LNL-Tactical (Modern)

PC Game Review of FTL: Faster Than Light

Reviewed by Avery Abernethy, 30 September 2012

Publisher: Subset Games

Can a game offering simple mechanics, an absurd plot, and multiple, humiliating fails be any fun? Maybe…

In Space No One Can Hear Your Ship Explode

FTL: Faster Than Light is an very simple, inexpensive and fun PC game. You command a single space ship with a tiny crew. There is an absurdly minimal plot. You belong to a Federation under attack by Rebels. You have information vital to the destruction of the Rebels. To defeat the rebels you must guide your underpowered space ship through a number of star filled sectors defeating other single ships while being slowly chased by a huge enemy fleet. Time is always slipping away.

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If your mission succeeds you will navigate through all of the sectors, win your battles, add crew (up to a maximum of eight), add better weapons and equipment and defeat the rebel flagship. Your mission will not succeed. Not for a long time. Expect to die over and over again. See your ship explode. Watch your crew die from a lack of oxygen. See all of your crew killed by enemy boarding parties. Die in multiple ways almost simultaneously (run out of weapons and fuel as your ship is consumed with fire as your oxygen expires and your last crewmember is shot down by boarders like a dog).

Are we having fun yet? Well…….. yes we are having a blast! This game has a huge fun factor coupled with a very simple game design.

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You only have a couple of screens to look at. The main screen is a schematic of your ship. It has a limited number of rooms. Doors connect the rooms (including a few to outer space). Each individual room may have a piece of equipment. Some of the equipment is common to all ships like an oxygen generator, steering controls, engine, door controls, sensors, weapons, and shields. Other equipment may be discovered or you lack the room to put it in your ship. Optional equipment includes cloaking devices, teleporters, and a few other odds and ends. (Excepting the boss Rebel ship) both your ship and enemy ships only have one room containing any one type of equipment. For example, your engine will be in only one room regardless of how many times you upgrade the engine.

The player juggles a limited number of energy points, crew members, and consumables (fuel, missiles, and drone parts) to maximize performance. The player performs a large number of macro and micro management decisions. You never have enough energy. If you maximize your shields you may be unable to run your engines to maximum or use all of your weapons systems. You can open your doors to outer space to put out fires caused by enemy ship attacks, but your crew will slowly die from a lack of oxygen if you don’t shut the doors and generate more air.

You are constantly deciding if you should spend your scrap (think money) to improve a specific ship system or hoard the scrap in hopes of running across a store which might have a better weapon or a useful crew member. These are your macro choices. Which ship systems should I improve first, how much energy capacity should I upgrade to, and if I find a merchant what should I buy? A player cannot do everything. You have a limited (and not expandable) number of weapons and auxiliary equipment slots.

You jump from star to star fighting enemies, collecting scrap and other parts while a relentless (and impossible to defeat) enemy fleet nips at your heels. The player is constantly juggling energy, usable ship slots, upgrades, and roles the limited number of crew members should be employed.

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There is a maximum of eight crew members. Crew members can gain experience operating specific ship systems which improves performance. But any crew member experience is specific to whatever room they are assigned to and experience in anything is gained very slowly. Crew members can also die fighting boarding actions or get blown up by enemy ship fire.

Most ships are limited to a maximum of four weapons systems. There are a wide variety of weapons – but on most ships there are only four regular weapons slots. There are multiple categories of weapons. Missile weapons require expendable missiles. You can also employ a maximum of two drones (which have a limited number of applications improving offense, defense, or ship repair). But drone usage eats up a drone fuel part.

Some weapon systems work very well together. Other weapons systems work against each other. Every weapon system requires energy, must be powered up to use, and has a recharge time. The same recharge time concept will also apply to your shields, oxygen generator, and the medical bay used to heal crew members.

Players even control when each weapon system fires. This can also be critical since some combinations of weapon fire can be much more effective than other combinations. Missiles pass through shields but can be evaded by good pilots who have excellent engines. Intact and raised shields block beam weapons. Laser weapon hits drain a shield (which has a recharge cycle). Bombs are teleported directly to a specific room in an enemy ship. But bombs may miss entirely and also expend a missile.

Let me give an example to clarify the ship management issues with only one ship sub-system – weapons. I have three weapons. Weapon one is a burst laser which fires three shots at a time, uses two energy bars. Laser hits drain a shield level and if it passes through a shield and hits an enemy ship it causes one point of damage. I have a missile weapon which fires slowly and costs one energy bar to power up. Each missile shot expends a missile (which I have a limited supply of) and does three points of damage. The missile passes through shields but may also be evaded and miss the target entirely. Last I have a heavy laser which recharges pretty fast but has only one shot. If the shot hits it causes more damage than the burst laser but each shot can be stopped by a shield level (which gets knocked down but slowly recharges).

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I’m attacked by an enemy ship which contains weapons, shields, engine, control room, door control room, and oxygen generating room. Which weapon should I fire in which order targeting which enemy room? In this situation I should let all three weapons systems charge up. I should fire the missile first at the shields. This should be followed by firing the burst laser followed quickly by the heavy laser with both targeting either the shields or the weapons room. Why this order? The missile can pass through the shields and potentially knock down the shield generator. The burst laser fires three shots at a time which can either directly hit (because the missile knocked down the shields) or potentially knock down three shield levels. The heavy laser does the most damage and because it was the last shot in a quick burst of shots is most likely to penetrate enemy defenses and do significant damage.

But using this attack plan might be foiled by an enemy who launches a faster missile which hits my weapons room and knocks all of my weapon systems off-line. This leaves me open to multiple exchanges of fire before my weapons can be repaired and then recharged.

Your attack and defense strategy literally changes with each play through depending on the ship you have and the combination of weapon and defense systems you are able to purchase.

Add to this multiple decision points on away teams on strange planets and simple side quests and you have a really fun game. You are always under the gun. You have to reach the exit star in each sector before the enemy fleet reaches you or it is game over. You cannot visit every star, purchase every weapons system, or (many times) even power up every weapon and defense system that you have emplaced.

The game is also really, really challenging to win. Until the player gets the knack of how make astute ship upgrades, maximize weapon and defense system usage, and even how to launch and defend against boarding actions they will die over and over and over again.

What makes FTL a really excellent game is the superb play balance, game tension, and constant trade-offs facing the player. The first time you actually manage to win the game (even on easy) brings a real sense of accomplishment. The system requirements are extremely low so even a very inexpensive tablet PC or a very out-of-date desktop can run the game.

FTL does have its shortcomings. The graphics are state-of-the-art twenty years ago. There are a limited number of random encounters and the “best choices” will be figured out. There is not a lot of variety. There are a handful of races. You have one ship, a limited number of things to do, and a repetitive combat. There are a very limited number of ships which can be unlocked. Eventually the player will get the knack of the sequence of upgrading the ship and fighting battles with different combination of offensive and defensive systems.

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The save system merits a special comment. You have one save game. If you die your save is lost. If you start a new game your save game is lost. You cannot reload from an earlier save if you are destroyed or are in battle. The “save game” feature really just lets you walk away from the game and then resume the game from exactly the same point at a later time. The save game cannot be used as a “do-over.” The game can be paused at any time which is absolutely vital given the nerve-wracking tension you have during some battles with the need to precisely time weapon usage and cloaking/uncloaking decisions. If the save game design bothers you I urge you to skip FTL.

But FTL comes with several other redeeming qualities. It is very inexpensive and can be purchased on a DRM free basis which does not require an ongoing internet connection after you have downloaded the game ($10 on www.gog.com). The www.gog.com version is superior to the Steam version in my opinion because the player will not need an internet connection to play. This game could save your sanity if you were snowed in or in a monumental traffic jam where nothing moves for hours and you lack internet connectivity.

The game may seem overly complicated from this review. But there are a limited number of decisions to make at any given time. You can pause anytime. You can start playing immediately after completing a brief tutorial. This is a game anyone can jump right into and start playing.

In sum, if you like small-scale micro-management single-ship combat you will love this game. For the price of a beer or two at the bar ($10) you can have dozens to hundreds of hours of gaming goodness. You also will not need the latest computer system to play the game.

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But you will die, an awful lot, until you finally master the game system. For those of you familiar with the Star Trek The Original Series – you are a red shirt who has been promoted to commanding a starship. There is a reason you got the promotion to captain without graduating from Star Fleet Academy. The people with the academy rings take care of each other – not the redshirts. Your shirt is red for a reason. Embrace your destiny.

For a $10 price tag I rate this game an 85 on a hundred point scale.

Grumpy Grog Says: This game is more fun than three Orion space girls. Get it.

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About the Author

Avery Abernethy is professor of marketing at Auburn University. He has played computer games going back to punch cards on a mainframe. He even remembers watching Star Trek on a TV with dials when it was still in network syndication.

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