Saturday, October 6, 2012

FTL (Faster Than Light) video review

FTL is one of those games that's ostensibly simple, but given enough time ends up doing far more than you ever thought possible. Being part of the rogue-like genre, it's as unforgiving as it is exciting and that's a part of the reason why it's so damn addictive. If you're into random events, permanent decisions and strategic combat in space, there's little reason to avoid Subset's impressive showpiece.

FTL video review

For those who are unfamiliar to the rogue-like formula, know that this genre prides itself on permanence, exploration and, above all else, repetition. It's not the kind of repetition you'd likely gouge your eyes out over, rather it's the kind that sparks curiosity and with it the 'just one more run' notion that captivates you for longer than you'd care to admit. Depending on a variety of factors, each session can literally be faster than light (15 minutes or less) or well over the two hour mark. Regardless of your success, the experience FTL provides eventually will teach you to escape the Rebel fleet and explore the vast reaches of familiar and uncharted space, but only if you're willing to accept defeat... as your tutor.

Much like the malicious Dark Souls, FTL gives you the basics to survive, but the bulk is learned through defeat. Each decision, battle, trade, event, etc weighs heavily on the future of your session as one wrong move will send you and your crew into the black. Daunting as that sounds, learning (aka dying) is the key to having a good time with FTL. Once you firmly grasp the fact that you can't fire a salvo of missiles at every ship that pisses you off, the greater your feeling of elation will be as you progress further and unlock even more ships and weapons to play with. Oh and the music, yeah, it's absolutely fabulous.

You can name your people whatever you wish. In my case, the New York Giants will suffice.

The objective in FTL is to get to the Federation base in Sector 8; it doesn't matter how you get there. Each Sector increases in difficulty and has randomly generated points that contain a variety of encounters depending on the type of Sector you choose to jump to. For instance, the Mantis are a hostile, warlike race and jumping into their system will contain different events than say, jumping into the more friendly Engi territory. That's not to say that Engi space won't potentially contain a tough scenario though. Regardless of where you go, you'll have to monitor these events as well as fuel, ammunition and hull integrity if you mean to survive.

What I like most about these encounters is that each feels like it's happening straight out of a 'choose your own adventure' book. Every event holds weight that can easily propel you into the next Sector or set you back a great deal. These 'rewards' can be reaped by choosing from several presented options. However, there's some choices that are only available if you've met certain conditions. For instance, an early scenario that's commonly run into is a fire aboard a space station. You can choose to dock with it to rescue its inhabitants, attempt to fight the fire, or just straight up leave. In that same situation, if you have a crew member who is of the Rock species, a new and better option appears that you might never have known was there. It's pretty cool and gives players a reason to try all sorts of combinations within multiple sessions since you truly never know what to expect.

Things can escalate quickly...

There's tons of places to visit in FTL, but after you've invested a lengthy amount of time into the game, you'll start to understand how each scenario will play out. It's true that each area and event is randomized, and while there's a lot of them, there's fewer than you think. What I mean is, when you encounter giant spiders attacking some poor outpost (and you will), you'll eventually know better than to assist unless one of the special decisions appears on screen. Being able to experience a majority of the events without spending 60 hours into a game is great indeed, but getting the exact same event three or four times throughout one play session is still annoying.

One of my favorite features of FTL is the tactical combat. It's a rich and deep system that allows for pinpoint strategy and unprecedented control. Upon first seeing a battle take place, you might snicker at how simplistic the layout appears, but give it a little time and you'll understand how engaging the experience can truly be. Each conflict can be taken from multiple angles: shields giving you trouble? Disable the systems to score hits directly on the hull. Enemy trying to escape? Damage the engines so they can't fire up the FTL drive. Enemies boarding your ship? Seal your blast doors and vent the room of oxygen! Yeah, there's quite a few ways to take each battle and they're all awesome.

Don't stay in a Sector too long or the Rebels will eventually get you.

Fighting makes up the bulk of FTL so don't go thinking you can finish the game by being a pacifist because, well, you can't. By partaking in battles and dealing with craziness of being in space, you'll be constantly netting scrap - the currency of the future. Scrap can get you out of sticky situations, but more importantly, it can buy you weapon and system upgrades, crew members, fuel, repairs, etc. After going through and getting trashed by the game a few times, you'll learn that spending your scrap wildly often results in a dead and/or drifting space ship with the distress beacon on (which can totally attract pirates).

While there's a thin layer of customization when it comes to starting your adventure, by completing specific achievements you'll unlock additional ships that play very differently. Some, like the Slug cruiser, are much harder to get going than most, but there's always other options if one's proving to be too much of a challenge. The crew members you meet will also have specific abilities that can aid you in various ways. For instance, the Mantis are exceptional fighters, but lack in repairing while Slugs can view enemy personnel movement even when sensors are down. Another thing I appreciated was that you're not guaranteed anything, on any play-through. One time you might get the greatest beam weapon ever, but on the next you may only find weapons that disable shields. How you deal with each situation is what makes FTL so special.

The game has some humor to it as well.

Don't let FTL's relatively simple look and design fool you; underneath is a wildly intelligent, unforgiving strategy game with high replay value. It's narrative may not be the most engrossing thing ever, but that's easily remedied by the captivating gameplay design which makes you the one that tells the story. The more you play FTL the better you'll become - so what are you waiting for? Go get yourself some FTL.
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