Acid Drift: Solar

I was never the biggest fan of Eilte as a whole package. I liked the concept, and the feeling of wandering space with only my own skills to determine whether I lived or died, but it rapidly became repetitive and boring thanks to the endless parade of identical space stations requiring nothing more involved than buying and selling crates of third-rate confectionary.

Xbox Live Indie Games has already corrected a lot of Elite’s weaknesses with Final Rift but that is far from the only XBLIG that reminds me of the classic wireframe space roamer. We’ve already had Project Delta (a review for another time, me-talking-about-stuff fans!) and now in the grim unseasonal downpour of summer 2012 we get Acid Drift: Solar, a game that contains no corrosives, drifts or suns, but successfully reminds me of both Elite and Project Delta without shamelessly copying either.

You are the captain of a spacecraft and you’re set free in a small chunk of galaxy to do whatever you want – as long as whatever you want is either trading, mining or fighting. Space is crammed to bursting with mineable asteroids, to the point that I start to wonder how it can legitimately be called ‘space’. There’s more rock than space, but I suppose ‘Dad, I want to go into rock when I grow up!’ doesn’t sound quite so impressive, unless your dad is Angus Young.

When the game starts, you have a barge. It has a cargo bay the size of a toddler’s shoe and slightly less weaponry than a ham sandwich. The game wants you to be in no doubt that this clump of cardboard and bin liners isn’t going to get you anywhere. Look at the name. Other ships are called ‘fighter’, ‘gunship’, ‘frigate’ – yours is ‘barge’. Not even ‘cargo barge’, just barge. The ability to name your ship as in Sid Meier’s Pirates would be a welcome touch, but our slum-dwelling barge captain isn’t afforded even that dignity. Instead he must slink around the galaxy avoiding conflict with anything larger than a kitten, scraping pebbles from asteroids until his cargo matchbox is full, then selling them for pennies at the nearest planet while swaggering captains of industry snigger and push him into hedges.

The 2012 Olympic committee took their stadium seriously

Or that seems to be the plan, anyway. One of the loading screens states categorically that a barge can’t beat a battleship, but once you figure out the trick to the combat system, I think it probably could. I’ll try it and update the review accordingly. I certainly managed to put a fair few heavy duty military vessels out of commission with my little wireframe USB stick of a ship.

Combat and mining in Acid Drift are handled as minigames, while trading is a straightforward transaction menu. At any of the asteroids that rudely clutter every inch of space you can press X to initiate a brief button-matching session to garner resources which you can then sell on at any of the game’s handful of planets.

Alternatively you can buy the resources of your choice at the market and haul them to a planet where they’re in demand. The trading screen conveniently shows you the selling price at all other worlds, so there’s no brain work involved. Annoyingly for an aspiring trader, you have to select your destination planet while still docked. You can try roaming around on your own but you’re unlikely to find the right patch of space, and you’re unable to change the locator arrow while on the move. Presumably you have to buy your locator arrows at a little kiosk in the spaceport, staffed by a disillusioned old man who just wants to be left alone to wither in peace. Or maybe I’m thinking of Heathrow.

Pimp My Ride was under-qualified for its space spin-off

Combat is the most exciting of the minigames, but it has a pretty straightforward tactic that I figured out within two fights and mastered within five. It’s a sort of one-on-one Space Invaders. Your ship and the enemy face each other across the screen and let rip with your space pixel guns while sliding from side to side. It’s a pleasantly inventive way of handling combat, but it doesn’t take Darth Revan to notice that you can win at least 90% of the time by sidling slightly ahead of your enemy until it gets nervous and sidles back, then repeating until explosions occur. It’s hard to describe but trust me that it’s simple and works on every type of ship. I noticed this in my first or second battle, and now you will too. Enjoy.

Although you take out most (if not all) types of ship with your basic peasant barge, buying new ships makes things a lot easier. Every ship in the game is for sale, and you get a discount for trading in your current ride. Well, the game says you do but you actually don’t. I’m pretty sure you could take the ship showroom to court for that kind of chicanery. Stan would be proud.

This early section is a bit of a slog. With small cargo capacity, neither trading nor mining is particularly profitable, and while you can make some money tussling with pirates it takes so long to wear them down with your barge that it feels like your hull will rust before you make enough money to buy lunch. When you do eventually manage to offload your pauper’s wagon in exchange for something with a bit of style, the game hits its stride and it’s pretty fun as long as this samey space fighting/trading thing is up your street. That’s not sarcasm; it’s up my street and I know there are other people on this street with me.

Tetris just got real

Sadly, after maybe an hour, perhaps less, the game hits its second slump. You’ve got to your ideal ship (I stopped at a destroyer because I didn’t fancy the lack of mobility I’d suffer in a battleship) and you know how to make money at a reasonable rate. All that’s left to you is to chase the two ultimate goals listed in the planetary menu. One is quite easily affordable by the time you get a good ship, but the other requires quite a lot of grinding for cash. Even with a cargo hold the size of St Paul’s and firepower that would make Goku whimper in embarrassment, making this immense sum of money takes patience. It’s unfortunate, then, that the ending is the most anticlimactic event in gaming since the release of the Virtual Boy. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. There’s nothing to spoil.

You have two aims to work towards, both listed in the planetary options: retire to a mining colony or retire to a private moon. Of course the moon is the real ultimate goal here. After a lifetime spent trading, fighting and scavenging in my now battle-scarred (presumably) destroyer I eventually managed to accumulate just barely enough money to buy my very own natural orbital satellite. With a swelling feeling of pride and anticipation filling my chest, I moved with portentous slowness down the menu to the final climax of the game, and anxiously nudged the A button.

‘You retired to a private moon’ said the game.

I’d expected a brief paragraph describing my retirement, or a picture of the moon in question, or even just a rundown of my stats – enemies killed, resources mined. Something. Anything. What I got was one short sentence on a stock deep space background; the same background used for the close-but-no-cigar mining colony ending. Even Goolin managed to muster an insipid ripple of fireworks. Here, nothing. I bought the bloody moon! The sentence might as well have been ‘the game is stopping now’ for all the sense of fulfilment it delivers.

Shepard’s friends hated his boring shopping lists

Most of Acid Drift: Solar is a generally enjoyable, if brief and shallow, space trading and combat escapade. If you enjoy the Elite variety of game at all, you’ll probably find some fun here. If you’ve never played a game of that type, this is as good a place as any to start. The orange wireframe visuals are hardly lavish, but they have their own style and feel, which is more important than maximum graphical sheen. Combat is unusual enough to be fun for a little while, and wandering around space as you please is as liberating as the fairly small game world allows it to be. Unfortunately the game’s simplicity costs it longevity, and the imbalance of the beginning and end is discouraging. If the opening trudge doesn’t put you off, the final grind might – and if it doesn’t, you too might feel a little resentful at the ending’s refusal to match your hard work. The apathetic conclusion doesn’t detract from enjoyment of Acid Drift’s gameplay, but when you’ve spent half your time with the game just working gruellingly towards that one distant dream, something slightly grander than ‘fine, you’ve done it, now piss off’ would have been nice.

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Rift me higher

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.

Overtaking in the wrong lane. Bah, learner drivers.

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.

Turn left at the Basingstoke roundabout, then straight on through the traffic lights...

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.

I knew Skywalker exaggerated the size of the Death Star...

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.