In Spaaaace!

In Spaaaace!
Lost in the Void

Adam LaMosca | 18 Jul 2006 12:01
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Not all of the space sims of the era were strictly combat-oriented. In 1993 and 1995, David Braben and Frontier Developments released two Elite sequels that expanded the original game's features, and in 1993, the Wing Commander universe produced a popular Elite-inspired spin-off, Wing Commander: Privateer. Like Elite, both Privateer and 1996's Privateer 2 focused on exploration, trade and travel, but they also continued the Wing Commander series' emphasis on storytelling.

These games and their imitators put players at the controls of complex, capable spacecraft, and their zero-gravity skirmishes demanded far more finesse from players than previous action games. Maneuvering through space at blistering speeds took practice, and a flight sim joystick was usually a necessity. Weapons, shields, propulsion systems and wingmen often had to be managed in the midst of combat. Situational awareness was critical and usually augmented by on-screen radar and multiple camera views. In short, the genre had a substantial learning curve, but given the experiences its games offered, it was one many players were willing to overcome and eventually master.

For a few years, the space sim was a serious contender for PC owners' time and money. But even as players explored and fought their way from one sector and star system to the next, a storm was brewing in the PC gaming market. It wouldn't be long before space flight took a back seat to other diversions.

What Goes Up ...
id released Doom in 1993, catapulting the first-person shooter into the limelight. Real-time strategy games rose to prominence with Blizzard's Warcraft in 1994, followed by the Command & Conquer series in 1995. Diablo hit in 1996. Bolstered by online play and advances in 3-D graphics, an unholy triumvirate of three-letter acronyms - FPS, RTS and RPG - rose to dominate the PC gaming market by the latter half of the decade. The last three years of the 1990s saw the release of appealing, addictive games, such as Starcraft, Warcraft III, Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Quake II and III. The space sim was in trouble.

Yet, in the midst of this changing gaming landscape, the space sim persisted. In 1998, Volition released Descent: Freespace and followed up with a sequel, Freespace II, in 1999. The Freespace titles featured streamlined interfaces and plenty of eye candy, including the spectacle of capital ships multiple kilometers in length. Both games were praised by critics, who heralded Freespace 2 as one of the greatest space sims ever created. Unfortunately, it didn't sell well.

A similar fate befell the mission-based Independence War, released in 1997, and its more Elite-themed successor, 2001's Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos. Each had a compelling storyline and characters, but the games' realistic spaceflight physics and elegant but complicated interfaces proved to be major roadblocks for many players.

Over the past few years, only a smattering of space sim games has actually made it to store shelves, and of those, only a few have garnered any measure of attention. In 2001, Jumpgate delivered Elite-style gameplay in an MMOG setting, complete with RPG-style character development and intricate economic and political dynamics. Despite a slow entry-level grind, it commanded a modest but loyal following. 2003's Freelancer attracted players with its blend of story-based combat missions and a huge, gradually unlock-able universe, but it drew the ire of genre loyalists for its simplified controls and lack of tactical combat.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was a single franchise that managed to doggedly pull Elite's sandbox-style paradigm into this decade. Developer EgoSoft debuted the X series in 2000 with X: Beyond the Frontier, followed by X2: The Threat in 2003. They even managed a third release in 2005, X3: Reunion. With largely ignorable storylines, vast and varied universes, and possibly the most gorgeous interstellar vistas ever created, the X titles offered a ray of hope for space sim devotees. Unfortunately, their complex interfaces and poorly explained gameplay intricacies ensured that only the most patient and dedicated of players would fully enjoy the opportunities they offered.

To Obscurity, And Beyond
"The space sim is dead" is a common refrain of late. Given the dearth of new titles and the apparently dwindling interest in the genre, it's a reasonable assessment, at least for now. Ironically, many of the very attributes that initially made interstellar exploration and combat so attractive have proven to be the space sim's undoing.

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