Reviewed: May 3, 2005
Released: February 22, 2005
While it might take a degree in calculus to determine just how many games I have played in my life, the number of RTS games I have played can be figured out with some basic math and the number I have truly enjoyed can be counted on two hands. Narrowing it down to the space RTS genre that number shrinks even more.
Nexus: The Jupiter Incident joins the exclusive ranks of space RTS games like Hegemonia, Project Earth: Starmageddon, and more recently, Homeworld2, also from Sierra. Nexus captivated me from its epic opening movie, through the seemingly endless tutorial, and through more than 20 hours of glorious tactical space combat.
The curse of being a game reviewer is that I have grown to appreciate games that are short and sweet. Of course this isnít entirely fair given that fact that for those of you laying down your hard-earned cash, you want a game that lasts weeks and months, not hours and days. But even with my penchant towards shorter games I found myself hopeless addicted to Nexus; a game so intricately detailed and, yes, difficult, that the tutorial lasted longer than it takes me to finish most other games.
At the dawn of the 22nd century the conquest of space and the colonization of the solar system is being monopolized by several huge and ambitious megacorporations. Although extremely delicate and vulnerable, a balance is maintained by these companies. It has now been 60 years since the terrible catastrophe that befell Noah's Ark, the first colony ship of mankind.
At the very edge of the solar system the companies make a discovery, which will shift the technological advantage and upset the balance. And so a new conflict is born: "The Jupiter Incident". You are Marcus Cromwell, a young but already famous captain. With your legendary spaceship Stiletto you find yourself in the middle of the conflict.
If that highly original story doesnít pique your interest then perhaps the massive laundry list of features will tempt you to give Nexus a try:
Nexus is more of a tactical fleet simulation than a typical RTS game, but the slick interface keeps the complexity from overwhelming the gamer. The screen is divided into specific areas with friendly units on the left, enemy or unknown targets on the right and your commands on the bottom. The 3D action screen takes up the rest of the screen and you are free to hunt and click on items in that view for unit selection and commands.
The HUD and the action are totally linked so if you highlight a unit on the screen the associated menu item will light up and vice versa. The concept is simple. Click on a friendly unit (or group of them) then click on a command then click on a unit or waypoint on the right. 1Ö2Ö3Öaction. Yes, I made it sound a lot simpler than it really is, but that is the underlying concept.
The most stunning interface has to be the galaxy (or perhaps itís the universe) map. You start off with this nebulous white screen and at the top-right is our galaxy. Click on that and take a rollercoaster ride through the vapor until you reach a scaled real-time animated model of our solar system. You can now click on any planet, moon, asteroid, or comet in the window or select from the list along the right.
I must have spent hours just exploring our solar system. I didnít know some of the moons of Jupiter werenít spherical. This is a dream come true for any astronomy buff. The planets are textured with details so amazing they had to come from NASA and they are lit in real-time with the sun. You can even spin the camera around and create your own eclipse or crescent moon.
Missions start off simple enough, basically a series of objectives like moving to point A and scanning an unknown target. Later you will learn to position you ship to engage in battle, launch a shuttle filled with commandos to take over a target, and so much more.
After the initial missions you will get to setup your fleet prior to each mission by choosing ships and weapons based on a point system. Choosing the right ship and configuration is not as intuitive as it needs to be, especially when you factor in just how important those decisions determine the success or failure of some missions. This is one game where I desperately wanted an auto-config option where the computer set me up based on the mission parameters, or at least more informative briefings. As it is, you might have some trial and error to contend with, at least on a few of the more difficult missions.
As is the tradition of space games, you typically have two types of weapons, one that depletes energy shields and one that penetrates armor and hull. Using these two weapons at the right time will ensure a fast victory, but you will also want to explore the more detailed weapons that can target individual systems like engines or weapons systems. Once you bring a ship to its knees you can send in the commandos of just finish it off.
Given the fact that you are in control of multiple ships you will need to rely on the AI to help you out. Thankfully, the AI in Nexus is outstanding allowing you to posture your ships, and give them specific commands for specific targets. But even when you tell a ship to engage a specific target they wonít ignore any dynamic events that unfold along the way.
To help you keep track of your ships, each one is given a unique commander with a distinctive personality. This is a really nice feature. Additionally, as you progress through the missions you will earn merit awards that you can use to upgrade various skills. Unfortunately, only your character, Marcus, can be upgraded leaving all those other commanders to bask in your magnificence by the end of the game. It would have been nice to upgrade my fleet commanders as well.
Regrettably, there are a few stability issues with Nexus that can suck the fun right out of your day. Iíve been playing Nexus for about three weeks now with more than 25 hours logged and have crashed to the desktop at least a dozen times. Even worse, if the game crashes before you can save the game for the first time your profile becomes corrupt, and you have to go to Explorer to delete it. Hopefully a patch is in the works but meanwhile, this is one annoying feature I can do without.
Prior to Nexus I would have to say Eve was the best looking space game out there, but Nexus blows the that game and anything else in the genre into another dimension. Nothing can prepare you for the moment when you assume control of the camera. You will be in a view of your main ship set against a sea of asteroids and when you move the camera the asteroids literally POP off the screen. Itís like one of those pictures with the hidden hologram inside.
Special effects are off the charts. The screenshots donít even begin to do this game the justice it deserves and you have to see Nexus in action to fully appreciate its brilliance. The level of detail is staggering from complex ship models with bumped-mapped textured panels, rotating pods, blinking lights, and roaring engines that leave plasma trails behind them to wonderful alien technologies, and complete star bases built right into giant asteroids.
Everything is dynamically lit from any available light source, sun, comet; even your own engine glow will light nearby objects and create real-time shadow. Even the complex ship designs are self-shadowing so moving parts will create moving shadows on the hull.
The HUD is massively complex and highly intuitive. You are assaulted with a wealth of information, but it is so well organized that you feel right at home after the tutorial. The pre-game menus and overall interface is high-tech and as fun to use as it is to look at.
The game is full of com chatter and for the most part it is delivered with above-average voice acting. Some of the events like sending in your commandos is handled entirely through com chatter. At first I thought the designers were copping out on inserting a remote camera window or cutscene, but I really found that imagining what was going on based on their verbal description was actually rather immersive and totally intense.
Sound effects are the standard space shooter stuff with lasers and explosions but what really set the game apart for me was the massive roar of the engines. My sub-woofer was shaking my desk and when you zoom the camera in tight on the flames coming out the rear the entire screen shakes and distorts from the heat.
Music is also your typical space strategy fare. Much of the game takes place in silence so the pleasant ambient music was a welcome addition and when it changes pace and volume to enhance the moment it really works at an emotional level.
Expect a solid 20-30 hours of playtime just to get through the main campaign. Two of those will be getting through the learning curve and you can factor in at least an hour for crashes and replaying to the point of the crash Ė save often.
Nexus supports online play via LAN or Internet and I was able to play twice online prior to the review. The multiplayer setup screen and interface is easy to figure out and the gameplay is certainly interesting and requires some smart choices when configuring your fleet.
The game also comes loaded with modding tools so we can likely expect a wealth of new content if anybody has the patience to figure it all out. Want to play God? Take a shot with the Solar System Creator and place your planets and determine their orbits. Use the Scene Creator to layout specific battle scenarios or use the powerful Model/Texture Converter and Viewer to create your own ships and texture them as you see fit.
And for those of you with a programming background, you will want to explore the Black Ruler Scripting System, the actual scripting routines used in Nexus to control the battles. If you can master this unique programming language you can probably get signed on to work on the sequel.
Be warned; this is a smart gamer for smart gamers. Donít expect a pick-up-and-play title. Youíll need to invest yourself and a great deal of time just to learn the nuances of the gameplay and the interface, and making smart intuitive decisions before the missions can save you a lot of trial and error.
Blending a compelling story with a wonderful presentation and some of the most stunning visuals of any PC game to date, Nexus: The Jupiter Incident is high on the list of sleeper hits for 2005. This game snaked its way to the shelves avoiding all detection by our staff until we got the release announcement. Normally when games are released with little or no fanfare somebody is trying to slip one past, but Nexus is a shining star in a sea of mediocrity.