My current favourite game is a tiny, lo-fi indie game called FTL. As any self-respecting genre fan will know, that stands for Faster Than Light, with the core purpose of the game to jump your spaceship from sector to sector, staying one step ahead of the pursuing rebel fleet. Along the way you encounter trade outposts, space pirates, space stations, rogue AI, asteroid belts, nebulas that fry your systems and a whole lot more – having played the alpha demo numerous times I’m still discovering new encounters.
The setting is epic but the key to FTL’s charm is in its intimate presentation, limiting your experience to the interior of your own ship plus a tactical glimpse inside enemy ships if you have the right tech. From your top-down vantage point you can oversee all of your ship’s key areas, from engines to weapons to shields, plus your small, vulnerable crew members. The challenge is in adapting to each given situation, redirecting power to different systems and moving your crew around to fix damaged areas, seal hull breaches and pilot the ship. As you travel between jump points you find equipment and salvage scrap which you can use to upgrade your ship’s systems.
Intentionally or not, FTL seems to be taking inspiration from the Battlestar Galactica board game, efficiently translating it into computer game form. It also takes the best elements of combat from the classic Star Trek and Star Wars movies, removes the technobabble and makes you feel like a proper starship captain. Like all the best games actually playing it is extremely simple, with the complexity coming in the variety of encounters and ship setups. For what is conceptually a very repetitive game, FTL does a remarkable job of keeping things fresh, allowing the simple tale of a spaceship crew on the run to unfold at a good pace and in a random but directed fashion, each encounter ramping up the tension.
FTL is currently only available as a free alpha demo using the OnLive service. The developers are currently running a Kickstarter fundraising campaign which has gone somewhat stratospheric, with the full game coming out later in 2012. I’m intrigued to see what the funds enable them to do with the game, though I do hope it doesn’t tempt them to move away from the lo-fi presentation. With luck the public backing will give them the resources to continue to add in additional encounters and polish. The core game is already in place and functioning remarkably well – from here it’s all finesse and content.