Did you play Elite? Did you die repeatedly in teeth-gnashingly frustrating space battles with unskilled assailants because your elegant wedge-shaped craft handled like a dead cow? Did you eventually resort to plying safe trade routes between identical planets, eyes glazed like an aging salesman trying to make his last bonus cheque before retirement?
I know, I know, Elite is a classic. And yes, I’ve been vigorously informed several times that I shouldn’t have played it on the NES. The Amiga version probably handled much better, for a start. The NES version’s controls really were like trying to manipulate a bovine carcass into a comical pose using only a pair of oil-coated pliers. Clutched between your teeth. While falling down a hill.
That’s not the point. My full thoughts on Elite can be found at HonestGamers.com and don’t need to be repeated here. The point is: Final Rift on Xbox Live Indie Games is exactly what Elite on a console should have been.
There’s no denying that Final Rift is Elite in almost all respects. There are alterations, of course, but most of these are quite minor. The inclusion of the option to buy information in canteens and play a simple mini-game for small rewards, for instance. Final Rift also has fractionally (though only fractionally) more of a story than its predecessor, revealed periodically in short text boxes. Where the aim of Elite was barely more than ‘slouch around the universe, doing whatever comes to mind’, Final Rift makes its end goal clear from the outset: reach the last of a series of increasingly dangerous regions of distorted space – the eponymous final rift.
As someone who played the original wandering space trader game twenty or more years ago, my thoughts upon starting Final Rift went like this: ‘Hey! This is Elite! It even has the same radar!’ followed by ‘It’s not wireframe!’ and finally by ‘Holy crap, I can actually fly this thing without wanting to cry!’
Playing FR, it rapidly becomes apparent that space flight always deserved analogue control. Though some clunkiness remains – accelerating/decelerating using up and down on the left stick, for instance – the overall flight control feels smooth and comfortable. It’s amazing how much difference this makes. I largely revile Elite, yet this game, with much the same general content, rapidly became one of my favourites of recent months.
A few other niggles have been smoothed out too. You still have a limited stock of fuel, but this is now used only for a sort of ‘hard burn’ acceleration that enables easier escape from combat or a quicker approach to distant targets within a solar system. Hopping from system to system is all done on some sort of unlimited fuel supply, which makes an unexpected encounter with pirates or warring aliens far less fatal. Still dangerous and tense, but no longer a near-certain death sentence as you frantically try to refuel and escape before being destroyed.
The removal of hyperspace fuel doesn’t mean long distance travel has simply been pared down, though. In place of a need to refuel, Final Rift has us navigate a ‘warp tunnel’ in order to successfully launch to a neighbouring planet. This tunnel takes the form of a series of hoops that must all be flown through, but it’s a welcome addition despite its simplicity. It’s easy to coast through the hoops at leisure, but the task can become tense and fraught when trying to do it under fire to escape a battle or transport illegal cargo.
Even NPC vessels use the warp tunnel system, evidenced by the optional escort missions that can be picked up at many space stations, in which you fight off pirates or hostile military craft while some defenceless civilian bolts for the safety of hyperspace. Other missions are available too, mainly bounty hunts and cargo runs.
Space stations offer all the game’s other facilities too, ranging from the cargo markets, to the spacefarers’ canteen, to the ship upgrade shop. Some of these facilities require a certain degree of reputation in combat or trade in order to be used to the full, but this is never too hard to achieve with a bit of graft.
Not that I’m claiming Final Rift is perfect. It certainly isn’t. Like its wireframe grandparent, it does little to distinguish worlds from each other, with really only a planet’s technological level and extent of piracy to set it apart. FR sticks to Elite‘s practice of allowing the player access only to identical space stations orbiting planets rather than the worlds themselves, and sadly lacks the short, humorous, Douglas Adams-esque descriptions that were one of Elite‘s highlights. As a result, this new interpretation maintains Elite‘s risk of rapidly becoming dull. Even the game itself slightly awkwardly ackowledges this; some of its plot-advancement text boxes remark that all the worlds blur together as your character repeats the same routine.
It’s for this reason that Final Rift‘s brevity is much a boon as a flaw. Where Elite offered six galaxies, each packed with a few dozen planets, Final Rift presents a similar number of ‘rifts’ (this game’s equivalent to galaxies) but puts only a handful of worlds in each. This savagely hacks away at the sense of scale that was arguably the main source of Elite‘s appeal, but it does help prevent the onset of tedium.
Overall, then, Final Rift comes highly recommended. For anyone who either enjoyed Elite or found their enjoyment thwarted by apocalyptically rubbish controls, it should be an easy (and affordable) purchase to justify. Personally I feel that Final Rift is very much worth playing even for those who never played that rickety old space exploration workhorse, but perhaps those unfamiliar with the game’s parentage might not get the appeal. It’s hard for an old spacehand to judge.
Regardless, a mere 80 MSP is a nigh-unfeasible bargain for a smoother, modern update of a classic game that was ahead of its time. I strongly urge anyone who finds space exploration and combat even remotely appealing to at least download the trial. The universe awaits.