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RPG Codex Review: Faster Than Light Beta

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RPG Codex Review: Faster Than Light Beta

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 22 June 2012, 07:41:08

Tags: Faster Than Light; Subset Games

[Written by Ulminati]

There’s a fire in the med-bay. Airlocks are venting atmosphere. We’re running low on fuel and the slavers are teleporting boarders onto our ship. Ah well. It could be worse.

Faster Than Light is a charming roguelike being developed by Matthew Davis and Justin Ma. Its successful Kickstarter a few months ago offered rewards including early access to the Closed Beta on Steam. This Beta is feature complete according to the developers. While it’s certainly possible something might change between now and the official launch—balance tweaks can still occur—major changes to the gameplay at this stage will be relegated to post-release content. Read on for impressions from the Beta.

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We left Felicity aboard the rebel ship. If the fires we started didn’t kill her the remaining Rebels probably would. These things happen during boarding actions. We didn’t have enough power to operate both the engines and teleporter. The Rebels were about to fire another salvo at us and we couldn’t jump to safety without our engines. Her sacrifice bought us the time we needed to repair damage to the helm. She knew the risks.

As with most games in the roguelike genre, the game starts off with a simple prospect: your ship has some information which needs to reach the Federation and the Rebels are chasing you. The plot is intentionally vague and serves as an excuse to send you soaring through the galaxy. This isn’t a space opera replete with drama and commentary on the human condition. It is a dungeon crawl in space. In place of exploring a dungeon, you traverse a series of sectors connected by jump beacons, one of which exits to the next sector. As you jump from beacon to beacon inside a sector, the Rebel Fleet—represented by an ominous red blob—slowly spreads across the sector map. This puts you under a time limit that will keep you from exploring every beacon in a sector before having to jump to the next. Subsequent sectors generally feature harder encounters and bigger rewards. To stick with the universe-as-a-dungeon analogy, jumping to the next sector is akin to going down to the next dungeon level. Although sectors are randomly generated every time you start a game, so you won’t know ahead of time what lies at the other end of a jump node, upgraded sensors can give you an indication of what to expect.

The game lasts until you pass through eight sectors and reaching the final sector shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours—more similar to Strange Adventures in Infinite Space than Nethack in this regard. The developers clearly intended for the game to be played and completed in a single sitting. This ethos is reinforced by the lack of save game functionality. The developer's intention behind this is that reloading ruins the fun of having to deal with whatever mess your ship gets itself into. While I agree with their decision it would still have been nice to have a “save and quit” option for when real life intrudes. In the best roguelike traditions, Faster Than Light is forced Ironman. Your ship will meet many a horrible and entertaining demise before you are able to clear the last sector. This final sector differs somewhat from the preceding ones, but the developers have asked people in the Beta not to spoil the surprise.

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If space is the proverbial dungeon, then spaceships are your adventurers and monsters. The inner workings of the ships are run by crew members and divided into rooms housing different components. A limited, shared pool provided by your generator means you will often find yourself having to decide which systems to leave powered down as your generator likely won’t be able to power everything once your weapons go live. Some systems—such as engines and shields—will perform better if trained crew members are present in the rooms housing their systems. Crew members can be manually directed about the ship and will attempt to extinguish fires, patch hull breaches, and repair damaged systems in rooms they are posted in.

With each of them rendered in hand drawn pixelart-o-vision, the spaceships are the real stars of FTL. The configuration and layout of each ship varies by faction and ship class. The Engi ships for instance, tend to sport a large number of ion cannons and consist of a large amount of small rooms. This makes it difficult for boarders to progress through the ship as they will have to cut through a lot of doors to get anywhere. Mantis ships, however, nearly always contain a teleportation room which allows them to deposit shock troops aboard your ship.

The pirate captain practically screamed at me. “You’ve made your point! We surrender!” Try to exact a toll on my ship, will you? I glanced at our sensor readings. Their engines and weapons were out of commission. Their crew was busy with the aftermath of the firebombs I launched at their shield generator. “We’ll let you have our scrap metal! All of it!” The pirate continued over the frantic sound of warning klaxons, but why settle for what they could spare when there was an entire ship floating outside our windows begging to be turned into additional scrap? I looked to Zek, our mantis sergeant. “Divert power to lasers. Fire at will.”

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Entering an unexplored system triggers an event. These events are depicted by a dialogue box with descriptive text and a few options to pick from. Having the right augmentations or systems installed may present you with additional options as well. One of the most common outcomes of events, however, is that you are presented with the choice: lose some resources or fight another ship.

Ship-to-ship combat is the heart of the game and to excel at it you have to understand the weapon system. Weapons begins to charge once you divert power to the ship's weapon systems. Once a weapon is charged the player can direct it to fire at a particular part of the enemy ship. The two main categories these weapons fall under are energy weapons and missiles. Missiles bypass enemy shields, and as such are prime tools for taking out shield generators, but consume a finite supply of ammunition. Shields recharge fairly quickly, so it can often be worthwhile to wait until you can fire multiple weapons in a salvo that overwhelms the other ship's defenses. Some weapons excel at damaging multiple rooms, causing hull breaches that vent atmosphere or setting fires that spread and prevents crew from repairing damaged systems. It is also possible to launch offensive and defensive drones that will fight crew, repair your ship, shoot down incoming fire or simply pepper the other ship with festive and colorful bursts of irradiated death! All the while the other ship is trying to do the same to you.

It is during combat that the game really shines. Your systems, crew and abilities are simple when looked at individually. But combat forces you to tweak all of them simultaneously and it is a pleasantly frantic experience at times. Further complicating things there are environmental effects such as nebulae that limit your sensors or asteroids that will bounce off of your ship's hull if your shields aren’t up. You rarely get through a combat without losing some of your resources in the form of hull durability, missiles, drone parts, or crew members. Having piloting and engines crewed gives your ship a percentile chance to evade incoming fire but actual range and maneuvering is abstracted. You get to pick what to shoot at with your weapons, but the game takes care of the aiming. Also, while you can order your crew to board/fight boarders, the actual fighting consists of watching health bars grow smaller and sending people off to the med-bay if they get close to dying. The focus is mainly on managing the interior of your ship and making sure it doesn’t fall apart before the other ship does. Doing well in FTL is often an exercise in damage control and making sure the payoff from a fight exceeds the repair bill you are footing at the other end. Sometimes your best option is to divert power to shields and send your crew scurrying to perform damage control until your FTL drive spools up and you can jump away. The randomly generated nature of sectors also means that an unlucky series of jump events can see your ship rapidly spiraling into a catastrophic state where you are barely holding together as you limp on, desperately praying for a friendly trader at the next FTL beacon.

Let me tell you about happiness. Some people think happiness is meeting that perfect mate or surveying your cargo hold and realizing you have a thousand standard units of scrap. Others will tell you it’s the look on a human’s face the moment their ship hull finally loses integrity. They’re all wrong. Once you’ve screamed through a supercharged nebula plasma storm – all blast doors open, venting fires and boarders into vacuum you realize this: Happiness is a fully upgraded life support system!

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It’s not all screaming and dying of course. Some systems contain friendly ships, trade stations, or other non-violent opportunities. You can also spend your hard-earned scrap to upgrade your ship at any time when you are not in a hazardous environment. Upgrading a system will allow you to allocate more power to it, which in turn will make it perform better. Upgrading your engines will give you a bigger chance of evading incoming attacks, upgrades made to life support will let you replenish your atmosphere faster after your hull has been breached or airlocks vented, upgrades to shields will make them absorb more damage before collapsing, and upgrades to weapons control will let you charge more weapons simultaneously. You’ll also want to upgrade your generator to have enough power to actually utilize these benefits. It is a good idea to always keep some additional scrap in hand in case you come across a trader with things you want. While at these traders, you can also swap which weapons you’ve got installed, your active drones, and which augmentations you want to use. You may also want to rotate your crew around since crew members get better at manning systems, repairing, or fighting if they actually get to do it. It may seem unimportant now, but having a backup shield technician on hand if your main technician dies in a fire is a lot less painful than having to train one from scratch.

Additional systems open up whole new approaches to encounters. For example, installing a teleportation beam allows you to board enemy ships. Combat between crew is a fairly simplistic affair. If your crew occupies the same room as invaders, the crew member and invader gradually damage each other’s health bar at a rate determined by their hand to hand skill. If no crew opposes invaders, they will gleefully damage whatever systems are housed in the room they’re in. If you can kill off the entire enemy crew you will usually gain more salvage from their ship than if you blew it up. But you do so at a risk to the crew you send over. Besides potentially getting killed by defenders before your teleporter is back up to bring them back, your weapons may accidentally blow up the enemy ship, it could jump away, or something else might happen that would make your crew unable to rejoin you. Outside of combat there are many encounters where having the right system such as antipersonnel drones or teleporters open up additional choices to pick—usually beneficial ones.

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I want to be a spaceship!
Being a 2-man production really shows in the visual and sound departments. Graphics are crisp and pretty, but not spectacular. The ships are well done, but the crew sprites are functional at best. The background mainly consists of static fields of stars with the occasional nebula or planet overlaid. There are adequate sci-fi bleeps and zaps from your weapons and the music sets a nice ambiance and never tries to steal your attention with misplaced attempts at over-the-top overture. While not distracting, the music remains rather forgettable.

Faster Than Light delivers what the developers promised and nothing else. There are no suspiciously human-looking aliens for your captain to romance. There are no plot twists or moral points waiting to be made. You do not land on planets or get to perform twitchy dogfight maneuvers. Everything is kept simple and unobtrusive as to not get in the way of you going from system to system, meeting things, and shooting them to bits.

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Is it any good? I’ve certainly enjoyed myself so far. The events can get a bit samey after a while—a large portion of them are of the “you enter the system and fight a spaceship” variety. The game seems ripe for modding and the developers are talking about things they’d love to add as post-release content. For now, the FTL Beta is a nice little way to spend a few hours trying to keep a spaceship from falling apart. The various ships you choose from at the onset are different enough that you have to change your approach to combat depending on your loadout. The randomly generated universes for each game add enough variety to keep things interesting for several playthroughs.

Faster Than Light is slated for an August 2012 release. Until then, brave spacemen!

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