Hello everybody! Rob is away so Brendan has been drafted in to prematurely evaluate this week. He has decided to go into deep space (again). Only this time, he has a team of cohorts helping him out in PULSAR: Lost Colony. Will the crew become famous throughout the galaxy? Or will they die in a fiery blaze of unimportance? Read on to find out!
Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the R.P.S. 'We're Very Sorry'. It's mission: to get lost in space and try not to die. As captain, I can vouch for my crew with the highest sincerity. There is Tom, a twitchy science officer and close friend. Chris, our stalwart pilot and writer for dreaded print magazine PC Gamer (puh!). And of course Pip, who shoots guns at empty space. Well done, weapons officer Pip! That's exactly the kind of initiative we foster aboard the We're Very Sorry.
Firstly, some explanation. PULSAR is a game that could be described as "multiplayer first-person FTL", a genre blend that ought to get thousands of people murdering each other for a copy. You clamber aboard a ship with a team of up to 5 players, each assuming a role with their own spiffing space jersey. The Captain barks orders, the Engineer keeps an eye on the machinery, the Pilot swerves about helplessly in space. Meanwhile, the Weapons officer keeps the turrets going and the Science officer... sciences? It's a little unclear what the Science officer does to be honest. But even if you don't fill a role, you can add a bot to the team.
Some of the roles have skills that the others don't. For instance, the Weapons officer can use the powerful main turret but if anyone else cosies up to this machine it will reject them for not having the right skill. Later, you can add skills like "Main turret control" to become a multi-talented part of the crew. But this involves doing missions and getting skill points to add to your own character. What kind of missions? Well, I'm glad you asked.
Our first mission was to get a sandwich for a space immigrant. I'm serious. We had begun our voyage orbiting a customs office in the centre of the galaxy. This appears to be the game's hub, where a few missions are handed out. It's also where you can find a small marketplace for ship parts and usable items. We warped down and wandered around. Chris, our pilot, was astounded by the size of the place. He said it was like when games started giving people map editors and everyone made huge maps because there was no sense of scale. I walked around the cavernous atrium of the customs depot and agreed.
The immigrant in question was waiting alone near the transporter. He had lost his papers and identification and had been waiting on the station for hours. This poor man was in trouble. As captain I accepted his mission - to acquire lunch - and we spent the next half an hour looking for the nearest food stall. Chris was disappointed when he brought the hungry man a biscuit and was rebuked for not delivering the promised bread-based snack. These are the travails of an intergalactic space crew.
Eventually, we found the sarnie in question and fulfilled our end of the bargain. Before long we were back on the ship and ready to explore. While languishing in customs we had heard rumours (received quests from twinkling NPCs) of two sites of interest. The first, a planet where a researcher had gone missing. The second, an archeological site with rare alien treasures. We took a vote and set a course for the ruins, approximately 15 jumps away. We made it three jumps before we were blown to pieces.
PULSAR is a difficult game to get your head around. Currently, there's no tutorial or in-game guidance. Just a lengthy manual in the escape menu. As a result, most of my first hours with the game were spent with Tom, running around our previous vessel, the S.S. Please Remain Calm, trying to figure out how everything works. In one sense, this makes jumping right into exploring and space adventuring impossible, since you simply don't know how to run the ship. But in another sense, it is what I enjoyed most about the experience. You scamper about, peering at levers marked "Emergency Core Eject" and "Toggle Safety", flipping switches and then wondering why all the lights have gone out and why your crew mates are shouting and why your oxygen is slowly dwindling. There's a lot to discover. I got the same feeling of reckless curiousity from the opening hours with Elite: Dangerous. I guess I just love pressing giant red buttons.
When it comes to a fight, though, the learning curve is definitely against you. And although there is a save function, you don't really have time amid all the space nonsense to use it. So death often results in a major setback. It is also so chaotic that, following the heat of ship-on-ship combat, after you've been blown to smithereens, it's hard to tell exactly what went wrong. No post-death report. Was it your shields that failed? Did your warp core over heat and explode? Who knows. We were sent back to the customs office a few more times that evening, killed by dreaded Scout Drones, with no more clue about our combat efforts than before.
That was when we lost our Science officer, Tom. I'm going to say he was incinerated in a tragic transporter accident because it sounds better than "he had to go and meet some mates". However, Pip, Chris and I soldiered on, determined to find a mission worthy of our skills (ie. some low-hanging fruit). We finally found it in the form of a mission to investigate a missing ship, only a few jumps away. Our journey was strangely pleasant, with nothing but Colonial Union ships the whole way there. We hailed these vessels and absorbed the small-talk flavour text that appeared on the big screen on the bridge. Yes, it was all going to plan.
We reached the planet where the ship had gone missing. It seemed to have crash-landed on the planet's surface and we were tasked with finding any survivors. We each donned a space suit from the life support section and beamed down to the transporter room of the shipwreck.
Everything was dark. We turned on our flashlights and walked around. In the cargo bay of the derelict, Chris stopped.
"Did you hear that?"
"Like... a snarl."
We looked around the cargo hold. There was nothing but two pieces of machinery, which I stuffed in my pockets while we waited to see what horrible creature appeared, probably above us, from a vent.
But nothing appeared. We marched on, phasers in hand, until we reached a hole in the hull. Chris and I wanted to stay and survey the rest of the ship but Pip did not wait for orders. She had already jumped through the hole. This was bad officer behaviour.
"Wow," she said, from the other side. "It's the planet surface."
We followed her through and appeared on a green, grassy world. Again, the level design was huge.
"A tent!" said Chris.
We ran toward the small shelter he spotted.
We consulted the robot. He was the last remaining survivor of the derelict. And he gave no reasons for the crash. But he wanted to stay here, on the planet, where he could live a new life.
"I'm fine with that," said Chris, walking back to the ship.
"But what about the ship!" I cried. "Why did it crash!?"
My crew mates offered no answers. The robot stayed silent and still. I crunched over the grass and back through the shipwreck's guts to the transporter room. No alien creature made itself known. No blinking audio log gave me any clues. When we were all back on the We're Very Sorry and out of our spacesuits, I stood by the computers on the bridge and mused.
"Where to?" asked Chris, surveying the expanse of stars outside.
"I don't know," I said. "Just pick one at random."
"Very good, sir!"
We came out of warp and saw another Scout Drone. There was no time to think about the mission we had "completed". I ran into the weapons room and started firing lasers alongside Pip. Chris banked hard to give us a clear shot, but the drone fired back. Things were exploding, voices were raised, turrets were charging. Finally, the drone popped. Pip had finished him off with a shot from her rail gun. Good job, officer Pip. I always knew that early training would pay off.
"I think he's dead," said Chris. "But there's still an alarm."
I jumped out of the turret. The interior lights were on the fritz and a red alarm was ringing. I ran down to the engine room and glanced at a computer.
"Life support is on fire!" I said.
I glanced again.
"Science bay is on fire!"
I ran out to the life support with a fire extinguisher and started blasting the flames away.
"Engineering is on fire!" shouted Chris.
What? But I was just there. I ran back into the engine room, where everything was hunky dory.
"There's no fire her--
The ship exploded.
The adventures of the R.P.S. We're Very Sorry could be called "disastrous". But I challenge any of you to man a three-person vessel without reading the manual. Ultimately, the experience of being blown up multiple times in the dead of space was a mix of fulfilling and disorienting. Exploring that shipwreck in our suits felt like part of a bigger story, like a real sci-fi adventure, and it would have been great to see more of these kinds of "away" missions.
But the combat elements got in our way a little too often, and having an undersized crew with no experience definitely had an impact there. PULSAR has a steep learning curve at the minute. But it's also got huge potential and ambition. There's so much packed in here I didn't talk about - you can modify your ship's loadout, buy new parts, send viruses to attack the computers of other ships, including one virus that steals credits from their accounts (!) There's also a big computer in the Science bay where you can insert any strange materials to convert them into Talents for the crew. Put all this together with the scale of the Star Map and there's an awful lot going on. It's full of good ideas.
Yet it's the player-to-player stuff that makes it interesting. During one of our flights I walked past a screen on the bridge and shouted "who left the coolant system on!" Our pilot had forgotten to switch it off and now we had burned through half of our coolant. To get more of the green stuff we would have had to stop at a trade post, which we simply couldn't be bothered doing. We would rather gamble that our core would not overheat too much or too often. It's moments like this which give PULSAR its spark.
So, if you are going to embark on some missions of your own, I couldn't blame you - the scope for misadventure is too great to resist. But be warned: there's absolutely no guidance, the AI bots are rubbish and a lot of the NPC interactions feels like the bare bones of an upcoming universe. I would also recommend you launch your doomed vessel with as much free time as possible and with as full a roster as you can manage. You're going to need to put out a lot of fires.
PULSAR: Lost Colony is available on Steam for £18.99. These impressions are based on build 1122115 on 19 May 2016.