Developer: Seamless Entertainment
Accessibility has always been the enemy of the Space Sim. As publishers and gamers gravitated towards consoles and controllers, the myriad keyboard shorcuts, monolithic instruction manuals and dizzying control options that came with the territory became less and less attractive, resulting in the grand old genre all but dying out in recent years. We miss it and spend many hours mourning its passing while keeping our fingers crossed for the next X sequel.
However, Seamless Entertainment had a bright idea. Why not trim out the fat and create a quintessential space sim for the modern age; an instantly accessible experience with impeccable controls and polished visuals... all for an attractive £6.99 price tag?
SOL: Exodus sounds too good to be true. And sadly, because of a single major design decision, it absolutely is.
At a basic level, SOL: Exodus gets absolutely everything right - starting with the storyline. After humanity discovers that the sun is dying and set to end civilization with a pathetic whimper, expeditionary fleets are sent beyond the solar system to find a new home for the human race. The Atlas, an expeditionary carrier packing a small fighter contingent, discovers a perfect place to start afresh... but before the colonists so much as pitch their first tent, the fleet is annihilated by religious zealots who believe that facing the coming apocalypse is the only way to salvation. Returning to Sol, the battered old carrier and its heroic commander have to round up the few survivors, escape the fanatics and eventually outrun the inevitable catastrophe. The plot is interesting enough to hold your attention but never too complex to interfere with the gameplay, and brought home with some surprisingly sensational voice acting.
Throughout eight meaty levels, you'll engage in some slick dogfighting against fleets of enemy fighters, bombers, gunships and capital vessels. Seamless Entertainment have gone all-out to ensure that SOL: Exodus is as accessible as possible, meaning that the streamlined controls are perfectly translated to a mouse and keyboard or gamepad. Effortlessly responsive thrusters, intuitive targeting mechanics and a speedy afterburner all provide tight manoeuvrability in full 3D space, augmented by an innovative 'slide' system that allows you to pivot on your axis while maintaining speed and direction (thus allowing you to strafe down the length of an enemy cruiser or face an enemy at your six o' clock without having to change your current heading. Though the variety of enemy spacecraft leaves much to be desired and some overly generous physics may annoy the purists among us, the core experience is absolutely phenomenal and consistently thrilling.
A hacking minigame provides another unique draw. Some enemy ships (and even some friendly ones) allow you to hack into their systems via a simple memory game and disable turrets, expose weakpoints or repair subsystems. It works well, but since these moments are always mission-critical events, its potential as an optional game-changer has been somewhat wasted.
Unfortunately, SOL: Exodus completely squanders its tight dogfighting with an aggravating campaign based around the most hated of all objectives: escort missions. That's right: almost all of the stages involve shepherding bigger, tougher ships that really ought to know better. Even in missions that ostensibly revolve around attacking hostile targets, waves of fighters, drones and missiles pound your hapless allies and require you to keep an eye on the respawning enemy waves, dwindling health counters and mission-critical hackable nodes. The raw difficulty isn't particularly challenging since you can hop into a new fighter soon after ejecting from the old one (a nifty feature), but the Atlas and numerous smaller vessels aren't anywhere near as durable and practically incapable of taking care of themselves. Escort missions certainly have their place in space sims, but only as part of a richer, wider experience. There's just nowhere near enough variety on offer.
Enthusiasm soon turns into jaded malaise once you've been forced to restart entire levels without taking a scratch yourself.
And when this happens, SOL: Exodus' other sins start piling up. There are no mid-mission checkpoints, which means that you can lose up to forty five minutes of progress on the later levels because you couldn't take down all the incoming missiles while simultaneously hacking into the enemy battleship. Cutscenes are unskippable, so you'll need to sit through the same pre-level exposition every time The Atlas goes down in flames. And most gallingly of all, The Atlas starts each mission with roughly the same amount of health you left it with in the previous level. Where's Scotty when you need him?
There are moments of brilliance and plenty of satisfaction to be gleaned from the escort focus, but it's a crying shame that there aren't more missions that allow us to take the offensive ourselves and enjoy the empowering mechanics to their fullest. See also: Terminal Velocity.
SOL: Exodus is graphically pleasing considering its price tag: comparable to PSN and XBLA downloadable titles that retail at the same level. High-resolution textures, gorgeous skyboxes (spaceboxes?) and impressive particle effects help to create a visceral and colourful take on the wild black yonder, especially when enjoyed on the highest graphical settings.
In this case, value is rather difficult to judge. Each of the eight missions take between half an hour and an hour to complete, you can replay levels for unlockable upgrades and compete on global leaderboards, so it's hard to quibble with raw value for money. However, the storyline would have massively benefited from the addition of just one extra stage set between the tutorial and level 2 that helps flesh out the zealots' motivations. Not to mention the fact that many gamers would (rightfully) balk at the prospect of shelling out for what essentially becomes a massive escort quest. There's no multiplayer of any kind, but even though it's a wasted opportunity, I'm not willing to mark Sol: Exodus down. Not all games need multiplayer and SOL: Exodus definitely doesn't.
- Intuitive and accessible space combat
- Reasonable graphical quality
- Great value at £6.99 despite lack of multiplayer
- Aggravating reliance on escort duty cheapens the entire game
- No mid-mission checkpoints, unskippable cutscenes
- Desperately needs more variety
The Short Version: Sol: Exodus delivers packs sweet space dogfighting, capable visuals and accessible controls into its minuscule price tag. Distressingly, the miserable reliance on painful escort missions cripples what ought to have been a beacon of hope for the Space Sim genre... but not beyond a tentative recommendation.