Friday, September 14, 2012

FTL: Faster Than Light - Review

It's been a busy couple of weeks since Gen Con, with lots of work, comics and games keeping me up late at night, but none so much as FTL: Faster Than Light.  Releasing tomorrow for PC, this is a game that had a kickstarter campaign a few months back to raise some additional funds for polish. The game was basically done at that point, but it seems the developers just wanted to add more content, art, and music.  I didn't play any old builds of the game or anything, but the 200k they raised was obviously put to good use since they released a stellar PC game.

The Basics
In the first sector: the rebel fleet hot on my heels.

FTL is a roguelike spaceship command simulator with a strong emphasis on exploration, ship customization and real-time combat.  The goal of the game is to deliver a message to the federation fleet in the 8th sector,  and defeat the rebel command ship there. To get there, you'll need to traverse 7 sectors filled with unexplored locations marked by beacons.  What you'll find at each beacon varies, but mostly it can be broken down into a few categories including ships to fight, stores to buy from, or events that require you to make a choice such as whether or not you'll dock with a burning station to try and rescue survivors.  As you progress you'll pick up scrap from battles and events that can be used to upgrade your ship's systems, as well as repair hull damage and buy new equipment, ammo, and crew at stores.   The challenges you'll face increase in difficulty as you move on to new sectors, so you'll want to grind in each sector for as long as you can, but there's a set time limit since the rebel fleet moves through each sector and you're in for a difficult battle with no reward if they catch up to you, so it's best to make it to the exit location and jump to the next sector before that happens.  I haven't yet beat the game, but it takes about 2-3 hours to get to the 8th sector on normal difficulty.  Death is permanent, and while you can resume a game after a break there are no re-loadable saves.

Perusing the goods at store Nothing for me here. 
I won't say much about the art and sound in this game, except to say that they're good. The graphics are clean and pleasant to look at, and the ship designs are varied and look cool. The sound effects are fine, and the music is outstanding most of the time and merely good the rest.

The Chewy Bits

The real meat of FTL is the ship combat.  Each of your ships systems performs some critical task, such as raising shields, charging weapons, scanning enemy ships and allowing you to jump to a nearby beacon.  Most of those systems work better when a crewman is manning them, so it's important to keep them at their stations.  Crew also level up the more they do a certain task, so as the game goes on you'll get pretty attached to Jones the human pilot or Rebekah the Engi engineer.  You can target specific systems on enemy ships, so depending on the ship you're facing it might be best to target their shields first and knock them down so you can then pound relentlessly on other systems.  Timing is crucial, since your weapons have different cool-downs it is often best to wait until they're all ready to fire so you can launch a devastating volley.  Alternatively, it might be best to go straight for their weapons or drone control with a missile so you can mitigate the damage they're doing to you.  Ships even try to escape sometimes, so you'll have to make sure you keep their FTL drive knocked down so they can't charge it up and jump away.  If the fight is going badly, you only need to survive long enough to charge your FTL and then assuming the pilot controls or engine aren't disabled you can jump away too.

The Rebels caught up to me but I got them after a close fight.
While you're managing all this, the enemy is doing it right back at you so you've gotta keep a close eye on your systems and crew.  Damaged systems, fire, and hull breaches can be repaired by crewmen so you've gotta order your crew around to take care of these things, but doing so often means they leave their station so for a while so you can expect to be operating at less than 100% efficiency.  Sometimes that means you need to just go without life support briefly and watch the oxygen levels on your ship drop, or deal with shields that only charge up to half strength, or simply vent parts of your ship to space instead of sending someone to put out a fire. These are the decisions you'll have to make, and it can seem like a lot is going on at times but luckily the game allows you to pause at any time to issue commands, Baldur's Gate style, so the focus is placed firmly on decision making and not manual dexterity.
This nebula has cut my power by half, meaning i gotta turn some systems off to fight.
The combat is fun and challenging, and the variety of weapon configurations you can mount on your ship mean that you'll find yourself playing differently on each play.  Rapid fire lasers, for example, are great at knocking shields down, but don't do much damage to systems or the hull.  Missiles and bombs, on the other hand, breeze right through shields but consume ammunition.  Drones use ammo too, but tend to provide more of an edge over time rather than doing a lot of damage up front.  Then there's beam weapons, which do a ton of damage but have very little capacity to deal with shields. Finally, there are a lot of special weapons that do things like start fires, kill crew but cause no hull damage, or knock systems off-line for a short period of time.  There's even additional systems and upgrades you can get like teleporters for boarding actions, cloaking devices and scrap recovery arms. Mixing and matching these weapons and systems, and seeing how they change the way you approach encounters is a lot of what makes FTL so much fun.

The Bottom Line

FTL is a blast to play. The sheer variety of what I've seen on each play has kept me coming back for more night after night all week.  Last night, for example, I was fighting a boarding party with my crew of four when the AI decided to retreat its boarders and bomb the section of the ship where my crew were fighting, killing all but my 2 rock men who have 50% more health than other races. A routine fight with an automated sentry in an asteroid field can become an absolute mess when an unlucky missile knocks down your shields and suddenly every asteroid is damaging systems on your ship, causing fires and hull breaches.  You might find that you've warped into a system experiencing solar flares and now you've got to manage a fight with an enemy ship as well as the fires breaking out all over yours damaging systems and hurting crew whenever the solar flares get too intense.  There's really just too much to talk about here. I've put about 10 hours in so far and that's only with the starting ship. There are a bunch of unlockable ships and even alternate configurations for each one.  The game even changes a bit depending on how you're upgrading your ship, with events having special options if you've upgraded along a certain path or have certain systems installed on your ship.

I barely made it through this one. My Defense Drone II was a huge help!

Buy this game. It's just $10, but would be a steal at almost any price. FTL takes the addictive "one more click" gameplay that used to belong solely to games like Civilization and crams it into the Star Trek game we've all been waiting for.


So I have completed a single victorious play of FTL now, and wanted to make a few points about how to go about winning this game with the starting ship, the Kestrel.

1)  If you can, get a cloaking device. Cloaking increases your evade by 60% which is a great way to dodge missiles, additionally it keeps your enemy from charging their weapons during the duration of the cloak but yours charge normally.
2)  Don't neglect engine upgrades. Charging your FTL faster and increasing your evade rate (which paired with a cloaking device can get you over 100% evade while cloaked) can help turn a hopeless combat into one you get away from quickly.
3)  Upgrade your shields to level 2 ASAP, it only costs about 70 scrap or so including a power upgrade and the 2nd shield will pay for itself in the early sectors. Later on get the 3rd level shield.
3)  Get a second laser that shoots more than 1 shot.  Volley firing your lasers can put 5 or 6 laser shots on target in one go, which is enough to work through even the most powerful shields. Burst laser II is already a super good weapon so a Hull Laser or another Burst Laser will give you a good starting point.
4) Conserve your missiles. The Pegasus missile will suit you fine all the way through the game.  Don't waste missiles if you don't have to. Save them for knocking down shields or weapons on tough ships with lots of shields.
5) Pay attention when ships offer to surrender, gaining a crewman is worth 40-65 scrap. Gaining missiles and fuel can be worth more than a scrapped ship also. Try and do the math a little.
6) Blast doors are awesome, and make fighting fires and enemy boarding teams way easier.
7) Have a diverse crew. Having crew members of different races can open up a ton of dialog options for random encounters.

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