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The solar flair of Sol: Exodus [Review]

26 Jan 2012  by   Paul Younger
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The space sim has been undergoing a bit of a revival of late. In the last week, Sol: Exodus, The Wreckless and Evochron Mercenary have all been released. Elsewhere, Pioneer is slowly trying to recreate Frontier: Elite II and fans continue to rave about the Freespace 2 source code project, which adds improved graphics and multiple other improvements (not to mention mods) to the classic title. Egosoft’s X series is also still going strong.

However, aside from The Wreckless, Sol: Exodus is the only game attempting to take us back to the straightforward space-dogfight action of titles like X-Wing, or Wing Commander.
These games took the excitement of action sequences from shows like Battlestar Galactica (the original series, although it applies to the remake too) and Star Wars; putting players in the cockpit of famous sci-fi fighters or creating new backstories and galaxies to save. In effect, they were flight sims with arcade sensibilities and (to a greater or lesser degree) the physics of outer space.

Sol: Exodus chooses an original path for its narrative, but sprinkles it with plenty of familiar sci-fi trappings like the human colonisation of the Solar System and a dying Sun. The ships in the game also have the hint of the familiar, with larger, capital ships spitting fighters and missiles into space, slow moving bombers and nimble, ‘Elite’ fighter foes. Without delving too deeply into the story, players take the role of a nameless Commander, returning to the Solar System after a semi-successful search for a habitable planet.
It’s not entirely successful, because he’s the only one coming back. Aided by dependable AI companion Cassi, each mission finds you behind the flight-stick of a fighter, while Cassi keeps matters in order on the larger capital vessel named Atlus. It’s never quite explained why you choose to dart around in a fighter rather than using the Atlus turrets to gun enemies down, but perhaps you have a very strong sense of fair play.

If that’s the case, you’re in the shoes of a rather foolish man, because the Children of Dawn (your trusty antagonists) will happily use every trick they have to blow you up. These fanatical fellows seem to have got it into their heads that the Sun’s death is God’s will, so anybody trying to escape it is a heretic. As a result, they make your life quite awkward. But they also give you a chance to discover that swooping in behind a rival fighter, getting him in your sights and letting loose with a hail of gatling fire or a guided missile never gets old.

You can take to the stars using either mouse and keyboard, gamepad or joystick, with the first option being my preferred option (though it should be said I wasn’t able to test out a joystick since I haven’t owned one for several years).
Control is smooth and weighted intelligently to some arcade-style space physics, although a mouse sensitivity option is oddly missing, so if you need to alter that you’ll have to either delve inside config files or change the setting on your desktop before playing. For a look at how Sol: Exodus handles in action, watch the video below where I play through the first mission proper of the game.

[video2=2680]

Broadly speaking, Sol: Exodus achieves the developer’s stated goals of bringing back a fast, fun space combat game in the vein of similar 90s titles. In doing their bit to revive a somewhat niche genre they should be applauded. But there are a few areas where the title either makes mistakes, or could do with a little improvement. Like most fans of minority genres, the space combat crowd can be a demanding lot and will almost certainly pick apart some of these issues.

Most troublesome are the methods of targeting and (in a related problem), the radar. There are two hotkeys for targeting enemy ships; one cycles from the nearest vessel through the farthest, while the other does the reverse. Unfortunately, it can’t distinguish between different types of vessel, so in situations where you want to quickly focus on, say, the incoming bombers threatening the Atlus, it’s necessary to cycle through until you find them. A way to latch on to the nearest ship of a certain type, or maybe the nearest threat to the Atlus (the loss of which will instantly end a mission) would be welcome. [This actually seems to have been added now, in a patch released after this review was written. Hurrah.]

In space combat games, the radar is the companion to the targeting system in figuring out where the nearest foes are in relation to yourself or the mission objective. Sol: Exodus has made the somewhat odd choice of keeping the radar in 2D which, in the 3D environment of space, makes it pretty confusing to interpret in the heat of a fight.

Dogfighting aficionados may lament the lack of tactical options, like the ability to direct more power to or from the laser, engine or shield systems (as was the case in Tie Fighter). There is a simple upgrade system, where you can permanently improve aspects of your ship with ‘points’ earned in campaign missions, but this isn’t as engaging as on-the-fly alterations to your vessel during flight.

Also missing is any ability to command allies during a battle. Several missions feature friendly fighters, but they just do their own thing (which can be a little annoying when there’s a clear threat they’re just ignoring). Both of these omissions are design decisions, and I can see that the developers wanted to focus purely on streamlined, hero-lead combat, but they’re features that many people will miss.

Throughout the game’s eight mission campaign (which includes the tutorial prologue), there are a majority of missions which deal with the defense of transport carriers, or your Atlus mothership, or some other mission critical structure. Defense missions are a good way to build tension and relieve the AI of the duty of being skilled enough to shoot the player down, but too many in a row begins to feel stale. This is a purely subjective view, but a little more variety in mission design would’ve been welcome.

None of these things are major flaws, but they do chip away at what’s otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable four or five hours of gaming. Developers Seamless Entertainment are actively patching and improving the title (as I’ve been writing this, a fresh patch has been released addressing issues with aiming and key bindings), and given that the main story ends around Saturn it seems highly likely that there will be more missions to come based around the other planets in the Solar System.
As an affordable, accessible leap back into the shoes of a space fighter ace, Sol: Exodus is a success.

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