Radio chatter fills the cockpit. Youíd be hearing it alongside the beeps from your ever-vigilant radar, but the racket of the howling rain smashing into the cockpit of your small freighter drowns most
everything else out.
Lightning crashes as your vessel blasts its way free of the planetís atmosphere. Five minutes ago, while you were still on the ground, the view was quite impressive. Now, tearing into the sky at almost 90 degrees, itís nothing short of spectacular. The rain is hammering straight down onto you - a sight you arenít used to seeing - and as you climb higher and the rain things out a bit, you can finally see the rings around the planet.
As the atmosphere thins around you, the precipitation slows down and you can see more of the sky above. Before long, all you can see is the ring of ice around the planet, and the stars beyond it. The sound of the thundering storm is gone, and youíre left listening to the quiet rumble of your engines, your life support system, and the occasional beep from the radar.
Youíre in space again. Time to plot a course and get ready to jump...
Space combat & trading games are probably the oldest setting and genre for the Ďopen-worldí motif, but itís hard not to feel that their golden age has passed. We are no longer in the decade of any particularly good space action games - never mind the trading genre.
The luminaries, whether held on a pedestal like 1984ís Elite or remaining largely forgotten like 1998ís Hardwar, are behind us.
For fans of the genre who havenít been one of the lucky few in the know, itíd probably come as a great surprise, then, to discover that throughout this last decade a one-man company has been working on a game so rich in features and ambition that its only serious competitor historically is Frontier: Elite II.
Evochron: Mercenary is actually something like the eleventh game in this universe, and it remains surprising to me that so few people seem to have ever heard of these. As each year passes, a new game comes out, standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, adding more features and streamlining the game even more.
Mercenary, the latest title, has more features and options than you could easily list here. In short - you have complete freedom, within this game world, to do almost whatever you like. From trading contraband to attacking capital ships, from racing in tricked out stunt-fighters to literally cleaning accumulated space-cruft off
Once youíve earnt enough cash, you can even construct or buy your own space stations and industrial facilities.
This in itself may still make people whoíve been burnt in the past by such promises wary. Thereíve been more than a few titles (some who also have many iterations) to have feature-sets this rich, but most have either played like giant space-faring spreadsheets, or been so buggy and unenjoyable that you are probably best just sinking a few beers and reminiscing with friends about the golden years of playing Privateer until sun-up on a school-night.
So hereís the twist with Evochron: not only is it epic in scope and features... but itís fun.
No, really. Thatís not a joke.
It has a Newtonian physics model, but instead of ending up quite bland like, say, 2000ís Terminus, the physics are perfectly balanced to sit at that happy mid-ground between realism and enjoyment.
Combat isnít just a carbon-copy of a World War 2 flight sim like most Star Wars titles have been - itís a surprisingly cerebral affair, but without straying too far into something thatís either too difficult for action gamers or too twitchy for armchair-Space Shuttle pilots.
A typical combat sequence might start when you jump to a specific location (you are free to plot jumps to any point in space you want) and let yourself drift past the skirmish youíre joining in on. You keep drifting at high speed - fast enough to avoid getting hit by too many laser blasts - while firing your own volleys of fire and missiles at your marks.
After the first pass, you have decisions to make - do you attack them head-on? Thatís usually risky, and you may find yourself becoming an unsightly smear of rubble on somebodyís front viewscreen.
Where to fight counts for a great deal, too. Nebulas could be the perfect place to stop the bastards from activating their jump drives and escaping. Asteroids could act as perfect cover against inbound missiles. Or perhaps, if youíre really in trouble, you could afterburn to high speed and drop straight into a planetís atmosphere. Sure, your ship handles like a brick sliding down a water-slide in atmosphere - but so will theirs.
Regardless of whether you plan to make a living putting up satellites, blasting apart baddies or becoming a mining magnate, one thingís for sure - the game has a very solid feel. You arenít stopped every time you dock with something, land on a planet or make a hyperspace jump by some ugly loading screen. The game is seamless in that way - in fact, if you donít mind waiting a very long time you can bypass jump drives and just drift along at a snailís pace to get from planet to planet.
The multiplayer is surprisingly solid, too. It has a drop-in multiplayer mode where your single-player characters are the same as your multiplayer ones - so once you and your mates have tricked out your ships you can start a server and both jump in as yourself, complete with your financial histories and whateverís in your cargo at the time.
In fact, not only is there all the same features of single-player in multi, but you have more. You can organise clans on dedicated servers who can complete missions and engage in player-vs-player combat to Ďcontrolí sectors, providing all logged in clanmates with constant income based on the sectors you control.
The gameís freedom doesnít just stop at your in-game choices, either. It scales very well onto slower computers and doesnít have an input-bias, either. If you prefer joystick control - go for it! Want to fly with keyboard? Thatís actually surprisingly playable, too. You can even use a version of the mouse/keyboard flight model popularised in Freelancer if youíd like.
So what about the bad things? Itís not the second coming of Frontier: Elite, obviously. It does have its quirks.
The graphics, while spectacular at times, do occasionally seem a bit blocky. Ships tend to blur together a bit - from one ship to another,
the difference visually is pretty minimal. The relatively low production values also show up when you realise that, upgrade and replace your ship as you like, the cockpits always seem to look the same.
The learning curve, while not as insane as some other space-sims, is still such that you really do want to watch the tutorial videos before jumping in - and it will require you to memorise a huge number of keyboard shortcuts if you want to be an even vaguely respectable pilot.
Another thing that could be a bit of a let-down for some is that you never really buy and sell space-ships. You buy new frames and customise the ship, sure, but the lack of used-ship markets and such does lose a bit of the sense of personal ownership that other games in this genre have often elicited from players.
The final complaint is actually two, but together they could easily form a duet of frustration and pain for many people.
Firstly... the game does not auto-save when you dock, like many titles in this genre. Indeed, you need to actively remember to save - either with the quick-save button (fortunately, this works in space as long as you arenít in a mission) or by sifting through the pause-screenís options.
Secondly... the jump-drive and navigation interface is quite trusting. If you select a block of space that happens to be occupied by a yellow dwarf star, it wonít care. Itíll just jump you straight into the middle of it, making both you and your ship several million degrees hotter than the manufacturerís warranty is good for. Also, to enter jump drive you will be propelled forwards quite quickly for a moment - so if you do it when thereís a starbase, a planet or an enemy vessel in front of you, youíll find yourself slammed into it like an egg thrown at a brick wall.
Add to all this that the jump-drive button, by default, is situated between the Ďnavigationí and Ďinventoryí buttons, and you have a recipe for almost as many hilarious deaths as an early Sierra adventure game.
As long as you remember to save, and can tolerate a few bits of weak graphics here and there, Evochron is a game that holds its own way outside its weight range. It may be a small one-man indie title, but itís probably the most impressive and enjoyable space trading game since the flawed-but-fun Freelancer.
With all these features, fun space flight and such varied play styles accommodated in this title, thereís just one thing I have come back to: flying in atmosphere.
The feeling of taking your ship out of orbit and piloting her down into a city, or even just dog-fighting around canyons and over river-beds is one that few games have tried, and fewer still have gotten right.
The important thing is this: this is a game made not just by a fan of the genre, but by somebody who understands when something is fun... and when it needs to be cut entirely.