Hands On: Enemy Starfighter

By Graham Smith on April 25th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Each game of Enemy Starfighter begins in Overwatch, a region of space from which you can see five or six or seven other possible destinations. Each is represented by a white pip; there’s perhaps an asteroid field, a planet, a star, and then one region which has another set of symbols above the white mark. These tell you what ships are inhabiting the space. Corvettes? Frigates? I can never remember what the symbols mean, only that each represents an opportunity for death or derring-do that the dynamic mission generator has created for me.

Pick a destination, engage your gap drive and let’s jump into orbit.

Starfighters work in groups, and as I rocket across the solar system I’m flanked on either side by AI-controlled buddies. We arrive in a region near a brown planet some distance from a fleet of capital ships. As they spot us, they release their own set of fighters.

Gap drives are useful not only for leaping between regions of space, but for quickly engaging enemies within those regions. I decide to jump in hot (I always do), so I target one of the distant ships and again engage my drive. My squadmates follow suit. The journey here took thirty seconds and conveyed the scale of the galaxy these fights happen within, but hurtling this short distance to the enemy happens in an instant.

When I exit the slipstream, I have a half-second view of a capital ship before I collide with it and my screen goes black. Lesson learned: don’t warp directly at your enemies, but somewhere close to them.

The loss of that ship and pilot doesn’t mean the game is over, but that I switch to controlling one of those previously mentioned squadmates. The game only ends when your fleet is entirely depleted, and you can replenish the team with reinforcements by completing bounties within each mission, such as destroying a certain number of smaller ships, or larger ships, or whatever.

Don't crash into this.

When I take control of a new ship, I’m immediately under fire from the scrambled fighters. I lock on to one to fix it on my HUD, and begin to arc and whirl until it’s in my sights.

It’s sort of unavoidable, given the impending glut of space games, that they be defined in part by their differences. Elite: Dangerous’s combat can be fast and chaotic, but it also quickly unfolds to reveal a simple set of possible tactical manouvers. From the cockpit of your Cobra Mk. III, you can shunt power between engines, shields and weapons, to allow you a speedier escape, to mask your ships heat signature, or to overpower an enemy’s shields.

Based on a similar amount of playtime, Enemy Starfighter doesn’t so immediately offer up an obvious set of tactical options. That’s not a criticism, but a shift in focus. Elite: Dangerous makes you feel like your piloting a spaceship. Enemy Starfighter makes you feel like you’re piloting a gun.

Those guns feel great to use. You have three to choose from on any given ship: two basic, like a machinegun/shotgun or machinegun/rocket launcher combo; and a heavy weapon like deployable bombs. The shotgun is the best of the bunch, though it may not actually be called that. It fires a flak-cannon style spread that’s deadly at close range, and the whole front section of your ship rears back with every shot like the pump of a barrel.

Your attempts at aiming are aided by the game’s smart and atmospheric sound effects: when you correctly lead your aim ahead of a speeding opponent, a high-pitched tone will play in your ears to let you know it’s time to fire. Combined with muffled engines and the sound of your own pilot’s breathing, it makes the experience more engrossing than the abstract art style might imply.

I take out my enemy quickly, then another, then another. Each kill triggers the next target, and occasionally I catch glimpses of my squadmates locked in their own spinning duels, or hear them speak their last words in my ear. The AI mostly does a good job of not getting itself killed, though. A far better job than I.

With the smaller craft dealt with, I turn my attention to the only remaining larger ship. By locking on to it, it’s possible to target particular systems, and for example cripple its engines. I haven’t yet found much cause to do so, though it has obvious uses. For example, in one life I decided to turn tail and run, leaving a region as the last surviving fighter to see if I could find success somewhere else. The problem being that my opponents followed, using their own gap drives to leap a few seconds after me. If I could have destroyed their engines, that wouldn’t have been possible.

I could order my squadmates to attack those engines right now, but I don’t. I mainly ignore the nuanced options available in favour of winning through quantity and accuracy. I take aim at the large capital ship in front of me and hold down the fire button, and it’s not long before it explodes and breaks apart.

This is an early press build I’m playing, but already Enemy Starfighter is a lot of fun. The combat is good enough that I’d be OK with this being the entire game – a StarFox-ish companion piece to the complexity of Elite and Star Citizen. I don’t mean to trivialise its appeal when I say it’s the kind of experience I enjoy dipping into for fifteen minute adventures. I feel the same way about Teleglitch, for example.

But given the potential which lies in the underpinning dynamic mission generator, the still-to-come campaign, and the current development roadmap, there’s plenty of reasons to think the experience is going to become richer in the near future. Here’s the todo list from the readme.txt attached to the build:

  • Vary the objectives in each system, your major verb is always “destroy” but there should be more “how” involved in it
  • More factions and weapons, both for the Empire (you) and the Federation
  • Tie unit experience to new traits, allowing you to field modified veteran units if you keep them alive
  • Hook up anchored defenses and structures to landmarks
  • Ex: Sentry guns at jump nodes
  • Ex: Mining ops at belts

“Tie unit experience to new traits” is the key here, as that seems like the point where the meta-game kicks in and you’ve more of a reason to remain alive and plan the order of your engagements carefully.

Either way, if you were wondering whether there was room in your life for anticipating another space pilot game, the answer is: make room.

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35 Comments »

  1. Lord_Mordja says:

    Oh dear, sweet lord; that poster. I want to print it out and hang it on my wall.

  2. Eleven says:

    The top picture looks a lot like the Rifter from Eve Online. But with less spreadsheets overlayed over it.

  3. karthink says:

    > Elite: Dangerous makes you feel like your piloting a spaceship. Enemy Starfighter makes you feel like you’re piloting a gun.

    I know exactly what you mean, but it’s such a whimsical thing to say! Unlike other simulation games, the designers aren’t working towards a known ideal. No one knows what it’s like to pilot a spaceship, because the kind of space-faring craft they aim to be don’t exist. It’s going to work in reverse when they do: Like the Metaverse from Snow Crash is an inspiration for VR tech, I suspect space sims will be the ideal when we’re making spaceships to truck across the galaxy.

    The ideal of the “spaceship experience” is purely imagined.

    At this point, though, this distinction appears to be a function only of the number of systems to manage. Too many and no one will play it; too few and it gets called arcadey and gun-piloting.

    • tipul says:

      Hi! I don’t think likening your interceptor to a gun is a bad thing at all!

      Working on ES, I’ve learned there is a lot of interesting baggage that comes along with making a space game. But a lot of that baggage is REALLY good to think about and have it challenge every design decision that’s made.

      That said, I can’t wait for SC or Elite. They very much look like duels from IL-2, which is my favorite pure sim. Elite in particular is looking tasty, and it makes me sad I didn’t back it when I had the chance. :)

      • karthink says:

        Indeed, I wasn’t saying it’s a bad thing. Just that the claim of an “authentic spaceship experience” is grounded in entirely in pop-culture (and nowhere else). The closest thing to an actual space simulator is probably Kerbal Space Program at this point!

        I’ve been reading your ES blog for a while. If you could write about the reasoning behind some of the design decisions you make given the space-sim “baggage”, it would be amazing.

        (Either way, this looks way too fun to not buy at launch.)

  4. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    The colour composition is reminiscent of Homeworld, and that ship design harks back to the aesthetics of Quirex and Auricom of WipeOut.

    Visually, at least, this game is everything good in the world.

  5. tomeoftom says:

    This game looks like the most intense sensory experience. God I want it so badly!

  6. Didden says:

    I want this game so bad.

  7. Geebs says:

    Crikey, I was just having a look through the game’s site:

    A majority of your currency is acquired from killing the crew of downed vessels. If you have an autoturret, it happens automatically. As a capital goes down, the famous loot-piñata situation occurs as the crew abandons ship.

    Press ‘X’ to warcrimes. Strong stuff!

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Good stuff, I felt. A game about being the tool of an evil emperor where you actually feel like you’re doing crappy things. And since it gives you points, you’re still going to want to do it.

    • BobsLawnService says:

      Shades of shooting down escape pods in Tie Fighter.

  8. TheDreamlord says:

    Is this going to be on Steam??

  9. David Bliff says:

    Holy balls this looks good. I’m just going to squint and pretend it’s an official Homeworld tie-in, because the colors are there and some of the ship designs look close enough.

  10. Stardreamer says:

    Not normally seduced by these combat-focused affairs these days but Enemy Starfighter’s aesthetic is so sexy, and the gameplay looks so good, that I could very well be…hang on, what’s this? Money appears to be leaving my wallet of its own accord!

  11. Hanban says:

    Enemy Starfighter is still my favourite among the bunch of space sims coming up. Really looking forward to it!

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      It’s been getting there for me. At first I was really just attracted to its visual style, but the more I analyse what I want from this new wave of space sims, the more I realise that Enemy Starfighter’s beautiful, focused space combat combined with a decent meta-game style progression thing could be exactly what I’m looking for.
      Barring some sort of outright development catastrophe, will definitely be getting this.

  12. bill says:

    Is it a lightweight blaster, or does it feel like a proper sim? Or, to put it another way, does it play well with a gamepad/mouse or does it need a joystick?

    I just can’t bring myself to spend much time with light blasters. they look lovely and have lots of pew pew, but they always feel very uninvolving.

    • The_Sleeve says:

      I played it at PAX using an Occulus Rift and a standard Xbox 360 Gamepad. I’m not that great at using gamepads (more of a mouse-and-keyboard guy), but using the analog thumbsticks to simulate the flight controls eventually felt pretty natural. The controls were good, I felt. It has a slightly arcade-ish feel, but only slight. It feels a lot like TIE Fighter or Freespace, actually, but faster. Of course, the inclusion of the Occulus made it wholly different than anything I’d experienced before.

  13. gerafin says:

    I played this on the Oculus Rift recently. Ohhhhhh man, that was an experience. Checking over your shoulder for ships tailing you. Flying underneath a capital ship and craning your neck to watch it pass over you. Nearly falling out of your chair during head-on collisions. It was a hell of an experience.

    Also, I have a copy of that poster :D

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