It may be considered the Final Frontier, but space is a place I visit often in video game form. Any time a promising new space game hits, I get excited. And so I was jazzed to get my hands on Flatspace, the debut App Store release from Wisp Games.
Flatspace is an epic, open space role-playing game. At the outset, you create your ship captain and assign him/her a profession from among Trader, Mercenary, Bounty Hunter, Space Pirate, Police Officer or Scavenger. The game randomly assigns you Training and Specialty, affecting the role of your captain aboard ship. Examples of Training include maintenance, medical and security; maintenance helps with ship repairs, security officers can be used to confine passengers/prisoners aboard ship, and medical crew work to get your other crew members back on their feet after injuries. Specialties have no impact on the game, and are there just for fun. Depending upon your chosen profession, you begin the game in a particular type of ship, and you may begin with some small amount of personal wealth.
The game takes place in a distant future, when the universe has expanded so much that things have just come apart and flattened out.
In the beginning, the universe was curved, vibrant, energetic, alive. As aeons passed, all matter drifted apart, drifted so far that planets crumbled to rocky masses, stars died and became listless nebulae, and all that was left was darkness. Cold. Flat.
The universe is void, without habitable planets. Those who have survived the decline of the cosmos now live aboard their ships or on space stations, and in this world you must make your way, carving out your own story as you go. Set adrift in space, your general goals are to earn money, explore the galaxy, complete missions and to purchase bigger, better ships and armaments. To “win” Flatspace, you can assemble the four components of the intergalactic hyperdrive, but … it’s all about the journey, and not so much the destination. Space is your sandbox; go blow stuff up.
In Flatspace, your ship configuration will determine how you play the game. Ships come in various shapes and sizes, with the larger ships naturally being able to fit more gear. And it’s the type and amount of gear that will dictate your options in space. For example, if you want to bring aboard salvage or passengers, you will need a tractor beam. Several types are available; some can pick up people (Man Trap), while others pick up asteroids or cargo (Hoover).
Scanners are also important. Trade scanners can tell you the imports and exports at a space port, helping you to determine how to maximize your profit. Bounty scanners can help you locate ships with bounties to collect; more advanced versions can also help you to judge an opponent’s armament and defensive capability. Cargo scanners can tell you what a ship is carrying; rough them up a little, then demand they hand over the goods. Whatever your profession, scanners will be paramount to getting the job done. Without them, you’re flying blind.
Additionally, you can equip your ships with various types of generators, guns, energy weapons, missiles, radar arrays, shields, medical droids and more. Later in the game, with larger ships at your disposal, you can also equip defensive turrets and fill your hangar with fighters.
As you navigate the galaxy, you will inevitably cross paths with other vessels, some hostile and others not. Space pirates, police forces, traders and bounty hunters flit amongst the stars. By bringing down pirates, you win bounties; but slay innocents and a bounty may be put upon your head. Police and bounty hunters will attack on sight, and your only recourse is to pay heavy fines at police stations to have the bounty lifted.
Depth: Flatspace promises an open world and delivers on it. Have ship, do as you please; the game offers levels of customization rarely seen, and how you fit your ship has an incredible impact on how you play the game.
There is loads to do in this game. Missions include rescuing prisoners, destroying enemies, ferrying passengers between stations and delivering cargo. You can accept bounties from police stations, trade at space ports, devote yourself to a life of crime and plunder, or just explore the galaxy. When encountering other ships and space ports, you can open communication to demand the captain’s surrender, cargo or passengers, request permission to dock, call for police backup or assistance, or request aid repairing your ship and equipment.
In combat, your ship’s components take damage. You might find your weapons, thrusters or hyperdrive offline, crippling your ship. Adaptability in combat is important.
Variety & Customization: As I’ve already said, it’s really up to you how to load out your ship and how to play the game. With so many options, Flatspace provides almost infinite replay value.
Visuals: Ships and space stations are rendered using three-dimensional polygonal graphics, and look quite good. Space is full of gaseous formations and colors, giving each sector of the galaxy it’s own look and adding enjoyment to exploration. When ships make hyperdrive jumps, the lens flare effects are very nice. Space has rarely looked better on the iPhone. If only the same could be said for the interface (see below).
Sound: Flatspace sounds pretty good, especially with headphones on. The synthesized soundtrack by Mark Sheeky is varied and appropriately spacey, and makes for good listening while you play. The soundtrack is also available for purchase on iTunes. The sound effects are effective as well. Too many independent developers overlook the importance of audio presentation in their games, but Flatspace nails it.
Ship Collisions: Ship collisions in space are a peeve of mine. The likelihood of two objects colliding in space, rather than one passing above or below the other, is actually very small. It’s a three dimensional space, and a large one at that. It’s like trying to knock a baseball out of the air by throwing another baseball at it; not bloody likely. Also consider that ships — unlike baseballs — have pilots at the helm. Greater than ninety-nine percent of the time, one pilot or the other would surely manage to avert collision, unless one of them really, desperately wanted to crash their ship into the other (and there’s no reason to do that in this game). While ship collisions can make for incredible drama in film or television, they just plain suck in video games.
User Interface: Between the ship and weapons controls, menu and navigation buttons, damage indicators, radar display and status notifications, Wisp crams a lot things onscreen at once. It would be nice to somehow see the clutter reduced. The scan button, for example, could be done away with completely by tying the scanner into the targeting button.
Menus & Stats: The menus in Flatspace are just ugly. All menus use the same generic background image, which isn’t very attractive to begin with. Green blocks and an unattractive font make up the buttons. Statistic reports fare no better, I’m afraid. The information seems poorly organized and presented, which ultimately makes it difficult to follow. The menus and reports could benefit greatly by the implementation of icons, colors and layout.
Equipment, for instance, should have icons representing guns, energy weapons, missiles, shields, scanners, etc. In shops, equipped items should be displayed in a separate color than items for purchase. Presently, it’s all lumped into the same list, all the same color, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell what category of equipment an item belongs to.
Ship stats and fittings windows should just be nicer to look at. For example, show the listing in one color and the value in another; “Class” in white, and “Gladius MkI” in yellow, for example. The black box in which this information is displayed is also too transparent; sitting atop the menu items, the information is even harder to read.
Not Enough Options: I’d like to see a few more options included in the game. From the Main Menu, you can access an options menu to change sound volumes and to make in-game menus opaque rather than semi-transparent. Additions I’d like to see are sensitivity adjustments for the accelerometer, the ability to rearrange user interface buttons, and perhaps an option to invert ship steering. Most of all, though, I’d like on option to turn off asteroid targeting. Playing as a bounty hunter, I have no reason to scan asteroids; but when I try to target another ship in an asteroid belt, it’s nearly impossible to target anything but rocks.
Controls: Ship controls are tied to the accelerometer. Rotating your device slightly left or right rotates your ship, while a Thrust button propels you forward. I have personally always preferred controls as seen in Void or Stellar Blaster, where a see-saw tilt allows you to rotate your ship. It would be nice to have the option here.
That’s a matter of preference, though. Setting that aside, Flatspace’s controls remain clunky and imprecise. It’s something that could easily be refined in an update, and I really hope Wisp will continue to work on the feel of the accelerometer control for the next release.
No Orientation: Flatspace is deep, and that means a steep learning curve. The game offers some tips during load screens, but otherwise does not contain any type of tutorial information. Wisp promises tutorial videos in the works for YouTube, but that doesn’t really excuse the fact that there’s so little in-game help. Some of the menu screens do have help buttons, but remain skimpy on information. A map key would be really nice, as well as a brief tutorial demonstration of game controls and concepts. For example, I’m still fuzzy on the relationship between the Core Generator and ship energy consumption by shields, weapons and … well, I don’t even know what all consumes energy …
This review really only scratches the surface of Flatspace. To really hit on every aspect of the game would require multiple play throughs using different types of professions and ships, and by the time that review got written the game would be too old to be reviewed as a new release. There’s just that much content here to be explored.
Overall, Flatspace is a great game, but still rough around the edges. The lack of final polish, including unrefined controls and ugly menus, can be easily forgiven considering the scope of the game. The game could probably have benefited from some additional development time, but Wisp has promised at least two updates in the pipeline, and so there’s reason to hope that the polish will come.
The App Store is rife with space games, many making promises on which they do not deliver. Flatspace is the game to put the rest to shame. If you’re a fan of computer games like EV Nova or Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, then you’re going to love Flatspace. It is the only game I’ve played on the iPhone that lives up to the promise of being a true open space role-playing game, and there’s no other game on the device that I know of — space themed or otherwise — that allows so many different approaches to gameplay.
And in addition to the standard game, there are also custom and arcade modes. In a custom game, you can setup parameters for your universe, dictating whether your universe includes space pirates or police, and the frequency of space stations, asteroids and nebulae. If you’re a fan of space trading games, but would rather not be hampered by combat, then create a custom game without pirates and live the quiet life of a merchant. Or take the opposite course, create a galaxy with only pirates and fight to your dying breath.
Arcade mode puts you in a fighter craft against increasing numbers of opponents as levels increase, making the game a survival space shooter. Great when you need a quick fix of space carnage.
Being a gamer, I have often wished I had the know-how to create my own game. That game, I have often thought, would be an open space simulation in which players would be able to play the game according to their own whims. Players should be able to choose to play as a lone fighter pilot, or to helm a battlestar armed with cannons, turrets and a full compliment of fighters; they should be able to play as space pirates, traders, miners, military or whatever. It’s the game I’ve always wanted on my iPhone. But now that I have Flatspace, I can stop imagining my perfect game; while it’s not everything I want, it’s very close to it. In fact, Wisp has produced a game so close to the one I’ve always imagined, I’m thinking I should next set them to work finding the girl of my dreams to see whether they can repeat the success.