FTL for Linux: Rogues in Space!
This review, like the ones to follow, will focus both upon the game itself and its Linux implementation. The reviewer dual-boots into Windows 7 and is thereby better equipped to cross-reference performance issues and the like.
If FTL is any indication of the sort of quality we can expect from the games the Internet has collectively Kickstarted this year, Linux users should be prepared to lose hundreds of work hours to gaming in the coming months. Though the zeitgeist surrounding it has cooled somewhat by this point, FTL seems a fine candidate to kick off a series of Linux reviews.
Faster Than Light is a simple game on its face: pilot a ship through eight levels, equipping upgrades and adding members to your crew, all to face off against a final boss at the end of the eighth world. What makes it stand out are the wrinkles: the levels (the space-faring conceit of the game has them as “sectors” of a galaxy) are randomly-generated, populated by a handful of races with varying degrees of hostility towards each other, the player’s Federation faction, and the Rebellion forces that slowly pursue you across each of the sectors. At each point within a sector, the player may encounter a friendly trade ship, a slave trader willing to sell crew members, a hostile drone, an asteroid field where pirates have lain in wait to attack you, or (if you’re particularly unlucky) a solar storm-armored pirate combination that will shred your ship apart before you manage to get your second missile off because you’ve been boarded by teleporting aliens who elected to kill your weapons officer and simultaneously take out your door control, causing your entire crew to be either burned to death, ripped apart by boarders, or incinerated as your meager ship explodes in one final ball of flames.
Oh, and then that ship is gone. This is where the developers’ description of the game as a “roguelike-like” comes into play. Like other features of that genre, the depth of this game comes from repeated play. Your first playthrough of the game unceremoniously dumps you off at a starport with a meager little fart of ship, gives you two difficulty options, dangles a bunch of potential in-game achievements in your face, and (if you’re a masochist) gives you a chance to individually name your crew members. You’re then birthed into a galaxy that will kill you, repeatedly, until you learn to play by its rules. New players would be advised to ignore all achievements and unlocks for their first few games, and perhaps even toggle into easy mode; relax, you’re still going to die. The first few ships destroyed will help the player learn when it’s better to spend your scrap (the game’s currency, accumulated by destroying enemy ships and performing tasks for NPC ships) to avoid trouble than to fire on a ship. They will also pick up on the value of a large and diverse crew as a means of dealing with challenges that will emerge as they venture farther into the cold and merciless void of space between themselves and an end game encounter that will elude them for some time.
Players interface with the world in two ways: responding to prompts in text menus, usually with two or three options each (some of which will kill your crew), and a top-down cut-away view of their ship, with relevant technical data incorporated into the HUD. During combat, the enemy ship will be displayed on the right side of the screen. Combat occurs in real time, but may be paused with the space bar at any time to issue orders to your crew. There is no penalty for doing so, though there is something to be said for the adrenaline-fueled chaos of issuing commands in real time for re-routing power from engines to weapons, while moving wounded crew to the sickbay and opening the ship’s doors to vent fires into the vacuum. Keyboard commands may also be used for major functions, and while this is an occasionally inconsistent method of input, I never encountered an incident where I wasn’t able to achieve what I wanted with a mouse.
The story, such as it is, is not a dense one. It apes Star Wars: Episode IV in its setup: you have data that must be delivered to the Federation, which is currently being overrun by a Rebellion. Again, the strength of the story lies in repeated playthroughs; there are reportedly over 25,000 lines of text in the game, wherein the various NPCs convey their own idiosyncrasies and relationships with other factions. After my first handful of games, I came to find that there is a lot of story being conveyed at the start screen. To recall A New Hope again, it is reminiscent of the final preparations for the Death Star run. Maintenance crews scurry about while you acquaint yourself with your ship and the crew who will be at your side when you come face to face with certain death. For what are the incidental results of random name generators attached to one of two palettes (male or female, which may be changed by the player if they choose), there is the potential to become attached to the characters aboard your ship. The drama comes from wanting them to succeed against all odds, and that success will only come after you have gained some mastery of both ship command and interaction with NPCs makes the moment when you first clear sector eight such an accomplishment.
This is the sort of game where bad music would seriously diminish the experience of replaying a sector several times, or at the very least force you to put on the soundtracks of Mass Effect or Firefly. Thankfully, Ben Prunty’s electronic soundtrack holds up to repeated listens. It is broken up into incidental music during exploration, and variations on the same themes with a darker edge that play during combat. The title track, which plays during your setup phase described earlier, has a haunting quality to it that adds an interesting weight to the proceedings by the eighth time you’ve done them. Here you are, preparing this ship and this ragtag crew for an absolute meat grinder. The peacefulness of that scene, in light of the menace that will follow, makes for a feeling that I cannot recall experiencing with other titles. Like the game as a whole, it is a unique experience that will crawl inside your head and influence your dreams while you're not playing.
As for the Linux experience, the only real difference is the .tar.gz package you download instead of a Windows executable. I initially had issues running FTL in Ubuntu 12.10, but it turned out to be the lack of 32-bit binaries in the 64-bit beta that caused the issue. I reverted to 12.04 LTS (where I shall remain, for those interested), and was able to install and run this in minutes. As described in the FAQ section of the developer website, the game has a hard-set minimum resolution requirement of 1280x720 which will keep me from being able to run it on my netbook (also Ubuntu 12.04, and we’ll be hearing about performance on that machine in later reviews). That ruffle aside, the game unpackaged takes up less than 200MB of space on disk and, though discreet graphics and a free gig of RAM are recommended, the game could probably run on an integrated graphics system with minimal fuss. Coupled with the ability to save at any point, this is a fine game for absolutely destroying time on an airplane.
FTL is truly remarkable in its ability to keep a player coming back for punishment. It outlines a set of goals that you could feasibly accomplish, then punches a hole in your hull that kills your shield operator. It is a game that rewards adaptive play over time, and with each run lasting roughly an hour, the player will soon have a high score list of destroyed ships pushing them to do just one more game. There may be no higher praise for a game than this; that the simple act of playing FTL makes playing more FTL more enjoyable.