Lately I discovered a bad habit: I kept mentioning the venerable Elite every time I encountered a game that longed to capture its magic and popularity. Thus, I fear I have abused the comparison with every Tom Dick and Harry (Starpoint: Gemini being the latest victim), but it’s a mistake I’m willing to rectify: by comparing future titles with the more modern Evochron.
That’s because I have finally found a game which offers the level of freedom once only found in the aforementioned Elite and which manages to offer this without copying its more famous predecessor. In fact, the producer (please notice the singular, since we’re talking about Shawn Bower) is responsible for an entire line of space-sims that goes back all the way to the 80’s. Plenty of time for the Evochron universe to mature so that today it can offer us pretty much everything.
Once the battlefield of the Alliace-Federation war, Evochron is now a pseudo-independent region of space where blood-thirsty pirates and profit-seeking merchants roam alike. In fact, the options available are clear right off the bat: we can start as a race pilot, mercenary, trader or combat pilot, although these options only matter when defining the first ship you get and the amount of credits.
There is no single-player campaign in the traditional sense, since the official line of missions – although rather interesting and well-constructed – is short and pretty much optional. We will realize quickly anyway that finishing the game is not the main goal, but the exploration, combat, and all the other features this universe has to offer. Earning credits is one of the main activities, and we can do this in a variety of ways, such as trading various merchandise types across the cosmos, within the buy-low sell-high system.
Or we can complete the various secondary missions available in nearly every system, such as cleaning satellite dishes, delivering packages (or even passengers) and, of course, escort and combat missions. Aside from the monetary value, these missions have the side-effect of improving the way the factions look at you, as the relationship with them is quite important in the entire economic system. This is because aside from the Federation or the Alliance we will also deal with the miner’s guild, the Navy and energy companies. A good standing with the miners or the energy corporations will grant you access to their trading points, while having a bad reputation with the Navy will get you attacked from all sides by the most well-armed and trained forces around. Not to mention that access to some tough ships (military ones) can only be achieved as you gain rank among the Navy guys.
This can be done by completing military missions which have a different approach, as they lack any economic consideration at all and are purely combat ones. That’s because the enemy is almost always a wolf-looking alien race known as Voinari – well-trained and usually better equipped than what humanity has to offer – and as such, these endeavors are most suited for what you might call the end-game. The Voinari also control some systems outside the main trade routes and if you go looking for trouble, they can test the skills of any pilot, the fights against always being a challenge.
Another interesting way to make a buck is mining. In almost every system there’s an asteroid belt ready for the taking, which can be milked of their most precious metals – such as platinum, iron or diamonds – by way of mining beams. I wouldn’t normally mention such a dull task (as it can get pretty dull) if it wasn’t for the twists which make it interesting. For instance, you can purchase specialized mining beams which only extract the most precious ore, and the hunt for the most high-value systems is an adventure in itself, not to mention that you can land on planets and mine there if you get tired of the asteroids.
Yes, you read it right, in Evochron you can descend to the planet you orbited seconds ago, without loading screens or any other technical tricks that prevent you from feeling like an astronaut. There are even trading stations based on planets, where we can dock, refuel, purchase items or repair our ship.
Once our bank account look reasonably stacked, we can go about hunting for new ships and equipment. The offer is not terribly abundant in both ships and sub-systems, and I wouldn’t have minded to have twice the number of toys, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking. Each ship has its own parameters of speed, agility and ability to add equipment, but nearly all these can be altered by the very-well done ship management system. You can choose the type of engine, wing configuration, cargo bay capacity or shield systems, and you will almost always – even for large ships – have to make compromises between shields, speed, and cargo capacity.
Furthermore, you can configure each ship to decide how you divide the available space: should I leave more room for missiles, carry an extra crew member, or load some more counter-measures? Aside from these components we have also sub-systems, such as the Fulcrum drive (enables fast-traveling over sectors), mining lasers or shield enhancers. These are vital for completing some missions or sometimes just help in combat, but usually you can never have enough of them.
A nice touch I noticed was the ability to visually configure the ship as well: you can lengthen, tighten or enlarge nearly every component, creating your own style for each ship (even for ones that are identical in statistics); you can have them evil-looking or just silly, whichever was your inspiration at the time.