Pilot’s Log: Version 0.3.0.29930, Cluster 34. I’ve just started another run through RockFish Games’ Everspace, which has a ™ in its name on Steam, so you know they’re serious about their new in-the-cockpit space-based roguelike. If those still aren’t enough hyphens, I don’t know what to tell you.
The basic rundown? It’s the 31st Century, and humanity is colonizing a region of space known as Cluster 34. Since resources are in high demand and the region is virtually lawless, you’re in for a rough-and-tumble shooting gallery comprised of outlaws, shady corporate types, and of course the indigenous natives who just want us out of their backyard entirely.
This game is what you might call comfortably crunchy. “Crunchy” is having access to enough stats to know how much of a beating the hull can take, how effective the armor is, how long it takes for shields to recharge, and how many meters per second you’re chewing up on full boost. “Comfortable” is not having to fiddle with settings for trimming my yaw or anything like that, like you’d see in a full-blown flight-sim. Everspace strikes that balance between fun and realism pretty darn well.
Everspace also never lets you forget it’s a roguelike. You fly, you explore, you mine, you scavenge, you fight, you die. As you traverse the universe, your snarkily-British ship AI will inform you on just about everything. It’ll give you a quick flight tutorial, tell you snippets of lore, and remind you in mid-furball that getting shot up is not conducive to completing a given run. One minor nitpick in this regard: each of your new lives comes with a randomized name, indicating they’re a completely different person every time, but your pilot’s voice never changes. Early on, the ship’s AI chides you to do better with each new life. Presumably, this is due to RockFish’s changing narrative goals, which suggest (via the game’s Codex) that humanity’s colonization efforts are highly reliant on cloning.
When you’re inevitably destroyed, you lose everything your ship was carrying. On the plus side, any special blueprints you discovered or credits you earned along the way were automatically uploaded to humanity’s central base for your next clone’s use. The cash is good for buying new ship types and upgrades, while blueprints can be used to craft items from scrap and mined resources. New ships are free once unlocked, which is great since you’d otherwise go bankrupt in short order. I mean, you might go through them like popcorn, but they have to cost somebody something, right? Maybe they’re like the old post-WWII Army jeeps, where it was cheaper for the government to just give you the thing than keep it in storage…
Anyways, the whole point of Everspace is to complete runs through Cluster 34, by warping from one star system to another until you reach the Jump Gate. Traveling between systems is easy – just point your nose at the swirly marker until your warp engine spins up, pick your path, and boom, new star system. Of course, this won’t work if you’re out of jump fuel or being interdicted by a nullification field. In these cases, you’ll need to hunt down the interdiction base by tracing its signal strength, obtain warp fuel by mining, trading with or whacking the locals, or both.
Bonuses are available for racking up kills and cash along the way to that Gate, but you won’t go very far in Everspace if you keep getting murdered before you get there. Like me: it took my seventh life before I really started getting a feel for what I was doing. Fortunately, you have three flavors of challenge to choose from, each of which smartly trades off rewards versus frustrations:
COME FOR THE LOOT, STAY FOR THE VIEW
The graphics are bloody gorgeous, by the by. Textures and models are impressively detailed, to the point that when you mine a rock, it doesn’t merely explode… you actually core it out, piece by piece, leaving motes of pulverized dust to cloud the valueless remnants. The basic palette is a cool-blue hue, which lends a rightfully “cold” feel to space – as well as to everything that isn’t lit-up with activity, like stripped-out battle wreckage or old mining arrays nestled into asteroids.
RockFish’s decision to drive color changes mainly by light sourcing really pays off in this regard. When things heat up, the scene becomes vivid with missiles, drive plumes and blasts of energy creating deadly sabre-dances. Each sector has its own interstellar phenomena going on as well, changing up the terrain and ambient light in ways that often impress without going too over the top. When you sail behind a trade ship, the interplay of shadowing gives an impression of somber solidity, well beyond a cluster of rendered objects occupying connected chunks of hitbox.
Another point to be made is that your sensors will only pick up energy sources and anomalies such as drive plumes, live weapons platforms or drifting equipment. The good old Mark One Eyeball will be your best friend, as it’s possible to spot points of interest and possible dangers in plenty of time to plan ahead for them. Stay alert and stay alive… or don’t.
PUTTING WOO-HOO IN THE PEW-PEW
Sure, okay, that all sounds pretty, but what about the flight model, right?
Well, it’s one of those games where you can use keyboard and mouse, but it’s designed for a game controller. If the latter, and you’re also a big immersion fan, I recommend Everspace‘s camera-shaking and force-feedback options. For keyboard jockeys, though, the usual problems persist – dogfighting requires precision flying here, and you’ll often waste precious seconds lining up a janky shot only for a sharp evasive turn to throw you off. Camera-shake adds nothing but frustration to that side of the experience. I would’ve much preferred to go in with my rusty-trusty Saitek, but as with many games these days, joystick support just isn’t there.
Regardless, the full six directions of flight have certainly been implemented. You’ll be able to roll, loop, kite laterally using side thrusters, and even back up in a pinch. The only thing missing is a sense of inertia, as Everspace appears to use the “station-keeping” trope (you’ll coast to a complete stop if you aren’t constantly under thrust).
It’s a smooth, intuitive, and challenging system. Not much beats evading a swarm of killbots by threading the abandoned remains of a randomly-generated asteroid mining complex – especially while wearing an Oculus! Word of warning on that, though: VR support for both Rift and the HTC Vive currently work only in an alpha state. The HUD can disappear, the warp point can be displaced… long story short, do not use VR for any playthrough you intend to finish, at least not until RockFish hammers all the bugs out.
On the all-important combat AI side, Everspace does make you work for the kills in a satisfying manner. Enemies won’t just sit there, nor are they lousy shots, and to top it off they understand pack tactics. One member of a swarm will often let you tail them, so everyone else can get their shots in on you.
In keeping with classic Wing Commander style, all but the flimsiest targets have shields, which you’ll have to wear down before doing serious damage. Since evasive maneuvers and countermeasures are in common use, spamming missiles is a great way to kill nothing while running your stocks dry – they’re best used to either weaken or finish an opponent instead. They can also be shot out of the sky, making rapid-fire weapons useful in a defensive role.
Someone at RockFish did their homework – this is no mere zoom-and-boom, with hundreds of idiots lining up to be your next victim. You’ll sometimes find yourself hit with a mix of fighters and unshielded (but much nimbler) drones, requiring snap decisions about the best weapons and tactics to use on a moment-to-moment basis. If you can down just ten by run’s end, count yourself a qualified ace.
And what roguelike would be complete, if you couldn’t pry someone’s gun from their cold dead fingers to use on someone more deserving? You can only pack two weapons (plus missiles) at a time, which you can switch between, but you can also eject them if you find something better. Any weapons you don’t keep, you can scrap for use in crafting, whether it be blueprinted special items or just restocks for your missile loadout.
LORE AIN’T A BORE
Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of tale to tell along the way, does it? As you progress, you’ll find out more about Cluster 34, the history of mankind’s conflict with the reptilian Okkar, and mysterious doings in the “demilitarized zone”. In fact, progressing is the only way you’ll discover anything since the AI is programmed to spoon-feed data to your clones only after they’ve earned it. So here’s a few early-game freebies to whet your whistle!
Cluster 34, also known as the Beltegrades, marks the edge of human stellar expansion. When the first robot probes arrived in the 30th Century, numerous terraforming resources such as dark matter were discovered, so, of course, we started mining the place – until the locals showed up. After that, we sent a fleet to secure the mining operations, which then caused the Okkars to flip out and started shooting. After a rather savage conflict – the remains of which you’ll find all over the place in the form of ruined stations, derelict freighter hulks, and shattered battlecruisers – the DMZ was created as an uneasy border between the two galactic powers.
Well, except we still want all that delicious dark matter and whatnot, so the zone is full of corporate salvage and mining concerns, who at least won’t open fire on you unless you do them a dirty first.
The Okkar don’t like freebooters roaming about, though. Not only will they send interceptors after you, but if you’re engaged with them for too long, expect a capital ship to warp into close proximity. At this point, unless you are packing heat to the gills and consider yourself a True Badass™, it’s time to find yourself another system… or just die. That’s always an option, too.
At least as numerous as the Okkar, scattered throughout the Cluster you’ll also run into outlaws who’ll happily kill you for whatever junk you’re carrying. Although there’s supposed to be a wide variety of cartels, clans, gangs and even alien species flying these craft, right now they only generically show up as “Outlaw” and field similarly-generic craft. More interesting are their stations and bases. You may find yourself suddenly getting lock-on warnings as you pass a mid-sized asteroid, there being a missile turret embedded into one of its craters. Or you might stumble upon a full-fledged pirate base with guns, defensive fighters, and loot to be had – if you survive.
All these groups also fight one another appropriately; it’s not unusual to find Okkar fighting outlaws, outlaws raiding commerce vessels, or even all three piled into one big dust-up. Eventually, you’ll start getting offers to bail people out of bad scraps or even go on little fetch quests for extra cash. Every little bit helps!
In summation, Everspace is of those rare Early Access games which exceeds any and all expectations. If you’ve got the sort of itch Freelancer used to scratch, I think you’ll be pleased with this one… particularly once VR support is working properly.More About This Game