unfortunately it’s also pretty tough to get into, both because there’s a difficulty curve and because the interface isn’t that great. It gets better with each release but it’s still not as good as Freelancer’s easy to use interface, though it definitely tries to borrow a few features. Egosoft are slowly learning that a mouse-driven interface is good. I hope they’ll continue to try to improve it. Also they need to learn that more info in game = good; make it easy for us to compare statistics, don’t make us crawl over forums.
The other end of the spectrum is DarkStar One, which did attempt to blend a dynamic economy with a Freelancer-style interface, but happened to miss one important point which really destroyed their “Freelancer done right” motto. Namely, it forgot that part of the fun of Freelancer was exploration, because each system was different. DSO has each system the same. As in identical. That’s a shame, because DSO’s economy was slightly dynamic and it did make it easy to figure out how to trade, as opposed to sitting there looking at a bunch of facts and figures trying to keep track of things. Also despite these changes it was still mostly about combat… but so was Freelancer to some extent I guess. Finally, neither DSO or X3 have ever really captured the multiplayer aspect of Freelancer, which was quite popular with clans forming on the many servers that were out there, with fights for star systems, ambushes of trade convoys, and plenty of other player-driven events which were awesome. I played a lot of FL as part of a clan on some server running a mod (think it was Asgard or something), running sector patrols and offering to escort freighters for other clans through our territory… as well as fighting the pirate clans.
The Evochron series isn’t new or young, it’s been going for a while and was designed by one man, which makes it pretty remarkable. Every few years another game is released, offering a number of improvements on the last. Most of the time I’ve played the demo (which gives you 90 minutes of playtime), said “Hmm, not quite there yet” and decided to give it some time. E:M is probably the first one where I’ve actually thought “Now you’re doing it right!” without being sarcastic. I’m actually leaning towards calling this one “Freelancer done right”, because that’s the vibe I get from it. If you haven’t guessed, it’s a freeform space game similar to Freelancer but with more complexity. It’s not as complex as X3, but it’s inching closer with each release. In E:M, you’re essentially given a ship, some credits, and can follow a campaign or go make your own fun, seeing what kind of problems you can get yourself into. There’s a number of interesting features though which make me rank this one rather highly in the genre.
Firstly, Freelacner’s great flaw was the random missions you could find at the docks and planets. They all revolved around combat, pretty much. Fortunately E:M offers a few different kinds of missions, from the mundane “clean scum off a solar array” to “attack a capital ship”. I can’t say that they’re SO engrossing that playing them is like a game in itself, but there is at least a variety there which isn’t present in most other games. Also they offer a reasonably safe way to get a few credits, because getting into combat is a bit difficult especially if you’re new to the game. The physics and shooting mechanics are closer to X3 than Freelancer, but it even goes a step further to incorporate ship energy management which has to be balanced between your weapons and shields. You also control how much power your shield sides get; you could put all shields forward, or all rear, or balance them evenly. If you’ve played TIE Fighter, it’s exactly like that except it includes left and right shields as well, which I think might be a bit excessive.
Combat is hard if you’re starting out, at least for me. The Newtonian flight mechanics make things a bit slippery and at times disorienting, but also slightly amusing at the same time. There are three weapons: particle cannons, beam weapons, and missiles. Particle cannons do damage to everything, while beam weapons do damage to shields only. Particle cannons drain energy… not sure about beam weapons but if they do they do it at a decreased rate. Missiles are exactly as they sound. Combat tends to be pretty unforgiving so be prepared to die a few times… no, make that MANY times. It took me ages to figure out how to stand half a chance against 2 ships, let alone more than that. Hint: turn off IDS so that you ship drifts around, and use afterburners and the strafe thrusters to maneuver your ship in combination with looking in different directions. Practice swinging it in an arc before you go into combat. It is possible to do, it just requires a lot of fiddling around initially, namely in working out the relationship between the strafe thrusters and direction.
There are also lots of upgrades for your ship, as well as the ability to effectively design your own ship by assembling parts on a designed hull frame and paying the cost. It’s all pretty involved, but the ship builder actually works pretty well. Wish I could say the same for the inventory system, which doesn’t explain what any of the items do. Would it have killed the developer to put in a one-line description? Like “Cannon Relay System”. The hell does that do? How does the fuel converter work? You’d only find this stuff out by visiting the game’s website, which does describe all of the items and wares. That’s my 2nd biggest issue with this game; lack of information in game. I’m not asking for a load of lore, just a simple description would be fantastic.
Trading is expanded from Freelancer. The economy is dynamic for a start, so your trade routes will rise and fall in profitability. It’s not quite as complex as X3, which typically needs a friggin’ spreadsheet to work out, but it’s a bit more involved than Freelancer. There are quite a few goods that can be moved around, with prices affected by trader activity and sector conditions. It’s not quite as involved as X3 where a sudden border war results in a bunch of solar power plants getting wiped out, causing a huge spike in demand, but it’s dynamic enough to keep you interested. Asteroid and planet mining is also incorporated, much to my delight. To do this you need a mining/tractor beam, which serves a number of purposes but the main thing it does is mine asteroids and planets. The entry model is very affordable and can be fitted to any ship, though obviously larger ships = larger hauls with more profit. To mine you just fire the beam at the surface of the asteroid or planet, and you’ll get stuff to sell. There are a few beams which increase the yield of particular minerals, if you want to go that far.
The game’s universe is pretty big, but most importantly is that it’s entirely open. It’s split up into sectors, and it’s entirely possible to fly from one sector to the next without ever hitting a jump gate/trade lane/whatever, but it’d take a long time. Instead you use a jump drive, which lets you easy jump a number of sectors away (determined by your jump drive’s level). Jump drives, using afterburners, or just flying in general consumes fuel. That said fuel isn’t too expensive to buy (at least not at most stations) and general flight hardly drains the fuel. Afterburners drain it a lot, as does jumping, but I can’t see too many situations where you’d run out unless you go out of your way to do so. There’s a device you can buy which lets you convert fuel from nebulae or stars, provided you have the mining/tractor beam installed. The various sectors have their own asteroid fields, planets, nebulae, and so on, so it’s not like they’re all carbon copies of each other (thank Christ for that!). There are also hidden wrecks waiting to be found, just like Freelancer. To get from solar system to solar system (each system has a number of sectors) you can use jump gates, or fly manually, but you’ll be bored waiting. Sol, one of the solar systems in the game, has no jump gates so you’ll have to drift into town (or follow the plot)
Worth noting is that you can land on planets, which have their own planetary bases (sometimes more than one), terrain, and weather features. Most of the time there’s no reason to visit planets except to hit up the bases or to do a bit of mining, but the option is there. You can even fight in the atmosphere, if the mood takes you, but it’s much more difficult. Apart from that they offer exploration value if you just like to see what’s out there. There’s no transition either; you take the craft down to the surface manually, swapping from space flight to atmospheric flight and ensuring to reduce enough speed so that you don’t break up in the atmosphere.
Apart from that there are a few other things you can do, like hire crew members to provide various benefits, run taxi missions, follow the storyline and stuff like that. Two interesting additions are the build/deploy system and the fleet system. The build/deploy system allows you to establish temporary and permanent stations in space. You can deploy temporary stations that provide you with benefits, like shielding, mining, or stuff like that. Permanent stations provide various benefits for the sector they’re placed in, and can be named by you. That said, you don’t own the permanent stations like you would in X3; generally they just affect the economy of the sector they’re placed in. The exception is the trading station, which when built by you automatically gives you a license for that station, meaning it gives you a nice discount and a bit of protection. Technically you could establish your own little sector if you wanted to. And yes, building new stations does affect the AI and they will start to show up around that new sector. The fleet option is fairly simple; you can recruit other ships to join you for a fee, and you can give them a few instructions. It’s not as complex as X3 but it’s better than nothing.
I do have a few complaints about the game though. Firstly, combat is way too unforgiving, like I suggested earlier, and doesn’t make a great deal of sense, at least not initially. Unless you’re used to these games, chances are you won’t figure it out on your own unless you’re very patient and like getting blown up several times. You will die in your first… oh, I don’t know, 20 engagements or so. If you’re ultra patient you might be able to wait it out and figure it out on your own, but for most people I’m guessing you’ll need to hit up the forums to get some idea on how to fight. Even then you’ll need to do a lot of work to be able to take on a few ships at once. Please… give me a bit of a break. Either explain this one in the game, or change the combat model. X3’s one is fine, Freelancer’s is too arcadey… this one is like… ever play Frontier: First Encounters? You know how you try to fly somewhere else, end up getting attacked by some other craft, and they randomly carve up your hull and there’s nothing you can do about it? Yeah, it’s like that initially.
I should clarify that not every mission is about combat; there are plenty of non-combat missions as well as self-directed tasks like mining, but you will get attacked eventually so not knowing how to fight isn’t an option.
Also the collision detection model for stations especially is frustrating. I can’t count the number of times it’s looked like I could enter the station, only to clip on the collision model and get diverted above or below. There must be a disparity between the view model in first person view and the actual collision model for the player. Whatever it is, it should be sorted out.
The multiplayer mode is something I haven’t tried, but from what I’ve been reading it’s seamless more or less with SP mode; you can take your pilot profile straight into MP and keep everything you’ve done between the sessions. The only exception is that stations built in MP stay in MP, probably because trying to merge the two would be a mess of colliding stations and wreck the game. There is a clan control system which allows clans to gain control of the different sectors. Whether or not there’s actually a lot of players out there is something I don’t know, but the forums do appear to be active so I’m assuming that the game is dealing with a bit of traffic.
DisCONNECT is swapping back to an older summary system, because it’s 2011 and I feel like a change:
- Freeform space game which isn’t too simple or too complex (except combat)!
- Exploration is actually possible and worth something
- Dynamic economy with station building
- Not all about combat
- Unforgiving combat
- Tutorial is getting a bit long-winded and unfocused
- Items NEED useful descriptions… urgently
- Might be a bit difficult to get started
- Combat has jack explanation in game
- Where to from here?
- Why is there no useful description box for items?
- Does (Dr) Derek Smart dream of critical acclaim?
On the one hand, Evochron Mercenary does many things very well. It has that right mix of dynamic world and accessibility that would pretty much earn it the title of Freelancer Done Right. Unlike other games exploring different areas is actually worthwhile and the game world isn’t about cookie cutter settings with no variation. There are enough non-combat roles to keep the game interesting, allowing you to go off and do other things without firing a shot. Ship customisation is great. The economy is slightly dynamic so you don’t need to learn a bunch of random facts and stick to them. That said it’s not so dynamic that you’re confused.
If I had to compare it to Freelancer, I’d say that it has the simple gameplay mechanics of Freelancer but with a slightly dynamic universe. If I had to compare it to X3, I’d say it has a bit of the dynamic world from X3, but simplified so that you don’t need to spend hours reading forum posts and 3rd party guides to figure out how to do anything, or sitting there with a spreadsheet trying to figure out prices and profits. It’s a great blend between the two; the easy interface and exploration factor of Freelancer, combined with a dynamic economy and flight control of X3. Is the game as easy to get into, or as pretty as Freelancer? No. Is it as complex and dynamic as X3 with its empire building? No. But it does hit the middle ground. Darkstar One should have been something like this.
On the downside though, combat is far too unforgiving. I wouldn’t complain too much if there was a decent tutorial or some actual guidance on how to approach combat, but there’s pretty much nothing of the sort, and getting blown up in apparently arbitrary circumstances isn’t entertaining in the least. For such an accessible sim, this strikes me as odd. The combat mechanics in X3 aren’t quite as arcadey as Freelancer but they’re infinitely better than this game, at least X3 gives you half a chance in most cases unless you’re doing something silly. Honestly I think it needs to be rethought and completely overhauled. Really you’re exploiting an AI flaw where they somehow fail to aim properly when you drift with inertia and turn in a different direction from your movement direction. Once you understand the basics though, it clicks into place.
Still this is a very good space game which has a lot of potential. My main complaint is the combat side of it, which is essential to master because you will get attacked eventually. The developer has done a fantastic job of making the game pretty easy to get into save for this aspect, which means it’s worth a look. It has the right balance of dynamic gameplay and simple controls, save for combat, which makes it one of the best for those who found Freelancer too basic but X3 too complex. Or you can be (Dr) Derek Smart, call yourself a supreme commander, and make a complex game that nobody understands.