Day 167: Spacecraft

Posted: 2011/04/25 in Indie Games

I’m purchasing an Xbox Live Indie Game (XBLIG) every day, seeking out the quality titles that got lost in the shuffle and are not well represented in the top 50 lists on the Xbox Dashboard. Today is day #167, and today’s game is “Spacecraft”.

Despite the lack of a numeral in the title, Spacecraft is actually the third in a series, and definitely the best yet. The first games were “Superspace” and “Superspace 2”, both games I reviewed and enjoyed. All three games are physics sandbox games using spacecraft to race, solve puzzles, fight, and more. For the third game in the series the controls have been significantly overhauled for the better.

First, from the developer (Jonas Andersson):

“Action game featuring advanced game play and physics. Single and Cooperative play! Death match and Racing mode! 36 levels filled with action, chaos, puzzles and lots of fun!”

One thing that might be controversial to some is that this game is essentially Superspace 2 v1.5, just as Superspace 2 was arguably Superspace v1.5. Each game is taking the same engine, much the same feature set, and iterating on it: control tweaks, weapons overhauled, levels tweaked, etc. Some developers, such as Kris Steele with his impressive free update to “Hypership Out of Control”, or Robert Boyd and his even more extensive free update to “Cthulhu Saves the World”, give these out as free updates. However, I think Jonas’ decision here is defensible: firstly, he’s not merely adding to the formula each time, he’s also removing certain things (such as weapons) for game balancing and other purposes, and in Spacecraft he’s radically changed the control system. He would either have to do what he’s done, or include a convoluted series of options that could be selected (somethings added, some removed, some changed with each decision) for those who preferred a previous iteration. Also, we are talking about a game that costs $1 here, and one that hasn’t exactly lit up the charts either making the work that would go into a free update potentially unattractive.

Setting all that aside, and considering that (sadly) most people don’t own a copy of either of the Superspace games, what we have here is an excellent and enjoyable game that costs 80 Microsoft Points and has tonnes of play, and replay, value. This game offer singleplayer physics puzzles, split-screen co-op, deathmatch, and even a racing mode.

That feature set doesn’t sound that different than the Superspace games, so what is different? Well, for one it now controls like a dual-stick shooter with the aiming and the shooting being decoupled for the first time. But it doesn’t play like most typical twin-stick shooter, nor are your goals at all similar. There are no lurking hordes of enemies here; in Spacecraft your goal is to use the physics engine to move crates, to engage in racing through obstacles and weapons in something akin to a spacefaring take on the movie “Running Man”, and to puzzle your way through singleplayer missions through challenging maps. The change in controls allows for more precise flying around corners and for strafing of enemies and really opens up the gravity-based physics gameplay

Unlike Superspace, the ammo of all four of your weapons is unlimited. Also unlike Superspace (where you periodically had to fly back to base to refuel), your fuel automatically regenerates. What’s the catch? Well, the fuel only regenerates so quickly, forcing you to back off and find a safe spot for it to recover, not always easy when you’re fighting gravity and enemies simultaneously. Each of your four weapons varies in strength, and correspondingly varies in how quickly it uses fuel.

The weapons offer good rewards vs. trade-offs, which I always like. You have a very weak weapon that uses very little fuel and fires at a very quick rate (and by hitting “B” you can even fire this weapon in every direction simultaneously), but it does limited damage and the shots move at an average speed. The next step up in power is a yellow laser that uses more fuel and fires at a lower rate, but the shots do a lot more damage and travel to their targets more quickly. Next comes the red laser, which fires at an even slower rate than the yellow and uses even more fuel, but does significantly more damage to the target. Finally comes the rockets which use up a large chunk of your fuel gauge, so much so it’s impossible to use two in succession without finding a safe spot for your fuel to replenish, but because they’re self-propelled they actually pick up speed the longer it takes them to reach the target and they do tremendous damage upon impact. Learning what enemies to use which weapon against is key to progressing in the game.

I would be remiss in going further without describing the grappling hook. You use it to grab objects, such as the many crates in the game, to solve the physics puzzles; unsurprisingly, however, it also has offensive and defensive uses (particularly with the crates that carry TNT). The game’s physics engine is very consistent and if you are swinging a crate it will maintain that momentum and the trajectory it was on when you let it go. Any object in the environment that’s not bolted down can be grabbed by your grappling hook, but objects with more mass will require more thrust (and more fuel) to move. You have an afterburner you can kick in any time, particularly useful trying to evade enemies or move a heavy object, but with a correspondingly more deleterious effect on your fuel. The grappling hook is more than a little interesting in the two-player racing modes, as your opponent (an object in the environment that’s not bolted down, after all) is completely fair game.

The game’s shield ability is also unique: the shockwave. Rather than absorbing enemy hits, it actually send the enemy shots right back to whence they came. This makes it worth your while to wait until the last possible moment to engage it, but each second you wait increases the odds of you mis-timing it. While you have theoretically unlimited ammo, and unlimited (though slowly regenerating) fuel, your ship’s health is a different story with no way to replenish it mid-mission (unlike in Superspace where a return to base would heal your ship), so the shockwave is a key component in your ship’s arsenal. It can also be used to help solve physics puzzles, as it also (true to its name) provides the force necessary to move crates and other objects.

This game is a great physics playground with solid presentation and an 80 MSP price. The first two games have several differences from it: in the first game not only could you replenish health and fuel back at base, but the yellow laser would actually bounce of walls, allowing for creative attacks but also potentially bouncing your shot back at you; the second game had a powerful laser that would immediately traverse the screen, remnants of which can be seen in enemies using it against you, and it was enjoyable in singleplayer but game unbalancing in multiplayer. This is one series where I’m perfectly happy to have spent 80 MSP x3. If you can only own one game in the series, for most people Spacecraft should be it, but I would also recommend the Superspace and Superspace 2 free trials to anyone intrigued by the differences I mentioned in them.

Click here to download “Spacecraft”, and then please come back after playing to rate the game.



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Comments
  1. Corrected now, but I accidentally indicated that Dave Zeboyd was behind Cthulhu Saves The World, where in fact it is Robert Boyd. I had meant to double-check the name before posting the article too, so my apologies to Robert. Serves me right too, the Kotaku article that linked to this site after we passed day 100 originally referred to me as “Chris” before it was corrected. :)

  2. Spencer says:

    Nice review of Spacecraft. I picked this one up the week it released after viewing a video of it online. No trial necessary for me. I have always been a fan of retro themed games and this one fit the bill nicely. I have yet to pick up the first two but I most likely will in the near future (once I restock on some points). It seems like they might even be a little more difficult due to the lack of dual stick aiming.

    I thought Spacecraft was impossibly hard until I figured out you could switch weapons. I thought that weak pea shooter was the only weapon available at first, lol. After figuring out how the other weapons worked the game became a lot more fun. Don’t The later levels provide quite a challenge… but they would have been impossible with the default gun.

    You seem to like a bunch of the “bullet hell shmup” games on XBLIG. I am the exact same way. I love these kind of games because they separate the men from the boys so to speak :). I am not great at them by any means, but am getting much better with practice and enjoying myself a lot more while playing them.

    I did a search on your site for a certain XBLIG title but couldn’t locate it on WMD so I think it mas maybe even flown under your radar… Up until now :)

    The game I recommend you take a look at is titled “Vorpal”. Released Dec. 30th, 2010, it really should have been a part of the Indie Winter Uprising. Since you reviewed “Infinity Danger” so positively, I think you will really get a kick out of redwolf’s 1st XBL indie game. It is another shmup that has you facing boss after boss.

    Hopefully it meets your review requirements though so it can get a little more exposure. It is one of my favorite “hidden gems” on the XBLIG service. Give it a shot a let us all know what you think. Thanks for your time.

    -Spencer

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