Friday, 27 May 2011

Transcendence (PC)

[Originally reviewed by J. Monkman in RGCD Issue #04, December 2007]

David Braben's Frontier: Elite 2 was the first computer game to really blow my mind. A fan of the original Elite, my first impressions on playing the sequel were of pure wonder and amazement; somehow David had seemingly squeezed our entire galaxy onto a single 880KB Amiga floppy disk. Unlike the original, the basic physics were realistic (so much so that they actually deviated from the players enjoyment - but more on that in a bit), and as far as I'm aware it remains the only space-sim in which you can fly throughout an entire solar system, performing orbital slingshots and landing manually on planet surfaces wherever you want all in real-time and without being interrupted by any loading screens.

However, after many hours of playing it suddenly became apparent that for all it's bells and whistles, Frontier wasn't actually that much fun to play. The space combat essentially involved repeatedly playing 'chicken' with the dismal A.I. controlled ships (who often crashed straight into you, crippling your ship and killing themselves in the process) and the realistic distances between stars and planets left space feeling rather dead and empty. The huge bulk cruisers and cargo ships are forever parked beside the personality-lacking and identical space stations, and for a game containing an entire galaxy to explore Elite's sequel held very few surprises. Life in Frontier space was actually quite dull.

Several years later I encountered Toys for Bob's epic Star Control II on the PC. It was immediately apparent that this was a game far more suited to my George Lucas-fuelled juvenile vision of life in the cosmos, with its strong space opera storyline and exciting alien civilisations. Unlike Frontier, all the tedious physics of space travel are conveniently ignored and Star Control II has a much faster pace as a result. The fantastic arcade style combat sequences are really enjoyable and the enemy A.I. is light-years ahead of that demonstrated by Elite II's mindless kamikaze pilots. If you are unfamiliar with the original I strongly recommend that you check out the recent remake for modern systems - 'The Ur-Quan Masters' is superb.

Since those halcyon days of home computing I've been fruitlessly searching for a game that successfully combines the free-roaming rogue-like nature of Frontier with the simple, lively and enjoyable 2D universe of SCII. Finally, and thanks to the efforts of George Moromisato, I think I've found it in Transcendence.

Based in the far future (2419 to be precise), Transcendence features an extensive and detailed back story. Starting at the end of the 21st century, a manned mission to identify a gravitational anomaly within the Kuiper belt reveals the source to be an ancient yet fully functional alien stargate - one node of a huge interstellar network. Three centuries later (and after human colonisation of many star systems and an apocalyptic war resulting in the annihilation of Earth) contact with an alien race called the Iocrym is made. It turns out that the Iocrym visited our planet many millennia ago, and upon discovering multi cellular life they closed the stargate in our solar system to prevent our evolution from being spoiled or corrupted by other civilisations. Finally, before leaving human-space the Iocrym declare that the Ancient Races will return to initiate Humanity as a new member of the Galactic Community. Unfortunately, we soon discover that following these discussions the Iocrym have once again quarantined human space and are guarding the stargates out into the rest of the Galaxy. The only reason the Iocrym give for doing so is to protect Humanity from some unspecified threat beyond our explored region of space.

The game starts with your character being summoned to travel to the galactic core and break through the quarantine that the Iocrym have placed upon humanity. So begins your epic journey across the stars.

To be fair, Transcendence owes more to rogue-likes such as NetHack than to Frontier or Elite. The gameplay essentially revolves around exploration, combat, looting, and upgrading your spacecraft to face the increasingly powerful foes you'll meet as you travel deeper towards the galactic core. Also, another rogue-like feature is that the player universe is randomly generated at the start of every game, massively adding to Transcendence's longetivety. Throughout your quest you'll encounter strange devices, ROM chips and canisters, the purpose of which can only be discovered via trial and error - if you're lucky you'll significantly upgrade your ship's defences or weapon systems, whereas on the flipside of the coin you might scramble your display computer and end up flying blind or flood your cargo bay with industrial acid. It's all great fun.

As with Star Control, proper space physics are ignored (you can happily travel across the entire length of a star system in a matter of minutes) and combat with the huge variety of enemy craft involves classic arcade-style dog-fight tactics. Thanks to the 2D nature of the game and the countless enemy wrecks, derelicts and other debris scattered across the star systems, you can even effectively use cover against your attackers. Amazingly, George has successfully and single-handedly incorporated one of the best combat systems that I've yet to experience in a space-sim.

So what else does Transcendence do right? First up, and unlike many other similar games, looting doesn't merely involve collecting cargo pods following the destruction of enemy (or friendly) craft - you can actually dock with spacewrecks and strip out all of the surviving contents (both working and damaged) to use in your own ship or sell on at a trading base for profit. Also, the escort missions where you defend trade shuttles and cargo craft against pirates are a great laugh thanks to the competent A.I. - an accomplishment in itself, as these are often the most annoying and tedious parts of other space 'em ups. Got a ship full of broken weapons, armour and radioactive waste? Take it to one of the many industrious 'Tinkers' living in the backwaters of space and pay them to create some custom weaponry for you. Want to earn some fast cash? Participate in an arena battle against a series of increasingly dangerous space gladiators. The list goes on and on; asteroid mining, black market trading, combat with capital ships and huge space fortresses, robotic wingmen, scavenging space nomads, the game has them all.

In fact, the only drawback is that the game isn't actually complete and probably won't be for some time yet - after all, we are talking about a game developed by one person in their free time. Having said that, version 1.01 is essentially a fully playable game, although it only features half the proposed star systems and ends after you've beaten the Iocrym guardian in the heretic system (unlocking the stargate to the rest of the galaxy). What lies beyond will remain a mystery until a further installment in the Transcendence universe, but from what I've seen so far I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.

Download the game here (from the Transcendence website).

Second Opinion

When James asked me to write a second opinion on Transcendence, he compared this new indie freeware game to Star Control II and Nethack, and then shockingly suggested that if someone/anyone appreciated the aforementioned classic titles then he/she/it would most likely love Transcendence too.

Now, the first question I'd have to answer is do I love Star Control II and Nethack? Well, that's a firm "I love SC2 and want to have it's kids" and an "Nethack is pretty much OK as far as these things go, but I don't have the time anymore". Second question; did I enjoy Transcendence? Immensely so, from the outset it was simple and shiny enough to quickly hook me and deep enough to severely cut on my sleeping hours. What's more it actually adds quite a bit of Elite to the SC2/Nethack mix and that's just wonderful. You really have to try this indie gaming gem.

5 out of 5

Developer Interview

Q1. As way of introduction, please could you give a brief paragraph or two about yourself?

At twenty-two I quit school to work on a computer game that I wrote called "Anacreon". Unfortunately, I could not make enough money to support myself (there's a lesson for kids today: you're better-off staying in school!)

Fortunately, I was able to get a programming job (writing business software), and ever since then I've earned money writing software and worked on computer games in my spare time. That's certainly more practical and enjoyable than the reverse.

Q2. What was the main inspiration behind Transcendence?

Transcendence was inspired by two seminal games: Nethack and Star Control II.

I love the depth and replayability of Nethack. The fact that you can manipulate almost anything in the environment and that all the items interact in interesting ways makes the game infinitely fun and complex.

Games like Diablo and World of Warcraft and even Grand Theft Auto (which is open-ended) owe a lot to Nethack for showing how you can get complexity out of the interaction of simple game concepts.

Star Control II is just all-around a great game. The fast-paced combat, the quirky humor, the epic plot, and of course, the music, all blend perfectly together. I have many fond memories of playing that game.

In creating Transcendence I wanted to combine ideas from both of those games.

Q3. What development tools and hardware set-up were used to create the game and could you briefly describe the development process?

I use a pretty standard development environment. I use Microsoft Visual Studio (just upgraded to version 2005) for all the programming. I wrote the game engine in C++ (for speed) and the created a simple XML format for representing the game content. I also wrote a simple scripting language for implementing some of the in-game actions.

The graphics for the game are mostly 3D rendered sprites using Caligari's TrueSpace. Some of the graphics (the explosions, for example) are done with a custom ray tracer that I wrote (Luminous).

One of the things that I love about writing games is that you really get to use a broad range of skills. One minute I'm debugging the AI, the next I'm trying to create a nice metallic texture for a new ship.

Q4. The background story in Transcendence is rich with detail and the game has a strong space-opera feel to it. Is the plot something that has evolved alongside development or did you have a clear idea set out from the start? What have been your main influences in writing the game's storyline?

The basic arc of the plot is something that I thought about from the start, but there are lots of pieces that have evolved over time. Even now, there are a lot of gaps in the plot that I need to fill in. Certainly the game world has evolved significantly over time. Some of the major enemies like the Ares were there from the beginning, but others like the Sung Slavers and the Ranx (one of my favorites) came later.

Some of the core of Transcendence is influenced by books like Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" and Robert Reed's "Sister Alice". Both of those books explore universes in which some individuals have immense (even god-like) powers. What happens to society when some individuals are more powerful than entire countries or entire planets? How do the gods deal with the mortals? And how do the gods deal with each other?

In Transcendence, Domina and Oracus are hyper-intelligent, hyper-powerful beings - they seem like gods to the rest of the beings in the galaxy. The player is following their path, literally and metaphorically. Players start out very weak - sometimes even stray shots can kill them; but eventually they get powerful enough that they can take on capital ships and even entire stations. What does a player do with that power? That's one of the things I want to explore on the journey to Domina and the Galactic Core.

Q5. From visiting the game's popular web forum, it's clear that Transcendence has a large and devoted fanbase full of suggestions regarding what they'd like to see in future builds of the game. Has this proved a valuable resource in adding to the game, and if so, what have been some of the best ideas you've seen posted?

I am so happy about the Transcendence fanbase - their ideas have been hugely valuable. Every release I include probably about a dozen fixes that have been suggested by players. Some are simple bug fixes, but many are intricate little exploits that must have taken a while to find. For example, recently someone found that you could get infinite money by buying and selling Smuggler's Cargo Holds.

I also love that players are not only suggesting ideas, but also writing mods to implement those ideas. For example, a while ago someone figured out how to create a playable ship that worked as a carrier. The player could launch smaller fighters that would fight enemies and then recall them back when necessary.

Recently a couple of players created a mod that adds really cool explosions to stations (way better than what's in the game now). The explosions also damage the player if he/she is too close - which makes "station cracking" a bit more interesting. That's probably an idea that I will "adopt" in the mainline builds.

Q6. Are there any modding tools available for more technically minded players? Is it possible to modify and add your own star systems/objects/spacecraft to the game?

Yes! Much of the game is content is described in a set of XML resource files. There is a tool on the site (TransData) that can extract the resources from the game and allows you to edit them in a text editor.

It's not that easy to modify, unfortunately. There is very little documentation available. But there are lots of people on the forums that will help, if anyone is interested in modding.

Q7. When the game reaches completion, will it remain free to the gaming community or will you market it as a shareware release? Have you had any interest from publishers?

Yes, the game will continue to be free. I think keeping Transcendence free will help it to spread more widely and to have more of an impact. Besides, I'm not very good at the business side of games.

Q8. Finally, with regard to the independent gaming and remakes scene, are there any recent releases that have captured your attention?

There are so many cool indie games that I have no hope of trying even a small fraction! Lately I've been hearing a lot about Dwarf Fortress. My detail-oriented, obsessive-compulsive side goes nuts when I hear that they've accurately modeled everything from weather patterns, to population behaviour and dynamics, to the proper geological location of over two hundred mineral and rock types.

Another that I've played recently is Outpost Kaloki. It's a cool little sim game with simple game-mechanics and great humor.

All in all, it's a great time for the indie and remakes scene.

Q9. Thank you for participating in this interview. Is there anything else you'd like to add before signing off?

Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about Transcendence. I would love to take the opportunity to thank some of the players who have helped so much in the development of the game: Fossaman, Betelgeuse, The Holy Thom, dvlenk6, OddBob and Evilbob, F50, PlayMeNow, Burzmali, and of course, Yugimotomanager. Plus dozens of others, too numerous to list. Thanks to all!