Many of you whippersnappers will be too young to remember classic space shooters like Tie Fighter, but they were perfectly suited to the basic computer hardware of the time. After all, the gameplay involved blasting blocks of white pixels in an all-black environment (with the occasional smaller white pixels representing stars, or collections of round white pixels posing as planets). Thankfully the space shooter evolved with technology, and the pinnacle was the magnificent Wing Commander series, boasting Full Motion Video and massive stars such as Mark Hamill from number three onwards.
Space sims have died a tragic death in the past decade, but SOL: Exodus from Seamless Entertainment is here to perform mouth-to-mouth and resuscitate the genre. Is this a glorious return to life, or has the humble space shooter well and truly flatlined?
A tale of religious nutjobs
As the game starts off, you’re searching space for a new homeworld for the human race. Unfortunately SOL: Exodus doesn’t really explain how you came to be in this situation, or indeed who on earth you are - you’re simply blasted straight into the first mission, occupying your mothership as it orbits a potential life-bearing planet. Things quickly go the shape of a pear as mysterious religious zealots attack your ship, and from then on you’ll find yourself battling these God-fearing extremists for reasons that are still a little sketchy to us.
SOL: Exodus’ story certainly seems rather hackneyed, but we probably missed great chunks of plot as it’s revealed through in-game conversations, often while you’re being blasted to hell by enemy goons. It’s kind of hard to follow your team mates chatting about space politics while some inconsiderate twat fires rockets up your jacksey. Of course, we don’t think we missed too much - it all comes down to bland good guys versus nutjob bad guys, like usual. It’s a shame we didn’t feel more involved in the story, thanks to the one-dimensional characters and lack of set-up, but if you’re only after some frantic space violence it won’t be an issue.
SOL: Exodus’ controls will be immediately familiar to space sim fans, using the same arcadey design of games such as Wing Commander and FreeSpace. You can lock onto enemies and match speed, boost and roll to evade their attacks, and so on. We also enjoyed the neat ‘slide’ feature, which allows you to keep going in one direction while twisting around to shoot at your sides and rear - a massive help when battling heavily-armed capital ships. Sadly there’s only one ship type and the upgrade mechanism is incredibly basic, simply giving you points to improve your guns, shields and boost.
Another unique game mechanic is the ‘hack’ feature, used to find weaknesses on capital ships or get access to other sensitive data, like the commander’s collection of outlawed smut. Hacking involves memorising the order of a bunch of flashing letters, then selecting the correct option from a multiple choice list - all while fighting it out with the relentless enemies, of course. It’s a cool little idea that we’ve never seen in a space combat game before, and certainly keeps you on your toes. Slightly less appealing is the way your guns overheat in no time at all, meaning you’re stuck without weapons for a few seconds. Have they seriously not invented decent cooling devices in the bloody future? And how do thngs overheat in -270 degree tempteratures??
SOL: Exodus only includes eight missions, but you generally have a few waves of enemies to battle in each, so the more intense efforts take anywhere up to half an hour to finish. Thankfully you can leg it to your mothership for repairs if your vessel takes a kicking, and as a last resort you can even eject and grab a new ship. Your end score takes a knock, but it’s worth the deduction to avoid being a mangled mass of organs stuck in your enemy’s windscreen wipers.
Mid-mission checkpoints should help to limit the frustration when you’re blasted into millions of tiny space chunks right at the end of a lengthy level, but we encountered some issues. In one instance we’d been battling religious zealots for twenty minutes or so when our capital ship exploded, complete with overly dramatic ‘oh my gooood eeeeeeeek’ screeching from the doomed inhabitants. Mission failed, game over - but never fear, simply click ‘restart from checkpoint’ and start mid-way through, right? Except that every time we did, all we got was the game over screen again. Either we hit a checkpoint just as the capital ship died or we encountered a bug, but either way we had to sit through a lot of scripted dialogue and blast tons of the fanatical mentalists again to get back to that point.
As for the missions themselves, they’re standard space sim fare for the most part. You’ll either be fighting hordes of dumb-ass fighters and bombers (whose sole tactic seems to be randomly changing direction at annoyingly frequent intervals), taking on massive capital ships, or defending ships on your side. Protecting friendly vessels is a regular occurrence, adding plenty of tension and time-critical dogfighting to the mix, but this can also get annoying when the friendly ship in question keeps exploding right at the arse-end of a mission. Occasionally you’ll encounter an interesting new enemy, such as modified space drills, which helps to prevent the endless blasting from growing stale - although at just eight missions, it’s all over far too soon anyway.
Graphics and design
It’s difficult to come up with varied ‘levels’ in a space sim - after all, the typical environment is a big block of black, empty nothingness. Kind of like flying around inside Kim Kardashian’s head. But SOL: Exodus manages to keep things fresh by populating space with all kinds of varied obstacles and structures, from an eerie ship graveyard to misty ice-filled areas.
Graphics are tidy and occasionally impressive considering the game’s budget roots. We loved some of the little effects the developers threw in, such as the way enemy ships start to smoke and show damage as they near destruction - a great incentive to keep on pounding away. Voice acting is generally inoffensive and occasionally amusing, when we actually found the time to listen to what was going on.
SOL: Exodus conclusion and system requirements
It’s easy to pick out flaws in SOL: Exodus (kind of like we just did), between the ropey AI, occasional bugs and lack of involvement, but it’s refreshing to see a new straight-up action space blaster in the same vein as FreeSpace and Tie Fighter. At this price it’s well worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre, even if we’d rather be playing the classics instead.
You’ll need a Core 2 Duo rig or equivalent with at least 2GB of RAM to get smooth performance.