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Escape Velocity Nova review
Review - posted by Saint_Proverbius on Fri 25 July 2003, 17:09:26Tags: Ambrosia Software; Escape Velocity Nova
Billions and billions of stars..
Most people who know Mac users have probably heard of this game at one point in time, since it was one of the few games that Mac owners could point to in an argument about software availability. They'd have a good reason to point to it as well, since Escape Velocity Nova is a fairly sharp little game. Luckily for the Windows crowd, that argument has been snuffed by demand for the title and now Windows users can get a taste of what their noses have been rubbed in for years now - the Escape Velocity Franchise.
For those who haven't heard of the franchise, imagine Elite, Privateer, or more recently, Freelancer. Now imagine those types of games with six major story arcs and factions to join. Imagine them with capital ships like destroyers and carriers you can purchase and use to troll around space. Imagine them using sharp, well animated 2D graphics. Imagine them with reputation tracking for each faction in the game. Imagine them with tracking pilot abilities and using that as the basis for gathering missions. Imagine dozens and dozens of outfit options for your ships, including marines to help you board ships, better scanners, engine improvements, the ability to add outfit or cargo space by converting one to the other, and much more. Sound good? Well, it is.
The universe of EVN is a rather turbulent one. From the central part to the edge of the north of space, you'll find the mighty Federation. South of the Federation, you'll find the Auroran Empire, a loose confederation of warrior houses. To the East, you'll find the technologically advanced Polaris who base their society on a caste system and are extremely xenophobic. To the West, you'll find Vell'os space, which was mostly wiped clean in war they had many years ago. On the rim, just North of the Federation, you'll find outcast groups like the Rebels, who are fighting with the Federation, as well as Pirates and alien space critters like Wraiths.
Many of these factions don't like one another, and don't trust one another. The Federation and the Aurorans typically fight large scale battles along their borders, often involving carriers, cruisers, and destroyer class vessels. Unless you have a decent ship, you don't want to get caught in the exchanges of fire that goes on between these big ships. Many of the factions also guard their borders with tiny stations that fire upon enemy craft, but don't exactly do much damage to anything of decent size and protection. Of course, these stations don't really do much considering you'll occasionally see Aurorans make it all the way to Sol and Federation ships make it to Auroran house homeworlds.
You'll often find Federation and other factions firing on Pirate aligned ships, and especially the Marauder ones. Federation and Rebel ships often skirmish in the Northern part of Federation space. The Polaris seem to fire on anything that they don't personally invite in to their space, Pirates, Federation, Aurorans, and naturally, the player too. Although, it is possible to see the rare trader in Polaris space, once you get in there, it's almost like a Polaris-only club.
It's not just a job, it's a career
There are many things you can do to eek out a living in EVN. You can be a pirate, be a freelance trader, you can ferry passengers on cruises, you can mine asteroids, you can do shipping missions, etc. You can even dominate entire planets with your sheer might and collect tribute from them as a source of income. Of course, some of these are better than others at generating income, and some require special ships to do them. Still, just about anything you'd want to do with a starship as a job, you can do in EVN.
Of course, you have to start somewhere, and you certainly start small. In the beginning, you have 25,000 credits and what amounts to the stellar equivalent of a puddle jumper, the stock shuttle. It can only take a few shots from any standard weapon before it ends up a fiery ball of debris against the starry backdrop of space. Not only can it not take much punishment, but it also can't dish it out with it's little light blaster, either. It also lacks much range, having only three stellar jumps in it's energy storage before you're dead in the water. It can't haul much, either, only having 10 tons worth of cargo space. Of course, the thing is fast as a whip, and can turn on a dime, but that's about it's only saving grace. About the main good thing you can say about it is that it does give you the potential to be somebody in the universe, and that ain't bad.
Probably the easiest way to start and earn money is being a mission hauler. Early in the game, they're about the only use for the Mission BBS you can find on most planets and space stations. Basically, at 15,000 credits a haul, you can strain out a meager living with no money down. Eventually, other types of more urgent hauling missions will pop up, with time limits, as well as increased contract payments. You might also be contacted by the United Shipping corporation which can give you even more lucrative contracts to haul around more important deliveries. Other factions and corporations might also contract you to haul colonists, vital resources the companies need, and so on. These missions increase your standings with that faction or corporation as well as netting you some handy credits.
You can also ferry around passengers for a little scratch. Unfortunately, this doesn't net you nearly as much money as hauling cargo around in the beginning. However, later in the game if you get in good with Sigma corporation, you can buy Starliner vessels, which will open the possibility of bigger and better passenger cruising. Be warned, though, these ships aren't the best ships for dealing with hostiles.
Pirating is a fairly easy concept to grasp. It boils down to attacking another ship, disabling it, and then boarding it to see what bounty the ship might have. When boarding a ship, you have access to snag any credits on the ship, the ship's energy, any cargo, and my personal favorite option, the ship itself. Of course, depending on who you decide to pirate, you're probably going to annoy someone since most everyone is in some sort of faction in the game. If you pirate United Shipping ships, you're likely going to make many factions upset as well. Of course, if you pirate enemies of a faction, you're likely to make that faction happy. If you happen to prey on pirates and marauders, the Federation law keepers might tend to forget some shady dealings you've done, for example.
Mining is probably the black sheep career. Unless you really, really like something like this, it's just plain dull and not worth the effort compared to other options. It's rather tricky to do, since you have to have a specialized outfit to do it, Basically, you get close to a specific asteroid, shoot it with the mining laser until it breaks up, and then run over the large debris chunks which tend to splatter out from that asteroid. Each chunk is worth one ton of the cargo type the asteroid contains. It might take you an hour to fill your cargo hold with metal by harvesting asteroids, netting you very little compared to most everything else. About the only way to actually make some decent money is to mine opals, but they're fairly rare.
I'm not sure if mining gets any better in the game later on, because after spending about a half an hour with it, I gave up. This is definitely one area of the game that could stand some major improvement. In fact, it would have been nice if you could hire Asteroid Miners as escorts fairly cheaply and give them orders to help collect. Even being able to magnetically suck up the debris instead of having to chase it around before it evaporates would have been nice.
Bounty hunting tends to be something you pick up as missions. You're approached by a member of the Bounty Hunter Guild and given a mission to kill a certain ship, which will eventually pop in up in the area near where you are. While the bounties tend to be around 25,000 credits, remember that the guild gets 10% of each bounty, so you only bring in 22,500. However, like most things, this will eventually improve in time with even more missions if you keep it up.
Finally, there's freelance trading. If you want money, and lots of it, this is how you do it. It's a fairly straight forward idea, even. You find a place that sells low, buy the goods there, then find a place that buys high and sell there. The more cargo space you have, the more profit you can make. You can even use escorts to help haul freight on your trade routes. If you have six Pegasi freighters, with 1000 cargo space each, you can see how 300 credits profit per ton of item can quickly generate all the money you could ever want. In fact, compared to everything else, trading is by far the easiest way to make lots of money quickly, with little effort. It is, perhaps, a little too easy to make money with this just because anyone can do it from the start with terrapins, and make a fortune with which to live out the rest of the game.
Of course, that's not to say trading is perfect. In fact, it gets rather tired because the game doesn't really help out with it. Finding a good route basically means you have to write down the prices everywhere you go because there's no in-game support for telling you how much prices are in locations via the map. It would be nice to be able to look around the stellar map and at least see the low/medium/high categories for the cargo listed where it gives the information about what is being traded in those systems. Something like this would go a long way towards allowing a beginner player to break the shackles of only knowing one or two good routes that they're seemingly forced to run over and over because there's just not enough information presented by the interface.
People, places, and pulse lasers
In addition to your daily money earning, you'll most likely run across a number of things to do other than the routine of the daily grind. A government might take notice of your unique skills and ask you to assist them. For example, the Federation might decide to hire you to run equipment and weapons to their border stations once they see you're a capable trader. From there, it's up to you.
Of course, there are also minor factions and corporations that will give you mission strings, such as the Irish mercenary group, Wild Geese, the Bounty Hunters, GL-Tech-nia, and others, which can provide additional background and insight in to what's going on in the universe. Some of these factions actually play a main role in the central storyline to the game, which can be done from any of the six major factions point of view.
This brings up and interesting part of EVN. No matter what major faction you join, you get the same, general storyline. However, you get it from another point of view. For example, you might be the one that gets a certain job done that furthers the plot in one mission from a faction, while another person you never meet gets the job done if you're not in the faction the next time around. The events typically still occur, but you don't see them occur unless you're in that faction. This not only allows you to play in a new way, but also uncover some additional information about what's going on around you. You'll have to be a Polaris to know how they got cloaking devices, in other words.
But enough about that for now! Travelling around in EVN is an interesting experience. You'll nearly always see many types of ships and variants travelling around if you're in a populated system. A border system nearly always has some fighting going on. Kania, where Port Kane is located, for example, typically always has the Federation there as well as some Pirate types which are typically up to no good. If you want to hunt Pirates and don't want to do it alone, it's a good place to do it.
As the result of being a near-Pirate sector, you'll often find ships that have been disabled floating around. There's several types of these, all can be found by cycled through with the tilde key. The first type would be a ship that's been disabled due to recent combat. Since combat often adds inertia to a ship because it's being pelted, some of these ships can drift fairly far away from where the victor is, so the victor won't just up and destroy them which leaves you the chance of boarding them. You might also find some decoy ships that Pirates leave behind as traps. Trying to board them will result in a Pirate fleet showing up and attacking you. You might find a perfectly good ship that a Pirate has robbed of it's energy, thus disabling it until you give it some - which can get you an easy 2,000 credits. There are other types as well.
Likewise, you can also be disabled. Luckily, you can target nearby ships and Request Assistance. Unfortunately, these ships might be unwilling to help you or charge you a fee to do it. Even the Federation ships will charge a fee to a virtual unknown. You can also use this ship to ship communications interface to bribe hostile ships in to not attacking you, or bribe hostile planets and ports in to letting you land.
You can get contacted by various groups, including the major factions, by being contacted when you select a certain part of the port interface. Going in a bar typically is a good place to pick up contacts. You might get a message on the Mission BBS, or at the Shipyard, or at the Outfitter as well. There are many things people are willing to pay you to do, like take a rock band on tour or ferry individuals to hunt deadly Cunjos. Some of these bar missions will lead to additional money making missions available at other bars or the Mission BBS.
Many of these missions you're contact about seem to stem from what you're doing within the game as a career. If you're a freelance trader or mission hauler, United Shipping or even a major faction might contact you to haul goods for them. If you're good at shooting stuff and making that stuff dead, Bounty Hunters or Aurorans might contact you to help them make stuff dead. Keep in mind though, joining a major faction by assisting them in their needs will most likely annoy another rival faction, closing off trade routes to you - no more bioweapon running to Moash if you start getting heavy in to the Federation missions.
The role of Captain
While Ambrosia bills this as, in part, an action CRPG, there's really not too much in the way of personal character advancement unless you're a Vell os string guy. Most everything you do is determined by your skills and the abilities of your starship. However, the game does have a crude sort of experience system, using kills to display a combat rating which can, in turn, determine what you're allowed to do in the game as well as why you're approached and who approaches you. You don't get approached by Sigma Corp until you're at least Good Ability with fighting, and you can't take over a port or planet until you're Deadly at fighting.
The story arcs are also rather linear, though they do have branches as well. Unfortunately, most of those branches are determined randomly, not be the actions of the player in nearly all cases. While this does add replay value, it would be much nicer if it offered it due to choice, not what number pops out of a random generator. In fact, there's not much in the way of options once in a storyline. You can basically either accept a mission in the storyline or not accept it. Really, the only choice isn't whether or not you do something, only when you do it.
Also, there's really nothing in the way of dialogue. The only options are always yes or no, and even then, most of those come back again after a delayed amount of time if you refuse. Ship to ship communications is rather lackluster. You really only have the choice of Greetings and either Request Assistance/Offer Bribe. There are no options for baiting ships in to attacking you by taunting them, or asking for directions to whatever spaceport they mention, or anything beyond that which would have made communications far more interesting.
Gameplay and other issues
One of my gripes is the interface. It's really lacking, which is rather painful considering the bottom right corner is taken up by a pointless graphic which could have been used for more useful things such as a ship list in that system which you could directly look at and see what all is out there, rather than just cycling through by smacking the tilde key. Having something like that would go a long way towards improving the ease of routine function for avoiding enemies and hunting them. It could also give you a better perspective on who needs help and is willing to pay you for that help. Instead, we're treated with a graphic that takes up space.
Launching fighters is overly tedious, in my opinion. You use a fighter bay just as you'd use a secondary weapon, which means you have to select the bay, and then manually fire out each fighter based on a launch delay. The pilot save game file doesn't keep track of what you have selected as your secondary weapon to use either, so each time you load the game, you get to set that up again. A hotkey to launch all fighters, or even an interface option to do this would have been nice rather than fumbling with keys while you're in the middle of a firefight. It's rather distracting.
Escort AI, while greatly improved over the original Escape Velocity games, could use some work. You can't simply order ships to just disable another ship, for example. You often have to keep issuing orders for them to get in formation while swinging your ship away from the target in order to keep your escorts from finishing off a target. This makes certain missions where you are only allowed to disable an enemy ship tricky. Of course, there are a few ship types which will ignore the formation command occasionally, which makes that even trickier.
Another thing that could be improved is how well you can plot courses. It's rather odd that you have to shift-click from point A to point B to travel a route through multiple systems when you'd think the game could handle course plotting for you. While too much automation can make a game boring, I think something like having the computer able to plot a course from say.. Sol to Tautha wouldn't be enough to get boring, but shifting-clicking in that course over and over again does get tiring.
Probably one of my major grievances is that there are times in the game when the player's controls are locked out in favor of some sort of animation or event. There's two situations where this comes to mind, hyperspace jumping and death. There have been a few times where I've wanted to check out a ship or cancel a jump, but there's nothing you can do once you start the sequence. Depending on the ship, this sequence can take a while for the ship to turn about, stop itself automatically, and then jump. Of course, this is far more annoying when you die, and you have to sit there and watch your large carrier drift along, popping with explosions, then finally explode. I've had this take over two minutes at times! Even after that, there's a few seconds of delay before you're returned to the main menu and can reload or restart a new pilot.
However, just because there are all those issues with the game, doesn't make it a bad game at all. There are some wonderful features to the game, which are very enjoyable. In fact, EVN is a highly engaging and addictive experience. There's something to be said for the thrill of hunting pirates to not only score some cash, but to gain a new escort and improve your legal standing. There's something to be said about a title that allows you to run a star line, ferrying rich passengers willing to pay through the nose just to enjoy a taste of a vacation around the galaxy. The problems with the game, while tedious and annoying - downright frustrating at times, are still outweighed by what's offered.
Take, for example, the ability to modify the game. While the PC editors still aren't finished and available to the public, there are a number of good plugins from the Mac community. These can extend or even add story arcs to the game. They can add new ship types to the game. They can improve, tweak, or add outfits for your ships. There's even one available that allows you to paint your ship one of 17 different colors.
Another interesting note is the used starships available for purchase. Depending on the availability, you can purchase a ship that's been used from shipyards. It's possible to buy a ragged out, ill-treated ship for less money than the new version of the ship. This is nice if you just want a quick deal. Alternatively, it's possible to buy a used ship that's been treated with kid gloves and ultimately tricked out with all kinds of fancy outfits for an additional cost over the new ship. It's just another interesting feature in this game that adds a little polish to the mix.
EVN is also a tweaker's dream, offering many, many outfits available for ships. There's everything from cloaking devices to marines to help boarding and capturing to better sensors to clear the murkier parts of space to getting that engine more tuned up for better output. It's possible to take a large and slow freighter and make it a battle platform or carrier with the right modifications. In fact, the more you do in the game via story line advancement and quests and missions for various groups, the more you'll have access to in order to make your dream starship.
The closing, because I'm tired of typing!
When all is said and done, Ambrosia did a pretty nice job in making the title. For the price of admission, which is less than most commercial titles which seemingly offer much less in terms of game play, you actually get what amounts to the full series of games. That's a nice deal on it's own, but to top it off, the main game you're buying offers a plethora of stories within the game, many options for making money, as well as an interesting scenario that's going on around you.
While it may not be everything you'd hope for in terms of being a CRPG, it does offer quite a bit. Perhaps the fourth installment, if there ever is one, will include the player's advancement as a pilot, which improves various aspects of his abilities in dealing with his interstellar money maker rather than just have a few abilities tracked for mission gaining.
As it stands now, you get a highly replayable, interesting, and addictive game, even though it has a number of quirks which tend to bring it down a few notches. For $30, it's definitely a bargain in terms of bang for your buck.