Premature Evaluation: Fractured Space

Each Monday, Rob Zacny picks through the detritus of early access to separate the games might one day be assembled into something worthwhile from those which should remain on the scrapheap.

Capital ship warfare is my favorite kind of pornography. I’ve watched Master and Commander a dozen times or so, but sometimes I put the disc in the drive just to watch the part where Aubrey gives the order to run out the guns and let fly on the French raider. I’ve watched the episode where Battlestar Galactica assaults New Caprica more often than I’ve watched any other part of the third season. When The Expanse came out this year, I wasn’t sold on the show until the episode where a Martian flagship perished in a pitched naval battle.

Fractured Space [official site] and developer Edge Case Games get where I’m coming from.

From the moment you log in, you’re greeted with an alluring menu of starships and manufacturers, each with their own art style and role in battle. Some of the ships are pure 1970s, Apollo-influenced astro-battleships. Others are more Battlestar Galactica, all slabs of armor and heavy weapons. Once you’ve made your choice, you take to space from a third-person perspective on your spaceship, as part of a five-player team, and are greeted with all the sights and sounds of sci-fi space battles. At once.

It’s like one of those breathtaking fanfictions where someone tried to use science to explain exactly what would happen if Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 militaries all encountered each other at once.

While most of the Fractured Space looks and plays like a finished game, the areas that are still works in progress are extremely rough and extremely jarring. For one thing, it’s a complete roll of the dice whether I will get a decent server from match to match. Ironically, Fractured Space performed best when I was accidentally set to search for matches in the UK by default, rather than my home region of the eastern US. While performance on the London servers was never stellar, it was steady and playable.

The moment I started taking matches from the US servers, however, I started encountering games where lag rendered it almost unplayable. Give an order to jump to a new sector and, fifteen seconds later when I was just about to force-close the game, my ship would suddenly start the jump animation. There are also some placeholder menus for crucial things, like changing your ship selection before a match begins, which obscure some pretty important choices and information when you need them the most.

Fractured Space manages the unusual trick of borrowing a lot of MOBA elements without seeming much like a MOBA. There are lanes that you and your team of capital ship captains can push in order to open up the enemy base to attack, but there are no little nuisance creeps on the map to make your powerful starship feel like its job is pest control. The fact that each part of the map is physically separated from the others makes matches feel like they are unfolding in a series of massive battles over different objectives.

Yet the dynamics are fundamentally the same. Lane-swapping, death-balling, trying to teleport home or warp to the location of beleaguered allies…it’s all right there in Fractured Space, but shot through the lens of starship combat. Where a lot of MOBAs can feel like a game of Simon Says, where everybody has to know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing at every moment of a match, Fractured Space’s warships seem to give players a little more freedom to do things their own way, while rewarding them with a lot force multipliers when they cooperate.

However, Fractured Space is also fairly cryptic. Every warship has its own special abilities and powers, but it’s not always clear exactly how they work, what they’re supposed to do, or who they are affecting. When my combat ship activates an area-of-effect healing ability, I can’t always tell which of my allies were close enough to be helped by it. When a teammate drops a “propulsion buoy”, its purpose is as much a mystery as dark matter. It’s sitting there in the middle of a combat zone next to a cruiser, so presumably it’s important, but… what’s it actually for? Nothing in the game really tells you, even when you’re the one who deployed it.

One reason for the mystery is that Fractured Space sometimes prioritizes spectacle over clarity. I’m not sure this is a bad choice, since one of the reasons I enjoy playing is the sheer “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion” of it all. Battleships sit at the center of a cloud of golden flak bursts, laser beams slash across armor plates, point-defense cannons cause incoming missiles to explode like firecrackers in the sky above your ship. It may be a slow-paced MOBA-shooter, but Fractured Space still tries to look realistic at all times. The problem is that all that realism makes for a visual cacophony that can obscure the feedback you need to understand what’s happening.

I’m also not sure that the central objective works as well as it could. One of the things I love about good MOBAs is the way those objectives are both hugely valuable and hugely risky. A lot of the tension in a close game of League of Legends is about when or even if your team should go for Baron. By contrast, the “gas” objective in Fractured Space is so easy to get that both teams have no choice but to rush immediately to the central sector of the map or they will concede the buff to the enemy.

What you don’t have is that tense cat-and-mouse around the objective, or option to ignore the objective in order to accomplish a valuable trade elsewhere. While Fractured Space’s departures from MOBA convention are largely laudable, this is one area where the game just doesn’t generate the interesting tactical situations that make MOBAs so exciting. This is especially worrying because, in the year since I last checked-in on Fractured Space, the game hasn’t really evolved in this aspect.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to. World of Warships is never really much more than a fanciful 1940s naval deathmatch, but I spent months playing it a few times a day, and I would argue its ship classes have far less variety than what’s available in Fractured Space. I might wish there were more in the way of team tactics and strategic choice on offer in Fractured Space, but it always gives me the thing I want the most: broadside-for-broadside space combat.

At this point in its life, I’d be more than happy to buy the game for its listed price, and am eager to see how it will grow and improve in the coming months. Right now it’s a fun shooter that delivers on my most Adama-esque fantasies. But if the game becomes a little clearer, and does a better job showing the effects and interactions between ships’ abilities, it could stand as a decent naval wargame as well.

Fractured Space is available on Steam and for a perfectly reasonable £3.49 / $4.99 (thanks to the Steam Sale), considering how well it already works and what a visual treat it already is. My impressions are based on build 953074 on 8 February 2016.

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25 Comments

  1. Magniankh says:

    Fractured Space has a bunch of potential…I think I put 20 hours into it? Somewhere in there. But it’s problem is that it’s a 5v5 game. You can’t have “epic space battles,” and “five versus five” in the same game. When lanes are 2v2 or a 2v3, it’s not epic. It’s frustrating. And it’s frustrating because a bunch of the ships are irrelevant in low number scenarios, which is basically 90% of the time. The missile frigate, for example, is great fun — it’s very maneuverable and can spam a bunch of missiles. But it’s weak and easy to take down. A ton of ships are this way — fun but inadequate because they can’t solo.

    The ships appear to be designed around group/team play, but there is no team! Where are they? 1 at base, 2 in one lane, 1 in another lane, and 1 in the center? The game rewards solo play. That’s why you see the top scores and best players using Hunters or Brawlers, because they can solo other ships. The Hunter’s blink ability is the best ability in the game.

    FS desperately needs to increase the player cap to at least 7v7 IMO, if they want a lasting game with more diverse team comps. If the ebb and flow of resources is a problem in a 7v7, then they should redesign those numbers rather than design around a 5v5. Space is big. 5v5 is lonely.

    • Victor A Yorke says:

      7v7 actually sounds like a great idea for FS. For one thing, the solo-play ships (Hunter, Brawler, Enforcer, maybe Reaper) will have simply too many threats in the area. They’d have to change tack, ideally becoming the versatile middleweight DPS dispensers they are designed to be.

      More ships would also make some teamplay tactics more viable. (Gladiator, Pioneer, Protector, Raven? Hunter, Leviathan, Ghost?) My main worry however would be that people will YOLO in the more ship-dense environment, allowing an enemy formation to win 4 3v1 fights in close succession rather than lose a 3v4. Any new player who’s caught out by this, has had a negative experience and after a couple of repeat experiences is lost from the playerbase.

      (although, I anxiously await the moment when all 5 of the team’s heavies and attack ships insist on pushing a completely empty Alpha lane, leaving only a healer and skirmish ship to try and hold B…)

      (come to think of it, I eagerly await seeing 7 Protectors together trash far tougher fleets than they have any right to.)

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        On the YOLO argument: I doubt it’ll be that bad if it’s tested properly. Players can adapt, especially when the metagamers figure things out. Of course, adding certain motivators to spread out would help too.

  2. ShineDog says:

    Always felt to me that it should be patterned as much on World of Tanks and that flavour of game than a MOBA. Huge fleets of absurd spaceships in an apocalyptic ruck. You would still have objectives to focus the game, but it would be somewhat less of a couple of 1v1s across an enormous void.

  3. SirFailsalot says:

    @Magniankh Well I do have to agree that a 7v7 would be really cool, I do think you are mistaken on the game rewarding solo play. In low MMR (Match Making Rating) matches things like the Hunter and Brawler are devastating because from the sounds of it, your teams aren’t working together at all. I certainly experienced that myself. Talking to a few of the guys that top the leader board, and in my 60+ hours playing, having a good team composition and working together is what wins games. Right now, at least in my MMR, the Protector (a support healing ship) is extremely powerful and is the exact opposite of a solo ship, requiring one to stick with others, giving them massive benefits.

    @Rob Zacny I largely agree with your impressions of Fractured Space, though I would implore new players to do something simple that really helps with the lack of info in game as to what exactly your abilities do. In the Tech Tree when you hover over a ship it will pop up a little gear you can click on. There it shows you what the ship is equipped with and what other equipment you can put on it. Though it isn’t always extremely strait forward, most times it will give you a solid idea of what a ships abilities do.

  4. polecat says:

    +1 for the Battlestar references. Exodus Part 2 is a fabulous episode. Partly the spectacle – Galactica falling like a rock on the planet, loads of epic capital ship boom, raptors sneaking around sneakily. But also – Helo as the despair XO! Bill Adama’s truly awful despair moustache! Lee Adama’s despair paunch! (To be shed in next two episodes on a probably dangerous crash diet/exercise regime prior to launching Lee Adama’s ‘Fighting Fat’ DVD…probably)

  5. Blackcompany says:

    Got my hopes up. Took a look. Realized it was a multiplayer only MOBA with cool ships. Immediately checked “Not Interested.”

    One of these days I will find the space game to distract me from Elite. I keep hoping.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Is The Expanse any good? I’ve read the first three books and liked the first two (the third was ok, but not that great). I had no idea that there was a TV show.

    • melancholicthug says:

      YES! Good God it’s good. It’s great. I loved the noir mixed with space opera style. It’s, along Mr. Robot, one of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in a loong while. The part that Mr. Zacny references made me squeal with glee. One of the best hard sci-fi stories ever made.

    • theblazeuk says:

      Yes, it’s really, really good. I’m surprised throughout by pacing, acting, effects, choreography… it’s good.

    • OmNomNom says:

      Easily best sci fi since BSG

    • kael13 says:

      You might want to watch the first episode with subtitles (so much mumbling), but after that, it’s fantastic.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      That all sounds very promising! Good SF on TV is always a nice surprise. Thanks for the replies.

    • Cinek says:

      One of the best Sci-Fi shows in recent years, and unlike most of them – it’s actually quite realistic and uses several scientific concepts that I wish more sci-fi movies and series would play with. (There are few things that bother me though, eg. apparent 1 g gravity inside of the Eros base….)

    • LionsPhil says:

      You can form your own opinion, since there is a—as far as I know—legitimate upload the first episode on YouTube.

      And, yeah. It’s good.

  7. OmNomNom says:

    Yeah i got excited about this one too… But there just isn’t much to do in it.
    The ships all feel the same (think slow tug boat).
    There’s no real strategy or dynamic tactics, its just chase the objective and slow enough that there are no real action packed moments as you see everything coming a mile off.
    More exciting to watch than to play really.

  8. KDR_11k says:

    I find that a big problem with large ship games like this is creating the sense of scale. When anything of relevance is roughly the same size it doesn’t really seem like the ships are terribly large. Yes, there are fighters and drones you can launch occasionally but they’re hard to see and even harder to interact with.

    Also feedback in general feels like a problem, the most important HP are armor HP but they are not visible, just at some point the ship bursts into flames and starts taking decent amounts of damage from getting hit. That also means that the HP bar shown on everything is not much of an indicator, by the time that hits 50% the ship has already taken way more than 50% of the damage it can handle. So it feels very difficult to tell how damaged things are and what your weapons are doing.

    Also I’ll keep harping on about From The Depths as the perfect battleship porn game :P

    • LionsPhil says:

      FtD is pretty excellent. Nice to actually have a reason to build enclosed compartments, care about hydrodynamics, have an actual game to play with your ships, etc.

      (Also the DWG ship designs are great for a beginner foe. Really neat in their rubbishness. Flying Squirrels, however…)

  9. catmorbid says:

    Yet another space game that doesn’t feel like a space game.

  10. Cinek says:

    I don’t know… on one hand: There are some interesting concepts, and ships are beautifully modelled, but on the other hand…
    – GUI is a joke. They should scrap all of it and hire an actual UI designer, that would preferably also account for user feedback.
    – Lanes. Why this game has lanes? They make no sense.
    – It’s 3D… yet all the maps are pretty much 2D. It doesn’t use altitude as an important factor in map design.
    – Too few players. I’d love to see already mentioned 7v7, but even 12 vs 12 wouldn’t do harm.
    – Too little strategy in a gameplay.
    – Capturing all these mines / central base doesn’t give much feedback. I know they do stuff that helps, but if I wouldn’t read it outside of the match – I would have no clue. I don’t know, maybe let them spawn fighters, or let you collect resources with your ship that you’ll process onboard for additional upgrade cash?
    – Lots of bits in this game look unfinished. Eg. whole research tree looks like it’s suppose to have 3 times as many ships as it does now, but someone run out of ideas. Home base looks like a placeholder made by student in Blender. Etc.
    – Already mentioned matchmaking is shit. Not only because of ping & stability, but also because it throws newbies vs people who got 100+ hours in a game (free food, but good luck trying to make them do something useful or show some team play).

    I could keep going but… IMHO overall it’s a “meh” game, somewhat fun to pay, but at the same time got so many f**** that you struggle to play it for a longer while. I would say… sold 6/10. At the moment Dreadnought > Fractured Space.

  11. Wulfram says:

    [pedant]Master and Commander has frigates, not capital ships[/pedant]

  12. Joshua Northey says:

    ugggh I accidentally clicked on this in the Steam Store months ago, and since it is FtP it is now permanently in my library. I wish there was some way to hide all FtP games. I have these strong prejudices against them, and every time I try one they are reinforced. Theory are just bad versions of regular games for people with no money.

  13. madcatstyle says:

    Hi. I am the CEO over here at Edge Case Games and I wanted to say thank you for the feedback and for the support. Please do jump on the forums and keep letting us know what you think. We are constantly improving the game and have many plans for this year that we will be excited to see people play. The good thing about Early Access is that we have something that is getting better every day and that you can all play a big part in helping us do that. We are listening, but we are small so can’t do everything as quickly as we and you would like :-) And thank you Rob for looking at our game and the kind words.

  14. VaporStrike says:

    I would definitely love to see FS give us large scale ship combat at some point. As it is, 5v5 really just doesn’t do it justice. I seriously think 10v10+ would suit the game much better. I think they were trying to go for a more competitive setup with the team sizes, but it just doesn’t work for this type of game. I bought the Harbinger when the game first came out, and gave it the benefit of the doubt and grabbed Vanguard as well, but so far my investment has only marginally paid off. Uncapping the team size would be a glorious start, even for just custom matches.