Back in the mid to late 90’s, it was common practice for gaming magazines to distribute basically “free” games as “shareware” to readers through the CDs that accompanied the big glossy spreads sold at the local newsagent. Most of these games were much of a muchness: easy to play, easy to forget, job done. A few truly classic games released during that period used shareware and freeware as a way to give gamers a taste of what to expect: several great FPS games from the period, such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, were able to drum up plenty of hype through this approach.
Those shareware CDs were a great way to get broke-ass teenagers to badger their parents to pay good money for what were, at the time, cutting-edge games. But looking back today as an adult, it’s hard to think of too many games from that time which have developed into truly great, interesting, fun game series that you could actually look forward to experiencing again.
The Escape Velocity series, developed by Ambrosia Software, is one happy exception to this rule.
A Galaxy Ripe For The Taking
Escape Velocity: Nova is the third (and, sadly, so far final) game in the EV series developed by Ambrosia. Originally created for Apple computers, the games were ported over to Windows when it became clear that gamers were enthusiastic about the product and wanted to play it on something other than a platform originally designed to make sneering hipsters even more insufferably smug.
You start this game as a lowly shuttlecraft pilot, opting to seek freedom and fortune among the stars. You are given the option early on to land and take a brief tutorial, but you don’t really need it; the game pretty much explains itself. All you have to do is figure out which keys on your keyboard do what, and then you’re off… to victory, or death.
This game, like its predecessors, defies easy categorisation. It is at one and the same time a game about space exploration, trading, combat, alliances, technology, and (relatively) open-world dynamics. In this game, you can choose to be a simple trader, buying low and selling high. You can choose to be a charter transport pilot, ferrying passengers from one system to another. You can become a brigand once you get enough money. You can opt to take on the branching missions that are strewn throughout the game.
The beauty of this game is that, although it is basically an open-ended, open-world game, there is still sufficient structure and pace to it that you never find yourself killing time by walking aimlessly through a beautifully rendered but ultimately completely pointless universe. (I’m looking at you, Skyrim.) You can choose to align yourself with one of at least seven different factions within the game. (Hint: if you get the chance early enough, always say yes to the Polaris missions. They have the coolest and most badass ships.)
Graphics-Light, Yet Feature-Rich
The game basically allows you to take two forms of interaction with your environment. The “space-based” part of the game, where you’ll spend the majority of your time, looks pretty much like what you see above: a strictly top-down affair where you control your ship entirely with your keyboard, where the explosions are richly detailed but monotonous in terms of sound effects and appearance after a while, and where sprites are used to animate both player and NPC vessels.
The parts of the game that actually involve the story and plot lines, though, take place when you “land” on a planet or moon. If you are involved in a mission, the action of “landing” will trigger a series of dialogue windows that tell the current phase of the mission through long screens of text, where outcomes are often decided using binary “yes/no” answers to the questions asked to you as the player. It’s a decidedly retro gaming feel that people who grew up with truly classic RPG games like The Legend of Zelda and The Secret of Mana will have no problem handling. I know this isn’t for everyone, but for certain types of gamers, this kind of thing is great fun.
This game requires you to manage your “resources” reasonably carefully. You start out with a small amount of money, enough fuel to make four hyperspace jumps for your FTL drive, and 10 tons worth of “space” within your puny, pathetic little shuttlecraft that can be used for additional weapons, storage, upgrades such as solar panels and fuel tanks, or armour.
As time goes by and you gain wealth and combat skills, you’ll be able to buy new ships ranging from fast, tiny, lightly armed fighters to light capital ships or freighters like the Valkyrie and Starbridge (I highly recommend this one) to outright warships. And depending on which “faction” you choose to align yourself with, you can buy some of the biggest, most terrifying ships in the game (eventually).
As far as ships go, as I pointed out above, always choose the Polaris. Once you get your hands on a Polaris Raven and see how its incredibly powerful main weapons can shred the most advanced Federation and Auroran ships like a tiger attacking a tethered goat, you’ll never want to do anything else.
Engrossing 2D Space Sim Combat
What you see above is a typical view of what space combat in EVN would be. As far as movement and turning goes, the physics are actually fairly close to Newtonian (with a few exceptions: you’ll find out about these once you get to the more powerful Polaran and Vell’os ship classes). You don’t use up any fuel by simply bumbling around a system using your sublight engines; instead, using your afterburners (optional extra) or warp drive will consume fuel. The control scheme is your standard WASD keyboard-based layout. The keyboard commands are very easy to figure out and there are not a huge number of them needed to play this game, and play it well.
Weapons in this game come in two forms: energy and kinetic. Your energy weapons are your main offensive instruments; you can also acquire missiles of many different kinds and varieties to enhance and increase your combat abilities. And you will need to acquire them. The EVN universe is a dangerous one, full of pirates, mercenaries, and hostile factions who would like nothing better than to disable your ship, steal your money, and leave you helpless… or dead.
The space combat is rich, fast-paced, and—once you get good at it—highly rewarding. Many is the time that I’ve taken my heavily tricked-out Starbridge or Dragon on a day trip out to the pirate-infested systems to the galactic north of the Federation, simply to lie in wait for a Pirate Manticore or Carrier to come along. If you know how to engage these ships outside of the range of their most fearsome weapons, you can pocket a very tidy fortune by disabling their ships and stealing all of their money.
That’s right—this game lets you become the far future’s version of Sir Francis Drake.
Mod To The Max
One of the most highly acclaimed features of the entire Escape Velocity series has always been the fact that end-users can mod the hell out of it. Registered users of the game—i.e. ones who have been decent enough to pony up and pay the $30 asking price—are not only allowed but encouraged to create their own plugins for the game. And these plugins allow you to modify almost any and every aspect of it.
Want to recreate the Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, or even Firefly universes? Go and do it. You are restricted only by your imagination and your coding skills.
That is the real beauty of this game. No matter what it is you want to get out of it, there is virtually endless scope for imagination and fun. This is something that many open-world and MMO games keep forgetting about: there is nothing fun about having to do what amounts to a second job just to farm enough XP to get the coolest items in the game. With this game, though, you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want… while still retaining your money, your sanity, and your girl.
The Didact’s Verdict
Gameplay: 30/45. The game is a lot of fun to play, but can get repetitive after a while, especially if you’ve finished off one of the main storylines and are looking to access a different one. The actual storyline you land on is mostly random, though there are plugins that allow you to select a very specific story when you start the game.
Control: 25/25. Totally idiot-proof and intuitive control scheme that requires all of about three minutes to figure out.
Graphics: 8/15. Nothing snazzy when compared to hyper-realistic games like Crysis 3 or Witcher 3, but still not bad.
Sound: 7/10. There is no soundtrack to this game, but the explosions and weapon sound effects are gratifyingly loud and impressive.
Story: 5/5. Lots of different stories to choose from here, all of them interesting and all of them with multiple branches and offshoots.
Total Score: 75%. The fact is that this is a hell of a lot of game for only $30. I’ve only highlighted some of its best features, but there is far more to it than what I’ve provided here. If you’re interested, go check it out and see for yourself. Note that this game runs only on WinDOZE (ugh) and you have to have QuickTime (yuck) downloaded onto your system: these are absolute prerequisites. These are small prices to pay for a game that is as richly featured, as much fun, and as replayable as this one, though.
Masculinity Score: Well, the game’s default setting has you start with a blokey name, and as I recall, while no gender is ever overtly attached to you as the main character, the game’s story and plot treats you very much as a man. And then there’s the fact that you get to
fly around Uranus looking for Klingons be a space captain and blow stuff up for a living. There ain’t no time in this game for feminist stupidity; in space, no one can hear you bitch about the evils of patriarchy. 5/5 pants-crappingly terrifying Polaris Ravens.