"Welcome to Sol Sector, Lieutenant!?" - Lieutenant Chris McCubbin, TCS Concordia
Sol: Exodus, the new space sim from Seamless Entertainment, will be available starting today on Steam for just $9.99. I was very kindly allowed to take a look at the finished product over the weekend and would like to share my thoughts with the Wing Commander community.
It should be no secret to longtime readers that I am something of a curmudgeon when it comes to space games that aren’t Wing Commander. The 1990s were rife with soulless imitators that sought to be nothing more than the last Wing Commander done cheaper with the benefit of the latest video card drivers. Then the last decade was a scattering of well-meaning attempts to recapture our favorite series’ glory that generally suffered from trying to do too much with too little money. Suddenly every attempt needed a Privateer-style open world, a Wing Commander cinematic story and years worth of “player wish list” bucket items involving overly complicated physics and off-putting gameplay options which scared away the casual fans. And don’t even get me started about shoehorning multiplayer into space shooters…
I’m happy to announce that Sol: Exodus is none of these things. This is a small game that’s aimed at giving a modern audience their first taste of how much fun a space shooter should be. The game forgoes all those pitfalls to give us something unique: a deceptively simple action game that should teach today’s gamers how awesome space combat is. Let me run through some of the highs and lows that I think will resonate with Wing Commander veterans:
What I Loved
- The game’s performance. I no longer maintain a cutting edge gaming PC and was a little nervous when I was asked to look at the game. I shouldn’t have been: it runs beautifully in Windows XP on the circa-2007 MacBook that I use for Wing Commander archiving projects.
- The art style.While I recognize that the ‘paintings’ the game uses for the introductory cutscene and the comm. Messages are a cost-saving method to avoid expensive cinematics that may come off as cheap to many people I think they’re just outright fun. They give the game a unique style and they get your imagination going in the same way the original Wing Commander did with its own unique look. (The paintings-to-set-the-scene intro reminds me of nothing so much as the strange, cool TV cut of David Lynch’s Dune.)
- The various locales of the Sol system are BEAUTIFUL. Big asteroids, battles set against the backdrops of massive planets and sprawling starbases. I’m reminded of nothing short of Freelancer, but where that game’s beautiful environs had an almost suffocating vastness, Sol: Exodus uses them to give each mission a particular immediacy.
- The controls. The game has a wonderfully simple control layout that is entirely customizable (which came in handy when the tutorial wanted me to use my Mac’s non-existent second mouse button.) More importantly, it easily supports both gamepads and JOYSTICKS! This is the ideal solution that Freelancer flubbed so badly: come up with an intuitive control scheme for keyboards (I had no complaints using my laptop’s keyboard and touchpad) and give players who happen to have fancier hardware the option.
- The price. Yes, the game has slightly fewer missions than a straight winning play through of the original Wing Commander… but it clocks in at under $10! For an old fighter pilot used to paying as much as $80 for a new game in the early 1990s that’s just incredible, unbelievable. I know it’s more common today, but part of me wants to rage against the idea of even reviewing a game that costs $9.99. Of COURSE you should buy it! That’s hours of entertainment for less than you’re going to pay for a sandwich… so it’s going to hurt, I think, watching the modern gaming media savage it as though it were supposed to be a thirty million dollar AAA affair.
- The sense of fun in the ship design. One thing Wing Commander III and IV introduced, which was great at the time, was the “modern military in space” style for their ships. This quietly replaced the more fantastic anime- and classic science fiction-inspired designers of the early games and then quickly spread to every space game imaginable. Sol largely drops this, giving us spacecraft designs which are more fantastic, fun and unique.
What I Didn’t
- Lack of cockpits. About fifteen years ago, developers decided that graphical “cockpit” layers in space games were unnecessary. I’ve heard a claim that they watched QA teams and found they turned off the cockpits within minutes of starting their games. I’ve also heard that they were embarrassed by the practice of including them in the first place, seeing them as a ‘hack’ to allow old computers to render the action in a much smaller area of the screen. Whatever the real story, future space sim designers need to suck it up and bring them back. A space sim is not a first person shooter and the goal is not to create an invisible HUD; rather, they should be trying to make us feel like we really are Buck Rogers… and seeing the inside of an awesome space fighter around the edges of the screen is exactly what you want to do. In Sol: Exodus, specifically, the “comm” messages are played at the top of the screen. You see the head of the character talking and then the associated text. How much more immersive (and frankly, helpful in hiding the fact that the lips don’t move) would it be to put this screen in a little VDU? Even do it in green-and-black or with some fuzzy signal interruption to obscure the speaker; it’s a case I don’t WANT everything to be perfectly clear.
- A few too blatant nods. Without spoiling too much, I was slightly bothered that one plot element in the prologue training mission was lifted directly from “Halo.” Certainly space sims SHOULD be a collection of familiar tropes (what’s Wing Commander but a game of Star Wars?) but this one bit happened to feel too close to me. Similarly, the game’s masthead/logo is a bit too identical to the one Electronic Arts uses for their Mass Effect franchise. And while it’ sort of funny that the bad guys’ faction’s acronym becomes “C-O-D,” the joke gets a little tired when you have to hear it spoken so many times (I would have absolutely forgiven the game this, however, if it were spoken like the fish rather than spelled out every time.)
- The lack of character animation. As I say above, I love the painted look for the character faces and for the introductory cutscene… but I would have been so much more impressed if they had borrowed the “talking head” style for the communications (or used that to create dialog cutscenes.) I understand and appreciate the lack of budget for cinematics, but I think they could have aped the original Wing Commander very well with the addition of a few different mouth shapes for the characters.
- The radar and the targeting systems took a little time to get used to. They work perfectly fine and will likely be easy to pick up for new players… but I really don’t understand why the game doesn’t just borrow Wing Commander’s simple system straight out (that said, targeting actually works just like Wing Commander, it’s just that the tutorial teaches it to you oddly. There’s a hotkey you will learn later for flipping through enemy targets.)
It should come as no surprise that Sol comes from a scrappy young development team in Austin, Texas—the city that first birthed the Wing Commander franchise twenty-odd years ago (for those interested, the core team does not include any Wing Commander veterans, although Marc Schaefgen and David Swofford, who did sound work and PR for classic Origin titles respectively, are both credited in the same roles as contractors on Sol.) I should stress that it’s a small game. No, the graphics aren’t as seamless as the latest BioShock or Call of Duty… but they’re fast and full of color and character. Yeah, cutscenes are done in-engine and in-flight, like Secret Ops. And yes, you’ll be playing only nine or so fairly lengthy missions for your $10… but in addition to being hours of fun for old hands it’s also the ideal game for introducing today’s players to the concept. You should gift Sol: Exodus to your kids, relatives, friends, well wishers and others in the hopes that they’ll realize space sims should be the next big thing.
As fun as it is, most of all what I want is for people to see Sol: Exodus as an important game, a new beginning for the game type. I want Electronic Arts to look at Seamless Entertainment and say hey, yeah, these guys have the right idea, maybe we should bring back space sims. Am I going to start the great Sol: Exodus community fan site? Probably not, but then I’m getting too old for that. I do truly believe that someone reading this today probably should. The game is great and its world has enormous franchise potential. I would not be surprised if we’re playing a massive Sol: Exodus sequel a few years from today… and if its success helps convince EA that there’s a market for a certain other space sim franchise, all the better!