Monday, September 26, 2016

Fractured Space, a giant starships MOBA with some serious flaws D+

Fractured Space
Grade: D+
Platform: Windows
Genre: MOBA
Steam: Free to Play
Website: Official
In App Purchases: Yes
Pay to Win: Maybe
Released: 2016

When you say "MOBA" most people don't think "giant starships", but that's what Fractured Space tries, and it sort of succeeds.

Like any MOBA the objective is simple, beat your way through defenses to the other team's home base and capture/destroy it.  The defenses aren't really all that much, in fact other than gun turrets on the actual home base itself there aren't any defenses which is a significant departure from the usual MOBA approach to things.  

Their twist is that since it's spaceships the battleground is divided into five sectors.  Each team has a home sector, containing their home base, there's the Alpha and Beta sectors to the left and right which are where most of the fighting takes place, and in the middle of Alpha and Beta is the Gamma sector which is mostly ignored except for when the Gamma Station goes active and can be captured for a temporary bonus.  You use your jump drive to switch between sectors anytime you like, with an 8 second cooldown between each jump (and being seriously vulnerable while you jump, don't jump under fire).  You can't jump into the enemy base until you capture special stations in the Alpha or Beta sector.

The concept isn't necessarily a bad one, and they get a lot of stuff right.  I'm iffy on their capital ships concept, it's not really a bad concept but I think it's poorly executed.  Thinking of your ship as being a kilometer (or more) long with a crew of 5,000 like it says in the opening movie just doesn't work given how fast the ships move, come around, and so on.  They feel more like destroyers at best, and really more like corvettes or even big fighters.  Maybe my time in EVE has spoiled me for how big capitol ships should feel.

Still, from a gameplay perspective there is only one really big problem: the controls are awful.  Space is 3D, and they do let you move in three dimensions.  Your ship can go up and down as well as forward and backward or sideways.  But you can't rotate in all three dimensions.

There are three axes of rotation: roll, pitch, and yaw (illustration from Wikipedia's article on the topic).  In this game, like any top down game, you can only rotate on the yaw axis.

For what is basically a flight sim, that's simply unacceptable.  Even the cheesy little starfighter game included as a free extra in Star Wars: The Old Republic allowed rotation on all three axes.

With Fractured Space I can understand the desire of the devs to avoid making things so complex it drives away potential new players, and I suppose some gamers might never have tried a flight sim that allowed for free rotation.

But, since Fractured Space takes place in a 3D environment, and since they include armor degrading on different facings of your ship as a game mechanic, the lack of rotation along the roll and pitch axes makes no sense.

I could see including a "simple control" setup where movement is limited to the WASD keys, with control and space put in as exotic extras to allow you to rise and fall, like they currently have things set up.  What I can't see is their failure to include a better control setup as an option for players who can handle it.

Right now when my crew shouts that the port armor is gone, it doesn't really mean anything because I can't do anything about it.  Sure, I could mash the A or D key and that'd do exactly nothing because it takes too much time to yaw around and get my starboard armor facing the enemy.  By the time I've done that I'm already dead.  If I could roll though, I could maybe get my topside armor, or belly armor, or even my starboard armor in position.  But I can't.

And that's annoying because they do include some things that would balance that ability out nicely.  Since the idea is that you're piloting a capitol ship your gun turrets take time to come around.  You can put your targeting reticle on the enemy really quick, but there's a "where your guns are actually facing" reticle that chases your targeting marker and that moves a bit slower (and has some limits on where it can face, you have gun turrets there's only so far they can rotate).  It can be a bit frustrating at times, but it works and it rewards clever movement, sudden accelerations, the microjumps that some ships can make, etc.  It's also the perfect mechanic to impose a minor penalty for rolling to expose fresh armor to the enemy.

I can understand their reluctance to take more risks, despite the extremely conservative way they've approached their twists on the genre, a lot of people I played with didn't seem to really get how to win (and this despite a well designed infographic titled "HOW TO WIN" being one of the loading screens).  In two different matches I solo capped the opposition's home base because apparently no one on the other team was aware that they'd need to jump back and defend it from me, they were all too busy fighting over mining stations with the rest of my team.

The UI also has some problems. You've got armor that degrades, and is slowly repaired, but there's nothing showing its state on your HUD.  Likewise your HUD lacks any indicators for enemies or objectives that you're facing away from.  Some arrows or tick marks, or something at the edge of the screen (like you get in virtually every other space combat sim out there) would go a long way to making the game better.  Being able to zoom out a bit more would also be nice.  Yes, my ship is pretty, no the very nice model of it it shouldn't take up 20% of my screen.

The grade for Fractured Space could easily be C- if they'd just improve the controls and upgrade the UI a bit.  For a game that is otherwise so polished, those problems seem odd.  I especially shouldn't have to be complaining about lousy controls in 2016.  We've been making games for over 30 years now people, these problems are solved. If you're failing to implement the existing solution it doesn't speak well of your competence.

Another significant problem is the lack of integrated voice, though that's hardly a problem unique to Fractured Space.  This is one place where Valve should really step up and implement a Steam Voice system, Microsoft included integrated voice in XBox Live back in 2003.  2003!  Us PC gamers are still stuck using third party chat software (and no one you play with ever has the same software so you always have to install something new) or hoping that the developers rolled their own.  Valve really needs to get on the ball here.

In a team game, like Fractured Space, the lack of voice chat is especially problematic.  Yes, you can type or ping the map, but voice makes everything so much simpler.

But, leaving the UI  problems aside, Fractured Space is a game with potential.  In the already crowded MOBA field it has something to make it stand out, and it might survive and thrive if it can fix its problems

Still, it needs fixing.  Especially if they want me to shell out real world money for ship upgrades or new ships.

TL;DR: Mildly interesting twist on the MOBA genre, UI and controls suck, needs fixing but is kind of fun.

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