Celestial body or dead space?
VoidExpanse strikes me somewhat as an inevitability. The years of Eve coupled with Elite and Star Citizen's stratospheric success means a lower budget, retro-styled take on the same idea was viable. Its isometric viewpoint sets it apart from those peers, as does its extremely unpolished, early access state. As with any member of the space trading, exploring, bang-banging massive, the promise of the final game is an incredibly enticing one. The difficulty is seeing through the crashes, balance issues and unfinished mechanics to judge its core worth. VoidExpanse made that especially challenging, but there's hope.
It's a simple start - choose a class and pick from a selection of customisation options, then I'm dumped rather unceremoniously next to a space station. Inside is a surprisingly helpful man, explaining the universe and providing the first bit of direction towards upgrading my ship. The history of the star systems will be somewhat reminiscent to players of a certain MMO, with tales of closed warp gates to Earth and stuck soldiers/colonists splintering into factions. Here it's thanks to the "Xengatarn", a hostile race of aliens that I can only assume hate us so much they went back in time and created their own name to be so unspellable. This narrative frame is reasonably generic, pretty forgettable and overall unimportant - the barest hint of a background is all that's really required to push the action forward. It needs cleaning up in the pure quality of writing department, with a lot of poor grammar and spelling, but it's an easily fixed problem.
After the too-lengthy opening conversation, the variable-size galaxy is almost totally open. There's a mission telling you to pick up a new ship that's probably advisable, but it's equally possible to jet off into the sun(set) and gather resources through killing pirates and selling goods. What's interesting is the opening balance, which stacks odds against you rather heavily. At first I thought it was a mistake that needed the starting enemies nerfing, or providing better weapons to a new player. On second thought, I think it might be a mistake of poor signposting and explanation.
You see, VoidExpanse's combat system is both surprisingly deep and the best thing about the game. It's not especially complicated from a description point of view - it uses believable, though definitely not simulated, physics on a no-gravity plane. Engines are pointed in four directions, giving access to strafing and turning on top of forward and back. Where the skill comes in is the lack of target locking, and guns having limited fields of fire, so fast movement is good for dodging damage but leads to more misses. This can be mitigated: learning the cooldowns of weapons and speeds of ships, predicting where enemies will be better. It's not only more complicated than it sounds, it's also a lot of fun. There's enough variety in types and sub-types of weapon that each fight feels different, plus the feedback from firing and destroying enemies makes both pleasurable.
So, in a fairly matched fight, like those at the start of the game in its current state, the combat engine is at its best. Even later on, charging headlong into a pack of ships isn't going to serve you well. The natural assumption that the player is the biggest badass around is still the most prevalent, so I think more could be done to make it clear this is not the case. However, what's more problematic is the repetitive play created by the systems in place to support this early game. Once a ship or two have been fought off, repairs will be necessary, meaning a trip to the nearest station (and some menu navigation) or the use of a consumable. Critically, this is not as much fun as continuing to adventure through space and puts a real hold on the action, which should be the focus of the game.
The reason for that is the lack of anything else of note. As well handled as it is, the combat is the only fully implemented system in the game. There's a quest-line of sorts, but it's rudimentary at best and mostly a series of dull fetch and kill quests. Side missions are no better, as akin to Eve's uninvolved, uninteresting, grindy PvE content as the plot. There's a rudimentary system for mining asteroids, which is a comfortably calm counter-point and a good way to farm both experience (which feeds a by-the-numbers levelling system) and money, but will bore (You're fired - Ed) quickly. Perhaps what's worse is a lack of things that build on the enjoyable parts of the game - you can come across multiple ships attacking travelling merchants, but there's no decision to be made. The pirates will still be hostile to you if you destroy the merchant, who won't help or reward you in any way for your services should you assist him. The knock-on effect of this is that stopping to conduct combat feels like a waste of time when passing through a system, since top speeds will take you past enemies easily.
More over, there are still some fundamental problems with the very basic, operational levels of the game. There were multiple occasions where saved games simply wouldn't load, or errors prevented me from doing anything without a restart, and some that stopped the file functioning at all. A patch fixed a few utterly unrecoverable bugs, but I've still encountered systems that refused to load or meaningless error messages solved only by quitting. It's an early access game, yes, but what you're willing to put up with may vary, and I put regular game-breakers a little past that. That mentioned patch was within the first few days of availability, which is promising, and the developers are quite active over on their forums.
So what we have at the moment is a playable, fun - if basic - space blaster. Hopefully you can tell that it's gorgeous too, something that will be a big note in its favour once it's a little deeper. In a half year, a year, three it could be something properly impressive, once the faction combat, trading and crafting is implemented and balanced. Even just more players so that the multiplayer side of the game is more active would be a big improvement. Given the meagre $10 entry price, it's possible the basic exploration and character development available will be interesting enough to support development, in the hopes of something better to come. For me, I'll be checking back in coming months to see how the game has grown and if it's more worthy of significant time investment. Of course, by then, it'll have stiff competition from the Kickstarter all-stars.
You can grab VoidExpanse now for $10.