Why 'FTL' Is Better Than Pretty Much Every Other AAA Space Sim Out There
Space simulations are a difficult genre to get into. Games like "Freelancer" and "X:3" and "Evochron Mercenary" are games that have SO many dimensions to them, it's simply too much to handle for most players. Shields must be re calibrated, power generators must be tweaked and redistributed, weapons need upgrading, bay doors need opening and closing, weight must be watched, be careful not to overheat your kinetic whatever launchers - all in the middle of an active battle.
There is just so much to do - so many fragile variables to keep in mind. When it's done right, you feel like a godd#mn Captain Kirk - but most of the time you just end up frustrated and feeling like a loser in a computer chair, rather than a Commander at the helm of the ship.
Last September, a fun little gem called "FTL" (standing for 'Faster Than Light' for the Sci-Fi impaired) launched and was Greenlit on Steam. I recalled watching a trailer for it sometime earlier that year, but didn't know what to make of it. Being an avid science fiction fan, I decided it might be worth the ten bucks to pick it up. That was one of the best ways I spent ten bucks in 2012.
FTL is a game about spaceships, aliens, oppressive trans-galactic hegemonies, lasers and rockets. And also, it's a roguelike. So, expect your games to be fairly short; to be completed in two or three sittings, either by victory or by (permanent) death. When your game ends, it's over - and you'll have to start a-new.
Home sweet ship.
The basic premise of FTL is that you're a messenger ship, sent to reach the Federation Fleet, many light years away, This wouldn't be such a daunting task if your objective wasn't time sensitive; the entire rebel armada is hot on your tail.
At the beginning you have only one ship to choose from, though later you unlock more. But for all intents and purposes, the starter ship is more than enough. Ships have crews, who can occupy various stations on the ship - engines, helm, weapons, shields, etc etc, as well as repair damage, fight boarding crews, patch holes in the hull among other things. Individual crew members get better at tasks the more they do them, so your experienced helmsman (I call him the captain) may be better at evasive maneuvers than the guy controlling your ships shields. Your crew members will invariably die from time to time, and will need to be replaced either via event or by replenishing them at galactic watering holes and stores scattered throughout the galaxy.
Ships have systems that need to be manned, as mentioned before. Systems must be powered by the ships generator. As time passes, your ship systems will upgrade, increasing their power consumption. Juggling the power consumption of various systems is a delicate game of micromanagement, especially in the heat of battle. But with the inclusion of a pause button, it's never too much to handle.
The premise of the game is fairly simple, but through that simplicity, surprisingly deep. You move your ship across sectors of a galaxy like pieces on a chessboard. Each sector has a chance to be populated with either a friendly or enemy vessel; perhaps pirates or a space station under siege. You are often times compelled to intervene, but sometimes you are given a choice whether you want to risk it or not. Sure, blowing up the unmanned attack drone that's assaulting an unarmed civilian space station seems like a great idea (they are DESPERATELY crying for help) but it's got some really big guns - and your ship's hull isn't in the greatest shape.
Battles take place in real time, but play out more like an RTS than a cockpit-based space shooter. Your various weapon and shield systems take time to recharge, and when a weapon is ready to fire, you select it and target the part of the enemy ship that you want to hit. The game lets you pause and pre-dictate these maneuvers, so it encourages you to think and plan your attacks. Sometimes, a well placed attack requires a risky sacrifice.
For example, beam weapons tear across multiple hull segments of a ship, but can't pierce even the most feeble shields. But kinetic weapons, such as missiles, ignore shields - so I set my missiles to attack their shield generator. I *hope* that one will be enough to knock out the generator, so I let my beam weapons charge. To do that though, I have to divert energy from somewhere else. I pause the game, and think - diverting energy from the shields mid battle is suicide - so I opt to divert power from the engines. It lowers my chance to dodge incoming attacks - but hell, that's what shields are for.
This sort of risk-reward mechanic works really well for the game - and you never feel rushed, BUT you never lose that sense of tension. Sometimes the best plan, when faced with an enemy of overwhelming force, is to just hedge all your bets and make a run for it. Some battles you just can't win - and the game lets you know that quickly. Bite off more than you can chew (go ahead provoke that pirate - he looks mean) and you'll very quickly find your hull cracked, crew members suffocating as the oxygen units are broken, and your engines on fire.
Actually everything EXCEPT the engines are on fire, sir.
There is a lot to do in the game. FTL has a currency and EXP system that is shared, in the form of "Salvage." Salvage can be used to upgrade your ship's systems, your ships generator, or to buy various and sundry goods, such as new weapons, new crew, new modules for your ship or repairs. Also, there are a number of finite resources, such as fuel, missiles and droid parts. Often times you will prompted to be given one in exchange for another. When you don't have a droid controller bay, sacrificing a couple devastating missiles for some droid parts may seem ludicrous - however, if you make extensive use of an droids that intercept incoming enemy missiles, that sacrifice may not seem so bad. Fuel trumps all though - if you run out your game ends. Never forget that!
There are a ton of random events in the game. They range from random quests, to environmental disasters, to just one-time opportunities. Sometimes, you'll stumble across a wrecked ship with a single survivor. Will you take him on board as a crew member? Well - that depends. Sometimes that lone survivor turns into a homicidal maniac, and ends up killing a crew member or two; but maybe you've got no choice - you're already short, and you need a man to occupy the weapons station. Perhaps you engage an enemy space ship too close to the sun - solar flares cause fires to erupt spontaneously inside your ship. This means crew members will have to put them out - or maybe you'll just open the bay doors and remove all the oxygen from burning portions of the ship - no O2, no fire, right?
Alien crew members also make great additions to any ship. Engi's for example are great fixer uppers, while Zoltans emit enough power to fully power a work station, even if the ship's generator can't power it alone. Rockmen are fireproof, big and strong, making them awesome guards (every so often you get boarded) and firefighters, but aren't particularly smart or nimble. Mantis make excellent boarding crews, and Slugs can telepathically see into enemy ships even if your surveillance systems aren't up and running or upgraded.
As Chekov would say "We are Inwisible."
I don't expect FTL to cater to everyone who wants an in-depth space simulation. This is NOT an open universe game, filled with galactic politics, massive space-soap opera dramas, planets to explore and free range adventure. What it is, however, is a game developed by a small studio, with a set story line, a well developed plot, a fun and engaging battle system, and a set of rules that's easy to learn and difficult to master. I think that sums all the best parts of the game up pretty well.
And you know what's great? You get all of this for TEN BUCKS. Did I mention, also, HOURS UPON HOURS of (often frustrating) entertainment. Seriously - throw out all your preconceived notions about space sims, and buy FTL. There is so much fun, and so much opportunity to be had here. It was a sleeper hit of 2012, and truly, one that will go down as a timeless classic in the Space Sim genre. I think anyone who has tried to play "Wing Commander" or any of the "X"series and failed as miserably as I have, will truly enjoy this fun little game. It's great if you have 20 minutes just to sit down between classes and play, and it will run on practically any computer made in the past six or seven years.