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Impressions: Lunar Flight Beta

See you, crater

I am responsible for many of the smaller craters that mark the moon's surface. It's true! I've been playing Lunar Flight, the modern take on Lunar Lander that I first spotted way back in 2011. Turns out it's a simulation of me panicking as I hurtle toward the ground, upside down, beginning to rotate wildly in the hope that the motion will somehow cause me to skim off the rocks and bounce to safety. It doesn't. It's not an intimidatingly hardcore simulation but it is a lot less arcadey than I expected it to be. The beta, which feels remarkably complete, is available to those who donate $5 or more. More thoughts follow.

It's a remarkably beautiful game, with eerily atmospheric music and radio chatter. The depiction of being a lunar worker, recovering lost cargo and collecting data, is shot through with a sense of cold solitude. Much like young Mr Not-Bowie's Moon, Lunar Flight is very good at capturing the emptiness of our much-romanticised satellite. It's a barren place and a genuine sense of panic kicks in when red lights begin to flash and a computer voice grimly intones a proximity warning, an alarm blaring out in a futile attempt to prevent me from cratering once more.

Here's a tip, science boffins - loud noises frighten me and make me much more likely to crash. When I am alarmed by an alarm I act stupidly. I could be coasting along at the perfect altitude, preparing to come in for the smoothest landing of my career, but if a klaxon goes off in my ear I'll probably fly into the nearest mountain immediately. I need peace to operate delicate machinery.

Thankfully, for the sake of my bank balance, I am improving. The career mode gives both dollar earnings and experience points for successes, allowing pilots to rise through the ranks and gloat on leaderboards, as well as upgrading their landers and purchasing usable items. The simulation model seems quite intricate and matters are complicated by details such as the fact that it tracks the weight of cargo, which affects fuel consumption by increasing the amount of thrust needed to lift the craft. Saving half your fuel for a return journey means slamming into the moondust once again, this time as systems cease to respond and all hope is truly lost.

The learning curve starts on a landing pad, rises into the air and then plummets into the ground a few hundred metres away. Or at least it does if you're as easily flustered and disorientated as I am. The main skill I've developed is patience. No more thrusting about like a maniac, it's minor adjustments now and plenty of planning. It seems strange to say, but I plan routes, even though I could just propel myself in a straight line toward my destination. I find it easier to set a waypoint, skim toward it and slow in the vicinity and then change direction toward my next target. It forces me to keep my speed down and my attention fixed.

Alongside the delicacy of the simulation, Lunar Flight's great achievement lies in its aesthetics. I've talked about the audio already and the visuals are equally impressive. Technically it's rather handsome, if barren, with the sun and Earth swinging into view dramatically and even hauntingly at times. The interface bothered me a first, with its quad-screen-split that provides a choice of views and tracking equipment. It is possible to make any one view full screen and bonuses are offered for completing missions using only one specific mode of feedback.

My initial reaction to the quad view was that there was too much information cluttering the screen. The more I play, the more I appreciate the ability to select between displays and feedback, but it's not simply useful, it's convincing.

That leads into my biggest reservation: Lunar Flight a convincing simulation of a fairly limited activity. The game offers a few mission types and a limited play area, with a single well-realised vehicle to master. It's hard for me not to imagine it forming part of a larger moonbase simulation. But I'm being gluttonous. What is here is beautifully realised and at $5 it has more than enough content and care put into its design.

It's drama that's far more cerebral and slow-paced than I thought it might be and I imagine that once mastered, it may be too simple, with too few variables to bring back the challenge and the danger, but I'll gladly spend more time with it as development continues because when I'm not riddled with the stress of imminent failure, Lunar Flight is pleasantly soothing. And it makes me feel more like I work in space than almost anything else I've ever played.

If you still want a better idea of how this plays, or some help with mastering basic control, observe this video by Sean Edwards, the chap behind the game.

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