Premature Evaluation: Angels Fall First

One of the emerging themes of these alt-texts appears to be how useless humans are at anticipating anything outside of their immediate experience - whether that’s preparing for a fringe weather event like a flash flood or appreciating the essential inhumanity of a non-biological super intelligence. It’s particularly true in science fiction, where we frequently find implausible projections of earth-bound 20th century life. I think I’ve quoted Solyaris’s drunken scientist before, as he complains how inward-looking humanity is in its pursuit of the stars: “We just want to extend the earth up to the cosmos's borders. We don't want any more worlds. Only a mirror to see our own in.” There’s nothing more emblematic of this than our inability to imagine space combat in anything other than direct analogies to 20th century naval and aerial warfare.

Each week Marsh Davies screeches out the airlock as part of a frontline assault upon the forces of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or makes no appreciable difference to the war effort whatsoever. This week he’s fodder for the 64-man battles of Angels Fall First, a promising indie alternative to the likes of Battlefront, with space combat to boot.

Going toe-to-toe with a triple-A title often spells disaster for a superficially similar indie, but perhaps there’s some wisdom in releasing Angels Fall First at the same time as the beta for Star Wars Battlefront. For one thing, this asymmetric, objective-based, large-scale, sci-fi, team-shooter isn’t locked behind Origin, EA’s proprietary wedge of electronic consumer-molestation, which not even the seductive power of The Force can compel me to reinstall, so coddled am I in cosy, Steam-induced inertia. For another, it’s only 15 quid, and quite possibly a more ambitious and interesting game, with dense and detailed missions broken into multiple stages of operation across different arenas of combat, conjuring spectacular chaos for infantryman, driver, airpilot and spacecadet alike – all orchestrated by elected commanders with an eye on the ebb and flow of the overall battle.

The scene is typically this: giant space-barges slowly glide past each other, hammering each other in endless broadside volleys, while fighters dart and weave around them, hissing with green laser fire. Maybe you even get a boarding party, breaching the hull of the enemy vessel and fighting on the deck - an echo of an even more anachronistic idea of naval warfare. This is not how things would work out. Consider that just to get out of Earth’s orbit you need to be going very, very fast indeed. The fastest plane tops out at about 3,500 kilometers per hour. Escape velocity is 40,270 kmph. You aren’t going to be dogfighting at that speed. In fact, given that interplanetary travel requires you to accelerate to much higher speeds to make the huge distances traversable, it’s highly improbable you’d ever be able to match the speed of another vessel and sidle up along side to batter them with cannon-fire. You will never recreate Master & Commander in space.

With human intelligence directing that mass action, your individual dogfight ascends in significance: your ship may well have exploded mere seconds after hitting the vacuum, but it’s consoling to know that it did so as part of the larger drama experienced by a vanguard of fighters and bombers, dropping out of hyperspace to pick off the defences of a spacestation. Doing so without too heavy a loss of life allows your capital ship to warp in, unleashing player-piloted boarding vessels to breach the enemy’s hull and unload a cargo of angry gunmen to seek and destroy vital systems. Then, hopefully, they can thieve an enemy fighter plane from the cargobay before the entire thing explodes. Each one of these roles is yours to play or oppose, your lives and deaths part of a larger plan that might otherwise be obscured by the cordite smog and blinding laser fire of battle.

Or, indeed, obscured by the distracting wonkiness of this Early Access release. As ambitious as it is, Angels Fall First visibly strains at the seams of its budget. It’s unpolished and buggy in any number of ways: the UI is a barely navigable cacophony of text overlays and 3D representations arranged with no apparent sense of hierarchy; the malfunctioning tutorial is prone to slip important bits of information past you in rapid bursts of miniscule text that are then never repeated; and occasional glitches prevent the use of weapons, deny vital interactions, and, seemingly, sometimes impede being able to receive those all-important commands.

Instead, space combat would look a lot stranger to us. Ships, or their unmanned stand-ins, would approach each other quite visibly over the course of weeks, perhaps months. Then they’d unleash as many missiles as they could when within range, attempt to laser incoming missiles, and quite possibly, achieve mutual destruction, their shattered remains spinning past one another at ridiculous relative speeds. And because of those ridiculous relative speeds, a single missile would be enough to achieve the destruction of the enemy ship. It wouldn’t even need to contain explosives. There would be little point armoring your ship, so you would be unlikely to see the hulking dreadnoughts of science-fiction - nor would they ever have to be aerodynamic. You don’t need wings in space. If, somehow, you managed to achieve that famous dogfight scenario of having “a bogey on your tail”, the lack of friction in space means you could happily reorient yourself to face them, while continuing to travel along the same vector. While this assessment puts a lot of current space combat games in the bin, you could make a good game on more realistic principles, I think, though it would be very different: perhaps more like a cross between Kerbal Space Programme and a tower defence game. Your suggestions?

Most critically, it’s not yet entirely playable online. The devs’ own mea culpa shortly after launch suggests there might be teething problems with the netcode, but I’ve only had one crash. Instead, the problem is that there just aren’t enough people playing to adequately populate more than a single server. Over the last few days, I’ve only spotted one game available at any time with a substantial human headcount and it’s always been password protected. Though I’ve kicked around in the game with a friend and the odd random player, it’s impossible to get an appreciation for it as much more than a proof of concept: you can fill the server full of bots, and it creates a more than adequate sense of scale and spectacle, but absent are the strategic depths permitted by human commanders. As the sole human player – and a new one – grappling with an impenetrable and buggy command UI proved beyond me, while the AI commander seemed no more competent, ordering our troops to defend unthreatened outposts, while leaving critical objectives vulnerable.

In the game’s primary game mode, attackers must push through three phases of assault, unlocking each with the successful completion of critical objectives. While defenders must ultimately protect these until the mission timer runs out, canny commanders might choose to divert resources to target the attackers’ spawn points to deny reinforcements and force a retreat. If such strategic decisions are currently out of reach, then there’s perhaps too much tactical choice available to the average grunt: loadouts for both individuals and vehicles offer a huge number of guns to choose from, nearly all of which are semi-automatic ballistic weapons, the finer qualities of which are hard to know or compare. There’s a similar bounty of kit items and grenades too, but you are limited in what you can carry by three factors: your offensive capability, your team-support capability and your command capability. Different items fulfil these roles variously, and your soldier has a max number of points that any category will accept. It’s a clever but slightly fussy way of preventing players from overpowering themselves in any one area, and requires a lot of experimental inventory-juggling to mix-and-match a workable loadout.

While we are on the subject of plausible science-fiction… I enjoyed The Martian a great deal and it seems to make a better effort than most to consider the reality of space flight and alien worlds. But it kicks off with one major act of fantasy: a sandstorm on Mars would never be that sort of problem. There are winds on Mars, and they can go pretty fast, but the atmosphere is so thin, 0.6% the pressure of Earth’s, that the amount of force a high speed wind would exert on an object is negligible. A sandstorm on Mars would silt up equipment and obscure solar panels - a peril that the novel later explores - but it would never rip anything things to shreds. By contrast, Gravity’s instigating drama - a cascade of space debris knocking out one satellite after another - is really quite possible and entirely terrifying in its consequences, not just for astronauts, but for everyone on Earth who is dependent on satellite technology. And, these days, we pretty much all are. Then there’s Interstellar, a film which suggests that the fifth dimension must be love because there’s no social utility in loving someone who’s dead (there’s no social utility to anal sex either, but you don’t see Anne Hathaway making the argument for that as some sort of hyperdimensional mystery). Into the black hole you go.

As for the moment-to-moment pleasures of using this arsenal, Angels Fall First hasn’t quite matched the tactile gun-blam-itude of other top-tier shooters. Confusingly, looking down the iron-sights doesn’t always line them up with the point at which you’re firing, thus making them rather pointless. But if sputtering bullets in the direction of a distant enemy lacks the sort of viciously compelling feedback you might hope, then it’s partly mitigated by the frantic and fantastic chaos that is occurring around you – as you, say, fight through the dark, concrete underbelly of some future city to secure a dropzone for your reinforcements. Gantries are consumed by flames, laser sights lock missiles to targets, smoke and tracer fire alternately obscures and illuminates the structures. Soldiers swarm over and through the landscape. In flight, the same comparisons might be made: deploying torpedoes and pairing off from their path to avoid a missile lock might not recreate the same sense of embodiment you feel in Elite, but it’s a lot easier and more immediately gratifying in the sort of elaborate combat it therefore permits.

It probably should be noted that none of the maps allow ground-to-space transition: the space missions are set solely in space or within space-vessels; the ground missions, on the ground or just above it. But within these limitations it permits battles – and hopefully it will soon permit strategy, too – on a scale somewhere between Battlefield and Planetside. There are many rough edges to buff away, systems to tweak or rethink entirely, not to mention bugs to squash, but there’s no reason to think this won’t happen during the game’s stay in Early Access. It may never attain the sheen made possible by Battlefront’s hundreds-strong dev team, but it already challenges it in scope and smarts – and if that’s enough for me to dodge a grudging reinstall of Origin, then I’m thankful. Well, until Mirror’s Edge comes out, anyway.

Angels Fall First is available on Steam for £13.37. Yep. £13.37. I know. I played the version numbered on 11/10/2015.


  1. aleander says:

    the lack of friction in space means you could happily reorient yourself to face them, while continuing to travel along the same vector

    So, the mentioned KSP teaches you, that, spaceships don’t turn all that fast (even with the OP magical reaction wheels KSP has), and if it’s large and tries to turn around too fast, it just tears itself apart.

    Also, traveling along the same vector sounds like a very bad idea in a hypothetical space dog fight, and in space you don’t have aerodynamics to exert ridiculous forces on your craft, that would let you alter the course as effortlessly as a plane does (up until aerodynamics tear it apart. There’s a lot of things tearing themselves apart in aerospace, apparently). You can nudge yourself a bit, but to change course significantly, you need to point a honking huge engine in the right direction. So either your craft is all main engines, or you actually have a primary direction, and deviating from it is a serious strategic consideration.

    Scott Manley of KSP video streaming fame actually made a video about that. Also, a good comment, IMO:

    When I’m designing a combat ship in space engineers I always put the majority of the thrust on the left and right sides. This means I can pretty much orbit a target, keeping my weapons pointing at it all the time, while maintaining a high angular velocity. The downside is all my designs look butt ugly, completely at odds with what a space fighter ‘should’ look like.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      There is zero reason why a space fighter couldn’t turn at least as fast as an atmospheric fighter. Just add more vernier thrusters until you’re where you want to be. If atmo fighters can be reinforced to withstand the torque, so can you.

      The kind of spaceships that KSP simulates can’t turn quickly for the same reason that city buses don’t mount heavy armor: they don’t need to.

      • Geebs says:

        Atmospheric jets can’t just spin on their axis, though. (Well, OK, they can spin on the nose/tail axis, but that doesn’t actually make much difference to where the nose is pointing). Turning along an arc presumably means less stress on the airframe.

      • aleander says:

        Vernier thrusters are not magic, and you know, if you actually took time to read/watch instead of demanding spaceships work like you want, you’d know how many you’d have to actually add to get something resembling atmospheric manoeuvrability. Hint: your space-fighter would not look like a space-fighter. I’ve yet to see RCS in a game that isn’t puny.

        • aleander says:

          Also: contrary to real spaceships, KSP ones have a reason to turn fast: player patience.

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          phuzz says:

          You could use KSP’s built in RCS, but lets face it, that’s not very Kerbal.
          Instead, use full sized rocket engines, and turn them off/on with action groups. A couple of Skippers on either end should get your craft turning around pretty quick in KSP.
          (Warning: You craft my need more struts)

          • aleander says:

            Well, yes, but that’s exactly what I’m saying: if you want high manoeuvrability, you’re going to get RCS the size of main engines (or at least comparable). AFAIR Manley uses hacked RCS in that video to get RCS with main engine thrust.

      • Wisq says:

        There is zero reason why a space fighter couldn’t change its orientation as fast as an atmospheric fighter, yes. In fact, with sufficient control thrusters, it could do so even faster, since it doesn’t have to worry about angle of attack and stalling.

        But to actually “turn” and be on a new heading? That requires huge amounts of thrust (or as-yet-unknown current-physics-violating intertia redirection technology) because there’s no cheap way to actually alter course without an atmosphere around you.

    • Replikant says:

      I am not familiar with space engineers, but usually, if you want to orbit someone you need one big thruster in the radial direction of your orbit, pointing outwards, and another, smaller one, providing a small angular momentum to keep your main thruster pointing outwards. So, assuming that the weapon are mounted facing forward, you’d need a big thruster pointing backwards, i.e. in the usual position.

  2. Dorga says:

    I pray the Outsider every night for Mirror’s Edge on Steam.

  3. shutter says:

    It’s always nice when RPS writers signal clearly and distinctly when they’re not competent enough to be worth wasting time reading.

    • aleander says:

      Apparently worth commenting on. I’m not sure what you’re complaining about, the alt images are quite insightful, and turning speed/vector change issue gets everyone at first. The main article is quite okay, though, but I’d rather read the alt-texts.

      • steves says:

        Whoah…I missed the alt text. Thanks for replying to the douchebag above, that was far more interesting than article about yet another game-in-progress.

        Although I still don’t believe potentially real space warfare could ever make for an interesting game. Ian M. Banks did write some very interesting space combat I guess, but that was all ‘played’ by superhuman AI!

        BTW, the Gravity movie scenario is called “Kessler Syndrome”, and there is a good discussion of what it might imply here:

        link to

        • aleander says:

          Oh dear, strange attractors: I’m currently reading the most recent post there (and the discussion below it). It’s quite fascinating, in a “we’re doomed” way.

          Anyhow, despite my love for Banks, I don’t think AIs will become superhuman in the Banksian “incomprehensible to mere humans” way any more than a physicist is (quite a high bar, admittedly) — I do expect them to be superhuman in the “thinks like an entire university and does algebra really fast” way. So, I believe there might be lots of fun, it’s just not ever going to make sense in real-time. 60fps is just not enough.

    • mouton says:

      Why do you punish yourself so, then?

    • Marsh Davies says:

      Happy to help.

    • Lachlan1 says:

      If the game is confusing to pick up, I’m glad to hear about it. The writing quality is great.

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      john_silence says:

      It’s always nice when RPS readers signal clearly and distinctly that their overconfidence and smugness border on sociopathy and you should never waste time poring over another word they write.
      Anyway, thanks for attracting my attention to the alt text, and congrats on framing your comment like a quote – I’m sure it’s somehow considered a smooth move in the land of the trolls.

  4. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    re: Realistic space combat, I thought Alastair Reynolds managed a cracking chase scene in House of Suns (think it was House of Suns, may be another) where one ship was trying to catch another at close to the speed of light. It was more about being inventive and working out how the hell to fight each other, using nanobots to dismantle parts of the ship, make atom thin sails and launch them at the pursuing ship knowing even that tiny impact would still be catastrophic at that speed. A puzzle game maybe? Choosing what to forgo to make ‘weapons’ out of. Or if we’re talking mutual destruction, perhaps fleets fighting each other Defcon style. There’s so so many possibilities it’s stupid we just reskin WW2 dogfights in space.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Another Alastair Reynolds fan here, and I remember that relativistic-speeds combat sequence. He’s done others that are interesting too, scattered among his other novels and short stories. Larry Niven wrote some stories with near-lightspeed combat maneuvers in one of the Known Space series (can’t remember which), and there is a good non-relativistic combat sequence in the sequel to the first Mote novel, just dealing with the difficulty of matching delta-V.

      I keep wishing someone would do a game like this, incorporating relativistic effects for “stealth.” You can’t see where the enemy is for targeting or tactics, beyond a certain light speed delay. It would play out more like a submarine sim though, and we all know what happened to those… (sigh).

      • Somerled says:

        It was Larry Niven’s Protector. Good read just for that bit.

    • unacom says:

      Joe Haldeman made a very intriguing attempt on reflecting dogfights in space. It´s pretty boring to imagine as a computer game, however.
      As a not-yet-reader of Reynolds. What should I pick up first?

      • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

        I’m still fairly new to him, the Redemption trilogy got me hooked. House of Suns was probably my favourite of his I’ve read so far, if you want a stand alone. Although I get them muddled up (see below)!

        • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

          *Revelation Space trilogy (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap).

      • Annexed says:

        In my view a good place to start with Reynolds is Chasm City. It’s set in the Revelation Space universe, but is a compelling standalone novel that weaves various storylines and themes together into a beautiful whole. There’s the sense of the pioneer struggle, of film noir, questions about identity, humanity, cooperation and choice, and a vivid portrayal of a fascinating metropolis and its setting in the wider universe.

        • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

          Purchased! Haven’t read it, but I loved Chasm City as a place in the Rev Space novels. Ta for the tip.

          • Annexed says:

            It was the first one I read (so I’m probably biased in its favour) but it really was excellent and encouraged me to seek out his other works.

    • Annexed says:

      There may well be a great space chase in Reynolds’s House of Suns, but the one that really left its impression on me was the one in Redemption Ark – Clavain chasing after Skade at relatavistic speeds and both of them modifying their crafts and their combat strategies as they progressed.

      • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

        That was the one! Getting my Alastair Reynolds mixed up

        • go3th says:

          best author ever :) each time i get caught in a space game, my mind wanders in Alastair Reynolds universe and his vision of space “Fights”. Great universe, great background, even greater stories. I d sell my soul to the devil to become a talented movie director and adapt Chasm City or the Ark of redemption. But this kind of thing won’t happen, and if it happens, it will be a shitty misunderstand Space-opera everyone will hate :)

    • Planet9 says:

      Redemption Ark was the novel you’re looking for, which is also interesting for having a plotline broadly similar to the reviled Mass Effect.

      • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

        Thanks, yeah my mistake. I think it was an RPS comment thread under a Mass Effect review that lead me to Alastair Reynolds in the first place!

  5. james.hancox says:

    Is installing Origin really that arduous? I recently got a new PC and installed Origin, and it took precisely as much effort as installing Steam- Google name, download installer, install, login. Done! One DRM portal is much the same as another these days.

    (Though U-Play is still an abomination.)

    • JiminyJickers says:

      Neither Origin nor Uplay is arduous to install and operate. People need to get over it already. Steam is just as difficult and problematic as all the other clients.

      • Emeraude says:

        Neither Origin nor Uplay bring anything of worth to customers – there’s nothing they do that can’t (couldn’t) be done without them.

        Companies need to get over it and stop trying to ram needless bloatware down the throats of customers that neither want nor need them – for the sole sake of companies’ benefit.

        Holds just as true for Valve.

      • malkav11 says:

        Steam brings far more to the table and is generally more stable and competent at doing the things that Origin and uPlay do attempt. I mean, neither is as unbearable as some people make them out to be and I for one find there to be enough proprietary EA and Ubisoft games I want to play to be worth keeping them installed, but it’s simply not true that they’re equivalent to Steam or that they provide any real competition, for that matter. They exist purely to sell that company’s games without giving Valve a cut.

        • Cinek says:

          “and is generally more stable ” – sorry, but no. It’s not. It is better than the BS it used to be 5 years ago, but still can crash in random moments. For me the only less stable client is Galaxy, but let’s be fair – they are just starting with that one.

          And yea – steam does bring a lot of bloatware to the table. With they’d split it into two clients – one that works and just plays the games and another that got all this crap like cards, hundreds of emoticons and other BS.

          • malkav11 says:

            I can’t remember the last time Steam crashed, whereas Origin BSODs my computer every time I try to quit it.

      • Geebs says:

        Uplay is barely functional and serves only to make launching Ubi games more difficult and take longer; there’s really no defending it.

        Origin does at least work, but on the other hand I’m not that keen on buying games from the company voted most likely to turn around and go, “You know those games you bought? Well, we don’t like them any more, so they’re gone. Forever.”. Witness server switch-offs, iOS games disappearing, etc.

        • JiminyJickers says:

          Same problems hold true for Steam, however, it seems to get a free pass from most people.

          I don’t like Origin, Uplay, Steam, Gog Galaxy but I’m not giving up the opportunity to play good games just so that I can feel high and mighty.

          • Emeraude says:

            In other words: some people only have principles as long as it doesn’t cost them anything.

            High and mighty enough for you ?

          • iainl says:

            Personally, I’ve always found Steam capable of providing automatic patching of a game even when I’m not about to play it, of downloading the latest client update in the background while still allowing you to use the older one, and of most importantly of all, being able to perform those downloads at faster-than-dialup speed on my 50MB broadband pipe.

            None of those claims can be made about the Uplay I have installed.

          • Geebs says:

            My point was: Valve appear to demonstrate a long-term commitment to their games (so much so that they seem to have stopped making new ones). EA go so far as to remove previously purchased games from a customer’s account (e.g. on iOS they even did this with a for-pay version of Tetris).

            Your inferiority complex notwithstanding (what’s high-and-mighty about what I said, precisely?), which company would you rather not-really-buy your games from: the one who lets you keep them, or the one who takes them away?

          • Llewyn says:

            No, in other words: some people don’t share the same principles as you, and don’t feel the need to be sanctimonious and obnoxious in highlighting their own.

          • JiminyJickers says:

            Principles???? What principles is involved in installing software to play games? I give up, haha.

          • JiminyJickers says:

            To clarify my above statements. I’m fine with people wanting DRM free games only or want clients that don’t mess everything up. But Steam has caused more problems than Origin or Uplay has ever done on my system. I’m tired of people needlessly slagging of Origin or Uplay when they give Steam a complete free pass.

            In my books, Steam is in the exact same boat as Origin and Uplay.

          • malkav11 says:

            I can’t gainsay your personal experience, but please understand that when people say Steam works much better than those other clients, they’re also reporting their experience.

    • Targaff says:

      Ease of installation is neither here nor there; it could be the smoothest install in the world, but if it comes with an obligation to register with and (generally) maintain a connection to a proprietary service that is not actually providing any tangible “value added” to the end user and only actually benefits the publisher, it’s still bollocks. That right there is where the “one DRM portal is much like any other” argument falls down: whereas Steam’s raison d’être is to provide a centralized platform for all games regardless of publisher or genre, the primary purpose of publisher-specific systems like Uplay, Origin and the like is not to benefit the player but to protect the publishers own interests by ensuring they can retain a degree of influence on what and how you play. Once a publisher puts their game on Steam – and they do, because they know if they try and make it exclusive to their own service it won’t sell squat – there’s really no reason to continue to force their extraneous dross on to their users.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      Last time I installed Origin I had a nightmare getting it to install to another drive other than C. I’m sure it’s sorted that out now, but I’ve been burnt and need a compelling reason to go back. As for Uplay, last time I booted it up, it claimed I had four games installed that I don’t, and trying to uninstall them caused Add/Remove Programs to crash. I then installed the beta for the new Rainbow Six and *have never been able to uninstall it*. I openly admit that most of Steam’s advantages are simply that it got there first, but it also somehow manages to avoid these sorts of calamities.

      • Jade Raven says:

        It didn’t avoid these calamities, it arguably had worse problems because of the state of broadband at the time. It has just had such a head start that many people have forgotten them now (as you say).

        • Wisq says:

          But times have changed, bandwidth is better now, and most of Steam’s issues have solutions that can be learned vicariously rather than first-hand.

          In a world without Steam, maybe Origin and UPlay would be considered decent, if not groundbreaking. But when Steam has been providing the example to follow for so long, and you introduce a product that is basically like Steam was back at launch … that just says you don’t know what you’re doing, or you don’t care.

          (Worth noting: The exact same is true of voice chat in games. Valve games are one of the few PC games I play where the in-game voice chat is flawless and fully usable. Almost every other game, I see people using dedicated VOIP apps like TeamSpeak / Mumble / Skype instead of the in-game comms.)

          • Jade Raven says:

            As an auto-patcher Origin works flawlessly for me, I don’t need Steam or Origin to do anything more than this.

            I’ve never used Uplay before.

  6. SuperFlue says:

    On the issue of movement in space in this game. In the game you can press the middle mouse button to turn off “assist”, which will switch to newtonian flight mode allowing you to point your guns at the enemy independent of your vector.
    Warning! You will most likely embarrassingly smash into objects at very high speeds because you forgot to cancel out your momentum a bit too late….

    • 0positivo says:

      ….why did I not know about this?

      Honestly though. This game surely falls under the category of “I have no idea what it’s going on, but damn, does it feel good”

  7. bills6693 says:

    Realistic space combat game: Torchships, which seems to be slowly making its way.

    There is a lot of interesting literature exploring realistic space combat among their themes: I find ‘The Forever War’ of particular enjoyment, for both its more ‘realistic’ space combat as well as an interesting take on futuristic combat on the ground and most of all its great exploring of the social and psychological ramifications of relativity due to FTL travel (the enders game series explores the latter extremely well).

    Most literature however comes up with a ‘technological’ reason for space combat to follow a pattern we find more familiar – for example in the ‘Honorverse’ the idea of FTL travel and impenetrable shielding. In the Lt Leary series (which I am currently reading), the FTL travel outside of normal space is the mechanism by which ships cross large distances, thus allowing combat to take place at shorter ranges and slower relative speeds. And in the (in my opinion highly recommended) ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’, again a form of shielding technology can be used which says goodbye to instant annihilation and therefore a more familiar type of combat, as well as tackling relative speeds with FTL meaning only weeks need to be spent traversing a star system.

    • aleander says:


      Well, that’s one way to get my interest with just one word.

  8. Andy_Panthro says:

    I seem to recall that the later Elite games had a more “realistic” space flight system, with the consequence (at least for me) that the combat became pretty awful.

    I would guess that the reason most space games (and films) keep with the “space is an ocean” idea is that it’s easier for the average person (e.g. myself) to comprehend. Also it means it’ll look like Star Wars and Star Trek, which again helps people jump right in and have fun.

    • iainl says:

      Playing around with Elite Dangerous in “FA Off” mode a bit has taught me that the big problem with Newtonian dynamics in space games is that space is famous for being pretty empty. Frontier was infamous for the way that whatever the pretty ballet of dogfighting ships would have looked like to an outsider, to the actual pilot it was just a spinning baitball.

      But the moment you’ve got some stationary (or slow) objects to deal with, like CQC’s structures, the ring structures of a Resource Extraction Site or even a lumbering Type 9, the whole thing comes alive and you find yourself slinging your craft every which way to maintain your target on an enemy while also staying out of the way of their guns.

  9. The_invalid says:

    Got this the day it came out on Steam, and while yes, it has a ton of rough edges and whatnot, it’s a damn good fun time, even just with the bots. Obviously you don’t get the same depth of tactics going on, but the whole thing is shockingly competent. Looking forward to seeing how things pan out with this game :)

    • shloo says:

      I also bought this a couple days after release. Its amazing the amount of content already in the game. The game has numerous weapons/vehicles/maps and you can DRIVE A CAPITAL SHIP! The same ship everyone else depends on to spawn fighters and transports from. Very neat having that much control.

      It is rough but its refreshing to have an early access where there is more than just the core basics of the game present.

  10. Ashrand says:

    The image of broadsiding battleships persists because it’s understandable to someone exposition free.

    I kind of worry about this more than i should i suppose but i wonder if you could even make a genuine piece of original sci-fi in games without leaning pretty heavily on things trope based. Sci-fi as a genre depends on the mystery and possibility of the future, games are (almost) always working on opposite assumptions, anything other than total comprehension is seen as a dire failure of the systems to describe themselves.

  11. malkav11 says:

    It’s been a while since I read them so I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy had a pretty good take on “realistic” space combat (albeit with FTL tech and a few similar things that obviously aren’t possible by current scientific projections). Also some great politics, aliens, a doomed love story…just really fine reading all around.

  12. EhexT says:

    The first X novel (Farnham’s Legend) has a really good Newtonian chase scene (in which the guy with the Matter/Antimatter drive demonstrates why delta-v is king).

  13. Deccan says:

    Peter F Hamilton’s “Night’s Dawn” books did hard-physics space combat pretty well. Once a ship completes its FTL jump it’s at the mercy of orbital mechanics, g-forces and delta-V calculations just like everything else.

    The battle scenes were gripping, and also made it clear that achieving the same feeling in a computer game would be quite the ask. Space flight is dull.

    • arienette says:

      I was just thinking of that, the books are hardly hard sci-fi in many other ways, but the way spaceships actually work along with all these munitions flying everywhere at absurd speeds is incredibly different and completely believable.
      And perhaps a good model for that different kind of game.

  14. mrskwid says:

    i hope this game does’t kill it’s self with early access like other games do.
    i do think a multiplayer game is one of the few types that can really benefit from early access.

    • KreissV says:

      I feel like most things don’t really work out from early access. Releasing a game that isn’t complete just means you’re going to be catering to people complaining about bug fixes instead of making the actual game.

  15. karthink says:

    Realistic space combat mechanics are a problem waiting to be solved, and a genre waiting to be created. Maybe something like this: Take KSP, automate the delta-V calculations and maneuvers, and focus the player’s attention on tactics. It’s going to look closer to an RTS than a flight sim, but the ingredients are all there:

    – Resource management and trade-offs (fuel and ordnance)
    – Cascading effects (momentum changes from firing, debris becomes deadly projectile)
    – Stealth (hiding in a planet’s shadow or right in front of the sun, hiding your position by containing heat for a while or radiating directionally)

    And probably simultaneous turn-based, like Frozen Synapse. As a system of rules, basic orbital mechanics is intuitive enough to be grasped in one play session. You would have to jettison the whole fighter jets in space design, but spacecraft can still look aesthetically pleasing; symmetric, functional pressure vessels that can thrust or fire in multiple directions.

    You just have to approach it from a different direction than space-sims do.

    • aleander says:

      There’s the BahamutoD’s armoury mod, apparently it has some AI stuff, so I suspect it might go a long way towards what you want on the RTS front. I wasn’t too interested b/c space tech without military involvement is my central fantasy in KSP (:-)), but it’s one of the most popular mods out there (to my dismay, BD’s a great modder, but well, I’m a starry-eyed pacifist and I loved how KSP managed to make fun without war).

      Also, is a game I kinda always wanted to try but was scared.

    • Cinek says:

      It wasn’t done because it’s not fun. You’d end up plotting course on a map 99% of time and then either dying or killing in a one shot. Star Wars-style combat or even Babylon 5-style is far more interesting and deep on a tactical level.

  16. Roest says:

    Realistic speeds have been tried in Elite 2 and it was near impossible to play. For a game more realism is not always better.

  17. hollowroom says:

    As someone who has to deal with orbital mechanics every day, nothing would dismay me more than having to deal with them when I’m trying to have fun. This is the reason I find it hard to enjoy Kerbal. Too much like work…

  18. Lim-Dul says:

    Anybody here has played/remembers the HL2 mod Eternal Silence?

    It combined spaceship combat with FPS just like this – only on a slightly smaller scale – but then with better implementation.

    It looks a bit dated these days but back then it was state-of-the-art. It is one of those criminally underrated mods that close to no one played. Most likely because of the complexity of the gameplay and the challenges of piloting spacecraft well.

    link to

  19. AriochRN says:

    Offline and playable with bots? Unmutual Me approves!

    I tried the Battlefront demo but after 3 times through the singleplayer thing I’d had enough; pretty, but samey. My brief multiplayer foray gave me flashbacks to 1978 when my single Star Wars figure, a Stormtrooper, was always on the losing side in playground encounters (on the plus side, he got to respawn a lot). For the rest of the weekend I had a few hours with the singleplayer mod for BF2142 and some Battlefront 2 – much more amenable to me.

    I quite like being able to play multiplayer games even after the servers have been switched off / become bereft of players / internet’s gone loopy. I think AFF will be getting a fresh sale in the near future.

  20. tonicer says:

    What is awesome about this game (i already played a lot of AFF and i’m in love) the devs are not retarded and they give you the ability to host your own server and play against as many bots as you like.

    Not like Battlefront (3) where all you can do is hope that it will be a fully featured game (which it will not be because it’s just another fucking console game just like BF3/4 before) with server files and ai bots to fill a friends only server.

    BF3/4 had sooo much potential at first sight … if only … if only it wasn’t a dumbed down console version of a game that has almost perfect prequels (BF1942/BF2142/BF2) with that sweet frostbite engine so much could have been done in terms of mods/maps/gamemodes/etc. modders would have given both of their kidneys for an SDK … but nope EA and their damn console centric view on gaming ruined the whole franchise.

    Fuck those damn consoles … they are the festering sore of gaming. There is nothing that consoles did to move gaming forward they only keep it back in the stone age.

    • aleander says:

      Control schemes that allow gamepads and playing in a position different than the one I spend my entire 9to5. And keeping that scheme alive forever. Probably also why 3rd person perspective games are still alive (yay!). Oh, and fostering a variety of alternative control schemes and couch-gaming tech.

      Worth more than any-sized map and 1200fps and nude mods (or misguided attempts to shoehorn realism into games by people who know C# but don’t get floating point arithmetics).

  21. rondertaker says:

    no social utility? come now…

  22. Replikant says:

    There’s a number of problems with realistic space combat in computer games.

    – huge relative velocities of ships (up to and including relativistic velocities)
    Solution: impose a FTL travel system that jumps ships with next to zero velocity next to each other
    – initally long distances, long approach, long-range combat
    Solution: same as above, FTL

    – newtonian physics
    Solution: This will always be difficult, our brains were not designed to handle zero-g, zero-drag 3d movement. Also, if your main thrusters are aft, you have to have some way of knowing whats behind you (VR could help with that)

    – computers:
    In most conceivable space flight scenarios, the maneuvers and the targeting would be handled by computers, they are just superior: Faster, more procise, less maintenance required, can operate in vacuum (within limits), can withstand high g-forces and are much easier to put in a fighter craft.

  23. Sian says:

    Concerning space combet, I just thought I’d leave this here:

  24. Synesthesia says:

    Man, interstellar was trully crap. I was so dissapointed by it. “Hey, that was a cool first act. You know what this movie NEEDS? How about Matt Damon and some explosions? And hey! Call Shymalan, let’s see if he can think of a COOL TWIST for the ending.”


    On the hand of realistic space combat, I want to recommend Yasuo Ohgatahki’s Moonlight Mile yet again. It has a few of it’s “20th century fighters in space” nonsense, but all the rest is very well done. Read it! I think manga reader has it all ripped.

    • aldo_14 says:

      Man, interstellar was trully crap. I was so dissapointed by it. “Hey, that was a cool first act. You know what this movie NEEDS? How about Matt Damon and some explosions? And hey! Call Shymalan, let’s see if he can think of a COOL TWIST for the ending.”

      Do you have any kids?

      I’m not asking in the snidey type manner, though; although I wasn’t blown away with the illogical ending of Interstellar, I found it did strike a personal chord with the parenthood/family themes behind it.

      Although since having a daughter I’ve become a (almost) blubbering wreck half the time with anything involving kids; most recent case in point being Inside-Out.

      • Skabooga says:

        Aww man, if I’m already crying at movies like these, I hate to think what I would be like if I have children.

    • KreissV says:

      You sound like someone who would really like Gravity. A movie is a movie, to tell a story. If that story is incredibly boring and non-fiction, then i’d just live my own life.

  25. MrUnimport says:

    I generally rather enjoy Mr. Davies’ column but I find myself rather baffled by his insistence that space fantasy is no worthwhile genre. Modern warfare doesn’t much resemble WWII either, and yet we have a wealth of combat games set in the modern day that are nearly indistinguishable from the shooters of yesteryear. Even WWII shooters don’t resemble WWII as it was actually fought but rather the movies we made about the conflict. It’s all themed fantasy and I don’t understand why space warfare should be any different.

    If you want to have fun with a ‘realistic’ space combat game the best you can probably do is pick up a game like Naval War: Arctic Circle, where the wonders of BVR combat via radar and long-range guided missiles can be explored in a two-dimensional environment. In which case good luck having fun because I sure didn’t.

  26. DrollRemark says:

    There are actually two factual errors in The Martian. The second one is that potatoes could never be grown in Martian soil (it’s too acidic), which kind of ruins the first third of the story. Oh well!

  27. Emeraude says:


    It’s funny that me being told that trying to live up to my own principles is something I do “just so that I can feel high and mighty” appears to be perfectly acceptable to you, but me telling that people that don’t share my principles (which is perfectly understandable) don’t have any, as a way to point out the ridiculous of the proposition, seems to be a problem.

  28. JustAchaP says:

    No one even comments on the game…

  29. Jade Raven says:

    First came across the Angels Fall First Universe over a decade ago. It’s good to see them releasing this after what must surely be so much effort and time.