FTL, or Faster Than Light, is simply addictive. After spending over 30 hours playing this game in the week that I’ve owned it, I can safely conclude that it is a curse upon any social life and will quickly become the centre of all thoughts and feelings. FTL, the first installment by the two-man-team Subset Games, was one of the first games to be successfully funded on Kickstarter. What’s even more amazing, though, is that you can but the game for just $10!
FTL is a rogue-like space simulator that takes you on a journey through pirate and jerk-controlled outer space. Before each adventure into the unknown emptiness, you take a Federation ship from the hangar and set off across the vastness of space, racing against the Rebel fleet to deliver your message; one which can lead to the defeat of the Rebels.
You travel through 8 different sectors, stopping at “jump beacons” where one of hundreds (if not thousands) of possible events can occur. You could arrive at a distress signal, only to find yourself ambushed by a pirate ship. Or perhaps you can travel too close to a sun to be greeted by a Rebel AI-controlled ship, which calculates that the best course of action would be to exterminate you. Or maybe you arrive at a space station whose occupants are loyal to the Federation, and offer you a new weapon. With every jump beacon and sector being randomly generated every game (except for the last sector to an extent as it acts as a conclusion), you can never play the same game twice. The possibilities are innumerable, and each playthrough is a new adventure.
FTL gives players a top-down (well, it’s kind of hard to tell what the “top” is in outer space) view of a spaceship. Inside, you can see rooms signifying different systems of the ship, such as weapons, the cockpit, shields and the engine. Crew members can be directed to manage a room each, and can be moved around at will to perform varying tasks such as managing the system in a room, repairing systems or hull breaches, putting out fires and even fighting enemy crew members. The UI itself is basic and “to the point”. It gives a simple representation of the ship’s stats, such as the power distributed to each system, the health of each crew member, the resources available to you, and a similar layout for an enemy ship when in battle.
Seems pretty simple, right? Well, believe me, it is very, VERY difficult. Within those few systems and functions you get scores of different strategic possibilities. Let me just pitch you a scenario…
For your next jump, you’re given the choice between a jump beacon located in a nebula and one that isn’t. Jumping to a nebula will slow down the pursuing Rebel fleet, and you want more time to explore a little, so you decide to jump to the nebula. Upon entering, you’re greeted by a Mantis war ship, which decides to send a boarding crew to your ship without hesitation. Sensors are down in the nebula, so you can’t see where the enemy is invading from. As you only have 4 crew members present, each occupying your four main systems (cockpit, engines, weapons and shields), you will need to counter the threat of the invaders while maintaining an attack against the enemy ship.
You will need to decide which members will engage the enemy crew, how the crew will be engaged and, if needed, what you can afford to lose to the invaders. You will need to consider what systems and subsystems need to be maintained, if power needs to be redistributed to anything, if you will need to move other crew members to manage the systems that fighting staff are too busy to monitor and choose which of the enemy’s systems you want to attack and how. Just that one battle can be a mess of plans and decisions which may or may not pay off. After all, defeating the enemy ship without sustaining damage is no good if you have lost half your crew doing it!
In fact, I’ll even give you a demonstration! (I’m just fantastic, aren’t I?) In this battle, I came across a “Zoltan research facility” and I am asked to participate in the Zoltans’ study. Feeling like gambling a little, I cautiously agree to help. However, as my ship docks at the facility, it is invaded by pirates who want to kill my crew and take my ship for themselves. Oh, and just to be even bigger bastards, the pirates also decide to engage my ship with theirs.
So, that battle seemed to go pretty well and all given that I’d won it, right? Nope. I completely messed that up! I should have drawn two power bars from the shields, as their laser could only penetrate a single layer of shields and never hit my hull (missiles pass through all shields so more or less shields won’t change a thing), and used it to keep my engines at full power. I should have ignored the enemy’s shields at the very beginning and attacked the weapons, then attacked the shields when their weapons were down. I should have kept somebody manning the engines at all times (i.e. Butters, since he was just doing nothing the whole time). I should have done all of these things and more, but I didn’t because I was under pressure.
That one word alone makes this game so amazing: every battle you enter and every decision you make puts you under pressure. You need to make sure that every action you take is the best one, because even a single bad decision could spell defeat. You may not lose on the spot, but the cost of that decision could mean that you can’t, say, boost the level of your weapons system, which could mean that you won’t have enough firepower to break through the shields of your next enemy. Or perhaps you end up being short one crew member, which can be disastrous if your next encounter is a Mantis war ship whose primary method of attack is to teleport a raiding party onto your ship.
What I like so much about FTL‘s pressure-building mechanics, though, is that it doesn’t feel as though you’re riding on a knife’s edge. I remember this feeling when playing The Witcher 2 and it was not something I enjoyed. It felt odd being punished so severely for simple mistakes or for pressing the right mouse button instead of the left mouse button. However, in FTL, you can make many mistakes and be certain that you will lose, but you just keep going. Once you play the game enough, you will know exactly where you need to be in terms of progression and upgrades before you have any chance of winning, but you never give up hope. You say to yourself, “well, what the heck!”, and pray for the best.
Also, all RTS games need to make the space bar a pause button. Enough said. That one button makes a heap difference in FTL and it is incredibly convenient to boot! I really have to commend the developers for employing the pausing functionality because it allows for such complex micro-management, planning and timing.
So, this is the part you’re probably going to cringe at. You saw that video and those screenshots and you can see that, visually, it’s not a very detailed or beautiful game. Well, I don’t care. The way I see it, the graphics in FTL are not designed to be some pointless eye candy, but rather to be very informative and consuming.
Let me summarise my thoughts with this: when a game can suck you in with visuals alone, you know that the artist has done an incredible job. In truth, there have only ever been two games that have made me feel like I’m part of the game with visuals alone: Bastion and FTL. Okay, maybe Donkey Kong Country 2 and Earthworm Jim on the SNES, but that was a time when artists actually had a say! Anyway, those of you who have played Bastion are probably wondering how I can even think of making that comparison. Well, I have two words for you: visual cues.
In Bastion, every enemy has animations or timings that can be used to determine when to attack, when to dodge and when to block. This allows for very fast paced yet precise and fair gameplay. In FTL, this is even more prominent as every detail tells you something important, every part of an enemy ship gives you a clue as to what you’re going to be facing in the upcoming battle, every weapon and stat brings you closer to making the best decisions, and every sprite, colour and animation gives you all the information that you need to play and win. By being so rich and informative, you start watching every detail. You look for all the signs that you need to help you determine what to do next. You get sucked in.
What depresses me so much about this feature in FTL is that I think of how so many other games could employ this same level of detail. Instead, we have games like Final Fantasy XIII which sell almost entirely on graphics (and excessive hype, of course). We have games like Crysis 2 which look pretty but the gameplay is incredibly average. Of course, Crytek could have spent more time taking full advantage of the most sophisticated physics engines every created for a video game, which could have resulted in an adaptive and exciting game, but instead they made eye-candy. FTL has none of that, and I love it!
The point I am trying to make is that the graphics in FTL may not be the best, but they work perfectly. They make the game fantastic, exciting and engrossing: something which you don’t see too much of these days. So go ahead, brag about how your computer can run Crysis 2 on ultra high settings; I’m too busy saving the Federation fleet to care!
But wait, there’s more! The audio in FTL is brilliantly executed too, in a similar way to the visuals. No, I’m not saying that the music sucks because it is fantastic! Actually, my biggest complaint about the audio is the lack of variety, which I find that, when playing for long enough, can have a “slot machine” effect on you: you begin associating different sounds with different events and it starts to get really draining! (I guess that analogy is pretty appropriate given how addictive this game is, but I won’t go there.) What I mean by “fantastic” is that, just like the visuals, every “blip”, “ping”, “boom” and “whoosh” gives you the vital information that you need to make the right decisions.
Every time you hear a high-pitched siren go off, you start biting your nails as you wait for an enemy crew to invade your ship. Every time you hear the crackling of fire, you slam the pause button and start opening doors in an attempt to suck the air out of rooms to suffocate the flames. Every time you hear the music build in intensity, you hold your breath and pray that the next enemy you face will not be a Slug raiding party which decides to shut off your oxygen supply and watch your crew suffocate to death. The sounds are as relevant and informative as the visuals, and drag you into the game just as effectively.
It gets even better: the music is amazing! No, not the “oh mer gerd, an erchestra!” good, but the kind of good where you have to just stop and listen the first time you hear it, completely poleaxed by its expression and sincerity. How can I explain this in words? Loneliness, defeat, hope, adventure, desperation, salvation, pressure and everything else in between will be felt in every game due to the music alone. You can’t help but feel like you’re part of something incredible, and you just want to keep going and never come back. Then when you do, you just start it all over again. If you have the spare cash, I recommend you buy the album separately so that the adventure never ends. In fact, you should be able to buy it given that I’m about to save you a heap of money by not buying an UbiActiBlizzEnixSoft game.
Now that all of that is said and done, let me take a moment to explain that whole “getting dragged in” concept. When you play FTL, you want to keep going and going until you become absolutely sick of it! It’s a very satisfying phenomenon. Every moment you spend playing is like going on an adventure and every time you land at a new jump beacon you worry about the fate of your crew members and ship. You get right into this game!
This was, in fact, the intention of the developers: they wanted to make a game which put the player in scenarios which require them to micro-manage and make difficult decisions while under pressure.
In any given episode of Star Trek, the captain is always yelling “Reroute power to shields!” or telling the engineer what to do now that their Warp Core is on fire. We wanted that experience, as opposed to the “dog fighting in space” that most videogames focus on. We wanted a game where we had to manage the crew, fix the engines, reroute power to shields, target the enemy life support, and then figure out how to repel the boarders that just transported over!
- Matthew Davis (via Rock, Paper Shotgun)
All in all, a job well done to the developers because between the scripting, gameplay, music, sound, visual cues and everything else in between, FTL becomes highly immersive. Every moment sets your senses on fire, sucks you in and won’t let you go. Winning, losing, none of that matters. All that matters is the journey. Then combine all of that with the challenge of it all and it’s safe to say that you will be addicted. Maybe it is a bit more like a slot machine than I originally thought…