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Wot I Think: Fractured Space

"Make it slow."

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Fractured Space [official site] finally warped out of the safety of the early access nebulae this month, making it a ripe target for the RPS fleet. We sent Brendan to do battle with the interstellar MOBA and tell us wot he thinks.

A few years ago there was a game called Stellar Impact. It was a MOBA set in space and it was pretty good. But, for whatever reason, it couldn’t compete with the Dotas and LoLs. The playerbase dissolved into nothing. It got to the point where, if you bought the game, you would find only a sorry derelict – the servers abandoned, the chat boxes silent. Fast-forward to the present day and you’ll see Fractured Space rumbling into sight, louder, bulkier and bristling with firepower. A new space MOBA has arrived, from a different developer. It isn’t perfect but it has hugely improved the process of pushing through space lanes. It also gets space battles.

The format is familiar. It’s a 5v5 rumble to see who can force their way across the map to the enemy HQ and destroy it. Along the way there are mining stations to capture (these increase the rate at which you can upgrade your ship) and a big spaceport in the middle of the arena called the ‘Gamma’ sector. This gives your whole team a buff if you capture it. So far, so MOBA.

But small, important differences soon become clear. This isn’t a single map. The lanes are separated into two long ‘sectors’ each self-contained, forcing you to whir up the jump drive and leap between them to get to the fight or escape from trouble. Likewise, the powerful and much-coveted Gamma is its own sector. There are also no AI helpers constantly pulsing out of the HQs and waddling up the map like a squadron of suicidal ants, nor are there towers to interfere with your push. It’s just your fleet against theirs, a much cleaner battlefield. Oh, except for all the asteroids – static rocks that provide much-needed cover for both parties.

Most importantly, it is not viewed from the top-down. The best skirmishes make full use of the 3D space on offer. Hold the spacebar to rise and ctrl to dive. There is a limit to how useful this extra plane is – like EVE, this is less spacecraft warfare and more ‘submarines in space’ – but it’s enough to make the slow duels and manic crossfire feel like part of a real sci-fi conflict. There’s a lot of smiling to be done when you attack from below like a great white shark, without your opponent noticing you. Or when you abruptly pull up into the upper layers of the map and narrowly avoid a nasty long-range laser beam.

Each ship also has particular weak spots in its hull. The sides, the top, the bottom, the front, the rear. For players who have taken the time to memorise these weaknesses, knowing which ‘side’ to hit means swimming around to get the best angle (the difficulty comes in knowing those weaknesses – more on that later). I found it harder to aim downwards, for example, simply by virtue of the HUD’s layout – all those icons get in your way. I exploited this by attacking from below often. I had fun being a wretched ambush predator even if I would have been fuming if it was me up there, getting torn to shreds and completely unable to see anything simply because the UI was in the way.

This isn’t how you usually get destroyed though, I’ve found. Even the speediest ships feel slow and heavy by the standards of hero-based MOBAs. Death is usually the result of a decision you made 30 seconds ago. You think you can take on an enemy and you lurch forward to engage. Then you see the tell-tale flash of a ship warping into the sector and a red arrow appears on your radar nearby. They both start firing, it’s too late to try turning the ship around now – you’re in too deep. And if you try to jump away yourself, you will be destroyed even quicker, since charging the jump drive puts you into a highly vulnerable and wobbly state in which you take massive amounts of damage if shot. Another flash, a third red radar blip, and your fleet is nowhere to be seen. “I have made a minor error,” you think to yourself, as your ship is blown to pieces.

It’s a quirk that I find appropriate to huge capital ship battles in outer space. But it’s also something that will agitate others – that sense of having used up all your skills and being forced to watch helplessly as you are surrounded and shredded to spacebits by the enemy. Co-ordination and picking your fights feels important. There is an element of hammering keys and watching cooldowns but the focus on placement and maneuvering through multiple dimensions makes even minor decisions feel tactical and measured.

Likewise, the enemy’s movements are often obscured during a panicked skirmish. Sometimes you know you died 45 seconds ago, when you used your propulsion skill too early. Sometimes you don’t know you’re dead until you explode in a hail of surprise plasma missiles and one of your AI crew members starts admonishing you. “Millions are dead now,” they say during the respawn screen, “all because of your incompetence.”

But sometimes you can scrape your way out of a bad situation. In these (rare) moments, the game feels heroic. Once I had three ships firing at me and pursuing me as I scuttled as quickly as possible to the shelter of a nearby asteroid. With only a sliver of health left I activated the ships ‘decoy’ skill, leaving a false version of my own ship hiding in an alcove of the space rock. I then took my chances and circled the asteroid again, hoping my pursuers had kept up the chase and were now shooting their missiles and lasers at the helpful doppelganger. They were. I chuckled at the other side of the rock, kicked up my jump drive and leapt to the safety of our HQ, feeling like Captain Mal Reynolds.

Those skills – speedy propulsion boost, the decoy, plasma missiles – all depend on your ship type. Although some things are always the same – every ship has point defences on their hotbar, for instance, which you have to hammer as soon as you hear the beep-beep-beep-beep of an incoming missile barrage. At this point, I have to point out the major flaw in all this. It is very difficult to tell many of these ships apart. In the colourful hero-infested MOBAs of the present day, there is a focus on making heroes distinct. Recognisable costumes or quirks, a variety of shapes and sizes from hulking dragonbeasts to nimble ninjamen. Even the voices of our favourite champions/legends/heroes quickly become identifiable.

But that is much harder to do in a sci-fi world where every spaceship wants to look cool in exactly the same way. It’s hard to even remember their names: the Destroyer, the Reaper, Executioner, Equaliser, Gladiator, Hunter. All of these names say more or less the same thing about the ship: it kills. It doesn’t tell you much about the character of the ship – the strategy you ought to use – and they are all so stereotypically videogamey it hurts.

Others have more descriptive names aligned to their purpose, like the Superlifter, which assigns little tugboat ships to other vessels to increase their speed. Or the Displacer, which has a harpoon-like ability that drags an enemy forward and a push ability that shoves all ships out of an area. But then there’s the Protector and the Paladin, both healing craft which I would often get mixed up. Or do I mean the Paragon? No, no, that’s the huge tanky supercarrier with the ability to launch fighters and bombers to attack enemies or protect allies.

This confusion doesn’t just stick with you on the ship selection screen, it follows you into battle. Because all the shapes on screen look more or less identical until you are right next to them, you have to rely on reading the name of your enemy’s ship. And as I’ve said, they aren’t very memorable. Worse than this (and as Rob pointed out) there isn’t a lot of feedback when deploying abilities. It’s often hard to know if your shielding buoy has actually hit your teammates, if your fighters are in the right place.

All this doesn’t stop the game from being fun – and you do eventually learn what to expect from a Pioneer or a Sentinel or a Watchman. I enjoyed my surprise ambushes as the Ghost as much as I enjoyed floundering in enemy territory as a hulking Leviathan whenever I made the minute-long error of flying into a bad place. But it does make the game harder to learn and grasp. It takes much longer to know this roster of brown and silver ships than the individualistic bulletpunks of Overwatch, for example. I know I’m not the only one struggling with this. Even after hours and hours of spacemurder, my matches can still feel like I’m going on a tour with a bunch of amnesiacs, briefly thinking I am the best one on the team, before being blown up by something I thought was a Raider but was actually a Brawler, discovering in the process that I too have amnesia.

Bumping into rocks is another common annoyance and sometimes your ship gets caught on an asteroid and refuses to budge. This was the only time when I felt like the game could cut me some slack, when I was busy aiming at an enemy and found myself stuck to a huge column of rock, unable to break free, like I had velcro’d myself to the thing. I wish the physics of those collisions were more slippery so you could more easily dislodge yourself from a vulnerable position. Then again, maybe I just need to look where I’m going – something that’s hard to do in the midst of a double broadside, when there’s already a bit too much going on.

Those are problems of the battlefield. They exist but they wouldn’t stop me from giving Fractured Space a big, congratulatory slap on the back. It understands the slow weaving and weighted decisions of interstellar naval warfare. Good job. What might stop me from giving the game that backslap, however, is the grind, which is as sluggish and stiff as its heaviest spacehulk.

We’re deep in free-to-play territory here, so it isn’t too surprising. The basic currency you get from matches is credits. You need hundreds of thousands of credits to unlock each ship and they trickle in at such a slow rate that it can take dozens of games before you can afford even one of the more interesting ships. You could buy one of the game’s credit-boosting thingamajigs. But my honest advice is: try it out and, if you love it, just swallow the price tag of £30 for the Armada Pack, which unlocks all 31 ships, and then pretend you’ve bought a full-price game. After that, you barely have to worry about earning things. I dislike business models like this for various reasons but I do like shiny spaceships, so allow me to just buy my toys and bask in denial. Nevertheless, if you’re planning to grind your way up, good luck pal. I’ll see you in about 2 months time.

Credits from this point can be spent on unlocking new fittings for individual ships – like a different type of decoy or some variant of missiles that does damage over time. There are also crates and drops every few games, offering credits and DNA – something used to hire new crew members. These are little cards that give you certain small bonuses, +2% damage, +2% recharge rate, and so on. I don’t know where all the crew cards are hiding because I still haven’t earned or unlocked anyone aside from the ‘starter crew’. Frankly, I’m happy to forget they exist and just enjoy the tactical swimming of the matches.

It is a strange way to describe it but that is how it feels, like a tactical swim. I tried Battlerite this week, a popular brawler with MOBA-style combat, and I reeled away from it like it was made of rotten meat. Hotbar combat without the geography? Without the lanes and defence points and pushes and retreats? Just health meters and cooldowns and AoE and quickfire synergy? I nearly vomited. Fractured Space was the perfect cure. A MOBA in a non-cutesy, non-fantasy setting, with just enough respect for the genre’s tradition while having the courage to keep things slow, uncomplicated and strategic. Here’s that slap on the back, space videogame. You deserve it.

Fractured Space is out now for Windows and free-to-play on Steam, with some of its upgrade packs also available via Humble.

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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