Faster Than Light Review
You know those spaceships from every science fiction story ever told? Now is your chance to pilot one.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth that gamers learn after a while: most third-person depictions of strategic combat just don’t pay off when they’re implemented into a gaming system. That’s why action combat games are based on combos, RPG weapons have cooldown times, and our RTS structures build soldiers as if they popped from an assembly line: a mouse and keyboard are poor tools for recruiting civilians from the streets or carefully placing your sword thrust past your opponent’s parry. As a gamer, one quickly learns that the novelty of “realism” in gameplay fades after about five seconds if the mechanic isn’t smoothly integrated. Maybe it’s “Your soldiers run out of ammo, just like in the movies, get it?” or “You have to sharpen your sword every night, just like in the books, get it?”, but one way or the other if you build a video game around iconic “mechanics” from other media, it’s the rare one that pays off.
That’s why Faster Than Light had such a big challenge ahead of it. As a successful Kickstarter project, Faster Than Light promised to build a spaceship combat simulator that finally realized all those classic elements from, well, every science fiction story ever. Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, you name it: the ships are all a variation on a theme. We all know that the ship has shields, weapons systems, and crew members that stand dutifully at their stations and do... SOMETHING important (at least, their fingers sure are typing furiously). We all know that you need to hit when your opponent’s shields are down, and sometimes you’ll just need to run like heck and try to dodge the laser bursts. After so many episodes and movies, you’d think that such an intricate combat system would, once codified, make for a great video game.
The good news is that Faster Than Light hit this nail on the head, and with a sledgehammer too. I was honestly surprised at how little time it took before I was routinely “rerouting power from the engines to sustain life support” or “pulling men from repairing the bridge to fight off boarders”. In other words, Faster Than Light perfectly maps the standard dramatic experiences onto gameplay mechanics. Even though the basic format for all encounters is the same (a single ship fighting against a single ship), the utter variety of tactics holds great potential and keeps you coming back for more. Maybe you’ll target the enemy weapon systems to stop their attack, or maybe you’ll try to knock out their engines to prevent them from escaping. If you’re low on hull integrity, maybe you’ll just focus on evasion and shielding, and escape as soon as you can power up your engines. There was the time I had to run my entire crew onto the bridge so I could open the airlock doors to put out all the fires and simultaneously suffocate the enemy boarders. Then there was the time the enemy took out my life support early, and I had to constantly cycle my crewmen between repair duty and the medical bay, letting them gasp for air a little during their work, but healing them up in shifts to finish the job. Needless to say, it was a tense experience.
The encounter battle system is obviously the strong point of the title, and it’s a real beauty, but this means that other areas of the game generally serve just to get you to the core quicker. In game, your ship travels from one end of a stellar map to the other via FTL jumps, with an encounter at most of them. Winning an encounter earns you raw “scrap” (your resource for buying upgrades), and sometimes you’ll also get a special ‘drop’, like a free weapon, or a ship upgrade. Every aspect of the ship that affects your combat can be upgraded: shields, weapons, crewmen, robot drones, life support, you name it. These are all nicely balanced with each other, and you’ll find yourself carefully planning out which areas of the ship are most in need of an upgrade, and which upgrades will play to your strengths. Every part of the ship requires power, of course, but power can be rerouted during battle, so you’ll have to decide whether to upgrade your generator constantly and have all your systems be fully juiced, or to run a little risky and hope to juggle the power where you need it. Outside of the upgrade system, the macro-level gameplay is skimpy at best. Although there is the slightest bit of strategy about choosing your jump paths and watching your fuel supply, for the most part the game is built around grinding. It’s up to the individual player to decide whether this is a failure or a strong point of the game, but I personally would’ve liked to have a break now and then from the constant battling.