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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Ancient Trader

Who doesn’t love rock/paper/scissors? The gradual build up of tension, the misdirection and sleight of hand, the elaborate strategies and sudden reversals. What better choice of traditional game could there be to base a combat system around?

Placed loosely in the strategy category of the marketplace, Ancient Trader feels like Sid Meier’s Pirates! If it was a board game. Equipped with only a sailing ship and bizarre clothing, you head out to sea in search of the Ancient Guardian. It’s not entirely clear what the Ancient Guardian is, except that it eats sailors and is full of treasure. Presumably it’s also insanely dangerous. There must be easier ways to make a living than trying to kill it with playing cards. I’m pretty sure there’s a reason the old Gambit card-flinging trick didn’t appear in Moby Dick.

Yes, playing cards, more or less. As you take turns moving around the world map, trading goods between various ports, you will frequently run into miscellaneous sea monsters or fellow piratical ne’er-do-wells. Combat with these foes boils down to rock/paper/scissors with cards. You have three cards representing your attacks, and the enemies have two or three or their own. Each card has a numerical value, which you can upgrade at ports in exchange for hard currency, and the highest number wins.

The rock/paper/scissors element comes in with each type of card getting a +2 bonus over another: green beats blue, blue beats red, red beats green. The categorisation of the game as ‘strategy’ might lead you to believe there’s some depth to this combat system but it’s all illusory; it mostly comes down to just choosing the appropriate colour. There’s also a frustrating degree of luck involved; if the enemy leads with a card that you can’t counter effectively, then you’re immediately put at a disadvantage for the rest of the battle. It’s an adequate combat system, but it’s a little too simple and it means that the key to success is just buying upgrades as quickly as possible to ensure you have stronger cards than everyone else.

Don’t make me go baccarat on your ass

To that end you’ll want to trade, and fast. When you start a game the map is mostly concealed by cloud. It doesn’t take long to discover some ports though, and that’s when you can stock up on whatever is cheapest and run it to somewhere that pays better money for it. Not a deep system either, and it’s streamline for maximum ease, with each port’s asking price for cargo displayed right there beside it in huge digits that must terrify the citizens.

On top of the standard cargo, ports have a couple of other functions. Each port sells upgrades to one of your cards, and these are essential to success. The faster you can buy upgrades the more chance you have of surviving your travels around the map. Fall behind in upgrading and enemies will continuously rob you, keeping you still further behind.

From time to time someone at port will offer you a mission, perhaps to run cargo to another town within a time limit or to exterminate a particular sea monster. These can be a handy source of cash, but delivery missions can be infuriating if enemies attack you constantly en route to steal your money and miscellaneous goods. Maybe that’s why my pizza is never on time.

I have the power to disperse fog! I am a Planeteer!

Some ports also sell special items that don’t do anything in themselves but when combined reveal the location of the Ancient Guardian. Track down the beast, beat it to death with your cards, and the game is over. In principle this is the aim of the whole game, but in practice it feels like almost an afterthought. Having spent so long running errands, buying upgrades and fighting off predatory sirens, smacking down the Ancient Guardian with your maxed out cards can feel like a formality. I feel a bit sorry for the poor beast, going to all that trouble to build a terrifying reputation only be slain by the speediest salesman with the best Magic: The Gathering collection.

For a game based around showing your enemies some cards, Ancient Trader has a remarkable sense of style. The setting is half 17th century European colonisation of the New World, and half fantasy. All of this comes across in the old treasure map style of the visuals. Stark brown and red hand-drawn beasts from the margins of medieval maps writhe across a background of age-yellowed parchment. Well, I say ‘writhe’ but I mean ‘glide statically’. For all the attention lavished upon the visual presentation, the game contains basically no animation. In a way this fits the theme and doesn’t seem too out of place when you’re moving from space to space as though on a board, but it didn’t take long before my eyes glazed over and I stopped paying attention to anything except the colours of the cards at the bottom of the screen. Still, presentation is one of Ancient Trader’s strongest points and probably the feature that pulls in the punters. I know it’s what snagged my attention. Well, that and I’m a sucker for games about pirates. 

The people of Ruby are screwed if that 6 blows over

On its lower difficulty settings, the game is painfully easy. Your rivals rarely even attempt to obtain the special items to find the Guardian, so there’s really very little danger of losing. I find that the hardest setting is the place to be. Enemies will be a bit too strong and your rivals will be unrelentingly ferocious, constantly attacking you to steal your precious funds, but it’s the only way of preventing the game being an effortless frolic to victory.

The problem is that once you know how to play and how to go about winning, one game plays out much like the next. There are a handful of maps but aside from the locations of the towns it makes very little difference which one you use. Having an option for randomly generated maps could have made a world of difference in giving Ancient Trader some longevity but, as it is, one game on each map is quite enough for the game to wear out its welcome.

It’s a shame; the charming presentation and the novel offer of lightly strategic exploration have promise. Sadly the repetitiveness, the simplicity of the combat and the lack of challenge once you understand how to work the system make this Ancient Trader run aground a few hours too soon.