A Narrow Focus Done Well
Time to Finish: 4 hrs.
Length of Last Mission: 30 min.
What I'd Pay: $10
Steam Price (1/27/12): $10
The most unique thing about Sol: Exodus is that it exists. Halfway through, I felt it was bare bones, but when I tried to think of a title to compare it to, I had to go all the way back to TIE Fighter. How long has that been? Whoa, 18 years... I need something more recent. Freelancer, perhaps? Wait, that was 9 years ago... There had to be a more recent popular space combat sim, like uh... um...
That's where I drew a blank. The space combat market has been pretty dormant, and as I considered that I realized this was meant to be more of a sales pitch than a standalone game: "Hey guys, we got the basis for a cool space combat sim here! Are enough people interested in it to justify making something really awesome with it?!" It's a pilot episode, and while the trappings are lackluster (if not outright nonexistant), the base gameplay is a solid take on a neglected genre.
So let's get the trappings out of the way first: the story is passable, the graphics & sound do their job, the upgrade tree is so barebones and miniscule it could've been scrapped entirely, and there's absolutely nothing to do except for the 7 story missions (and you can't adjust the difficulty level either). The only draw to this game is the core gameplay.
Luckily, the core gameplay stirs up all the right memories and tosses in enough spice into the mix to keep you interested. Fly your fighter, check the radar, use machine guns against the enemy fighters, bombs against the heavy craft, and homing missiles against annoyances who refuse to stay in your crosshairs; the game handles the basics well. The 2 wrinkles added are hacking and sliding.
Hacking lets you kill capital ships with memory skills: you get close enough to the ship, tap a vulnerable commlink, memorize a letter sequence while dodging incoming fire, and choose the right sequence from 5 choices. Make the right choice and you could shut off the ship's engines, turn its missiles against its allies, or reveal the weak points you need to annihilate it. It would be a boring hacking minigame if you weren't trying to shoot down missiles while doing it. As is, it adds another level of franticness to the fighting and makes taking down a capital ship feel different from taking out fighters & bombers.
Sliding is Sol's compromise between aerial dogfighting and realistic space movement: hold down the Right Mouse Button and you can turn around & shoot without changing the direction you're moving in. Let go and your thrusters kick in again; combine that with a boost and you can make some extremely sharp corners. Do it right and you can shoot down a fighter (or homing missile) on your tail while outrunning it. I wanted to use it more, but the radar made that difficult.
The radar has a rough job: it's your only way of locating all those enemies out of sight and keeping tabs on the larger battle. Not only that, but it has to convey a 3D sphere of info as a 2D projection. Sol's radar is fine in moderate battles, but when the fight's swarming with bombers and capital ships and missiles, its generic blips don't cut it. It's difficult to tell bombers and their fighter escorts apart, or whether the incoming missile is to your side or right behind you. Fine-tuning this radar would really raise the game a notch or two.
Luckily, you don't have to worry about colliding with other ships. While capital ships can ram each other, your fighter just skids across other ships without taking damage. This makes the game quite easy in some chapters (especially the last one), but it feels like a necessary trade-off for how close you need to get to some ships to damage/protect them. I suspect they would've kept collision damage if they figured out a good way to warn you when you're too close to a ship.
That's the core gameplay, and it holds up surprisingly well after the first few missions. No two chapters feel like alike, and my initial lukewarm reaction turned to actual enthusiasm by Chapter 5...
And then I reached Chapter 7.
Chapter 7 is the final battle. It is the longest battle. It is also the most frustrating, First, the framerate takes a nosedive for the entire battle: I had to drop my settings by 2 notches just to play it. Second, it's the longest battle, clocking in at 30 minutes without a checkpoint. Third, it asks you to target specific parts of a capital ship, twice, without any highlighting or downloading blueprints beforehand. This normally wouldn't be confusing, except for the rest of the game you always had to download a capital ship's blueprints & shoot the glowing sections to do any damage to it. I lost 20 minutes of progress on my first attempt from that.
"Alright, I need to destroy its engines before it gets within range of my carrier. If I hack it enough, I'll get the blueprints for the engines & then go to town on it."
"What?! The plans never came up! I hacked it 5 times! What do they expect me to do, damage the engines before downloading the blueprints?!" (Yes.)
Even the boss of the final mission is a letdown after all the buildup, since the lack of collision damage makes weaving through its innards to shoot the core much less "suicidal". I would've preferred it if the game ended on the penultimate mission instead.
Still, this is a solid, albeit short, game in a neglected genre, and Seamless Entertainment has a good base to build their next space combat game on, if this one sells well enough. If you're not a fan of that genre, you won't miss anything by skipping out on this. If you want another Wing Commander or TIE Fighter in the future, though, give this game a shot.