I doubt that I am entirely alone in this: as I spend the majority of my waking hours chained to a desk where I craft elegant business logic out of a seemingly infinite supply of pixels, I find that the gift of decades of experience often allows me to devote at least a small portion of my mental activity to daydreaming about more adventurous and rewarding occupations. Alaskan bush pilot? Check. Formula One race driver? Yep. Astronaut? Of course.
All of these virtual careers have something in common: they are very attractive to the desk-bound dreamer, right up until that moment when a chilling dose of reality intrudes. It doesn’t take too many episodes of Flying Wild Alaska or the witnessing of very many violent car wrecks to sully the dreams. Having seen a pair of NASA’s space shuttles meet tragic and spectacular ends surely put a damper on any desire to pursue space travel as an occupation or avocation. But, that having been said, these exotic endeavors share another trait: all of them can be experienced to some degree through the miracle of modern PC gaming. Wannabe pilots have a number of high quality simulations to choose from, as do prospective race drivers. And those that dream of traversing the vast regions of outer space while making a living through the use of their wits, skills, and bravery, have Evochron Mercenary.
Considering the almost unimaginable vastness of space, it seems inarguable that E-M is the mother of all “sandbox” games. Probably the most notable technical feature of the game is that the entire universe is loaded into memory, a feature that completely removes the experience-interrupting delays in game play that result from lengthy load times as the player moves from one area to another. If one had sufficient time and patience, it would be possible to bridge the immense distances between planetary systems in real time without once experiencing a pause for the loading of new scenery. This capability is probably aided by the fact that space is something like 99.99999% empty, but still.... it’s a stellar accomplishment.
It is necessary and proper to also note that this use of vast expanses of a far more limited resource, namely onboard memory, was more than likely the reason that I had such a difficult time getting the game to run on my five year old PC. This PC is capable of running things like iRacing, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Microsoft Flight Simulator, so it isn’t completely decrepit, but it wasn’t until all video settings were configured to the Ultra Low setting that E-M was even able to launch. That was unfortunate since it never allowed me to see the full spectacle of a well-rendered space environment, but it did not seem to have much of an adverse effect on the game play.
So, the game play. Think “Firefly.” You are the captain of a moderately capable space ship. You start out with just enough fuel and money to make it to the nearest space station or inhabited planet where you can find and accept paying missions and possibly buy a little more fuel. Missions can take the form of delivering supplies, racing other hotshot captains, or performing cleaning and mining tasks. You don’t have to accept any missions if you’d prefer to maintain your independence and find your own sources of income. What you choose to do and how you choose to do it is completely up to you. The game provides just enough structure to get you started, which is a boon to the new player who will surely be overwhelmed by the complexity of the game. More experienced players can just jump in and start doing whatever it is that they want to do.
“Firefly,” it must be said, comes to your mind later. It occurs to you long after your first impression, which is more along the lines of “Wow, is this ever overwhelmingly complex.” That thought, the one about the complexity, occurs to you about 30 seconds into the first of the half dozen or so tutorials. To put it plainly, there is a lot to learn, and not a lot of time to learn it. Upon reflection, this is not all that surprising. Controlling the ship, its systems, its weapons, and its navigation all require the use of dozens of different keys and, at least in the case of controlling the ship, the understanding of operating in a weightless, frictionless environment. There’s some help in that area courtesy of the inertial dampening system which controls much of the complex movement, although the use of that system tends to burn a lot more of the very limited fuel supply. Even with the inertial dampening system turned off, things are made quite a bit simpler by the positive start/stop action of the rotational thrusters. In other words, if you activate a thruster that works around the longitudinal axis of the ship, releasing the thruster instantly stops the rotation rather than letting it continue unabated as would happen in a true space environment.
With the operation of the ship more or less mastered, the next challenge is navigation. Fortunately, there are jump drives installed on your ship, and while their range is limited until such time as you can purchase upgrades, they do serve as a means to cross long distances almost instantly. Unfortunately, the jump drive will quite happily attempt to push your ship through any solid, planetary objects that may be in your path with universally disastrous consequences. Plan your routes accordingly. Navigation is made somewhat more difficult than may have been intended by the lack (or, as is quite possible, just too hard for me to find) of a navigational search function.
As an example, the first assignment available to me after the tutorials were completed could be found on the planet New Hope, which I had no hope of being able to find. After a few minutes of poking around in adjoining sectors in the nav screen, I did eventually find it, but one would think that a ship as advanced as mine would have a simple search function built into the nav computer. Of course, I am the type that always cringed when Jean-Luc Picard would order “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” from the computer on his version of the Enterprise. What, they couldn’t set personal preferences in the system? He couldn’t set up a macro to translate a simple request for “tea” to his default “Earl Grey, hot?” I fear that life in the future is going to be very irritating.
As I was making my way to New Hope, I received a distress call from someone/someplace that needed an emergency delivery of water. Living down to the stereotype of a mercenary, I decided that it didn’t pay enough and maintained my course to a hopefully more lucrative engagement. After dying in a batched attempt to penetrate the atmosphere of New Hope and make a smooth docking, I arrived at the station post-reincarnation, ready for a mission. I was asked to deliver a package to a Navy ship in nearby-ish space. The launch and the rendezvous with the ship went well, but I couldn’t figure out how to actually deliver the package. As it turns out, there are no door bells in space. After quite a few minutes of frustration, I just found a button that said ‘Jettison Cargo.’ That didn’t seem to be precisely the way one would expect to deliver cargo, but I was beyond caring. Oddly enough, it worked. I mention this as it is in the nature of many things you will have to figure out for yourself as you learn the ropes.
For my second mission, I accepted the challenge of a race with another star ship. I had no trouble finding the ship, but I also had no idea how to actually start the race. I decided to just stop next to the other ship; that apparently started the race and off he went, racing through a tunnel of rings that magically appeared in space. My ineptitude gave him an insurmountable head start and I never did manage to catch him. I did, however, manage to burn up almost all of my fuel trying, so at the end of the race I found myself in deep space, penniless and nearly out of fuel. I was able to limp to the nearest space station and dock, but I didn’t have enough money to buy enough fuel to perform another mission.
Game over, I guess.
While these two missions were enough to give me a small taste of Evochron Mercenary, they didn’t even scratch the surface of the many opportunities available. I could have built trade routes between planets and other space ships, joined a clan and fought for pay in clan skirmishes, mined asteroids for raw, marketable materials, performed spying missions for shady corporations, or created my own squadron/clan through the multiplayer feature. The variety of ways to live (or die) are nearly endless, for those willing and patient enough to learn how to live and survive in the hostile environment of space. While I was disappointed at not being able to see the higher quality graphics of the universe due to my PCs limitations, I was impressed by the magnitude and depth of the Evochron universe and the opportunities for diverse game play that it offered.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Life in space is probably not easy, so it's no surprise that there is a distinctly tough learning curve in Evochron Mercenary. Those with enough interest and diligence to stick with it, though, will be rewarded with deep, unfettered space sandbox game play.
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