Impressions: FTL Beta

By Adam Smith on August 3rd, 2012 at 4:00 pm.

FTL didn’t just have a successful Kickstarter, it was stratospheric. Having asked for enough to finish off their roguelike spaceship sim, the two person development team received enough mony to build an actual interstellar vessel. Thankfully, they stuck around on Earth long enough to finish off the game, which should be out next month. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the beta.

Space is terrifying because it is absolutely impossible to breathe in it and not breathing is horrid, leading to wheezing panic and death. Remember that bit in Total Recall when Arnie’s face turned into plasticene and his eyes inflated like balloons? Hideous. As well as being opposed to human existence, space is also quite dark despite having stars, which are like massive light bulbs, scattered about its length and breadth. The lights are one of the few things that seem fairly stable on FTL’s tiny ships, but the same can’t be said of the oxygen systems, doors and engines. The limitless vacuum, and missiles, are always knocking at the hull and looking for a way in.

You may have already read about the frantic panic of ship-to-ship combat in FTL, with crew members being directed from one room to another attempting to keep machinery functional, manning the guns and shields, repairing broken computers and putting out fires. There are boarders to repel as well, although they can be dealt with by opening doors and letting all the oxygen out of whichever room they’re in.

In an ideal world they’d do the Arnie balloon-eyed vein-burst and that’d be the end of it but what if a missile trashes the door controls while the whole ship is exposed to the lack of elements? It’s entirely feasible that entire rooms will be cut off until those functions are restored and fixing them will take time, another crew member diverted, another face turning a terrible shade of blue.

At its best, FTL is the kind of game that will cause people to bang their fists on tables excitedly as they rave about last minute victories or comedic deaths. If you’ve played the boardgame Space Alert, whose planning phase is chaos and optimism and whose resolution phase is despair and comedic revelation, you might imagine that FTL is similar. However, with one player controlling the entire crew in FTL and having full knowledge of their destinations and actions at all times, the tiny people are perfect cogs in a machine rather than hapless, blithering idiots controlled by the fevered minds of anxious men.

That’s not the only fundamental shift and despite the concordance in design (with Red November too, which I haven’t played), the differences in the experiences are more interesting than the similarities.

In Space Alert, the ship that your hapless crew are responsible for is a heap of junk, a cobbled together mess of a vessel constructed for comedy rather than conquest. A screensaver activates on the main computer every minute or so and if nobody runs back to waggle the mouse, everyone is more than likely going to die in the next thirty seconds.

In FTL, ships are sleek and their design makes sense. Whoever is in charge of building these bad boys is a minimalist master because there’s absolutely nothing without function. Everything is in its right place. It’s the difference between the technology of Alien and the technology of Prometheus, the Millennium Falcon compared to whatever boring plastic piece of crap you care to pick from the prequel trilogy.

Because of that, or at least partly because of that, the frantic panic that has been part of almost every write up of FTL that I’ve read so far just doesn’t happen often enough. I’ve played through the beta a few times and now, more often than not, I’m in complete control. Encounters in each sector are random, with a Weird Worlds styled node-based map, but there isn’t enough variety in those events to keep things interesting for playthrough after playthrough.

Keep in mind that this is a game that can be paused while orders are issued, so the panic I’m talking about is of the cerebral and emotional kind rather than an actual inability to press buttons at the required rate. FTL is realtime but with the pause button it’s actually turn-based, with turns taking as long as you want them to.

Most jumps to a new sector see your ship, usually repaired and ready for action, parking up alongside an enemy ship of similar size and construction. Sometimes there will be rocks bashing against your hull occasionally or other environmental hazards but they don’t really change the plan, they just make the time to implement it even shorter. Divert power from engines and shift weapons and shields to full charge, and then target shields and weapons. If the swines try to flee then target their engines instead. It’s a system, a routine, and it works the vast majority of the time.

Occasionally a critical hit will interrupt plans but it’s rarely more than an interruption. Full scale disasters are rare because once you know the layout of your ship, ordering the less-than-a-handful of crew around isn’t much of a challenge at all. There’s the odd occasion when you’ll be pushed forward with a hull creaking and leaking, with one bad encounter after another leaving your ship vulnerable and your crew on their last legs, but that seems more a case of bad luck than flustered mismanagement.

The pursuit of the fleet that is trying to catch your ship takes the form of a glowing red sphere, seeming to consume the stars as it travels forward. If it catches you, its space curtains for you and your brave crew. Its an absorbing ball of death at your heels and it’s all the incentive you need to find the fastest path forwards…except what about all the stuff lying about in space, just waiting to be collected. The loot is where FTL is at its most interesting and closest to its roguelike roots.

There are trading posts scattered through space and defeating ships will sometimes grant extra equipment – teleporters that allow boarding actions, guns that knock out systems rather than causing direct damage, drones that can repair, protect or assault. Balancing the placement of equipment, as well as the power that various systems require, lends some urgency as its effectively necessary to relearn routines whenever the loadout changes.

A powerful missile launcher might seem like a great idea but if it takes so much power that propulsion systems must be powered down entirely, maybe it’s only good for one volley at the start of combat before energy is diverted back to cannons to leave enough for a bit of juice in the engines. For evasive maneuvers or, should the need arise, to power up the FTL drives and skedaddle.

Unlocking different ship types, with their own layouts and starting equipment, does make things more interesting but given that a playthrough can be completed in an hour or two, FTL lacks the sense of progression from weakling to still-vulnerable badass. There’s not enough time to invest in your ship and its crew and so the outcome is less personal, whether they win or die.

EDIT: A save to quit function was added between me playing the game and actually writing about it. So read the next paragraph while snorting derisively at how long it took me to notice that.

It’s the brevity of the game, along with a desire to stop people avoiding the consequences of actions or fate, that has led the developers to remove any save function. You’re either playing through in one sitting, leaving it running on your taskbar, or losing your progress. I understand the reasoning but, at the very least, a ‘save and quit’ button would be most welcome. It’s about investment again; even if they only have a maximum lifespan of a couple of hours, knowing that they can be obliterated mid-mission if my computer crashes makes my crew seem utterly disposable. And that’s after the blasted game allows me to give them names!

FTL, which is still in beta but feature complete, does everything it was intended to do and does it well. It offers a crew-based take on ship-to-ship combat, systems management and the threat of space catastrophe. The scale feels small though and that reduces the pressure. Operating a ship soon seems like quite a simple job and the soundtrack is more often the hum of a well-organised machine rather than the blaring klaxon of terror and excitement. It’s a marvellously efficient creation but, for me, it too quickly loses the element of surprise, the unknown and the sense of voyaging, at desperate speed, to new frontiers.

Having said all that, I just noticed that Steam reckons I’ve played the beta for eighty hours. Some of that is definitely explained by me leaving missions running on pause so as not to lose my progress but I have played this game a lot. And I’ve enjoyed myself a lot, it’s just that my experiences don’t seem to tally with a lot of the descriptions I’m reading. It seems less about organising chaos and story organisation, and more about management and smart tactics. Despite having been a tad critical, I’m almost definitely about to try and beat it again.

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53 Comments »

  1. Dumido says:

    “It’s the brevity of the game, along with a desire to stop people avoiding the consequences of actions or fate, that has led the developers to remove any save function.”

    This must be quite embarrassing for you Adam, a save on quit feature was added a few days ago and now lets all the weaklings out there save scum all they want.

    Preview outdated before even being posted, for shame!

    • Adam Smith says:

      I am crushed! As soon as I finished writing I loaded it back up and saw that it started updating. No, I thought, it won’t be.

      Of course it was. Shall correct.

    • Sardonic says:

      Yeah seriously, There’s been like 4 new ships added since the beta dropped, and a slew of new content/events/etc. which keep things fresh. They even added achievements, new music, more advanced warning on environmental hazards, and alternate ship layouts recently.

      Everyone who is a fan of roguelikes, and space, should get this game when it releases in September.

    • Lemming says:

      To be fair to Adam, this is merely beta impressions. A ‘Wot I think’ will clearly be on the cards when it’s officially released. So any criticisms/not up-to-minute accuracies shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

  2. Korvus Redmane says:

    I don’t when you last played FTL but there’s a save and quite feature that’s been implemented for approximately the last month… and the recent update has added achievements which unlock new layouts for ships, which helps with the variety. I think the issue is that while it’s plain sailing when things are going well, as soon as things start to go wrong they will keep going wrong, which leads to the stories.

    Ninja’d!

    • Adam Smith says:

      In my (meagre) defence, I’ve been playing since the start of the beta and even though I’ve played plenty in the last month had already given up on the idea of ever quitting so didn’t notice it had been added. Don’t know how I missed reading about it on the update notes but it did seem to be one of those issues that wasn’t going to change.

      I AM FOOL

  3. mineshaft says:

    AftDo the people have individual skills and bonuses? I could see more Fun if Mr Scott is the only one who can repair the warp core, but he becomes trapped behind a bulkhead. Or is too fat to defend himself from a raid on Engineering. Mr Worf is great in a fight but has challenges in Command.

    That could get very optimizey and personal, I think. After all, the great fun of Space Alert is everything going to crap because the wrong person is out of position.

    • Korvus Redmane says:

      They can all do everything but repeatedly doing the same thing, say manning the weapons, will increase that crew members skill with them, which leads to a bonus… So sort of, losing your weapons specialist isn’t the end of the world but it can reduce your efficiency.

      • Vesuvius says:

        Additionally there are now UNIQUE recruitable aliens in the newest patch, although I honestly am not sure what their innate strengths are like.

  4. Dog Pants says:

    Beaten to the point about the saving. I’ve been more impressed by the beta, the basic gameplay feels compelling and repeatable to me, but I agree that it does need something more to prolong interest. I’d like to see some form of sandbox mode (which the aforementioned Weird World did nicely), as the chase scenario does feel somewhat limiting even if it adds urgency.

  5. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Technically the airs looking for a way out rather than the vacuum looking for a way in.

  6. mrmalodor says:

    Nice, I hope this will be on Steam.

  7. Wisq says:

    “Next month”? September? :( :(

    Do want, so bad. Kicking myself for not Kickstarting this one.

  8. FinBen says:

    I have to say, having played the beta from the beginning myself, I think this is a surprisingly limited preview. I’ve racked up about 30 hours play time so far, and am still finding new encounters and unlocking new ships. There’s little mention of the variety of text-based adventure choices, each of which adds to the story and atmosphere of the game; for example, one can choose to destroy mercenaries who offer help because ‘they’re as dishonourable as rebels’, or refuse the desperate pleas for surrender of a dying ship. These sorts of choices don’t always have gameplay effects, short of getting you into another fight or changing the amount of scrap you acquire, but I see them as moulding the backstory around your own actions. With a little imagination you can be part of a fanatical, distinctly anti-Star Trek Federation of zealots, or equally just the opposite. Not to mention that the various ship upgrades and different species of crew member each unlock new choices in these text popups, often changing the way a situation pans out and even leading to new quest lines and ships to unlock; those other ships force you to adopt entirely different tactics due to their starting equipment and unique augmentations. Anyway, just wanted to point out that there’s quite a bit you haven’t mentioned, and I think concentrating on the combat in your preview excludes a huge portion of the experience.

  9. MythArcana says:

    Another thrilling victory for Steam and MS Paint.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Don’t underestimate the difficulty of creating simple art that looks good. I’ve seen (and made) a lot of programmer art that’s just awful because the creator had little or no ability.

      If it’s readable (you can tell what’s what) and you don’t mind looking at it for a while, then mission accomplished, focus on making a great game.

  10. AmateurScience says:

    Maybe on harder difficulties they could limit or disable pausing? That might make it a bit more frantic.

    Looking forward to this though. Kickstarted it as soon as I saw it, but was too cheap to spring for beta access.

    • Adam Smith says:

      It is very accomplished, I just find that when I talk to other people about it their experience doesn’t match mine. As FinBen says just above, there are plenty of little details, I just find that after a while they tend to play out the same way.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        I don’t know, I think 50% of my play throughs are totally unique. But then again I rarely run from other ships, instead taking them on every time. :P

  11. Cooper says:

    Thw pause function may remove the immediacy of panic, but it simply replaces it with a dawning realisation that – no matter what you do – your ship is going to break up or burn in a fiery ball of flame.

    With the pause function every single missile volley and your response matters. Every deflected beam attack with which missed the one-second shield down window matters.

    So if not the panic people may be expecting, then expect moments of extreme intensity and extremely quick escalation.

    What I particularly love is that, despite the pause function allowing exacting orders and exacting responses – the game is not about micromanagement. You will never have lost because you couldn;t get enough orders given in the time allowed. You will have lost because your planning and tactics failed.

    Or because a solar flare burnt our your oxygen supply…

    • TechnicalBen says:

      “The pause function may remove the immediacy of panic, but it simply replaces it with a dawning realisation that – no matter what you do – your ship is going to break up or burn in a fiery ball of flame.”

      Yep, it just makes the game play like CIV (turn based) or C&C singleplayer (pause is still there). You can still get really exciting parts. Even then, there is nothing to remind you to pause if things get hairy, so it’s still down to skill. For example, if your oxygen is depleting, no amount of pausing is going to get that generator back up quicker! :D

  12. jealouspirate says:

    I played this briefly when there was a free demo on Onlive and thought it was fantastic. Can’t wait to pick this one up!

  13. Hypocee says:

    Thanks for the nuanced report. It’s great to have this sort of thing published while stuff is still getting tuned.

    I’m still super-excited for FTL, since even a few hours of figuring the system out would be worth my money. And in the best of all possible worlds, maybe your experience can be addressed just by slightly increasing a standard deviation somewhere to reach a critical mass of complications in more fights.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      Just play normal. A single missile volley can take out most unupgraded rooms. Even upgraded ones may not function if hit (like weapons powering down, or teleporters taking longer to charge).

      This means your impenetrable ship can suddenly have a complete system failure if you let 1 hit through. Decided to jettison a boarding party into the vacuum? Well, the missile hit your door control, now the ship is venting air fast. Need to repair the door control? Oh, you left the door open! Or perhaps your shields just failed now, do you fix the air first, doors or shields?

      You teliported a crew over to capture the enemy ship? But it just jumped away. Nice, now your down to half crew. :D

      • Lambchops says:

        @ TechnicalBen

        Your description of door subsystem failure sums up my last failed boss encounter which I had been absolutely walking through up until that point! Ended up with my last surviving crew pinned in the medbay (the only safe room) unable to repair damaged systems and hoping that I could kill the boss before it killed me, alas it was not to be!

  14. caddyB says:

    I don’t understand. Almost all the roguelikes are turn-based. You have all the time in the world to decide what to do. And they’re still some of the most intense gaming experiences ever.

    For instance, in Crawl:Stone Soup even if you know everything about the game a moment of overconfidence might kill you. It’s not about being forced to think fast, it’s about knowing what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      What about Dwarf Fortress? Your more likely to be taken out by a chicken in the first 5 mins!

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      It’s simply not a roguelike. It describes itself as a roguelike-like.

      RPS seems to have a thing about using that label even when the developers don’t. It’s strange.

      • Hypocee says:

        So games that get inspired by Spelunky, Dwarf Fortress and FTL will be roguelikelikelikes! This is a useful distinction.

        Or, you can take the stick out of your butt, breathe in and breathe out.

  15. Vinraith says:

    The inclusion of pausing puts my single reservation about this game to rest. No more worries about reaction time and twitch reflexes determining outcomes, now it’s all down to strategy.

  16. Nenad says:

    FTL didn’t just have a successful Kickstarter, it was stratospheric. Having asked for enough to finish off their roguelike spaceship sim, the two person development team received enough [b]mony[/b].

    Points and laughs: HA-HA “mony”!

    XD

  17. piratmonkey says:

    “It’s the difference between the technology of Alien and the technology of Prometheus[...]”
    Thank GOD I wasn’t the only one who said “Holy shit, this looks way more plausible” in Prometheus. I was wooed by the design, like it complied to some sort of “future OSHA” standard or whoever designed it wasn’t completely insane.

  18. Typhoone says:

    I appreciate the comparison to the board games Space Alert and Red November, but I also wanted to point out the game “Battlestations” a semi-Pen’n'Paper RPG board game with ship building tiles and crew member stats and persistent campaigns that FTL is near identical to. I’ve played Battlestations for a while with a dedicated group and am happy to see it come to the computer screen. But I just wanted to get more press out for the board game that I think it takes much of its inspiration from:

    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/12350/battlestations

    • slerbal says:

      I was going to echo that. From everything I’ve seen this is pretty much a remake of Battlestations.

      I’ll be charitable and say that FTL isn’t a complete rip-off of Battlestations, but it is damned close, so close I would imagine the original designers are feeling a bit gutted.

      I avoided the Kickstarter for that reason. Don’t get me wrong, I think the concept is great but have the FTL developers made any reference to their heritage?

      Edit: Here is the link to Battlestations – have a look, see what you think :)
      http://www.battlestations.info/

      • Hypocee says:

        It doesn’t make you guys totally wrong, but the devs have said (3:10) that FTL started as a computerised evolution of Red November and BSG specifically.

  19. Lambchops says:

    Certainly I find that playing on normal I’m rarely in control (indeed I’m yet to beat the game on normal despite playing on and off since the beta began! possibly because I’m rubbish!) due to limited resources but certainly on easy I can see where Adam is coming from as the availability of upgrades lead to the same tactics . . . but

    In the last couple of days there has been a substantial update including not only new ships but new ship layouts unlocked through achievements, which (from the only one I’ve unlocked so far), seem designed to force players into using particular and quite often unusual strategies hence extending the longevity and freshness of the game for those who think they’ve got it all figured out.

    So yeah, as Adam says it’s a good game and certainly his criticisms are valid but they were also criticisms that people have shared during the beta and it seems attempts have been made to address them. Plus even if you do feel you have had your fill you are more than likely to get your money’s worth. I think if Adam is tempted into another game he’ll be impressed by the new features added!

    That said your mileage may definitely vary. For every person like Adam who has found strategies too homogenising and straightforward there is one who finds it too random and frustrating! I guess what I’m trying to say is that you may not love it but you’ll certainly like it and if you didn’t back it in the Kickstarter already it”s well worth buying.

    As you may have gathered I think it’s fantastic, and I wish the devs all the best for the release, they’ve done a fantastic job.

  20. crinkles esq. says:

    The future means every screen is displayed with 45-degree corners! By “the future”, I of course mean the 1990′s.

  21. bill says:

    I say this for every game that has pause, but…

    Sounds like this would really benefit from a Space Hulk (the videogame) style limited pause.

    I don’t know why more games don’t use it -keeps the tension but also allows for thought and tactics.

  22. ScorpionWasp says:

    I have to agree with Adam. FTL is one of these games you have trouble pointing a finger and saying “There! That’s where it went wrong!”, but as you play, you are haunted by this distinct impression that it’s just “not working”. I think it has something to do with it being at the same time too scripted and too “gamey”. The game encourages you to memorize the risks and rewards of every possible scripted event, and then min/max the shit out of it all. Suddenly you realize you don’t even care about the words on the screen anymore, they aren’t even very plausible (pirate ships having pirate markings for all to see, anyone?). Unlike something like Rogue Survivor or even Spelunky, as you conclude a game of FTL, you rarely feel like you’ve been told a memorable, emergent “story”. The scripted events are all too restricted and simple for emergent craziness to sprout.

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