Friday, May 2, 2014

PLAY FTL: FASTER THAN LIGHT

SPACE... THE EIGHT-SECTOR FRONTIER
Faster than light, or FTL, is a game that (as of this writing) has sucked 53 hours out of my life. I say that strangely with a smile on my face, as I curse Steam's habit of tracking such things. FTL is (if you haven't heard) a single-player PC game that is now available on Windows, Linux, Mac and iPad (hopefully coming soon to Android). You, the player, pilot a small spaceship across the stars in order to deliver vital intelligence to your fleet. Pursuing you like a horde of slow-moving space zombies is the rebel fleet. The game uses a top-down viewpoint where you direct your crew around the various rooms of your ship to fire weapons, maintain shields, and try not to blow up.

Because blow up you will. In theory, a player could beat FTL in several hours. I will preface this by saying that I may not be excellent at this game, but in the 53 hours I have spent, I have yet to ...technically... beat the game. Playing on "easy." FTL is a "rogue-like," a game in which the player is unable to reload if they fail or make a poor decision. In FTL, every choice you make while traveling across the reaches of space impacts your odds of survival, and the wrong decision will leave you floating in the void.

Traveling across space means navigating across a network of randomly-generated 8-bit stars through a branching path of nearby sectors. At each star, you are prompted with a text-based decision. These decisions vary wildly. One star might involve deciding whether or not to attack a rebel cargo ship, and another might be choosing what method to use when surveying an asteroid field.

STAYING ALIVE AMONG THE STARS
Combat is a constant companion in FTL; it seems every alien race has it out to kill you. You can direct your crew (who each slowly improve at their shipboard tasks) to various stations at the ship, where they improve system performance. If you want to get the best out of a room, it pays to have a crew member there to operate the console and make repairs as needed.

If the crew act as one resource in combat, the other resource is power. After upgrading my weapons systems and getting a new missile launcher, I found that I could only power all my weapons if I turned off the "nonessential" systems for a while. Nonessential systems like the medical room.. and life support. This worked well as my crew ran about, repairing damage from enemy weapons, until a stray blast ruptured the hull and disabled my engines. My engineer immediately started to fix the engine, and I moved power to shields to compensate my ship's immobility. Meanwhile, air leaked out of the engine room, and I opened up several nearby doors to feed more in. By the time the hull was repaired (and air stopped leaking into the void) my ship was barely providing enough oxygen for my suffocating crew. I moved power from the shields back to life support, and watched oxygen levels slowly climb back up to normal levels.

These frantic moments of the game, where you scramble to target weapons, repair rooms, balance power, and keep your individual crew alive as they repel intruders or fight fires, make the game fun. When you add in the thrill of teleporting to an enemy ship, hacking their systems, launching attack drones, or venting rooms to put out fires, the game becomes addicting.

UPGRADING YOUR SHIP
Part of the strategy in FTL involves handling your ship in combat, and the rest is wrapped up in how you choose to upgrade your ship. Almost everything you do gives you scrap (the currency of the game) which you can use to buy new weapons, systems, crew members, and upgrades to your ship. In addition to these upgrades, you spend scrap to pay for repairs, fuel, missiles, and drone parts to keep the ship running. You decide who to hire as crew; there are half a dozen distinct races. You decide if you should upgrade shields or get more system power. You decide if your ship's weapons should be replaced, and with what. Maybe you should get a teleporter so that your deadly Mantis crew members can teleport aboard enemy ships, avoiding weapons systems altogether. Maybe you should invest in drone systems, and control a squad of robots to attack, defend, or repair ships. Is it better to repair your ship now, or to buy more power so that you can keep shields and weapons going without turning off life support? The choice is yours.

These choices matter, because when you get to the eighth sector, you fight the rebel flagship. The flagship is the "boss battle" that you have been preparing for in your journey across space. So in addition to surviving to cross the stars, you're also trying to make your ship into something that can survive the final boss.

DOES IT GET OLD?
Replay value is something worth mentioning here... and it's hard to pin down. FTL rewards repeated play-throughs with unlockable ship layouts. In addition to your starting vessel, you can unlock half a dozen other ships by completing specific actions in the game. Impress one of the alien races in the right way, and you get their ship. Each ship comes with 3 layouts, which change the way the ship plays significantly.

FTL isn't for everybody, to be sure. When your ship explodes, you lose all progress that play-through had given you, which is frustrating. It does serve to make every moment in the game more tense though, and to keep you on your guard. For me, it doesn't get old.

I've fought with aliens, made shrewd business deals, and explored the vast reaches of space. I will probably come back to FTL one day, but for now I'm basically done with the game and look back on it favorably. 50-odd hours into FTL, I still have things I could unlock and I still run into unique encounters in space. It's worth at least a couple of play-throughs, and hard to pass up for ten bucks.

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