Review: FTL: Faster Than Light

FTL_1

In addition to being sharp-looking games for the time, the Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: TIE Fighter titles of the early 1990s were a lot of fun because they helped make the Star Wars setting feel real. It is easy to look back and scoff at the talk of blasters and deflector shield settings in the movies as being meaningless techno-babble thrown into fictional radio chatter to add drama to boring, head-on shots of different guys wearing the same silly jumpsuit sitting in their space planes. But when those games were loaded up, no mean feat with DOS games, all of the sudden you were that guy and had not only to fly your space plane, shooting proton missiles, managing thrust and avoiding enemy fire, you also had to adjust the power settings of your plane. A mission might call for mass destruction, so you could route all of the power to make the blasters recharge faster or the more risk-adverse could put everything in the shields hoping everything would work out. All that was missing was an itchy orange jumpsuit and Alec Guinness whispering in your ear.

FTL: Faster Than Light is a game that takes the system management aspect of the old LucasArts space sims and turns it into an entire game. It is more fun than it sounds.

Players take on the role of the commander of the Federation – not that Federation – space ship the Kestrel, carrying crucial data to help in the war effort against the Rebellion. The Rebels have gotten wind of the presence of this intel and have dispatched their largest fleet to seek the data and destroy the pathetic vessel entrusted with it. Delivering the data will take the Kestrel across many sectors of space, hopefully at least one step ahead of the pursuing fleet, and dealing with the various encounters and roadblocks along the way. These encounters take the form of text describing the situation the ship runs into and give multiple choices on what to do. There may be a space station on fire and it is up to the noble captain to decide whether to risk the lives of his crew to help out those in need, or just watch it burn as the FTL engines spin up. Or perhaps a slaver ship will be hanging out in a sector and confront the Federation ship when it sees the potential for new merchandise (read: the ship’s crew). These scenarios are entirely random in their presentation and order and are only dependent on what kind of area of space the ship is in (i.e. hostile, neutral, alien controlled, etc). Unfortunately, there are only so many kinds of these sectors to see, so players with any sort of ability to retain past experiences in their brain will know when seeing the same flavor text what will happen if a particular choice is made. Maybe there are unseen dice rolls happening when a decision is made, but I always got basically the same results for the same decisions. Players that play through the game two or three times will see all the story there is to see.

But the story is not really what matters, it’s the tight gameplay. True to its name, the primary movement of the Ship is jumping from one point in space to the next just like the Battlestar Gallactica. The course is plotted in a simplified star chart that shows the nearby systems that can be jumped to. If there is any sub light speed movement, it is not reflected on the screen. Instead, all that is shown is the ship being piloted and the enemy ship. Within the Kestrel are various rooms that house the different ship components and stations. Engine room in the back, bridge up front and shield generator, weapons bay, sensor room and other systems – like the all important one for life support – are shown in an overhead view. Also shown are the ship’s crew members who can be told where to go. Whenever a battle with another vessel happens, and the game consists primarily of battles, the other ship’s layout pops up on the right side of the screen and it is up to the commander to decide who must go where and what systems get what priority.

Battles are a fury of managed chaos. By default crew members will walk up to the stations in a system’s room to help them run more efficiently. Weapon batteries and shields recharge faster if there are crewmen in the room fiddling with the controls. But, eventually, some enemy shots are going to get through and the ship will take damage to its hull, and to any systems if they were targeted. As systems are damaged, they run less efficiently, and will eventually stop working. So, the commander must decide what crewman can be pulled off of what system to go repair the damaged sensor array that has left the ship blind. Or a missile can cause a fire to spread room by room, eventually killing everyone, or a hull breach removing all oxygen, still killing everyone. All individual ship doors can be opened, so if no crew is nearby, the doors could be opened to the vacuum of space, suffocating the fire, or making it take more time for the hole to suck out all of the oxygen by letting the hole drain two rooms. The crew will have to deal with these problems, all while trying to keep the ship efficient and manned and the guns aimed at the opposition. Sometimes battles will be pushovers, but most of the time if the ship makes it, it will have sustained significant damage to one or more ship components that must be repaired. Since hull damage can only be repaired at certain places, it also is important to minimize damage because peril lurks in every sector.

As the game progresses, every encounter becomes more complex. Both ships will tend to have more crew to tell where to go, droids can be summoned to help in the protection and repair efforts, and things like system hampering ion cannons and eye negating cloaking devices can screw with a ship’s ability to operate conventionally. At first when the enemy ships start teleporting boarding parties it seems like a serious problem where the computer has an unfair advantage. Until it is realized that crew members are a resource just like missiles and oxygen, except more vital as they are required to man the ship and are primarily used to make repairs. Determining this, players might decide to target a ship’s teleportation room instead of its shield generators to doom the fools who thought to take a step aboard the Kestrel instead of manning their stations. The opposing crew weakened or reduced in number, an offensive teleportation to the bridge can be implemented. All while the various lasers and missiles destroy the now under manned vessel. There are a lot of moving parts and it is a constant weighing of risks and rewards to make it to the end.

And, if things are going poorly, there is always the background decision of whether or not to use a powered up FTL drive to run. Any resources expended in the battle will be wasted, and the next sector may be no better with a fresh foe behind an asteroid field. Or, if the Federation’s last hope is rapping at death’s door, it might be better to take the chance that there may instead be aid or at least empty space. The random nature of the game adds to the tension so that it is impossible to know what will come next.

As the game goes on, the Kestrel will collect scrap that can be used to upgrade how many shield blocks can be used, the number of weapons activated, how much O2 the life support system generates and other improvements including the all important amount of energy the ship can produce. Upgraded equipment is worthless if there isn’t any power to make it go. The ships limited power must be distributed to make the systems operational. If strapped for power, it might be necessary to power down the life support to power up the missile array. Rarely will any ship in this game be able to power all of the systems available to it. Scrap can also be used at the shops scattered around each sector. Unfortunately, the contents of these shops are unpredictable, so it is impossible to fully plan what to buy and when to buy it. Like everything in FTL, it is all about adapting. The Ion cannons seem exceedingly useful, but there is no way to know when they will be available or if there will be enough Scrap on board to buy them.

It is worth pointing out that this game is hard. Even on Easy, it is possible to get a few very bad sectors or just a string of bad dice rolls in one battle that will make it impossible to get to the end. Not impossible like trying to get through all levels in the last Dark World of Super Meat Boy without dying once impossible, no, actually impossible, cannot be done, hit reset, it’s two minutes to Game Over. A player would have to be either insanely lucky or cheating to get through the game on the first try. So, for those who like a challenge, this game is great. On the one hand, this can be very frustrating as sometimes loss has nothing to do with one’s actions. But, if there is any silver lining for this approach, this will allow for different strategies to be discovered. Ideas which would have otherwise never been considered will be tried out just because circumstances leave no other option. Captains that somehow manage to complete the game will still have a host of achievements to go after, many of which are difficult and given the random nature of the game will take a long time to accomplish as well as different ship layouts to try. But given the true difficulty of completing the basic mission on Normal, it is unlikely most players are going to want to go after the achievements beyond just finishing the game. That is enough of an accomplishment itself.

The story is not worth remembering but the challenging systems management combined with the thrill of coasting on the winds of fate is enough to look past the repeating scenarios. Since death is permanent, one’s experience with knowing what will happen with choice A vs. B can be seen as the only benefit carried from one run to the next other than unlocking a few different ship layouts. That is a stretch, but the lack of more than a few kinds of encounters is the only problem to a game that is otherwise a skillful execution of a good idea. Quite simply: it’s fun to be the commander of a space ship, space battles are fun, and this game has players commanding space ships in space battles. That math adds up to fun, in space.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Soothing space tunes that seamlessly heat up when there is a fight
+ Complex, yet simple to manage battles
+ Random nature of the game leads to the creation of different strategies

Cons:
– Limited number of story scenarios
– Simple graphics can get dull
– Some mechanics not explained very well
– It is possible to simply not be able to win

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac/Linux (Available from Steam, GOG.com, and FTLgame.com)
Publisher: Subset Games
Developer: Subset Games
Release Date: 9/14/2012
Genre: Strategy simulation roguelike
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

[nggallery id=2776]

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.