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Independence War (PC) artwork

Independence War (PC) review

"The great dream of space-flight! Romantic and glorious. But how would you actually fly a space-ship in completely dark space anyway? And how about spotting those incoming black dots travelling at near light speed, for example?"

The greatest ambition

The sweet dream of space-flight! To travel to the great unknown frontier, discover new and exciting planets and life-forms, and have sex with blue female aliens! Whether it is the thought of escaping the earth and leaving it behind for good, or if it's the unstoppable human pioneering spirit that drives it shall remain a mystery. But it is a glorious fantasy, and it's one that apparently has excited all generations equally much from as far back as at least known recorded history.

How exactly would space-flight happen, though? When you actually get there, I mean. How would you actually navigate in completely dark and empty space? How would you navigate in newtonian physics? What sort of propulsion mechanisms would a ship have to implement in order for it to be possible to navigate without a painstakingly calculated and pre-recorded flight-path? What would it take of science fiction technology to create a believable situation and use for the actual space-flight - that isn't blatantly defying the laws of physics?

Few really consider any of this, including science fiction writers and game-designers who have visualised space-flight before. Because it's not truly necessary to go through the painstaking process of actually creating a working navigation module in a theoretical space-ship in order to create a reasonably successful cinematic set piece.

But it is necessary if we should actually achieve interactive fiction of the same caliber. Where you believably influence the actual events in the virtual world. And have the convenient mechanics to assist you to do so gracefully and with style. And the honor of accomplishing this is exclusive to Stephen Robertson and the talented team at Particle Systems. There is no other studio that has really done anything remotely as ambitious for space-simulation, that also looks and plays well in practice.

Let's take a look at three unique inventions in I-War. When moving in 3d space, the direction is indicated by small vector-indicators. I.e., if you are traveling straight forward, the trails will stream towards you. If you then release the guidance thrusters and rotate the ship to the left, the trails will travel past you in the direction the ship travels, rather than in the direction the command module is facing. And this allows you to easily see where you are headed. If you then engage the guidance thrusters again, the ship will apply thrusters in the direction you are facing, while counteracting the momentum you had before the turn. Until the trails shift direction and start to flow towards you again. An elegant and efficient solution.

The same goes for the vector trails of ships you see in the viewport. When traveling at sub-light speeds, it can typically be difficult to spot incoming ships. And when you do, it's difficult to be aware of where they are traveling. So in I-War, there's a vector trail following the ships, which easily allows you to see the direction they travel. When trying to catch another vessel and match their speed, this is obviously a very useful tool. And the same goes for quickly seeing where the ships are headed, or which ones are the biggest threats, before even looking at the overview map, for example.

Lastly, it's the Orb. Essentially, it's a 3d sensor with your ship in the middle. And the objects with an IFF nearby are placed around it with a pin indicating the distance. Outside the middle of the orb is the more distant targets, which float on pins in varying distances away from you.
All very efficient and useful instruments that really are necessary in a space combat simulator.

But what is the purpose of constructing a functional pilot module in space combat simulator? It's to make the player's flight part of a narrative, of course. To let the player play and take part in carefully created mission-scenarios. Where there are various outcomes depending on your choices as well as alternative approaches, that you can deliberately choose with the reasonably realistic flight controls.

If you are for example thinking about the ending scene in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, where Spock suggests that Khan tends to think two-dimensionally, and suggests Kirk should take advantage of it - then yes, this is how the entire game plays out (just not so cartoony, of course). Where the challenge very often is to carefully navigate 3d space, and exploit the weaknesses of the other ships nearby. Whether this is the weaker shields of smaller craft, or the lower maneuverability of the larger destroyer class vessels.

And where most of all the story-telling takes place when you are still sitting in the captain's chair, and viewing the battle as it happens. Or where the plot is part of the space-flight, instead of simply delegated to cutscenes in between the missions and repeated and increasing waves of enemy ships.

The undiscovered country

When Particle Systems disappeared (a six man studio for the I-War project), this way of creating games dried up. Modern studios simply don't incorporate plot into the mission-scenario design in the same way, where mechanics and ship-placement - and all the way down to purposeful cutscenes in the middle of the missions - are part of the presentation and the game-design. Because incorporating cutscene production and mission-interference into the middle of the game, or mixing production trails, is a difficult proposition that eats into the publisher's budgets.

Still, what Particle Systems accomplished with I-War (and later with the sequel, Edge of Chaos) remains one of the greatest accomplishments for interactive entertainment. Where a fully realized virtual world was created not instead of cinematic treatment. But in order to enhance the story-telling, and making the whole experience genuinely immersive and engaging - as well as easily playable.


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Community review by fleinn (August 19, 2011)

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