The original Solar pushed the boundaries of what could be accomplished with the tight file size restrictions of the Xbox Live Indie marketplace... and its glorious sequel justifiably earned our praise as our Xbox Live Indie Game Of The Week. However, a couple of hundred words is simply not enough to do it justice. Solar 2 offers players the entire universe on a plate to create and destroy on a whim... and since it's also available on PC, we simply have to give this staggering Indie gem the attention it richly deserves.
Players begin as a humble unassuming asteroid that can be steered around the vast infinity of space on a 2D plane using responsive gamepad or mouse controls. It's an inauspicious beginning, but the objective is to increase your mass by colliding with space junk and fellow asteroids. Doing so will eventually accrue enough mass for you to turn into a planetesimal, where your new-found gravitational pull can attract more asteroids and moons into orbit that can be subsumed into your greedy, ever-expanding bulk. Deeply impressive physics modelling means that your interstellar neighbours react realistically to your gravitational field - and that approaching objects too quickly can result in catastrophic collisions or slingshot manoeuvres that will send your erstwhile planet food hurtling into deep space.
Once you become large enough, your planet will be capable of supporting life - and after a civilization evolves, your parasites do their very best to zealously defend their new home with orbital defences, planetary shields and enormous fleets. Life, by its very definition, is completely unpredictable, and you can rely on your pets to embark on epic interplanetary wars and territorial disputes with other spacefaring races. You can't control them directly, but watching them go about their business is a real joy - made more personal by the fact that inhabited planets earn experience and become more powerful with each kill they make.
But becoming a planet is just a means to an end. After a vicious, Galactus-esque feeding frenzy, you'll eventually become dense enough to trigger nuclear fusion and become a new star - which, in turn, can support its own sprawling solar systems complete with its own planets, moons, life forms and fortifications. This late-stage gameplay is by far the most rewarding part of the experience, as the complex interactions of conflicting gravitational fields and alien races makes for a truly organic and unique experience that constantly throws new surprises at its wannabe demigods. The twist in the tale, though, is that other spacefaring entities are also attempting to create solar systems, nurture life and eventually ascend to godhood - and will merrily poach your planets and attack if they view you as a threat. The universe is infinitely large, and players are free to avoid, engage or simply observe their interplanetary companions as they go about their business.
Of course, you're still free to continue expanding... and after becoming a massively dense neutron star, you'll enter universal endgame as your burgeoning gravitiational field implodes into a monstrous black hole. The emphasis suddenly shifts from tactical, clever sculpting to wanton, gleeful destruction as you hare around the universe devouring everything in your path... and eventually destroying the infinity of creation. There's even a step beyond - but I won't spoil the surprise.
The universe is also riddled with optional missions to complete, which are doled out by a mysterious and mischievous entity. These challenges range from quelling extragalactic alien fleets, assassinating planets and stars or even creating bizarre celestial music - and require players to genuinely think about their strategy. For example, if you're tasked with killing a rival stystem, one way of doing so is to nurture a massive network of garrisoned planets and use their enormous fleets as a conquering armada. Or, more creatively, you could painstakingly construct a binary system and use your sister star as a terrifying mace of broiling superheated plasma. Choice and exploration underpins each and every one of these challenges, and they're a nifty way of adding some linear rewards to an otherwise directionless experience.
Bringing about the end of the universe and completing all of the mission objectives will take you between 2-6 hours, but crunching Solar 2 down to raw numbers is ultimately missing the point. It's a sandbox, and as such, provides the perfect framework for players to set their own imaginative objectives and find the answers to hypothetical scenarios. What would happen if you managed to create a trinary system? And then, just for fun, what would happen if you brought it into contact with another one? How much life can one solar system support? Simply tinkering about and ambling aimlessly around the cosmos is deeply rewarding, and the fact that you can save any system and respawn as any object means that players are free to casually experiment without risk or stress. Solar 2 is equally suitable as a casual time sink or a tense battle for universal domination, and is therefore suitable for anyone.
It's worth noting that Solar 2 does have its limitations. Your star's evolution is sadly linear, and thus, don't expect to see red giants or satisfying supernovas. Also, while players can attract other stars into their gravitational field (typically resulting in apocalyptic collisions that annihilate both celestial bodies), it's impossible to draw them into orbit even if you happen to dwarf them in terms of mass, size and density - which is poorly explained and can lead to many minutes of futile interstellar dueling before the penny drops. The civilizations that cling to life on your planets are also fairly generic and grow in much the same way regardless of the mass and size of their planet. Solar 2 pales in comparison to the likes of Universe Sandbox in terms of raw complexity, but it's a compromise worth making for accessibility and fun. Casual players will get as much from the experience as astrophysics grad students.
Finally, it's important to discuss the differences between the two versions. While the PC version is more expensive, it also contains more celestial bodies to play with as well as several tweaks. It's also much easier to update - which should allow Murudai to add new features over the coming months.
- Infinite, rewarding, accessible, mind-expanding gameplay
- Powerful physics engine
- Completely unique and refreshing
- Lack of focus may annoy some players
- A few minor niggles
- Interactions between stars is deceptively limited
The Short Version: Solar 2 is a triumph of intergalactic proportions. The infinity of creation isn't just accessible to everyone - it's accessible to anyone who's willing to give it a go. Broaden your gaming horizons, throw off all preconceptions and immerse yourself in one of the most impressive indie titles to have released this year.