By Tom Hooper aka Atomp
There’s been a significant resurgence in interest in Elite-esque free-form space sims as of late, however much of this interest has been driven by promises and potential rather than solid results. Interesting and great projects such as Star Citizen offer a great deal of promise and as soon as they actually become available I will most certainly dive in, however rumours of the genre’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The X-Series for example has continued to exist for a long time now (and recently ported to Linux so I’ll hit that up when I get the time), but X has always been leaned very heavily on economics and the lack of sub-orbital and atmospheric flight always bugged me a little. This is where the Evochron series enters the fray, this is an indie game series with most of the work being done by a single developer, however you shouldn’t expect anything small as a result. Evochron Mercenary gives the player a large open universe with a variety of systems, stations and planets which can be landed upon seamlessly in-game. In typical style the player can choose their destiny and customise their ship(s) to the particular role they want to play. The player can build a small craft designed to race with big engines and maneuvering wings and tour systems taking part in races, or they can build a trading vessel with large cargo holds and heavy shielding for protection, or they can build a fighter and jump into systems where the navy is fighting alien aggressors… or anything in between. That is the beauty of this type of game and Evochron Mercenary does it rather well.
As I’ve mentioned the gameplay allows for all of the normal and expected elements in a freeform sci-fi space sim, which is great by itself however this is expanded upon by a variety of deep underlying systems that make the game a huge amount of fun and which add to the complexity. My principal underlying system of mention is the approach taken to space flight, there is no weird atmo-but-not flight system here. Instead the flight system is Newtonian, point the ship in a direction, burn, stop the burn and you’ll just keep going. The game does have lore-based resolutions to the atmo-but-not flight model as an automated system called IDS within the ship can be (de)activated which uses the ships’ maneuvering thrusters to give the atmo-but-not feel. IDS is great however it is also very wasteful of fuel and the maximum speed is limited, as such it is very easily toggled on and off allowing for a combination approach of inertial flight and IDS flight. This whole idea makes combat an absolute joy and very unique among the genre.
Personally my favourite tactic used to be (I think it got nerfed) jumping in, bearing down on the enemy with as much forward moment as I could muster, distract with them pulse and beam weapons when in range before letting loose a missile at the last second. This strategy was a huge amount of fun every time and was generally very effective as the enemy was so overwhelmed that they had no time to shoot the missile or launch countermeasures. That’s just a tiny part of the systems available to the pilot: An automated firing solution system called MDTS is available to help hit targets but can be switched off. Energy levels must be balanced between shield and weapon pools, from which other systems such as the jump drive will draw power. Shields are based around four quadrants allowing the player to distributed available sheild energy to any given quadrant depending on the tactical scenario. After-burners are available for faster maneuvering but will also produce a brighter target for inbound missiles, and discreet system damage is fully simulated on both your ship and enemy vessels.
All of this produces combat that is complex, challenging and interesting. Combat where the build of your ship, the weapons you choose, the missile you stock and your flying style has a significant impact on how the situation turns out. It can be a little hard to get into because of the relatively complex nature of the interweaving systems, however when you get that maneuver perfect with left hand dancing over the keyboard balancing power, shield and engine requirements and your right hand on the joystick planting the nose just where it needs to be the sensation is awesome. The combat is not the only part of the game as the universe has a developed economic model with the player actually being able to produce new installations that will develop the economy of a particular system whilst also contributing to it through pirate bashing missions, emergency supply runs or just plain and simple trading. One tip I will give is to look into the markup for processed materials, the game has construction stations where raw materials can be made into components and this is something I’d recommend looking into if you want to make a bit of cash. The game also has a very active and tight-knit multiplayer community who run some of the most civil forums I’ve ever seen on the internet, so if multiplayer is your thing then that is certainly worth looking into.
The aesthetic of the game may be an area of contention for some, the developer makes it a priority to allow a significant degree of backwards compatibility and as such the game does not push any graphical boundaries. The game is still pretty, don’t get me wrong but it’s not Star Citizen nor is it trying to be. The sound and music are very good, high fidelity and satisfy every need there could be in terms of producing an atmosphere appropriate for the game and game universe.
The game is available for Windows from the developer’s website, Steam, Gamersgate and a variety of other places. The pricing on Steam and Gamersgate is £20.00 (approx $31.00) and £16.15 (approx $25.00) from the developer’s website. That’s a pretty big Steam premium and it’s worth noting that the developer will probably get a bigger cut from their internal store, however it is nice to have the security and convenience of Steam. The system requirements are not all that scary, and since much of the universe is constructed by the code during installation the download size is surprisingly small at around 160MB. The minimum specs are stated as being a 2GHz CPU, 1.5GB RAM and a DX9.0c compatible graphics card, which is not a challenge. You can even test beforehand as a fairly liberal demo is available. In short Evochron Mercenary is a great game and I have yet to find any other game that does what it does at the same time as having such satisfying and interesting combat.