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Premature Evaluation: Fractured Space

attack ships on fire

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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