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March 07, 2006

Flatspace II:
The Rise of the Scarrid


Explore, expand, exploit and exterminate as a new alien race roams the universe within a massive two-dimensional future
Flatspace II: The Rise of the Scarrid
By Cornutopia
PC
MSRP: $24 (download), $39 (mail-order CD)
By Matt Peckham
Not to be confused with early science-fiction author Edwin Abbott's Flatland, do-it-yourself developer Mark Sheeky's Flatspace series shares at least one thing in common with Abbot's 1884 romance: a two-dimensional universe inhabited by idiosyncratic geometric shapes. In Sheeky's case, it's a starless universe in the far-flung future: Humans travel between giant metallic cities, trading goods, hunting pirates and generally keeping to themselves. Flatspace II, the second game in the series, notes the following in its intro: "For centuries we were alone; now they have arrived."
... barring any adolescent (in gamer years) hangups about its budget graphics, chances are you'll be hooked for hours, days, weeks, even months to come.
 
The "they" in question are the Scarrid, a new alien race of scavengers, roaming the galaxy alongside humans. A "cold war" exists between the two civilizations, but both sides share the same technology, though they can't communicate. Diplomacy is therefore not an option—it's trade, kill or be killed through and through. Your ultimate goal if you don't turn the Scarrids off—they're optional—is the destruction of their space stations, a task that requires significantly advanced weapons and equipment. Or conversely, if you choose to play as the Scarrid, you can pursue the destruction of humanity's counterpart bases.

After selecting a race and choosing from a list of professions (they mod your starting ship and gear) that includes traders, mercenaries, assassins, police officers and scavengers, Flatspace II loads a top-down 2-D grid and places your 3-D vessel in the middle. You manipulate your ship in real-time within or between sectors using a keyboard, mouse or joystick and a few key-commands for communication, docking, tractor-beaming and navigating base or ship menus. Scan for space stations, trade outposts or police hubs, spec the interstellar economy and ply the free market based on trade demands, or take odd jobs moving goods or hunting for bounties. High-ranking traders can even procure whole bases to gain repairs and medical treatment free of charge.

Sector-to-sector travel doesn't occur manually, but rather via hyperspace engines that recharge over time—initially you might only be able to travel a sector at a time, but later upgrades increase range significantly, and you can also tweak weapons, crew (and crew professions), hull constitution and more. Random encounters occur in sectors and can lead to combat that works very much like a game of Asteroids (arrow keys to move, Ctrl key to fire). While Flatspace II serves up single-player only, dozens of startup configurations and an "arcade combat training" mode offer a variety of additional replay options.

Free-roaming budget space fun
Whenever you talk about so-called 4X games (Xplore, Xpand, Xploit, Xterminate), you have to mention the seminal 1984 space trading game by David Braben and Ian Bell, Elite. Now, remember, we're talking 1984 here: Elite dished out eight galaxies with more than 2,000 planets to explore, plus the first wireframe 3-D graphics, and threw in Newtonian physics for kicks. By today's standards, of course, it's ugly, unwieldy and fairly generic, but it remains the yardstick. So saying Flatspace II measures up, and almost by today's standards, is saying quite a lot indeed.

Thank you, Cornutopia and developer Mark Sheeky, for not focusing unnecessarily on graphics, or, rather, for rendering them tidily in a 2-D environment and with a simplistic interface that's easy to grasp (but never insultingly so). Imagine a less frenetic version of the Xbox 360 arcade game Geometry Wars with tiny angular 3-D ships of all sorts and sizes zipping along (or pausing to scan and engage you in a not-so-friendly fashion) against layered, colorful backgrounds and you have a solid sense for the game's fun, functional visuals and kinetic "zippy" feel.

On the downside, the inability to manually travel between sectors detracts from the sense of "free form" so important to this genre, as the overall grid feels, well, a bit too gridlike. While it makes decoding the buy/sell mechanics and rig-tweaking a breeze, the constricted sectors prevent the game from completely masking its budget limitations. Adding the option for the enemy A.I. to pursue you between sectors, since you can call for help and usually get a quick response from nearby heavy guns, would also go a few extra parsecs toward making these feel less like disconnected "islands" in space.

Other nits could stand improving, like adding a minimap, or nixing the way the overlay map-grid makes your ship stop moving but not your enemies. And it would be nice to see even some static art to distinguish better among space, ship and base menus (currently it's just a drill-down menu). In a game like this, even an ounce of additional style well placed can work wonders.

But let's get one thing straight: Fans of Elite who could do without the superfluous mental gymnastics of games like Egosoft's X series but who need more than mere stock-market tic-tac-toe should give the free (and small, at 12.5 MB) downloadable demo a look. And barring any adolescent (in gamer years) hangups about its budget graphics, chances are you'll be hooked for hours, days, weeks, even months to come.

Word to the wise: While it's fairly easy to jump right in, it's missing a tutorial, and a quick glance at the well-written and respectably brief manual may make the difference between a "ho-hum" and a "hmm, cool!" —Matt