My geek gland has just exploded. Lanced by a searing beam of sci-fi beauty that cut straight through to the little starship captain inside me. And killed him stone dead with shame. I will admit I wept a little, my little crew burning to death as they valiantly tried to save the good ship “Kirk-Wanna-be” before succumbing to the inky black. The hull gave way and my deeply dug captain’s ego was fired violently into the void.
Yeah, my ship got destroyed again in FTL. I HATE this game.
A 80s-born geek’s wet dream, FTL hands the reins of an intergalactic vessel over to your own greasy mitts and charges you with the wellbeing of the ship, the crew, and some undisclosed Intelligence data that is “of major importance”, apparently. Important enough to have a galaxy-spanning wave of red death hurtling towards you, at least. This has the simple effect of making your jaunts through unexplored space something of an exercise in logistics – loads of places to go, but that ever encroaching tide of red means you can only visit so many before it catches up with you.
And then you die. Again. Jeeze, even Picard never had it this tough.
FTL falls, somewhat brilliantly, into the Rogue-like category. Starting a new game shuffles the cosmos like an over-sized Uno-deck, and randomises systems, environments and encounters. Some systems you visit will have bad guys, some will have civilians needing rescuing/escorting, a few will even have shops that allow you to buy more fuel and missiles, along with upgrades for your ship. Each sector map has several systems to visit, and an exit system which allows you to jump to the next sector. And, in true RL fashion – if you die, it’s permanent.
The actual gameplay marries RPG-style dice rolls for combat, with a real-time-strategy control system for your crew. Your ship is open before you, various rooms house the different systems – engines, weapons, sensors etc. When an enemy attacks, he can attack specific subsystems simply by blowing a hole in the room it’s housed in. Of course, you can do the same, which leads to superbly strategic fights that favour quick thinking and timing. Each of your weapons can be fired independently, and at different areas of the enemy ship. Constantly recharging shields complicate this somewhat as certain weapons can penetrate shields and others can’t. An example is when you are fighting a ship with strong shields – your lasers simply can’t take the shields down long enough to get a shot into the soft, meaty hull. A well-placed missile, however, will bypass shields, and a lucky hit in his shield-room will disable them completely.
This deepens as the game progresses, and you acquire more exotic weaponry. I once found a laser that moved as it fired – allowing me to hit multiple areas of the enemy ship in one shot. The drawback was it did bugger all against shields (of course), so I had to time its fire with my other laser (which was enough to drop his shields) in order to fire during the shields recharge-time. It was difficult, but far more rewarding when I nailed the bugger, setting fires across three rooms. Fires are a problem, every successful hit can trigger one – some weapons seem to be better at it that others however. Fires started on your ship will spread if left unattended, and eventually get you killed. Your crew members can fight fires with extinguishers they all seem to possess. But this poses its own risks – your crew have life-bars of their own, and if they die, they stay dead.
Your ship comes with its own medical bay, however, and with careful rotation, fires can be dealt with fairly easily. But during a tough fight, against a well-armed foe, it can be unbelievably hectic – targeting and firing weapons, juggling energy levels AND making sure your crew aren’t dying in the flames. Better just to open the airlocks and put out the fires the old-fashioned way.
FTL is full of clever little quirks like this. You can adjust your ships power levels to suit the moment, diverting power from life-support to re-establish shields in a pinch, and the like. Although looking decidedly low-tech, it boasts some clever sim-like systems. Atmosphere, for example, bleeds through open doors – allowing that “open airlock to put out fire” trick. Once you close the airlock, it takes time to restore these rooms to breathable levels though, so it’s a gamble. It does give you some interesting notions when you start encountering boarding parties though…
The problems with FTL? Pure difficulty. As with every other rogue-like in existence, it swings from laughably easy to piss-off-and-die levels of masochism a bit too frequently. The randomised encounters make it very hard to prepare for certain things, especially early game, and things can get out of hand very quickly. But that’s the nature of the rogue-like beast – desperation forces us to act, and occasionally it pays off. Rarely, but occasionally. Half the fun of FTL seems to be experimenting. “Do I leave a crew member in my weapon-room to save repair time?” you ponder. So you try it, and he gets smooshed by missiles and lasers before he has time to pick up a wrench. Of course, he may survive the first volley, and go on to save the day. A lot of it feels lost in the dice, and random chance can screw you over with the slightest of notice.
Not that this is a completely bad thing. The random nature of FTL makes every game fresh, dangerous and special. Getting hammered by some missile spewing behemoth while an attack drone makes sure your shields are down for every volley can be irritating, but even getting blown up has a bright side –
You get to do it all again. I love FTL.
You can play the trial of FTL now on OnLive, which gives you 30 minutes to die horribly again and again. There is also a Kickstarter fund, donating $10 will get you the game on release, while $25 will get you into the beta when it starts. Find out more here.