Independence War 2: Edge Of Chaos
|a game by||Particle Systems Ltd.|
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If there's one thing I hate, more than just about anything else in this world, it's a child hero. Some barely-out-of-nappies snotty faced little urchin -somehow saving the universe from an unstoppable evil. It just wouldn't happen. Ever. Not on this planet, nor in some distant solar system, in fact, not anywhere. You can just see it can't you? Zarg the Merciless, would be ruler of the Galaxy confronted by little Jimmy Bates, a six-year-old Billy Burner lookalike with a lazy eye and a lisp. What's little Jimmy going to do? Unleash some hidden power to thwart the evil one's plans? Fire his magic laser-firing rattle at Zarg's head perhaps?
Or is he going to fall over, look confused (wet his pants) and then start crying? Come on, be honest, it's going to be the third one isn't it? So imagine my horror when I first sat through the ten-minute introduction to Particle Systems' new space combat sim Edge Of Chaos, in which a young boy called Cal (who was obviously going to be the hero of the saga) is shown helping his father mine the face of a meteor with the kind of annoying enthusiasm that only a stupid child or a girlie swat could muster.
...my fear was totally misplaced. What was unfolding on screen was one of the best looking FMV sequences yet on the PC. As I watched, 1 saw the beauty of the graphics, and iptently listened to the well-acted dialogue (yes well-acted - amazing I know). I watched the death of Cal's father at the hands of an evil debt collector called Caleb Maas. I pushed back the tears as the orphaned and terrified Cal was captured by Maas and imprisoned for 15 years, with little else but a talking computer for company and a stack of hardcore porn to see him through his teenage years (for more details on the story see the What's Your Story panel). Suddenly it was all different. This wasn't going to be a space combat game about a little oik saving the universe, this was going to be something completely hew, different and enthralling. This was Edge Of Chaos.
As you may already have guessed, Edge Of Chaos is going to be a space combat sim heavily reliant on a stofyline. The game starts for real when Cal is heroically busted out of prison by a group of pirates and offered the chance to join their gang. Having had no role model during all those years in isolation, it's little wonder he eagerly embraces this life of crime and debauchery, and in no time at all he's - or rather you're - flying round the galaxy doing just about everything and anything it is that pirates do, bar hopping around on one le'g saying, "Arrrrgh, me hearties," and smelling of fish.
Getting To Grips With Your Stick
After the pretty FMVs you'll have to get to grips with flying a space craft, after all, lets not forget that this is the sequel to the excellent Independence War, which is still considered a golden oldie by many a space combat sim enthusiast. As in the prequel, you're going to be facing plenty of enemies intent on blowing you and your friends into the cold dark void. But don't worry. If you're a newbie, there'll be an in-depth tutorial to take you through each aspect of flying your craft, from navigation to dog fighting techniques.
Edge Of Chaos is set to revolutionise the control interface of space combat games forever. Veterans will know exactly what I'm talking about when I say that for the most part, games like this need a great deal more than just a decent joystick to fly your craft with. On top of this, there are usually about 137 different key combinations which control your ship's systems, which require a brain the size of a bowling ball if you're to remember them all. This won't be the case with Edge Of Chaos. Oh no. You'll be able to play the whole game without even touching your keyboard, as all of your ship's systems will be operated via the eightway hat on your joystick. Pushing it in different directions brings up menus, which allow you to access any part of your ship's onboard computer, be it a space chart to show you the way to the next system, or your vessel's power distribution. Having played the latest beta code, I can tell you now, it takes a little getting used to, but once you've mastered it, you'll never go back to playing with a keyboard again.
During the course of the game, you'll have a chance to get behind the flight stick of five different ships. The first of these is just a simple medium class Command craft. On the two extremes of this scale, you've got the hit and run ships such as the Storm Petrol - a deceptively powerful interceptor craft - and the slow but durable vessels like the TUg and Heavy Corvette, the latter of which will feature heavily towards the end of the game. Having been shown its awesome firepower, it looks like we're going to be in for some explosive battles come the grand finale.
However, if you want to get lliat far, you'll have to complete the best part of 50 main and 30 sub missions first. Particle Systems claims that it'll take your average Joe 80 hours of gameplay to get that far, while your below average Moe could be looking at anything between 100-120 hours of playing time. One thing that will strike you from the very first second though, is the sheer beauty of the backdrops and the breathtakingly well-rendered spacecraft which show off the game's brand new and hugely impressive Flux graphics engine.
Not Just A Pretty Story Line
The boys at Particle Systems, nice lads that they are, were keen to point out the game's freeform nature. Although Edge Of Chaos will revolve around a central story, the actual universe will be totally freeform. This means that no two missions will ever be the same. Cargo ships will dock with space stations while rival pirate organisations will go about their business. It'll be up to you whether or not to intervene should you stumble upon a defenceless depot that is under attack, or whether to wait for the fireworks to end and scavenge whatever loose cargo is left behind. You'll also be given the choice to play sub missions, in which certain corporations or businesses will ask you to complete tasks for them in return for money and equipment. In this respect Edge Of Chaos will be very much like your average KPG, with its central theme and branching optional missions. Thankfully though, there'll be absolutely no risk of stumbling across a pointy beard or goblin called Bert, or even a goblin called Bert with a pointy beard. And that's a promise.
Multiplayer Options will include dcathmatch, team deathmaich, CTF and bomb tag options, with up to 16 players battling it out over the Net or a LAN. With a Newtonian physics flight model, controlling your ship will be hugely authentic, and larger sized vessels will handle completely differently to the smaller, nippier ones.
Spit And Dribble
It's been a long time since we were this excited about a space combat game. In fact, I can't remember us ever being this excited about a space combat game. Usually most people in the PC are somewhat indifferent to the genre, but Edge Of Chaos has made us all drool with anticipation. Since the preview code landed on our desks we've literally been skidding on puddles of dribble. We've had gormless looking janitors all over the place, staring blankly into distance while mopping up the mess. But now they've seen the game and they've started drooling too. Big yellow cones warning passers by of the hazardous surfaces are everywhere, the PC basement hideout is a giant vat of gob, and the entire floor's circuitry is about to cut out.
Which means I may not have time to tell you that next month we'll be running the world exclusive review of this incredible game, and how you won't find another review of it anywhere on this planet. The level is rising, so all that's left to say before I go, is don't miss it or... (false alarm) you'll regret it. Has anyone got any armbands?
What's Your Story?
Not one, not two, but three acts in Edge Of Chaos? storyline? Now you're just spoiling us.
While most games follow just one theme throughout, with the odd predictable twist thrown in for good measure, Edge Of Chaos is set to feature three distinct acts in its storyline Each one will have a unique atmosphere and even an exclusive sound track. The story will unfold in the form of lush FMV sequences, and in game cut-scenes. And with an engine as impressive as the Flux, it's going to be hard to tell the two apart. Act one will be set directly after your rescue from Caleb's prison, and will involve much pirating, and gathering of resources. We've been promised that things really hot up in acts two and three, with the final act apparently placing a huge responsibility on your shoulders, and throwing up some incredible plot twists. And let's not forget that there'll be a war for you to fight in as well, it's not called Indpendence War 2 for nothing you know. If you want to find out what triggers this conflict, you'll just have to read our review next month.
It's been some time since we've had an excellent storyline in a space combat game, but if Particle Systems is to be believed - they look like an honest enough bunch - then this trend could be about to change. Here's hoping.
Download Independence War 2: Edge Of Chaos
The last couple of days have been far from easy. It's been a race to get myself fit in time to write this review, after one of the most demanding gaming experiences of my life -so demanding in fact, that it's literally sent my brain into meltdown. I've been forced to store certain sections of my mind in a glass jar, as it's been spilling all over the floor from the strain of it all. However, against all the odds, I've managed to force the spillages back in with the aid of a broken-off cue tip, and have started typing again with the help of a pencil jammed up one of my nostrils. Which means I can finally start telling you about the game which struck me down in the first place. A game so deep, complex and intriguing and yet at times hideously confusing that it scrambles your innards and toys with your emotions with its concoction of awe-inspiring Ideas and infuriating shortcomings. I am of course talking about Edge Of Chaos-an epic space combat sim, which tries to mix a powerful storyline and a freeform universe into a game with universal appeal, but instead manages to entertain and annoy you in near identical measures.
So what's so damn complicated about it I hear you ask, after all, it's just a space combat sim. Launch, shoot some aliens, land. Easy right? Wrong. In fact, as far as Edge Of Chaos is concerned this couldn't be further from the truth. Take the manual for example. In it you'll find all sorts of techie information about Newtonian flight models, advanced piloting techniques, strafing manoeuvres and even tips on how to regulate the heat of your craft to maximise your stealth capabilities. It tells of countless star systems, all of which can be explored and interacted with freely. And yet all the while, there's a storyline running in the background, ushering you in the right direction at key moments. Then there's the trading, pirating, manufacturing and recycling of goods. There's even an encyclopedia which fills you in on the game's background, and prequel, Independence War. You soon realise that there's a whole universe of ideas out there and you're going to have to explore them all at some stage. And that's when the panic sets in, and the sweat starts to pour from your forehead onto the manual, smudging all the ink and leaving you stranded on your knees, clawing at the page in a futile attempt to wipe the pages clean just so you can try to understand this daunting game. Just as well then that things start to fall into place (albeit slowly) once you fire the game up. But more on that in a minute.
The Storyline Bit
Before we go on, it's probably a good idea to fill you in on what Edge Of Chaos is all about. You play Cal Johnston, son of Felix who in turn was the son of expirate Lucrecia Johnston. The scene is set by a hugely impressive ten-minute intro, with professional voice actors adding life to the gorgeously rendered characters. It shows how a 12-year-old Cal watches helplessly as his father gets killed by the evil Caleb Maas, or Caleb Maaaarss as he constantly refers to himself, as he's a bit of toff. He's all like, "My name is Caleb Maaaars, heir to the Maaaars dynasty, I do so hate conversing with poor people." Needless to say, he's a bloody nasty piece of work. But before you have a chance to go round to give him a fine kicking for what he's done to your old man, you get banged up for 80 years for failing to pay off your father's debts, which kind of puts your plans for revenge on the backburner.
A mere 15 years later (hey, it could've been worse), Cal and four other inmates manage to escape and set up shop as would-be pirates at Lucrecia's Base, the old headquarters of Cal's late pirate grandmother. Follow so far? Good.
OK, from here, the plot is divided into three acts. In the first one you have to build up your pirating empire by nicking as much as you can from law-abiding traders and completing important tasks for corporations in return for goods.
Of the three, this act is by far the most confusing if you're simply trying to stick to the storyline, as you're never quite sure which missions will progress the plot, and which ones are just throwaway sub-games that can be ignored. So you end up doing all of them, half the time getting lost while feeling very bored because you can't find the location your briefing eluded to, and generally getting pissed off at being so disorientated.
However, if you're into your freeform, elite-style trading, then you'll be in your element, jumping from one star system to the next, spoddily memorising the location of every space station while hijacking transport ships, stealing goods, recycling them, manufacturing new ones and then trading them with someone else. If you're prepared to forego the storyline for a while, it's pretty easy to totally immerse yourself in this freeform style of play, indulging in ever more daring raids to boost your arsenal and satisfy your overly demanding customers. After a few hours, you'll be gripped with the will to discover better weaponry for your ships becoming almost irresistible. There are an incredible 20 types of weapon with six enhancements for each, and six categories of missile, along with detachable turrets that act as wingmen when they're not wired up to you.
There are also superior defence systems - shields, countermeasures and mines. Backed by one of the most atmospheric soundtracks yet to grace the PC, playing Edge Of Chaos in this way becomes nothing short of hypnotic (for a few days anyway), as it pulls you back time and time again with its dark foreboding beauty, consuming your life like a virtual black hole.
In contrast, acts two (the forming of an alliance against corrupt corporations) and three (the second Independence War, which comes with an unexpected twist) are geared far more towards all you space combat purists, so it's just a shame that you have to wade through the first act in order to get to the real action. The plot is advanced by means of emails sent to your base by allies and in-game cut-scenes. However, after the hugely impressive FMVs at the start, you're left hanging on until the end of the game before you get to see another one, which leaves you feeling a bit cheated. Yes, cheated I tell you, in fact downright robbed I'd say. Where are the big-budget, explosionladen, suspense-building FMVs, which help you push through the bad times? Times when you're bored of flying round space, bored of being a pirate, singing shanties and talking about loot, when you're thinking of giving up and doing something which suddenly seems more interesting like flossing your teeth in front of morning TV? Where are they? Eh? Eh? They're not there, are they? Hmmm? No, they're bloody not. Which is a damn shame, because developer Particle Systems has missed a glorious opportunity to propel not only this game, but the entire genre into another dimension. Imagine the best of X - Beyond The Frontier (trading, fighting and building up an empire), Wing Commander IV (a superb FMV-driven storyline) and FreeSpace 2(the best space-based dogfighting around) all bought together In one game.
That's what Edge Of Chaos could have been with a tighter, perhaps even branching storyline, backed up by some well-scripted FMVs and some clearer mission goals. It's a hugely ambitious project as it is, but it never quite manages to hit the mark the way you hope it will.
Come Fly With Me
So on to the all-important part, flying your ship, which of course is subject to this thing we touched on earlier called a Newtonian flight model. There are five ships at your disposal, ranging from wimpy but nippy fighters to the Iron Sheik of combat vessels, the Corvette. Each one is customisable to suit your style of play. While they all handle differently and pack varying amounts of firepower, they're all subject to the same physics. So if you're flying in a straight line at 2km a second and you suddenly do a 180 degree turn, you'll find yourself travelling backwards at 2km a second, as you're still being propelled by your original inertia. Theoretically, it will take you as long to reach a standstill as it took you to get up to speed, so before you can start accelerating in your new direction, you have to wait tor your engines to counter your original propulsion. Confused yet?
You probably won't be too surprised then, to learn that this is going to take some time to master, especially during dogfights, where you have to start braking well in advance of enemies passing you. This is so that you can swing round behind them, hit the throttle, and take advantage of their unprotected rears more ruthlessly than a head teacher at an all boy's private school. For the first few hours, most duels simply degenerate into full-frontal charges, with the ship with the strongest shields and most powerful guns usually ending up victorious. As you progress and start to learn various tricks, your enemies become ever more tricky to deal with, and dogfights become far more brutal affairs.
But Wait There's More
But that's only the start of it. One of the most innovative features is the ability to strafe. By turning at 90 degrees while travelling at speed, you can run your vessel along the sides of larger ships. This not only makes you hard to hit, but allows you to inflict maximum damage over the largest possible area. You can also strafe as you fly forward (making you fly diagonally), by using the A and 0 keys, which along with the propulsion keys W (accelerator), S (brake) and the joystick (up, down, left, right) makes the combat interface similar in style to a FPS. Again, you have to give yourself time to learn all the subtle tricks of space combat. This steep - er OK, more like vertical - learning curve is one of the things that gives Edge Of Chaos so much more of a lasting appeal than the likes of Starfancer, if you can only bring yourself to persevere long enough to find the quality hidden behind its reams of jargon and mind-wrenching complexity. It's just as well then that Edge Of Chaos comes with a revolutionary HUD display which allows you to control every part of your ship via the eight-way hat on your joystick.
A New Dawn
It's time to throw out your keyboards people (apart from the WSAD keys of course), the revolution is upon us. Simulation fans everywhere unite and gather together for a ritual burning of these outdated control devices. Break them with hammers and tell your children they're building blocks. Or use them to make your own home-made scrabble set. Edge Of Chaos has shown us the future, leading us to the promised land where gamers no longer have to toil with tacky incomprehensible keyboard layout cards, but instead use a set of simple, joystick-driven menu screens to issue commands. And it's just as well, because without this, Edge Of Chaos would simply be too mind-blowing for anyone other than total simulation geeks. Casual gamers everywhere would quite literally lose their minds while trying to keep track of what was going on, and the world's gaming community would be reduced to hordes of dribbling vegetables.
Despite its many plus points, and contrary to the over-optimistic claims made by the press release, Edge Of Chaos is, unfortunately, unlikely to appeal to the mass market. If you're an X - Beyond The Frontier fan, then you'll probably feel most at home with it, while StarLancer lovers will no doubt end up feeling swamped by the enormity of it all. Regardless of who you are though, Edge of Chaos will test your patience and ability to their limits. Be warned, you'll need a stockpile of perseverance and mountains of spare time if you want to experience Edge Of Chaos at its best. However, if you're prepared to put the time in you'll uncover hidden treasures, glowing brightly from a game of true beauty (despite its flaws), style and intrigue, with innovations that should be an inspiration to space combat sim developers for years to come. This is just the beginning my friends. Even though these first few steps are far from perfect, this is surely the way forward for the genre, a blend of freeform gaming backed by an ever-evolving plot. If others improve on what Edge Of Chaos has begun, then an exciting future lies ahead...
The Usual Suspects
Although they're not developed quite as well as they could be, Edge Of Chaos' characters have distinct personalities and important roles to play.
This is you, a square-jawed hero with a stereotypically gravelly voice. Leader of the pirates, your main goals in life are to help the repressed underclasses against their corporate oppressors and avenge your father's death, by tracking down and killing the ruthless and evil Caleb Maas. Oh yeah, you've been to prison and everything, so you're really hard, too.
Second-in-command Lemuel obviously missed the point when trying to make himself look like a genuine pirate, hacking off an arm instead of a leg and having tattoos drawn on his shoulder in place of a parrot Lemuel helped Cal survive the rigours of a hard labour camp for 15 years, and with a prosthetic arm that size, I don't doubt it for a second.
Azraelle Tbuki' Takagi
A distant descendent of David Coulthard, there's more to this mysterious gal than an affinity with crap F1 drivers. Staunchly loyal to you, she's a lethal pilot with as much ability as she has jawline. She'll start flying on your wing just as soon as you steal her a ship and find her a helmet big enough to fit over her head.
Spoilt rich girl Lori is still trying to get over the fact that daddy didn't buy her a space scooter for her 16th birthday. Having turned her back on her life as heiress to the Trieste dynasty, she's determined to make a name for herself as a hard-nosed combat pilot, so long as It doesn't get in the way of manicures and her weekly trip to the therapist.
Fat, bald and dumb-looking, Jafs' role Is to get the best price for the things you steal. In an attempt to make him feel useful, Jafs is also given the task of picking up and dropping off cargo. This gives the former street urchin a major role in the game, helping him regain his sense of self-worth while providing him with a distraction from eating doughnuts.
Speaking of stereotypes, how about this one? While Caleb may have a ridiculous name that sounds like a luxury cruise liner, he's also the heir to the Maas dynasty and responsible for Cal's father's death. He's rich, ruthless and infamous, and only one person can stop him. No prizes for guessing who that might might be (hint - you).
Running a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art intergalactic battleship has never been so easy.
One of the main goals Particle Systems set out to achieve when developing Edge Of Chaos was to make sure it didn't scare off casual gamers with ridiculously complicated keyboard layouts (shame it didn't apply that rule to everything eh?). So it came up with the HUD interface, a system which allows you to control every aspect of your ship, purely with the eight-way hat on your joystick. And would you believe It, It's actually really easy to use. Each direction takes you to a different menu (engineering, weapons, communications and navigation), from which you can issue commands quickly, efficiently and without complication. Expect to see countless rip-offs of this idea over the next couple of years.
A space combat sim based in the 24th century, charting the adventures of a space pirate called Cal, who's intent on avenging the death of his father. Set in a dynamic universe, the engine will incorporate Newtonian physics - and while the action won't be as frantic as the likes of StarLancer, there'll be plenty of it, including many random encounters. Multiplayer will include Deathmatch options.
What's The Big Deal?
The easy-to-use joystick-operated HUD could open up the genre to those put off by complicated keyboard layouts, while the all new Flux graphics engine makes IW2 the best looking space combat game yet.
What, with the huge popularity of Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5, you'd think more developers would be clambering to jump on the space combat sim bandwagon. Of course, this has never been the case, so the most that us sci-fi loving folk can hope for, is that when one does finally come along, it's a good one. And after seeing Independence War 2 first hand, it looks like we're not about to be disappointed.
Set in the 24th century, the story revolves around an orphan called Cal (that's you that is), who as a boy watches his father be killed by an evil and infamous mercenary, Caleb Maas. Psychologically scarred, he grows up into an angry young man.
Wanting revenge at all costs, he . becomes the leader of a group of pirates and sets about avenging the death of his father. However, his struggle for retribution eventually contributes to the break out of the second Independence War. It's a common tale.
For the most part, space combat sims can be divided into two categories, the all-out shooter and the intergalactic trader. However, as with more recent releases such as Tachyon: The Fringe, IW2 tries to find a happy medium. While the action is fast and furious, there'll also be chances to earn upgrades for your ships and choose which organisations you want to work for.
Despite its flirtation with a dynamic and free-form universe, IW2 will be heavily story driven, with in-game cut-scenes and an occasional spectacular FMV to drive the plot. We've also been promised that there'll be plenty of twists in the storyline, which is always a bonus.
The game's all new Flux graphics engine is the reason behind IW2's gorgeous graphics. Have a quick look at the screenshots and you'll see what I mean. Ships are subject to Newtonian physics, which will make the manoeuvrability of the larger ones totally different to that of lighter and faster spacecraft. From what we've seen so far, the sense of scale is excellent, and the size of some of the freighters and space stations has to be seen to be believed.
While there are only going to be five ship types for you to fly, there'll be more than 100 different ship configurations in all, which means the scope for variety is going to be huge. Upgrades to your vessel will include different weapons and improved defensive and navigational systems. In order to make the experience more accessible to the masses, Particle Systems has reworked the HUD interface, allowing you to control all of your ship's systems with the eight-way-hat on your joystick. Granted, this sounds pretty clumsy, but it's all very simple, honestly, it is. And fans of the original need not worry either, as the keyboard layout will be almost identical to the first game.
IW2 certainly got me excited, which is incredible considering the mood I was in after the eight hours of travelling I had to endure just to get to see it. Graphically it's stunning and the combat, especially between the larger ships, is some of the best I've witnessed in a space combat sim. With its 40 missions, dynamic universe and intuitive interface, X: Beyond The Fontier's days as top dog of the space combat sim genre may well be numbered.