Playing: FTL

by James M. Potter

FTL (Faster Than Light) (Subset Games, 2012)

It’s quite something to fashion an object which caters to a sci-fi nerd’s tastes so completely. Strip away the layers of such a person, lower their shields and download their memory core, and the primal desire you will discover is surely ‘starship captain’. Many have tried to capture this essence in a game, to give the player just what they’ve always wanted, the powers and responsibilities of space command. A large number have been sucked into a black hole. None that I’ve played come close to FTL. None have had me so consistently crouching in my chair, intently strategizing, thinking ahead like a chess master, cueing up commands and then tapping the space bar, barely suppressing a whispered ‘make it so’. 

It takes the form of an arcade-like level progression through randomly-generated star systems, each packed with jump markers that may hold any number of dangers – you don’t know until you jump into the unknown. You are the captain, responsible for getting your little ship and its vital information back to the Federation, all the while trying to stay ahead of the Rebels chasing you. You must juggle the power requirements of your ship and the scarce resources available. The tension can be quite extraordinary. I can’t think of the last time I was so glad of a pause function. Plunged into a new system only to find yourself immediately pummelled by asteroids, boarded by vicious aliens and staring down the nose of a rebel cruiser…only by lurching wildly for the space bar, catching your breath, and then attempting to calmly issue commands can you hope to survive.

As in many a roguelike, what come out of this game are stories, different for each player though hewn from the same basic experience, triumph at victory or devastation at loss. One crew was particularly memorable: my four starting crew members, named for the current members of Fleetwood Mac (what else?), quickly formed themselves into an elite fighting unit. It feels completely right to bark orders at the screen as you issue them with the mouse: “Lindsey, to the engine room!” “Stevie, repair the shields!”. The good ship Rhiannon made it right to the last sector (despite Mick perishing in a firefight – sorry Mick!).

Chaaaaiiin, keep this ship together!

“Chaaaaiiin, keep this ship together!”

One of the great advantages of the formula is the endless replayability. Each playthrough has you honing your starship-management skills, learning from your mistakes, enabling you to make those all-important risk/reward calculations with greater acuity each time. There’s also a particularly satisfying achievement and quest system which has you unlocking new ships and new variations on your old ships for subsequent playthroughs. There are so many different ways of playing the game and forging an individual style. Perhaps you’ll prefer to go aggressive, boarding the enemy and fighting hand-to-hand, or perhaps stealth and evasion will win out. You make these decisions on the fly based on the resources available to you.

And the story is by no means merely something to hang the gameplay on (though the latter is so strong I probably wouldn’t mind). The encounters are like a text adventure, written with a keen eye for humour, as ready to partake of sci-fi clichés as to gently mock them, but also capable of pathos. Despite my earlier reference to Picard, most of the time I feel more like Janeway, desperately trying to get my crew home, and in doing so, making some difficult moral decisions. A Federation ship trapped in an asteroid field, their shields failing – help them and risk damage or destruction, or grimly turn and jump to the next beacon? It’s enough to make you shout at everybody (I had to get him in somehow).

As you can probably guess, I rather like it. Steam says I’ve sunk 40+ hours into it, which given that I picked it up for a fiver in a sale is pretty good value for money in my book, especially considering I’m still discovering new encounters, weapons, ships and strategies. It’s also recently been revealed that a free content expansion is in the works and shortly to land, which means I will be ensconced in my captain’s chair for a while to come…