We’ve all played games where we control a starship – smaller ships that could be manned by as small as a 1 man crew or some that needed thousands of hands. But in any case, we’ve always controlled that craft with simple mouse clicks, controls and joysticks. Well this is a breath of fresh air: this is what it would really be like to control a ship with a crew of five, each officer responsible for his station and ensuring mission success and survival. Does this new approach herald a great game, or does it fall short?
The HMS Dauntless drops out of warp in the Adalmaak system, a pretty large orb of blue directly ahead shifts into our main view. Right away, the scientist officer, Mr. Winkle calls out a warning: “Hostile ship, scanning!” The readouts in front of me pulsate as I glance over the status.
“Pilot,” I call from my captain’s chair, addressing Cocainee at his controls directly in front of me at the base of the view window, “keep our distance and maneuver to get a shot.”
The planet beyond the view screen rotates as he manipulates the yoke of the Intrepid-class light frigate, we were turning upside down and slowly away from the bright disc.
“Incoming fire!” Hurske, the weapons specialist called from his station at the main turret, located directly on the top of the ship. “Enemy is firing lasers! Permission to fire!?”
A cursory glance at my control screen shows we’ve lost a quarter of our shields. Thankfully our range has kept the worst of the damage from us. I turn my chair directly behind to see the engineer and the scientist officers at their station. “Engineering, initiate jump drive charge and head back to the reactor. Science, give us modulated shields. Weapons, cleared to engage.”
Naomi, the engineer, pressed a few things on his console and then ran out of the bridge to man his station in the reactor to ensure we would not overheat. Just as he left, a red flash indicated our main turret fired. The ship lurched from the recoil as the laser spewed to the port side of the ship, towards the enemy cruiser that was, until now, 5 kilometers distant. Cocainee struggled to adjust the ship’s course against the powerful laser’s shot.
“Core temperature rising, captain,” warned Naomi from the reactor room aft. “Currently at 2,000 kP and climbing!”
The shipped rocked sideways, an explosion setting off alarms. The lights flicker momentarily then they’re back as I notice on the status screen our shields are not only down, but the weapons bay has taken serious damage. I jump from my captain’s chair to run to the teleportation room, which leads me to the weapons bay. The main power conduit and console was on fire so I quickly grab the fire extinguisher and begin spraying down the fire.
“Weapons damaged, charge to the main turret is incredibly slow,” reported Corsi.
“Standby to fire,” I reply. “Science run boost program and then attack with a sitting duck virus. Engineering, divert more power cells to science.”
The last of the embers died but still the gun would not charge. I grab my repair tool and set to it, working to restore the conduit fully. We had precious seconds before the enemy ship would fire it’s main turret again.
Hopefully that little anecdote of what the game is really like got you interested in Pulsar: Lost Colony because that is exactly what it’s like to be part of the crew of a starship. A lot of people call it a Star Trek simulator and I hesitate to call it that, simply because it might scare some people away (it might do that for myself, as I’m not a Star Trek fan).
The premise is simple, become a part of a crew, five in all, and work as a team to control the ship, battle, complete missions and explore the galaxy. You’ll be tasked with random missions like aiding friendly ships, ambushes and responding to distress beacons, but not just merely ship missions. Each ship is equipped with teleportation pads allowing you to beam not only to other ships when their shields are down, as a sort of boarding action, but also down to a planet’s surface to complete exploratory and assistance missions.
The game, currently in early-access beta is incredibly far along. This is yet another game I’ve watched (through Moddb.com) for at least 1-2 years. Finally I decided it was time to give it a go, and I’m more than impressed with it. It’s very stable and growing with each additional release, featuring a steady stream of content and minor bug squashing.
So without further ado, let’s get into the nitty-gritty:
There’s little that I’m not impressed with thus far with the gameplay. The game is centered around the five officers: Captain, who leads the ship and gives the orders. The Engineer is responsible for maintaining the reactor, fuel, coolant and power systems, controlling the warp drive, as well as a specializing in repair. The Scientist plays a multirole function, looking after the crew’s health, advancing the ship’s scientific research, and most importantly running the ship’s computers, viruses, firewall and more. The Weapons Specialist gets to pew pew things, as he’s the only one from the start that can operate the ship’s main turret. Last but not least, the Pilot is responsible for the direct control of the ship’s drives and thrusters.
The unique take on a first person space ship command game is incredible. It’s so different and fun, providing such a uncommon challenge with a small group of friends, it’s hard to put down and not like.
Each member has their own distinct duties both in the operation of the ship while navigating through the galaxy, which is procedurally generated and different every time, and while in battle. The galaxy, while not extremely unique every time, does change with every game in some ways so it provides a fresh galaxy with each play. The pilot, during navigation will need to align to the next system that the captain has plotted out, the engineer will need to prime the warp core to charge for the upcoming jump while science can scan the next system for possible planets, ships and more.
And with each member’s role, he’ll get skills and bonuses to his/her job. So weapons specialists will get bonuses to weapons cooldowns while the captain can get crew buffs. Every member has unique jobs that don’t necessarily overlap, while also having jobs that everyone can perform if another is busy (helping put out fires, repairing, etc). There might be a small bit of downtime but still everyone is kept engaged for the most part.
Amazingly, there’s not just one ship you can play with either. There are in total six different ships to choose from of varying sizes, each ship boasting it’s own model and unique interior, as well as it’s own sort of play style. The playstyles can vary from a small stealthy ship, to hard hitting carriers and cruisers and with the varying styles, there are a number of ways you can emerge as the victor (or suffer agonizing defeat) in battle. Obviously pummeling the enemy to death is one way, but you can use teleporters to beam aboard the enemy ship, disable ship systems and kill the crew to loot to your hearts content. Pirates can utilize a credit siphon virus, keeping range while stealing money from enemy ships.
There’s a number of factions within the game already, and you’ll earn reputation (or lose it) depending on your actions, which will affect your standing with them (whether you’re attacked on sight – IF they detect you that is), if you can access their repair stations and hubs, etc. As your game progresses you’ll earn credits from missions, which you can receive from NPCs at hubs or randomly from system jumps, XP which you can turn in for talent points to get buffs based on your officer role, and the chaos level will rise. I’ll talk about the chaos level below under challenge level, but it’s basically a difficulty meter that increases as your game progresses.
The missions can include a number of different tasks. Random missions can include investigating abandoned and crashed ships, requiring you to teleport aboard them and figure out what happened, ambush and combat assistance missions and more. These only last a specified amount of time before they expire. They’re a bit on the repetitive side, but with each release they’re adding more missions so I’d expect this to get better. I believe the game is at that point where adding content now is a main focus as bug squashing and actual coding has been established and minimized, so I can see this improving. I think it’s at that point where they’re still building the game a bit, but moreso now moving over to fleshing out more content. Regardless, there’s still a lot already.
Spaceship combat is not the only thing though. Many missions will require beaming down to a planet’s surface (after your science officer scans it to ensure you don’t need a exosuit to survive) or onto another ship. This FPS aspect of the game again gives P:LC a completely different feel than other spaceship games. You’ll be tasked with investigating crash sites, helping research stations repel spiders, or find and eradicate smuggler’s dens. There’s plenty to do and I’m extremely optimistic for every future update release.
Last I’ll touch up upon the market, ship upgrades and that sort of thing. Currently it’s pretty good but could be a lot better. Market prices are adjusted based on your standing with that particular faction, but I’d have to say that prices in general are a bit too low. There’s a great selection of different mods for the ship, upgrades to reactors, thrusters, weapons, and more. I’m not as impressed with the weapons, there’s not enough (currently there’s only one main type of turret and two types of secondary turrets) I know they’ll expand upon this, but it’s worth mentioning. There’s other types of ship weaponry, like nukes and missiles, but there needs to be more flavor to the turrets. There’s also a good amount of loot for your character, better pistols and such both to buy and find but there could certainly more. I’d like to see rifles (perhaps only usable by the weapons specialist), armor and other small buff objects.
I’ll say it again though, I’m extremely optimistic for future releases.
Graphics & Sound
Graphically, there’s nothing to write home about here. I’d say the visuals are “good enough” but they could certainly be improved upon. Space is engaging and each system brings it’s own look and feel, likewise each planet feels special. Even planet-side the environments, though small, are pretty diverse, ranging from cold planets that freeze your exo-suit’s view to lava planets, jungle planets and more.
Ship design is incredible. While there needs to be more, both for the player (even though I’m impressed that there is already 6 playable ships) and the enemies, the ships are still great. Graphically the ships and modules need to be diversified but I chalk this up to a beta thing right now, as it’s more about function currently than looks.
Sounds could be vastly improved and one of the major score detractions here. There’s little ambiance to the ship that I’d expect (and hope for) if I was inside a vessel that explored the stars. The hum of the drives, alarm klaxons when you take damage, shrill warnings, computerized spoken “warning” alarms as well, beeping and chiming of computers, reactor noises, groaning of metal and better damage sounds, improved weapons sounds, etc. This is where I am quite let down but hopefully it will be addressed. I can see the immersion factor going way up (will touch upon this below) with better ambient noises, not even just better sound effects.
Controls & UI
Controls are very straightforward, mostly owing to basic FPS elements and point-and-click on in-game screens on the ship. From that standpoint it’s simple and works pretty well. Not much to say here.
I took a few points off for one big reason, and this is currently tied for my biggest grip with the game as it stands. There are numerous consoles / screens in the ship itself that display shields and armor health, reactor output, etc. So you would use that to see that your shields are at 50%. Or you could use the immersion-breaking UI section that displays the two bars for shield and armor HP! Why would I use the in-game screens when the ship’s health is displayed so easily on the right of my screen? Not only does it show your health, but it shows your enemy’s health, too! Remove it please, or at least provide us with the ability to remove it in a “hardcore-type” mode, which I’ll detail under immersion.
Replayability – 14/15
With a randomly generated universe and a number of ships to try out and paths to play, there’s a good amount of replayability available. The galaxy itself doesn’t vary extremely, but there’s a new layout and systems (and their affiliation) change each time. There could be greater variance and I’d like to see that, but for now and where it’s at I can’t complain at all.
This was so close to being absolutely perfect. I feel like I’m truly an officer aboard an interstellar ship as each member of our team coordinates to ensure the ship is run smoothly. You really lose track of time in this game and it’s totally worth it. A lot of this immersion depends on your crew but the vast majority of players that I’ve played with, both friends and random players who have joined our public game join in on comms and contribute to the immersion. Orders are called out by the captain, officers preform their duty in accordance and call out functions as necessary. If you prefer to solo without a mic, this game is not for you, even though you can fill some slots with an AI bot.
But back to my biggest gripe: the need for a hardcore mode. Two things strike me as completely out of place though I understand their inclusion in the game, which is why I propose it be a game type that is an option, just like ironman. I mentioned one of the things that bother me, the UI that gives you the health of your ship and the enemy ship on your computer screen (not in game screens) needs to be removed. I shouldn’t always know what the exact health of my vessel is if I’m not at my station. It’s something we’re used to seeing in just about every single other game but doesn’t belong here.
The second thing that needs to be included in hardcore is first-person exclusive mode. So the majority of the game is first-person only, when doing most things, planetary combat, etc. However, when piloting, you get to use the exterior view to navigate the ship and it’s pretty immersion breaking and doesn’t belong in what is essentially a spaceship simulator. It wouldn’t be easy flying the ship through the main view screens but that’s how you’d have to do it. I’d like to see it happen.
The game progresses forward as you upgrade in the form of a chaos level. I believe it is based on the number of jumps/warps you’ve made but it basically ensures you’ll see harder enemies that you wouldn’t see when your ship isn’t as advanced. I like the idea, but I think it is too influential. I should run into ships / battles I can’t handle just as often as I run into easy opponents, no matter how much I’ve played this game. I should have to fire up warp drives and escape sometimes, and I feel like this is a rarity at the beginning. Make chaos level less of an impact on difficulty and randomize the ships you encounter more. Chaos level can still impact difficulty and boss battles, as well as end-game creep (I won’t spoil anything) but I need it to feel a less linear, less grindy progression and more luck and skill involved in each game, in each battle.
There’s also an ironman mode, which as expected won’t allow you to save before every jump. This functions as a permadeath-type game. In the current game, respawning yoru character is pretty common and there are no penalties for it. So eventually you’ll most certainly be able to take an enemy down, for example, on a planet. Ironman does not apply to player respawning, so unfortunately you will still be able to endlessly throw yourselves at an enemy, but it prevents save scumming. There needs to be a middle-ground with every game mode that when a player dies and respawns, he loses some loot and XP, and possibly talent points.
Mods & Modability
I’d say while there was other things that affected the score a bit more, this has to be the biggest disappointment. The devs, who are independent and started this via Kickstarter/Greenlight Steam, did not reach the funding goals necessary to ensure the code base supported mods. They’ve said to support mods they’d have to rewrite a ton of code and because of it, we probably won’t see many mods here.
This is an extreme shame, as community-made content would not only provide an extreme boom in depth, from player-made ships, planets, galaxies, AI improvements, and gameplay tweaks/ balance fixes, but would also ensure the life of Pulsar continues years into the future, long after the devs have moved on from this brilliant project.
I can only hope that some ambitious soul(s) will aim to make this moddable and create content. Where there’s a will there’s a way and I’d expect to see at least a few things.
Overall, I’m incredibly impressed with this game in it’s current state and can’t wait for more content to be added via beta releases. The game is very playable as it is, with only minor glitches and the occasional crash, it is well worth the money spent for it. Being an indie dev, it’s not even that pricey, either. So if you’re even on the fringe about getting this game, I highly recommend it, especially if you have a friend that the two of you could jump in.
The lack of mod support planned hurt this score but don’t let it fool you, the game is an extremely fresh breath of air for spaceship combat games. Much better than I had hoped for even back when I saw the devlogs a year or two ago on moddb. Just so long as the devs continue adding content as they plan to and have been the game will be a smash hit. I’d just like to see a hardcore mode!