VoidExpanse – Preview

Title   VoidExpanse
Developer  AtomicTorch
Publisher  Atomic Torch
Platform  PC, Mac
Genre  Space action RPG, open-world space sim
Release Date  2nd April, 2014 (alpha build)
Official Site  http://voidexpanse.com/Pages/Home

I love space. It’s big, open and, much like when I’m ordering a pizza, full of possibilities. The space-faring genre has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years, mostly taking the form of role playing, as opposed to being some universe-saving space-hero in a generic third person adventure, or being a single dogfighter out to make a difference. Those games are around but the real fun is to be had with titles such as FTL: Faster Than Light and Space, Pirates and Zombies. Hell, you only have to look at the success of the Kickstarter for Star Citizen to see that the public want more depth than just flying around completing the odd mission. However, as much as space is still very much big and open, where do games like VoidExpanse currently stand?

VoidExpanse is a procedurally generated, top-down action role playing game from developers AtomicTorch Studios, who (like many developers these days) are looking to recapture some of the gaming gold of yesteryear. VoidExpanse sees players thrown into a world that will allow them to take on any role they wish. Do you fancy setting up a comfortable mining operation? What about being a pirate hunter? Fancy trying to smuggle contraband around the system? The choice is totally yours.

Being the sort of ruthless arsehole that I am in games, I decided that I would be killing pretty much anything that I could shoot at, long before I finished downloading the game. I got started immediately and generated my world. The game is still in early-alpha, so there wasn’t much on offer when generating the worlds, other than to specify their size. I went for one that was slightly under medium sized and discovered that it was still stupidly huge and full of things to do. I just hope that the final product has more options, so that I can specify the number of space stations, jump points, and asteroids, among other things.

Character creation came next and contained only a few extra options, compared to the world generator. The usual bits were present: choose your face, choose your hair, choose your glasses – all what you would expect. There was also the option to choose your class, which included an Adventurer, Engineer and Scout, among others. Each had their own strengths and I’d think that it would impact more heavily on the skill trees than anything else in terms of selecting a class. I went with the Adventurer, which left me as a jack-of-all-trades fellow.

Immediately, I was thrown into the world I had just created, sitting in my ship outside a large space station called Ruby Sixteen, admiring the  top-down view that the game is played in, before starting to explore the system. The ships handle beautifully in this game; they are light and nippy, zipping and zapping from left to right. I felt like I was guiding a chip round my plate, scooping up all the ketchup rather than flying a spaceship – it was just so light, effortlessly and very responsive. I’m not sure if different sized ships will have a noticeable difference in the final version but I can only hope so.

After skirting around for a few minutes I encountered my first enemy – a pirate looking for trouble. I figured, being the stalwart hero of the universe that I was, I should engage him in a gentleman’s duel, whereby we… wait, wait hang on, I’ve lost fifty percent of my shields! ‘Return fire’ I shout aloud to absolutely no-one. My ship returned fire and expelled a force equal to a squirrel farting – no seriously, the starting laser I had was less ‘pew pew’ and more ‘poo poo’. Thankfully my craft was fairly maneuverable and I managed to dodge the dozen or so death rays being flung at me. Enemies don’t level with you, so it’s entirely possible to run into some heavy opposition early on.

I managed to give him a bloody nose with some deft laser fire and he soon beat a hasty retreat.  In my mind I was standing proud, having vanquished the enemy and sent him packing. In reality I was low on hull integrity and shields. It seems that the generator aboard your vessel has its own power meter, which has some sort of connection with how quickly your shields recharge. Hull integrity is linked to how much damage you can take before you get blown into tiny pieces. I limped back to Ruby Sixteen (which I now realise sounds like a barely legal prostitute), in order to make repairs and get a better ship.

These stations act as hubs for many of the game’s activities. You’ve got the option to hit the canteen and chat with people who can offer you advice and jobs, the hanger allows you to pay for repairing and refuelling your craft, and the shop allows you to buy and sell parts for your craft. You can also review your journal, as well as consulting the system and galaxy maps. Finally, you can check what factions you’re currently aligned to, whose good books you’re currently in, and whose shit-list you’re currently on. Doing various things and completing missions will see you gain favour with different factions and allow you to be welcomed into their ranks.

The station (of which there are a couple per system – all currently seeming pretty similar) was where I found out that I was in possession of a pretty crappy civilian ship. One-eyed Joe, a local merchant, was willing to offer me a much better ship if I went a retrieved some stolen items for him. There wasn’t much else I could do at this stage. My ship was worth peanuts and it wasn’t good enough to join any factions, and there was nothing in the shop that was of poor enough quality to attach my space reject. AtomicTorch promise there will be a wider variety of missions in the final build, but whether these will be available right from the start is unclear. Personally, I would like the idea of setting up a small mining outfit with my crap ship and being left to myself. I could see larger mining craft moving to and from Ruby Sixteen as I arrived; they weren’t all-out fighting machines, but boasted better armour and hull integrity than my tin can.

I left Ruby Sixteen in search of the stolen items for One-eyed Joe. You can activate a ‘cruise’ mode on your ship when you don’t want to be pressing down a button for long periods of time, which seems to put your engines on full power and hurtle you across the void of space. You have minimal control at this time, as I swiftly found out while trying to swerve out of the way of asteroids. Alas, my attempts proved unsuccessful and I collided with two of them, severely depleting my shields. I rapidly brought myself out of cruise mode and into a hail of laser fire, as my target – the pirate who had stolen Joe’s gear – began to assault me. I ducked and dodged away from him, but he had the ability to fire at all angles while I could only fire head on, meaning I had to either stop or get pretty fancy with my flying. Seeing as I was piloting a dump truck with an oversized engine, I didn’t have much luck.

I backed off, narrowly dodging more pulse lasers, and allowed my shields to recharge a little. I had taken hull damage and wouldn’t be able to continue the dance of death. With shields at half strength, I swung around and charged full pelt, my tinny laser spouting its ‘poo-poo’ noise to precisely no-one as it’s so pathetic. Quantity makes up for quality, though, and I had just enough to take down his shields before ramming him at full speed. It knocked him for six and he was sent spinning, firing in all directions.

VoidExpanse‘s AI is smart, however. He knew that he was now at a disadvantage and immediately backed off, halting fire and trying to recover but, like a shark, I sensed blood in the water. I pursued and continued to fire, eventually causing him to explode, leaving just the treasure he stole. I scooped it up with my grappling hook, just as two more pirates appeared, keen to pick on my vulnerable state. I revoked my ‘kill everything because I’m an arsehole’ policy and beat a hasty retreat.

Back at Ruby Sixteen Joe gave me a new ship, and I traded in the old wreckage and parts before upgrading my current vessel, which now featured two weapons and a much better radar. The process of upgrading your ship certainly seem like an enjoyable, if not straightforward, part of VoidExpanse… and that really does sum up a large part of my feelings towards the game at the time of writing. It’s very fun and enjoyable but equally simplistic. That shouldn’t be taken as a negative point, but more a consideration for someone looking for a game full of statistics and depth. This game has plenty of unknowns to explore and adventures, but lacks some of the grand scale of other games.

I’m cautiously optimistic at this stage however, and as I’m playing early-alpha, I’m intrigued as to what else this game will offer in a more finished state. With multiplayer and modding capabilities confirmed, it certainly has plenty of potential, at least.

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