Jan 312012
 

Sol: Exodus Logo

[NOTE: Many of the dings that I originally gave this game were corrected after this article was posted. I hope to give the game a fresh play-through in the near future to update those parts that were changed.  –JB]

Approximately 13 years have passed since the 1999 release of Freespace 2, which is considered to be one of the best space combat games ever made. Of course, it’s in good company with other games such as X-Wing Alliance, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and the Wing Commander series. But the lack of space shooters, considering how computing and graphics power have advanced since the last century, has caused a rumble of discontent among many gamers.

SOL: Exodus by Seamless Entertainment seeks to fill that void. This single-player space shooter, available for Windows through Steam for a meager $9.99, does a very admirable job of scratching that space combat itch, although it’s not without it flaws.

Story

The story takes place in 2441 AD. As usual, earth has been ideologically ripped apart and physically turned into wasteland due to two warring factions, The Eastern Axis and the Western Coalition, who now live on colonies in space but, of course, can’t seem to make peace with each other. In an unusual act of unity both groups decide to come together to find a new home for humanity and in doing so create the United Colonies of Sol.

A fleet of ships is sent out to find a new planet to colonize; but years turn into decades and humans, being the intolerant group of idiots that we tend to be, decide to start fighting again. As war is about to once again wipe out humanity, a religious cult called the “Children of Dawn” begins to brutally take power with millions of people flocking to the banner of its leader. As is typical with most religions throughout history, the idea of “our oh-so-merciful-god-who-loves-you-so-dearly orders us to brutally murder you if you don’t agree with us” sets in as people prepare for the Rapture. (Yes, this is set in the future even though it applies to modern times, but I digress…)

Twenty years later, the fleet, which has you as a pilot and commander, finally discovers a potentially habitable planet when the crusaders come with their “we-love-you-so-believe-or-die” attitude to destroy the heathens in the name of their supposedly all-loving religion. This sets the tone for the battle to destroy the Children of Dawn and puts the storyline for SOL: Exodus in motion.

Gameplay

Graphically, this game is stunning and has unquestionably captured the essence of Freespace. Powered by the Unreal Engine, scenes with light combat are silky smooth even in 1920 x 1080. When combat gets really hot and heavy particularly in the final battle things start to get jittery with all graphics options on full. But you can see for yourself in the screenshots how beautifully rendered the capital ships and backgrounds are. And, yes, you can fly through the capital ships when necessary.

Because each of the seven chapters of this game take place one day after the next, you don’t get any new ships as you progress. After all, the story only spans one week. However, depending on how well you meet your objectives for each mission, you get either one or two upgrade points that you can apply to your ship to enhance weapons, armor, or afterburners. Fortunately, the enhancements remain if you go back to replay an earlier mission.

SOL: Exodus plays as you would expect. The missions have lots of enemies to fight with varying strengths and tactics, but each mission effectively comes down to one of two goals: protect the capital ships or protect escaping shuttles. Even of those are not necessarily the goals of a mission, there will almost always be sections where they’re under threat. Destruction of the capital ships or all of the smaller ships-in-danger will usually end up with you failing the mission and you’ll have to restart.

In an interesting twist you will have to find yourself hacking the computer of several ships to perform various tasks, including activating the engines of a ship that’s falling into a deadly atmosphere and changing the intended targets of weapons on the enemy’s capital ship. In order to hack a terminal you have to target the node then have CASSI, your fleet’s artificial intelligence, attempt to decrypt the terminal. You need to keep an eye on the letters or numbers that are highlighted as CASSI hacks the system and then properly select the correct passcode afterwards to gain access. If you don’t pay attention and you choose the wrong passcode, you have to start hacking again. It’s definitely an interesting twist to try to keep an eye on a decryption sequence while being fired upon.

Another interesting addition is the “slide”, which allows your ship to continue moving in the direction that it was going while being able to aim and shoot in another direction. (Hello, Newtonian physics – at least to some degree!) When you end the slide, your ship starts to move in the direction where you were pointing. This allows you among other things to keep moving away from that really pesky missile while being able to turn your ship around and attempt to destroy it.

The game supports joysticks, gamepads, and mice for control. I prefer to use a joystick for all space/flight simulation, which makes for an interesting assumption on Seamless Entertainment’s part that I’ll discuss later.

Since I started playing, Seamless has released several updates that include both bug fixes and gameplay changes. The most recent patch as of this writing improved the AI of the elite enemy ships in a way that substantially increased the difficulty level, but I found it to be both frustrating and satisfying. Thankfully, I can return to my capital ship for repairs and additional ammunition when needed.

[Note: The screen shot of the mission summary shows a 4,000 point penalty for docking for repairs/rearming.  This penalty was removed in the most recent patch before this review was published.]

The whole game only lasts three or four hours for the whole campaign, but there is replayability in that you can go back to missions in which you couldn’t get both available upgrades. Because there are leaderboards available, you can also keep going back to try to get a better score. Space combat by its very nature of being in three dimensions makes for a lot of replayability when compared to a linear, ground-based shooter. Because DLC and add-ons are definitely in the works (and as indicated by the “To Be Continued” at the end of the credits), you can expect to have more encounters with the Children of Dawn in the future.

Achievement whores will also have plenty of fighting ahead of them because SOL: Exodus comes with 53 Steam achievements. Thanks to the improved enemy AI, completionists like me are going to be spending a lot of time blowing up CoD enemies.

 

The Darkness That Comes With The Light

All of this space shooting goodness comes with some flaws, though. None of these are enough to make me regret my purchase, and I have had some back-and-forth with Seamless through Facebook. So, hopefully they will take these as things I hope they will fix in future updates. (To their credit, they seem to be very responsive to customer feedback. They even fixed some issues that I had marked down earlier as negatives before I started writing this.)

I could not find any way to skip a cutscene. When replaying a mission, you’re forced to sit through any introduction or in-game cinematic even though you already know what it’s about. I can understand doing that when playing for the first time; but when I replay a mission I want to blow things up, not watch a cutscene that I’ve already watched.

The game has no in-mission checkpoints. Some of these missions can last quite a long time, particularly with the improved AI of the enemy ships. It’s very frustrating to be fighting enemy fighters and bombers for twenty or thirty minutes only to have your capital ship blown up when the enemy frigates appear, resulting in having to replay the entire mission over again. Any cutscenes or major changes in the development of a mission should be checkpoints so that we don’t have to start from the beginning.

Although this might have been corrected with the latest patch, I had one instance where my capital ship went from 60% integrity to 50% then zero in a span of about three seconds. (No, I’m not over-exaggerating that.) Yes, it was under attack by bombers, but that was a far, far more rapid loss of structural integrity than should have happened; and because of a lack of checkpoints I had to start the entire mission over again.

Although this has already been addressed to a certain degree in recent patches, the game still sometimes freezes during a loading sequence or at least seems to stop loading even though the “Loading” animation is still going. The only way to break out of it is to forcibly close the game through Task Manager.

The default joystick configuration can use some adjustments. When I selected the joystick as my game device of choice, the game automatically assumed that my joystick has a total of twelve buttons on it. Yes, twelve. My Logitech Wingman only comes with seven, so I ended up remapping some of the buttons. I can understand assuming that a joystick has five or six buttons on it … but twelve?

The game also seems to suffer from a particular pet peeve of mine: the “infinite enemies” syndrome. This is particularly evident during the final mission when you always seem to have a minimum of five enemy elites. When I realized this was happening, I paid attention to the number of enemies on my radar. Sure enough, I destroyed one, but within seconds there were five enemy dots on my radar once again. Considering that I had significantly more enemies at the beginning of the mission, only having five is comparatively easy; however, the whole idea of infinitely respawning enemies irks me in any game.

The biggest annoyance for me is the music. I’m an old-school gamer. I was gaming back when the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 were new. I’m used to loud and energetic, especially back in my C64 days. I also played countless hundreds if not thousands of hours playing the various X-Wing games with the magic of John Williams playing in the background. So, when I’m in an intense combat sequence, I expect to hear a powerful orchestra to keep the adrenaline pumping – strings, brass, timpani, energy, crescendo, and so forth. Unfortunately, the combat music in SOL: Exodus is far more sedate and mellow, which I not-so-lovingly refer to as “bongo music”. (Seriously. The percussion really does seem to be bongos.) Because of that, I found myself getting pulled out of the game often, much like when I hear that damned Wilhelm scream in movies, thinking about how everything else was so smooth and so polished, yet the soundtrack is so anti-climactic and devoid of energy.

When I was discussing this with a Seamless representative, they said that they were going more for a Battlestar Galactica (the most recent one, obviously) kind of feel by making the music more low-key. To their credit, when I explained why I found the style to be more disruptive than atmospheric, they said that they completely understood and that they appreciated me letting them know that it “doesn’t work” for me. I suggested that a “Classic Combat” music DLC pack might be in order. Maybe? Please?

Conclusion

Even with these slight dings against the game, I still enjoyed my time with it. SOL: Exodus is being released in an episodic way with a little bit now to be followed by a little bit more later, which I think is acceptable for a game like this. There is definitely enough content and replay value to justify a $10 purchase now, and there is more than enough potential for low-cost, frequently-added material later on. What’s clear is that Seamless Entertainment listens to their customer base, which alone puts them above a lot of the developers and publishers of the big $60 games.

SOL: Exodus isn’t perfect. You can go through the initial campaign in a few hours and there are some annoying issues within the game; but it’s still incredibly solid, very challenging, and a welcome oasis in a gaming desert that is bereft of space combat simulators. More importantly, SOL: Exodus has set a foundation that could easily make it worthy of consideration as a spiritual successor to Freespace.

SOL: Exodus by Seamless Entertainment
$9.99 through Steam

Disclaimer: The game was purchased by the author.  A review copy of the game was not provided by the developer/publisher.

System requirements:
– Windows XP, Vista, or 7
– 1.8 GHz dual-core CPU (2 GHz quad-core recommended)
– 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)
– 4 GB hard drive space
– NVIDIA GeForce 7600GS, ATI Radeon HD 2400 Pro, or better (NVIDIA GeForce GTX260, ATI Radeon 487, or better recommended)
– DirectX 9.0c, 16-bit sound

Review PC specifications:
– Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
– AMD Phenom II X6 (six-core) @ 3.2 GHz
– 16 GB RAM
– NVidia 560ti video card
– Realtek 5.1 channel audio