January 29, 2001
by Ambrosia Software Reviewed by: Ken Efta
I'll say this quickly to save time for those of you who like to play great games: Get Escape Velocity -- download it, get an unregistered copy from a friend, but whatever you do, just get it. Play for a few hours; you should be addicted by then. Send your $20 registration fee to Ambrosia Software. Play Escape Velocity for many more hours, contentedly blasting Confederate Frigates, running smuggling missions to Deneb III, defending merchant vessels from roving mercenaries, and expanding the reaches of your galactic empire.
Ambrosia Software has struck again with their space adventure/arcade game Escape Velocity. Ambrosia's previous Asteroids-style shoot-'em-up, Maelstrom, has been a favorite with Mac users for years. EV easily surpasses Maelstrom as Ambrosia's most impressive effort. In fact, MacUser magazine recently awarded Escape Velocity "Shareware Game of the Year."
There are few games that equal EV's design and game-playing longevity. It's EV's true strength. The premise of the game is nothing new: there have always been space-trading games, Asteroids-style shoot-'em-ups, and strategic and tactical simulations. But all of these have been combined into a single game with superb gameplay. EV drops you right in the middle of a rough-and-tumble galaxy as the captain of a shuttlecraft. The galaxy is largely unexplored -- I had my computer map handy most of the time -- and it's your job to stake out and make your living however you can. But it's completely up to you how to go about it. Many commercial games -- Buried in Time or The Dark Eye -- don't allow you the luxury of playing the game the way you want to play it; they have very specific objectives you must achieve in order to "finish" the game. EV is completely open-ended. There is no single objective, no single way to play the game. And the only time you're "finished" with the game is when you decide to start over from scratch or turn off your machine.
You can choose to become a galactic trader, ferrying cargo and passengers from planet to planet. You can hire escorts for protection and for extra cargo capacity. You can choose to ally yourself with one of the two warring political factions of the galaxy: the Confederates or the Rebels. You can maraud and pillage other ships as a pirate. And it always pays to check the mission computers and spaceport bars when you land on planets -- you can always find work by accepting special missions.
Another thing I liked about this game: you're forced to make moral decisions. Yes, moral decisions. You can chose to help a merchant vessel that's being attacked by pirates, or you can ignore its distress calls on your hailing frequency. You often have opportunities to attack Confederate ships and become allied with the Rebels -- and vice-versa. The price you pay is criminal status in all Confederate (or Rebel) systems. I was even offered missions to smuggle drugs and shuttle criminals into systems across the galaxy. Throughout the missions, I was followed, and then attacked, by Confederate Gunboats. I admire the world that EV creates. It has a level of realism that I found refreshing.
The final strength of the game is that Matt Burch, the game designer and developer, has released the resource code for public consumption. With tools like Res-Edit or Resourcerer, you can modify the source code to create plug-ins that contain your own missions, modify the stellar map, insert new graphics, alter the capabilities of ships, and so on. Visit the Unofficial Escape Velocity Site to download the EV Bible, Burch's compendium of resource codes, as well as resource editors and an entire library of plug-ins written by avid EV fans. Oh, make sure to check out the Star Wars plug-in. It's outstanding.
Installation and set-up are easy. I installed EV on a Performa 630 (68040 processor with 8MB RAM) and a PowerMac 8500 (603e processor with 32MB RAM). Clearly, EV performed flawlessly on the PowerMac, but the 040 machine ran EV surprisingly well. The only problem I ran into was during heavy combat, with approximately 8-10 ships on the screen along with missiles, lasers, etc. Only then does the 040 system come halting to a snail's pace. You can resolve the problem by locking down the "caps lock" key. This enables the double speed feature, and the battle maneuvers become much quicker.
The main interface is arcade style. In fact, it's not that far off from the interface of Maelstrom, or Asteroids for that matter. Because of this, many game players expecting something new and innovative will be disappointed. But I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the other "sub-interfaces" in the game. For instance, as you gain credits, you can choose to buy a new ship in the planetary shipyards or you can choose to upgrade the systems on your current ship. You also have a stellar map interface, as well as an interface when you land on each planet.
Combat is also conducted arcade-style. As you pilot your ship across the screen, you can target your weapons, firing at other ships with your arsenal. But don't be deceived by the simplicity of the interface. Each ship has different turn-ratios, acceleration, fuel capacities, and weapons arrays. It can really be quite complex -- you'll have to develop tactics for dealing with different types of ships, in different types of planetary systems, often while you're running a rush delivery to a distant spaceport. Oh, a word of warning about the buying of a new ship or upgrading your ship. You'll have to develop new combat strategies as your ship configuration changes. I've died many times because I've haven't fully understood the capabilities and limitations of my new toys. And remember this too: There's no shame in running.
Before you play EV for the first time, take a screenshot of the control documentation and print it out. Or simply write the key commands down on a sheet of scratch paper. There are about two dozen commands, which can be difficult to remember at first, and you can't access any sort of a help screen while you're playing the game. This seems to be a major oversight on the part of the game designers, but I found that I had many of the key commands memorized in about an hour.
One notable absence from the game: head-to-head capability for game play. At the moment, it doesn't exist. And for a Macintosh shareware game, it's an expected absence. However, I imagine it would be a great addition to the game to pilot your Kestrel escort frigate into combat against your friend's souped-up Argosy cargo vessel.
The graphics and sound are average by the standards of most serious gamers. But considering they let you play the entire game for free, asking you to pay a mere $20 only if you like the game and decide to keep it, I think they've done a great job.
68030 33MHz, 8 MB RAM, about 5-7 MB free-hard disk space
Simply put, Escape Velocity is awesome. It lacks the one advanced feature of other commercial game ventures -- head-to-head play -- and has a documentation system that is hard to access. Some gamers won't like the interface -- it will feel sophomoric when compared to other commercial gaming efforts. Other gamers will be disappointed with the graphics -- they're not on the cutting edge. But Escape Velocity has unequaled gameplay and longevity. And that's my criteria for a good game. At the very least, Escape Velocity is worth a look.
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