The ship was going down. Cracks had propagated through the floor and across the hull, tiles crumbling, leaving deadly spaces though which precious oxygen leaked out. The pilot was trying to repair the cockpit in an feeble effort at getting the ship up and running, ready to escape; the engineers manned their positions, one holding steady at the oxygen generator while the other attempted desperately to plug the deadly gaps in the ship’s surface. Ship emblazoned with pirate markings, their foes had begun to relax, assuming the battle to be won. But they fought back – weapon systems up and running again, they fired a desperate missile towards the pirates’ shield generators, disabling them. Noticing the opportunity to strike, lasers shot in quick succession, targeting both the weapon system and oxygen generators. Suddenly, the pirates panicked – with the oxygen down, manpower would have to be devoted to restoring it, yet every second without shield generators is a second susceptible to incoming fire. So they surrendered – or, should I say, attempted to surrender. The pilot didn’t listen – had he tried the same move, his ship would have been blown into space without a second thought. And thus, with a quick nod to his engineer, the pirates were no more, and the ship progressed through the uncharted nebula.
The concept of a brand new, triple-A science fiction TV show? Nope. An excerpt from a long-lost novel about a space-faring civilisation? Nope. A poorly written attempt at a clever introduction to a review of a video game? Well, yes. But specifically, it is a transcript of exact events that happened to me during a playthrough of Subset Games’ crowdfunded spaceship simulator FTL: Faster Than Light. In FTL, you act as an almost-all-seeing captain/being stationed directly above your space craft. You have to tactically manage fights, power distribution, navigation, resources, and your ship itself, as you attempt to deliver a message across space and outrun the rebel fleet on your tail.
A word I’ve heard bandied about with the mention of FTL is roguelike. Don’t be put off if you’re not a fan of NetHack, however – there’s about as much roguelike in this as there is tactics in Gears of War. Sure, there’s a bit of a whiff of it, but the predominant features it’s taken from the long lost genre are exploration, short play sessions, and permadeath. That’s right, permadeath. The game is save-able, but only between play sessions – it’s deleted upon launching the game again, so you can’t just alt+F4 out upon imminent destruction. Oh, and death happens a lot, so try not to get too attached to your crew members. I mean, like, a lot.
After starting a new game, you choose your hull type. Initially there’s just the one available, but upon completing certain in-game objectives you’ll unlock the rest. Each hull lends itself to a specific playstyle – an Engi ship, for example, will focus on employing drones to do your dirty work for you. You will be assigned certain races of crew members and starting weaponry depending on your chosen hull type. Select the difficulty (may I recommend easy for your first couple of plays), and you’re ready to adventure into the dark abyss.
FTL is broken up into two distinct sections. There’s the exploration and the combat. Starting the game, you’re set down at the beginning of “sector one”, with a number of purple nodes on the sector map. You “jump” your way from node to node, experiencing random encounters along the way (with over 25 thousand lines of text), in order to reach the end node and transport to the next sector. Each jump expends 1 fuel point – running out of fuel results in your ship floating for eternity through space, or, game over. The more you explore, the more gear you’re likely to pick up, and the more you can upgrade your ship. There’s a flip-side, though, as the incessant rebel fleet will always be on your tail, and lingering around one sector for too long could soon see you caught up exactly where you don’t want to be.
Every now and then, you’ll run into a hostile ship, and so combat begins. The (fantastic, I might add) music gets more intense as both parties prime their weapons and prepare for combat. You have a number of “systems” employed in battle – first and foremost is weaponry and shields, followed by the unlockable drone control and teleporter, which enables you to send crew members to board the other ship. This all sounds nice, but there’s only a certain amount of power available to your systems, and you’ll have to manage what to enable and what to sacrifice. Just don’t sacrifice the oxygen generator. Additionally, a well placed enemy laser can take out your systems, forcing you to either leave them disabled for the duration of combat or, if they’re essential, instruct crew members to repair them, leaving them vulnerable to a well-placed bullet in the same location. The potential is obvious – take out their oxygen generators and weapon system simultaneously. Their crew will flock to fix the oxygen, giving your weaponry time to charge and fire again at the oxygen room before their weapons have been primed.
There are a number of ways by which combat can end. Your crew can die, your hull can be destroyed, their hull can be destroyed, they can offer surrender, or you can simply wait until your FTL drive powers up and get the fuck out of there. There’s one thing that frustrated me about this, though. If you’re on the offensive and you’ve got a hostile ship down to very little remaining health, they’ll often attempt to surrender, offering you resources in exchange for their lives. All well and good, right? What frustrated me is that there was no reverse option. If I knew that my ship was inevitably going down, surrender would be the ideal option, however for whatever reason it’s only the AI that can surrender, not the human player. Midway through the seventh sector, I was pinned down my pirates with very little health left but an abundance of resources. Why, then, could I not offer my resources in an attempt to flee to the nearest space garage and get my ship fixed up?
This Spring gaming window seems to have developed into the throwback window. Long out-of-favour genres seem to be popping out of the woodwork left, right, and centre. A space-flight simulation that isn’t too sim-y, isn’t too space-y, and isn’t too roguelike-y, FTL takes the best bits from all of its influences and essentially fills the space-sim void in our hearts with Battlestar Galactica. If it was a roguelike. Despite the initially simplistic look of FTL, the combat has enough tactical depth and the sector generator enough variety to keep you going for hours, and hours, and hours. And if you decide to have a go on normal difficulty, may God have mercy on your soul.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of FTL: Faster Than Light by Subset Games.