Reviewed: September 1, 2001
Released: August 24, 2001
Back in 1998 a relatively unknown company called Particle Systems released a sleeper hit called Independence War: The Starship Simulator. There were several things about this game that made it stand out among all the other Wing Commander clones flooding the market around that same time.
Independence War was a true simulator where you were in charge of all aspects of a large hulking starship. Unlike other space games at the time, you didn't just zip around dog fighting with enemy fighters and making attack runs on capital ships. Instead you piloted a huge craft with intricate systems that had to be monitored at all times. Your starship also came equipped with a command module/flight deck that could detach from the main FTL drive section (like the saucer section of the Enterprise) allowing you to perform more intricate missions.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the original Independence War was the real life Newtonian physics of the game; mainly a well known yet seldom used concept called inertia. Unlike other space fighter games where your ships zip around the vacuum of space with amazing maneuverability, Independence War featured realistic inertia. If your ship was moving in one direction it continued to do so until you altered that course by rotating and thrusting your ship in the opposite direction, much like the classic arcade game, Asteroids.
Now, after three years, Particle Systems is back with the sequel to the original space simulation that broke all the rules and became a cult classic. Edge of Chaos has been retooled to play much more like all the other games out there. While it retains some of the concepts that made the original great, it almost seems as if the designers caved in to the pressure to make a "consumer friendly" fighter game rather than a diehard simulation.
The game opens with an amazing movie that rivals the CGI animation quality of Reboot or even Action Man. When the movie is over you are put in the shoes of 12-year-old orphan, Cal Johnson. Your only friend is a computer replica of Jefferson Clay, an ancient war hero who played a pivotal role in the first game. Clay now serves as your mentor, residing in the upper-left corner of your screen dispensing advice in his creepy electronic voice. He's almost like a demented Max Headroom.
The game universe is alive with activity. You have access to an enormous star map that lets you travel to hundreds of planets and other exciting locations. This dynamic universe features 16 star systems spread across two very different star clusters where you will encounter a variety of space stations and ships. Space traffic is dynamically generated and exhibits realistic behavior - examples are taxicab ships, freighters carrying realistic cargo and shipping them to appropriate ports, security patrols, and even space pirates.
Edge of Chaos is a unique mix of simulation, strategy, action, and adventure. You begin your journey in one of the four space ships you will have the opportunity to pilot. These craft vary in size, handling, and abilities, but they all feature the same control system that is amazingly easy to learn and master. You are eased into the simulation through a series of optional (but highly recommended) tutorial missions that test your piloting and combat readiness.
Throughout the game you will go on dozens of various missions as you explore the enormous game universe. You will meet a wide variety of people as you perform various tasks to earn weapons and ship upgrades. Many missions can become quite involved and will often include several mini-quests. Many of these sub-missions are optional, and the designers have given you the unique choice of accepting or refusing any of these that you don't feel up to. Sometimes you can even return at a later time and accept these missions when your ship is properly equipped for the task. Some of the earlier missions can range from 30-40 minutes and they get even longer, which leads to the main problem with this game, saving.
Saving your game can only be done while you are docked at your home space station. This isn't exactly convenient, as your base is tucked away in a nebula quite far from most of the main activity. Sometimes you can get so caught up in the adventure that you forget (or don't want to take the time) to travel all the way home between sub-quests just to save your game. On more than one occasion I have been 20-30 minutes into a mission only to die and have to replay the entire mission over just to get to the point where I died. It is a major annoyance and perhaps the only true fault I can find with the game.
You might expect that a starship has dozens of controls to master, and you wouldn't be wrong. What may surprise you is the unique control system that the designers have implemented that lets you access almost 90% of all ship functions through a Joystick w/ POV hat like the Microsoft Sidewinder or the Logitech Wingman Force Feedback. The game does come with a keyboard reference card, but for the most part you will never need to use it. Almost all critical system functions can be quickly accessed using the pop-up command menu then pushing the POV hat in the desired direction. By the time you have completed the opening tutorial missions you will be flying through the interface like an old pro. The default button assignments are so intuitive I found no reason to even customize the setup.
Flying around space is made easy through a very clever Autopilot system that allows you to pick your target or destination then choose from a variety of autopilot options such as approach, formate, and dock. Traveling to other star systems can take a good deal of time, even with a LDS drive, and at times I almost wanted a "time acceleration" function to speed up the game during these breaks in the action. You will almost never go anywhere without using your autopilot except for those occasions when you are engaged in combat. At this point you will need to use manual thrusters to navigate your ship and target the enemy.
The Newtonian physics of the first game have been toned down considerably. The tech manuals for your ship indicate that the computer now controls a large array of thrusters mounted on the hull that make controlling your ship almost as easy as flying a regular plane. You will notice that during some intense maneuvers your momentum will carry you extra distances before your maneuvering thrusters can compensate, but it's not nearly as difficult as it was in the first game.
Combat is actually quite difficult. Despite your array of missiles, rockets, lasers, and disruptors, you can only arm one type of weapon at a time. Later on you will have the ability to chain the same style weapons together to increase your firepower. Combat gets somewhat repetitive after the first few encounters. It seems most ships are only vulnerable in the rear where shields are weakest around the engines. This includes your ship as well. Unfortunately this means that combat consists of game after game of "chicken" where you fly at your opponent then spin around and try to fire a quick burst into the back end of the enemy. Of course they are trying to do the same thing, so getting a clean shot at their weak spot is difficult to say the least.
You will also be responsible for controlling the engineering systems which allocate power to the various ship's systems much like the power distribution model of the Star Wars: X-Wing fighter games. You can pump up your shields at the expense of speed or weapons power or make any other compromises necessary to complete your immediate goals.
Later in the game you will have the opportunity to command wingmen and turret fighters. Issuing pilot commands is just as easy as entering any other commands. Using the menu interface you can have your wingmen attack or defend various targets or just "watch your six" as you perform the mission at hand. You even have the ability to take control of some ships and control them remotely.
The core of Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos is the incredible story mode that will keep you involved for hours on end. There is also an Instant Action mode where you just jump into the pilot's seat and start shooting wave after wave of enemy ships. This is a good way to get combat experience so you last longer in the story mode.
The graphics totally blew me away. The opening movie left me speechless, but when I got my first glimpse from the pilot's seat looking out at the intricate star fields and colorful nebulas I was in shock. The Flux graphics engine is capable of generating space graphics that rival anything you have ever seen in any sci-fi movie or Hubble Telescope photo and are simply beyond words. Even the screenshots don't begin to do this game justice.
With full support for all the latest DirextX-compatible 3D accelerators, your graphics are only limited by the power of your system and graphics card. My P3-700 and GeForce 2 GTS card was able to drive this game at 1280x1024x32bit color offering spectacular details and silky smooth speeds. The only time the frame rate ever dropped was during the close-up animation of my own ship being destroyed.
While the game does offer a canopy view, it doesn't add to the functionality of the HUD. If anything, it only detracts from your visual enjoyment of the vast expanse of space and perhaps promotes a bit of motion sickness. The free floating canopy is much like the one found in Descent 3 and moves so smoothly you could easily become disoriented.
The ship models are amazing. They feature reflective metal surfaces, glinting cockpits, flashing navigation lights, and mini-thrusters that actually fire when you turn your ship. Damaged craft smoke, fizzle, and blow-up into satisfying scrap metal when hit with sufficient force.
The HUD allows you to perceive movement by creating a computer generated trail on all craft within your visual range. This is a great tool for calculation the trajectory of other craft. The rest of the HUD displays all the information you would ever need in the corners of the screen. The 3D orb shows surrounding space and any targets while the target list provides all ship and waypoints in a selectable menu. The MFD (multi-function display) at the top has a visual image of Clay along with current the weapon selection and status.
The command menu is a pop-up overlay that you can access and control quite easily with the POV hat, even while engaged in navigation or combat. The star map is huge and you can move around and zoom in and out to several levels of magnification. There are hundreds of selectable planets and space stations to visit and they all have their own unique population.
From time to time the game will take over into what is called "Director Mode". This is an external view of certain procedures such as docking with a space station and is presented in a letterbox format to indicate you are no longer in control. During the game you have access to several views including internal, external, and tactical cameras. While these are fun to watch during the long autopilot flights, you will want to stick to the cockpit camera most of the time. Toggling the canopy is merely a matter of personal preference.
Aside from the FMV movies, most of the in-game movies are generated with the game engine. There is nothing more amazing that warping through a star system as starts, planets, asteroids, and even suns zip by your canopy. It's almost like the space sequences from the end of the movie, Contact.
The music in Edge of Chaos is superb. The tracks are a unique blend of techno and orchestra pieces that fit the theme of the game perfectly. Even the music in the menus is excellent and I wouldn't be surprised if a soundtrack CD was offered for this game.
The sound effects are excellent and many are identical to those from the first game. The sound of the LDS drive powering up is one that I had almost forgotten until I heard it again as I jumped into light speed. The dialog in the open movie is delivered by professional sounding voice talent, although the characters you encounter in the game seem strangely ethnic. Early encounters range from characters with strong British and Australian accents to one mercenary who sounds like a combination of Shrek and the Godfather.
Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos is an enormous game of epic proportions. With hundreds of locations to visit and over 50 missions and sub-quests, the story mode of this game can keep you busy for months. You can also just jump in for a quick arcade combat session in the instant action mode or go online to play with up to five others on the Internet or a LAN.
Like any good game of the new millennium, Edge of Chaos features full multiplayer support for up to six players either on the Internet or a LAN. The intuitive screens make it very easy to setup and host a game or locate and join and existing game already running.
There is nothing truly inspired by the various game modes though. You have your traditional Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag games. The only mode that is somewhat original is Bomb Tag where you race to collect an unstable anti-matter bomb then kill all your opponents while they try to steal the bomb away from you.
In the few online games I did participate in we had between 3-5 players and the frame rate and lag were quite acceptable, even on my 56k connection. The game is definitely designed around the single-player story experience, but the multiplayer modes are a nice diversion when you finally finish or get tired of the epic quest of the main game.
While there have been some sacrifices in the gameplay, the designers have retooled the graphics engine and interface to make one of the most stellar space games I have ever played. The scale of this game is unparalleled by anything that has been released in years, and if it were any bigger you might risk losing interest before completing the main game.
If you are looking for the perfect mix of action, adventure, and space combat simulation then you need look no further. Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos is the game you have been waiting for and it will fulfill all your gaming needs for many months to come.