I live in the very same solar system that SOL: Exodus is set in so I was quite eager to defend it from unpleasant space morons, but what awaited me? A carnival of cartwheeling ships silhouetted by a dying sun? The cunning destruction of mighty frigates, too large to be penetrated by conventional weapons? Those are certainly things that happened but mostly I shot hundreds of little fighter crafts in the backside.
“Fighter class ships incoming!”
Targeting locked on, maximum thrust engaged, missile launched at the forefront ship, flick reticule over the next, boost close enough to unleash hot space death, small ship into ‘slide’ mode to conserve forward momentum and swivel to aim at the back-end of the swarm of ships then mop up from the rear.
It’s mostly about mopping up from the rear this space combat business.
“Bomber class ships incoming!”
Rightio. Those will be ponderous but pack a powerful payload, will they? Thought so. It’ll be a case of locking on, heading toward them then slowing down and engaging the MAG cannon, which fires a ponderous but powerful payload, perfect for pummelling these pachyderm-like plodders. Three blasts and they’re down.
“Fighter class ships incoming!”
Got it. Targeting locked on, maximum thrust engaged and so forth.
“Frigate class ship incoming!”
Aha! Here we go then, away from the dogfights and into the capital situation, the big showdown!
And yet no.
That climactic wonder situation is actually a case of locking onto a yellow point on the larger ship, hacking into its systems and then shooting a series of weak spots that magically appear. First you’ll be able to shut down its engines and missiles, redirect its gun turrets to take out enemy fighters and generally mess up its mojo. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of the hack but the time it takes, during which your own ship’s shields are being sapped by massive salvoes, doesn’t thrill in the slightest. It’s time spent watching numbers and letters appear in a random sequence rather than time spent dodging and weaving.
Do those frigates fire missiles that feel like a punch in the face? They do, but they’re not directed toward me or my own, they’re directed toward THE ATLAS.
And you know what the Atlas is? She is the Galactica, the Ship that is Every Ship, The Last Great Hope For All Us Poor Bastards. From the launch sequence that your fighter is propelled through at the beginning of every skirmish to its place in the plot, the Atlas is imbued with an import that should make it the centre of every decision. We should be willing to kill and die for this Nina, this Pinta, this Santa Maria, but instead she feels like a hefty old aircraft carrier. A staging and spawning point that fails to become symbolic.
The Atlas is central and in the short campaign that’s often literally true. Plonked in the middle of whatever crowded chunk of the solar system happens to be under threat (all of it), the Atlas is often bombarded from all sides as a couple of tiny fighters buzz around trying to halt the mass onslaught. I wouldn’t call the other fighters my wingmen because sometimes I wasn’t even sure they knew I existed. I’d just see them occasionally, zipping back and forth with no apparent intent.
All of that said, the actual combat works well, which is a good thing since it’s the game’s one real trick. There aren’t any ship systems to fiddle about with, no rerouting of energy from weapons to shields or loadouts to choose from. There’s only one ship to pilot, which has the most basic of upgrade systems, with points unlocked between missions depending on skill and achievements. SOL: Exodus is a simple game, a shoot ‘em up in space rather than a sim of any sort, but shooting things in space is not a bad way to spend a few hours.
There was a point when I was flying close to a space structure of undetermined purpose, using it as cover from the searing fire of an enemy frigate. Every time an enemy fighter approached, I ended up circling the structure, capitalising on the fact that the zealot fools have a habit of matching speed with a pursuer, making them all the easier to usher toward their final reward. Then I noticed something. If I flew even closer to the metal surface of the structure, swapping paint with it, the enemies’ turning circles became tighter as well. And then they crashed and burned. Not just one of them, but two, three, four.
At first I was annoyed. Why should they be so stupid? They weren’t taking the proximity of the thing into account, instead attempting the same evasive jinks they would have used if we were chasing each other’s tails in open space. But then I queried my own behaviour. I was annoyed by the stupidity, sure, but I was also repeatedly using it to my advantage.
It’s that kind of game. Mostly things work as they should, but it is easy to exploit at times and still hazily entertaining even as it trips up. Chasing ships and shooting them to bits is a staple activity of my life, although I’ve seen less cockpits as they years have gone by, and SOL is a game about shooting spaceships, a game in which you’ll have done almost everything you’ll ever be required to do after the first hour. The campaign only lasts a short time and there are no skirmishes outside the story. The only option for further play is to redo the same missions and attempt to do it all a little better than the time before.
There’s the truth of it. Despite its fully voice acted story of religious idiocy, which is pleasant fluff and as camp as a gaggle of boy scouts, SOL’s focus is on performing well rather than progressing. It’s a game with more than a passing interest in leaderboards. A shoot ‘em up through and through, with nary a jot of sim in its fuel tank.
SOL isn’t the next TIE Fighter or Freelancer. In fact, rather than being the next anything, I’d hazard that it might be the first of something else, a series of increasing ambition perhaps? Of course, that will partly depend on the success or otherwise of Exodus. It's going to disappoint some people because they expect it to be something that it isn’t and even those content to pewpewpew their way around the solar system may be disgruntled by the brevity and repetition.
More variety in ships and weapons rather than backdrops would make those few hours more compelling, as would a more robust sense of power for all this machinery. As it is, collisions between ships are like dodgems buffeting off one another and being ripped to shreds is a case of the screen flashing red and a number dropping. There’s never the terrible sense of impact or terrifying fragility that hurtling through space rocked by explosions should carry, and the fact that being shot down leads to evacuation in a guided pod and a quick respawn back at the Atlas makes self-preservation an option rather than an imperative.
Wait for ships to spawn, protect other ships from them. That’s almost always the mission objective. There’s enjoyment to be had and parts of our souped up solar system make an attractive shooting gallery but the spice of life is sadly absent. Forever protecting others as they slowly escape, being an ace space commander is more a case of duty than derring-do. It’s a duty I was happy to perform for a time but next time I sign up, to pilot the good ship Garriott-Branson perhaps, I want to go farther and I want to go faster. Seamless could be the men to launch that next mission, they certainly have some of the right elements in place and even in the short space since release, their support and tweaking of the game based on feedback has been wholly admirable. Appealing as it is, however, Exodus is an excursion rather than an epic.
SOL: Exodus is available now for £6.99.