I’m sitting in complete darkness and silence. I can’t hear the hum of the ship, can’t even see the stars anymore. It could almost be peaceful, if it didn’t mean that I was going to die.
It’s almost criminal that we haven’t mentioned Rogue System more often. Apart from a brief news post and some words from sim king Tim Stone, we haven’t said much at all. It’s a hardcore single-player spaceship simulator with dozens of buttons, all corresponding to critical and non-critical spacecraft systems like plasma cores, temperature control, communications, and life support. Needless to say, it takes some learning.
First, there's the sheer volume of buttons, dials and switches. This can be as exciting as it is overwhelming. It reminds me of being confronted with the controller for mech sim Steel Battalion. Your eyes widen – what a magnificent toy. But at the same time, how the hell does it work? With these sorts of things, there’s usually only one way to find out - by pressing buttons randomly and causing all sorts of futuristic havoc.
This isn’t exactly true of Rogue System. While my first hour or two of Elite: Dangerous was spent pressing every switch imaginable until I boosted into the side of a space station, this is a much heavier prospect. It’s a game of learning, slowly. Each system has its own start-up and shutdown routines, and the order in which you follow these mechanistic rituals matters. I would learn this lesson through the tuorials. And after that: the hard way.
The first couple of tutorials have you piloting the ship, using the keyboard or joystick to thrust around. One of the lessons intentionally sends you into a dizzying spin so that you may better understand Newton’s laws, forcing physics on you even as you close your eyes tightly and begin to wretch. Luckily, the next lesson is about how to turn the ship’s auto-correcting functions on – flight assist, basically. There’s an insistence on hard sci-fi everywhere. Even the “window” in front of you is not really a window, but a display screen projected onto metal, showing you what’s outside from any direction you select: froward, port, aft. Shut down this system, and you can’t even see what’s out there.
The other tutorials are all about the buttons. This is where you start to feel like a schoolboy practicing some kind of bizarre new musical instrument. The tutorial text is mostly clear, aside from a few moments when it assumes you’re familiar with flight sim or spacecraft jargon. It’s also packed to the brim with acronyms, forcing you to memorise the difference between LENR, TMS, RCM, MES, LSS - it’s enough to make you say FFS. You also have to press the notoriously irritating middle mouse button to zoom in on things, and I can’t seem to see any way in the controls menu to reassign it.
Despite that, it’s surprisingly fun to try and cram all of these lessons in – what buttons to press when departing a station, what to press when docking, how to communicate with Space Traffic Control – but it can also be tiring. Docking is a particularly difficult task, even if it is the most rewarding. I had to take breaks between tutorial missions and I imagine some folks will switch off immediately and say “no thanks” altogether.
The sixth lesson was about transferring orbits to another planet, and teaching you to sleep for a few hours in between (you press 'U' and it knocks you out). In the finished version, we’re told this will be expanded into a fully fledged suspended animation system. So you can chart a course to the most distant planets available – a journey that could take weeks – then plonk yourself into comfy stasis and wake up at your destination. That is, so long as you’ve aligned your course correctly, used the right percentage of auto-throttle, remembered to extend your radiators, adjusted for the heat of the superconductors, ignited the drive correctly, and haven’t neglected a single important button. Am I going too fast?
It’s an exciting premise, because a lot of the sim’s parts are currently missing. There’s only one solar system and one ship you can pilot for now – the Flying Fox. The comms system basically consist of about eight messages from space traffic control, and there’s only one real mission, a rescue flight in which you have to reach a satellite, dock with it, correct its orbit, undock and return, all within 40 minutes. Meanwhile, some of the display panels simply read “not yet implemented”, which is not something a space pilot wants to see in an emergency. I should know.
There’s still a lot here for anyone willing to learn, and more than enough for someone like me who still has trouble differentiating the MTS, the TMS, the RCS, the ECS… but there's also a long way to go in terms of #content. There is another mission, however. It's a freeplay, sandbox-style thing. And this is how I ended up stranded in the dark.
I started off docked at a station. I was proud of myself when I correctly remembered the start-up and undocking procedures. Although I did forget to inform Space Traffic Control that I was about to boot up my core, which I imagine is quite explosive and dangerous, because they scolded me for not telling them.
But they also let me away with it. I undocked and cleared the space station.
That’s when things got tricky. I looked at my navigation screen and set my destination as the second body orbiting the star, a cryovolcanic planet that would take three days to reach. I engaged the superconducters, set the autopilot on, twiddled the necessary dials, ignited the plasma core and summarily pointed my ship entirely in the wrong direction. I went whooshing off into space, reaching hundreds of thousand of metres per second.
I still felt good at this point. I discovered that the control panel for my seat had a “recline” button. I pressed it and lay back, pleased as a fat cat, then went to sleep. I was about 150 million kilometres from my starting point when I woke up and saw the data on my orbital information screen. I began to doubt my flight plan.
Rogue System is like a first person Kerbal Space Program – you have your periapsis, your apoapsis, eccentricity, all this incredibly important physics to consider, but without the handy projected pathways. There’s an overhead map but no way to tell which way you’re going, except by being clever. And I am not clever. I sent plenty of Kerbals to their doom by getting their escape path from one planet or another completely wrong. And now the same thing was happening to me. It was enough to make me freeze up in despair.
No! I won’t go gentle into that good night! I pull my seat out of recline mode and start to look around the controls, wondering what button would reliably stop the Wotsit Drive that was hurtling me 200 kilometres deeper into space with every passing second. I look at the superconductor switch, protected under a safety hat of clear plastic. This one feels right, I think. I flip back the safety hat and jam down on the button. The engine howls. The ship stops accelerating. I did it!
Wait. Why is the temperature system flashing?
The coolant tanks were becoming over-pressurised and the ship’s temperature control was starting to lose it. I rapidly clicked and unclicked buttons that I thought might help. Radiator bypass, emergency vent, none of them seemed to stop the temperature from rising. I moved the joystick to see if I still had thruster power. I did. But because the auto-pilot settings hadn’t changed, I had now accidentally put the ship into a terrifying multi-directional spin. I raised the comms transmitter and broadcast the emergency beacon. No response. Warning lights started beeping on the display to my right. The batteries had failed and were now inoperable, the fuel cells had a major fault. If the core went down, I would have nothing to power the life support, or anything else.
I pressed a few more buttons. Eventually, either something I pressed or the healing passage of time caused the temperature to start dropping. Eventually, I figured out the correct auto-pilot settings and slowly the ship ceased spinning and came to a stop.
I had time to breathe. According to the data listed on my right, I was still flying at ludicrous-metres-per-second into the great nothingness. But I was no longer accelerating - that was good news. I needed to turn around, blast the engine as hard as possible in the other direction, work up the power to stop and then start heading back.
This was going to be risky. I put all my power into the next course I charted, back to my “home planet” - throttle 100%. The tutorial had always taught me it was unwise to do this. You ought to stay at 70% throttle, it chimed in my head. “It’s too late for caution!” I cried at the memory. “More is always better!” After clicking all the right buttons, I punched the ‘commit’ button on screen and the ship started boosting, shuddering and creaking under the strain. I watched the orbital data to my right. It was working. The ship was slowing… slowing... yes! We’re going home! I watched as the ship started moving back to my starting planet. Getting closer all the time...
The ship goes veering past the planet. Fury grips me and I start slamming all the buttons I think will help. Shut down the superconductors! Disable the magnetrons! Disengage the –
Oh no. I know that sound. It is the sound of a dying machine. The warning buzzer starts honking. The temperature of all systems is skyrocketing. "Wait," I think. "Please, just wait a minute." More systems start failing, going into the red on my error panel. "Please stop this," I urge the ship. "Stop."
The lights go out.
Within seconds of each other, all my instruments have gone dark, even the display screen full of errors disappears. I try flicking the switches. MTS? Dead. LENR? Dead. Batteries? Those are long dead. Out of nothing but desperation, I even try flicking the external system power switch, which I know only works when you are attached by an umbilical at a space station. I click it three times, as if it will do anything. Nothing is working. There isn't even enough power to move my seat. I am trapped in this seat, in a tin can with no windows, floating through space at 160,000 m/s. And I can’t even recline.
But wait! A single thing is still glowing in the cockpit, above my head, on the Comms panel. The emergency beacon! It must still be broadcasting. Maybe someone has heard me! I zoom in to see what the display screen says, in dull blue letters.
“Not yet implemented.”
Rogue system is available on Steam for £22.99/$29.99. These impressions are based on build 1272397