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|Old School Games, Cult Classic Games
Oh for heaven's sake. How hard can it possibly be to simulate the entire universe in a game, fill it with dozens of alien races, set up a fully working dynamic real-time galactic economy, introduce a workable combat system and then add a persistent online aspect? I mean, it's only the universe for goodness sake. It's not like we're talking rocket science or quantum physics here. Even though the space sim genre is littered with the corpses of noble yet failed attempts to take the once-great Elite blueprint and expand it into a game for the new millennium, people still aren't giving up. The original Eliteman himself, David Braben, is beavering away on Elite IVlike some sort of games-designing beaver. Microsoft has got Erin Roberts chained in their basement somewhere, churning out finished code for Freelancer. And a chap called Derek Smart has just finished the latest version of a long-running series called Battlecruiser. And just to make sure people know that this is a space sim for the new millennium, it helpfully includes said word in the title. How nice.
The Sky At Night
On paper, Battlecruiser sounds like the best thing since sliced Elite. The game every space sim fan has been after since the galaxy was first invented by Sir Patrick Moore in 1973. Battlecruiser essentially puts you in the command seat of a Starship Enterprise-style vessel, filled with crew members, fighter craft, shuttles, probes, mines, missiles and everything else you could ask for. You can swan about the universe trading away in an Elite stylee, upgrading your ship's systems, buying better weapons and making more money. You can be assigned missions by the military. You can just go exploring the inky blackness of space if you really want. It's up to you.
Not only that but planets can all be visited, either by transporting down or flying off in a shuttle. Squads of marines can be sent down to the surface in Star Trek-style away teams, doing battle with enemy forces, taking over enemy bases or just colonising unclaimed areas. You can even pop down yourself, entering a basic FPS-mode of the game, running around on foot, driving around in vehicles or flying around in jetpacks (that can also be used in space). Whatever you feel like doing basically.
All of which sounds superb. On paper. The problem is the game itself. For a start it's bugged to hell. It took me about two days just to get the game to work for more than 20 minutes at a time without crashing back to Windows. If you can get past the bugs you soon see that while the potential for a mammoth game is there, the actual implementation - not to put too fine a point on it - sucks.
Too much of the game appears rushed or unfinished. There are dozens of alien races but only campaigns for the Terran military or insurgent forces are included. You can choose an interestingsounding career as a scientist or diplomat, but then you don't get anything scientific or diplomatic to do in the game. And why would anyone want to be a trader if you're given a ship with no defences whatsoever (and no ability to acquire any)? What are you going to do if you're attacked? Which you will be, often. Usually with no warning. Plus every attack inevitably ends up with you taking intruders on board your ship, who then run around trying to sabotage your systems, kill your crew and steal your shuttles. Which is fair enough if you could do the same. But no. Again, a rushed idea that wasn't fully thought through.
As is the FPS mode. A potentially great idea but wasted through a lack of things to do other than fight enemy bases and a needlessly complicated tactical system - why can't marine forces be issued group orders? Why do they just stand there taking hits unbl you tell them to fire back on the surrounding enemy?
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Battlecruiser is full of elements like this, all of which make the game no fun whatsoever. And that's before you even think about the constant machine-crashing bugs.
LOST IN SPACE
Battlecruiser's biggest problem lies with Derek Smart himself. Several years ago the man had die kernel of a good idea, a plan to out- Elite Elite, to out-Wing Command Wing Commander, to out-imperium Galactica... (we get the idea - Ed.). The only trouble was Smart wasn't quite as up to the task as he has led himself to believe.
Smart often boasts about the fact that his is a fully independent company, not beholden to publisher demands. However, one of the benefits of having a publisher can be the feedback that comes with the territory -developers often get too close to their products and can't see the flaws. Unfortunately, Smart simply hasn't taken on board anyone else's opinion or crfticism and the game suffers as a result. Hence Battlecruiser comes off looking ill-thought-through, amateurishly coded and riddled with holes.
Close. But No Cigar
Flicking through the manual, reading Smart's comments on the official website, even just looking at some of the options and tactical screens in the game all give the impression that Battlecruiser should be something really special. But that in itself isn't enough to warrant praise or adulation. After all, any Elite fan worth their salt will at one point have whipped out a pen and paper and jotted down ways to turn the basic Bell/Braben skeleton into the ultimate computer game (I know I have).
While Smart certainly warrants praise for having attempted to make an impossible dream come true, no one can really come away from Battlecruiser Millennium and say he's achieved his goal. Hell, you're lucky if you can come away from Battlecruiser Millennium not wanting to put your fist through the screen in frustration. There could have been a great game in here, but it just isn't worth the hassle trying to find it. Wait for Elite IV instead.
Download Battlecruiser Millennium
Let's not go into the abortive release of the original Battlecruiser game. Actually let's: a game so bugged we refused to review it when it first arrived. The same game that was fixed by its developers, released free on the Internet, updated again and released on budget. Now, the game is soon to be unleashed totally rebuilt and expanded beyond even the ambitious remit of the original. Actually, ambitious seems the wrong word to use. Grand might be better, certainly in its ideal, but anyway, on with the preview...
Like the old 16-bit classic Carrier Command, Battlecruiser was at its simplest a strategy/action game where you not only commanded your own starship, but the fighters, shuttles and terrain vehicles as well. More than that you had to manage your crew, roam an entirely dynamic and open-ended universe, and engage - if you so wished - in piracy and trade. So for all its action and strategy, Battlecruiser was just as much a role-playing game. Not to mention a hardcore simulation of space flight - and by hardcore we mean hardcore: Battlecruiser was to Wing Commander what Animal Farm is to Emanuelle - specialist stuff.
Thankfully, though Millennium will give players even more to do, we are promised an easier time of it in the new release. The interface has been cleaned up, the graphics are accelerated to the highest of standards, and added to the list of features is a first-person action mode, meaning that you are no longer fixed into the captain's or pilot's chair. Role-playing has always been an essential part of Battlecruiser, but it now seems to have been expanded to Baldur's Gate proportions. You can select to play as one of 12 races, choose one of three careers (commander, pilot or marine) as well as a profession within that career (science, military, and so on). And no matter what you choose to be, the whole universe around you will carry on regardless, whether you stick to a series of missions or ignore orders and take to the great unknown. The good news for many is that if the space simulation side leaves you white with fear, you can play the game as a foot soldier.
Gameplay aside, BCM is no less ambitious in technical terms. We're reliably informed that there are 12 different 3D engines at work, rendering everything from space flight, planetary bodies and terrain with the detailed physics modelling binding it all together. Graphically BCM voids itself all over the previous game and though not as 'Hollywood' as some other space combat games, easily eclipses all when it comes to scale and thought.
But as old hands will know, it is going to require patience and hard work - Battlecruiser Millennium won't be a game for the faint-hearted. But then who said space was an easy place to be? One thing we can be sure of is that after nearly 15 years of thought and ongoing development, it will be the game its creators have always wanted it to be - hardcore space simulation on an unprecedented scale. Quite frankly, it is this that concerns us more so even than the threat of bugs.