In the beginning there was Privateer and it was good; then came Descent, I, II, and III and Freespace, Tachyon: The Fringe, and the Independence War series; and then there was Microsoft’s Freelancer—the MMO world rejoiced when Jumpgate made a grand entrance and cried when it crashed and burned in the mountains of obscurity (never fear, we might see Jumpgate: Evolution!) Finally, there’s those who wanted to scratch their eyes out when Starwars Galaxies: The Jump to Lightspeed gave us a space fighter simulation MMO…
Up next to fill up the cold, dead vacuum of space fighter simulation MMOs is Black Prophecy and a beautiful vacuum filler it is indeed. Developed by Reakktor Media and published by Gamigo Games, this game looks like it could be contending for the an amazing space fighter simulation, with a strong graphics engine, an okay ship control system, and a spellbinding science fiction narrative.
The folks over at Black Prophecy have been kind enough to let us into their closed beta and now I’ve come back out to tell you about the experience. No worse for wear, possibly a little radiation sickness, minor laser burns, and a bit of shrapnel still in my spine from a close call with a scattergun…otherwise I’m fine.
Graphics: In space, everyone can see you explode…especially at high resolution
Unless you have an extremely powerful video card, you won’t be running this game in its full glory—however, for people like me who have middle-range high-end gaming rigs, I still had to set it about the middle of the road graphics quality-wise. And even without loading every frill: it still looks quite beautiful. Space is vast and overwhelming, planets are huge (although a little on the small side) and other ships leave glowing plasma trails as the move, making it sometimes easy to identify friend-or-foe just by looking for red or blue trails.
The graphics engine does a good job of sliding setting and objects along effectively and there are environments that take advantage of this thoroughly—like the junkyard. Space, apparently, for all it’s openness is also really messy. As you’ll discover flying around certain regions lots of little rocks and bits of debris skim past your cockpit as you roam around. The effect does a good job making it feel like you’re actually in motion when there’s nothing else for you to gauge your speed from in your view.
This game is full of cut scenes that look like they were developed in the game’s rendering engine. (A little too many, in fact, for an MMO—but I’ll get into that later.)
The ships themselves vary in design and designation, although it’s obvious who owns what type of ship as each faction has their own specific aesthetic choices. Throughout the game you’ll be upgrading your vessel with new and improved components, which will affect the look of your ship as it goes. Fortunately, you also get the chance to paint portions of your ship the colors you want; however, as far as I can tell the paint doesn’t move with new components.
Special effects when it comes to weapons and shields are actually pretty good. All the weapons have distinct feels to them and produce different particle or beam effects and you often get the idea if you hit or missed something. Explosions are vivid and well rendered, and sometimes they splash across the screen leaving behind a burnt husk that you have to dodge (or it bounces off you.)
Sound: Even if there’s no air in space, space operas will always have sound effects
First, I’d like to point out this game has an excellent score. The music breathes and swells like a proper science fiction game and even kicks into an upbeat orchestral composition when enemies appear on the radar. A lot of the music is reminiscent of Star Wars and compels emotions of the vastness of space, the beauty and fragility of orbiting bodies, and—when it calls for it—the violence of space combat.
Yes, the music itself is a little bit generic, but it’s been designed to fade properly into the background when special effects come into play.
The game provides a satisfying series of different sound effects when firepower slams into your hull and shields. The deafening crump of explosions, the blat-blat-blat of laser fire, the p-tang! of a sniper projectile, and the staccato saw-tooth of machine guns chattering away in space. All the things that we’ve come to expect from sound effects in space battles are present.
In the prologue of the game there’s also a lot of voice acting to be had. Many of the storyline missions come along with discussions and acted-out segments involving celebrity NPCs. So you won’t be without someone to listen to as the story unfolds itself. I don’t know how long this extends into the rest of the game—after all budgets for voice acting can run out fast—but it covers the entirety of the prologue (which is 8+ missions) and a few of the missions after choosing a faction.
Gameplay: Have you played a space fighter sim before?
Black Prophecy ship controls work off the tried-and-true (actual physics be damned) constant acceleration equals constant velocity school of game play. Mouse and keyboard direct the ship: mouse directs the ship where to go and the keyboard accelerates, brakes, strafes, and pitches. Acceleration does bleed off when you’re not pushing it and you can use your mouse-wheel to set a specific velocity and your ship will stick to it. Handling and maneuverability is extremely mushy at the beginning of the game but as the game progresses and you outfit and level your ship skills you will be able to mount better engines and cockpits that will probably alleviate a lot of this. (Maneuverability, in fact, is a ship stat.)
The guns are all connected together and you get four mounts on your normal ship (both the very first ship and the one you’re given immediately upon getting a new faction.) Keep in mind this means you can have four guns, although heavy-mount guns take up two mounts so you could only carry two of those at a time with four mounts.
As with any space fighter simulation the weaponry is paramount. And fortunately there’s an a proper variety—although not really an awesome variety—there’s the basic pew-pew lasers, some chatterguns that fire bullets, and beam weapons. And, in fact, there’s even a fusion cannon which seems to be homage to Descent III as it can be powered up to fire a huge bolt of energy. The set up of the game really reminds me a lot of how Tachyon: The Fringe developed its weapon setups combined with other space fighter sims across the ages.
The prologue of the game plays a lot more like a single player game with instanced, solo missions than what you’d expect from an MMO. In fact, the storyline itself is an epic messiah complex of political intrigue that tells you the story of the beginning of the game and gives you an idea of how the two factions interact. While this is an extremely powerful method to unwrap a narrative in a single player game, it’s really out of place in a massively multiplayer game. Still, as I said above, the narrative is spellbinding and extremely compelling.
During the prologue (and after) missions are developed from in-game events that tell you where to go and what to do. Starting missions generally involves jumping to a newly delivered “sector” on your nav. Optional missions can also be selected from within space stations that automatically jump you into the fray for extra experience or just fun game time.
During my entire play, I didn’t group with anyone even once. While this is a massively multiplayer online game, a lot of the missions surrounding the prologue are designed for solo only and don’t really encourage grouping. Granted, if you want to survive any of the same-level or higher-level missions accessible inside of stations, I suspect you might want to get into a group. Otherwise you’d be a bunch of radioactive space debris in short order.
There are a great deal of achievements available and from them I can tell that this game also has a giant universe to explore. There’s achievements for combat, exploration, diplomacy, running missions, crafting…the works. Black Prophecy contains everything that it needs to become a strong, community driven MMO with all of these elements. Except that it seems to currently lack a method for players to buy and sell crafting items so perhaps an auction house or similar is planned in the future.
While I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for the PvP experience—and I mention that the game doesn’t really encourage group play—I should point out that upon choosing a faction, immediately out of the gate of the prologue, you are thrust into the PvP experience. Suddenly, when you go out to do missions in shared areas you’re a target. Well, if anything in this game is going to promote group or squadron actions, it’s going to be piling in with allies to make a zone safer for you to run storyline missions. This fact intrigues me as a mechanism to encourage in-game group activity but I’m not sure how far precisely it will go.
Insofar, as there is only one server in the beta test (Altair) it’s hard for me to tell if there will also be PvE servers where PvP doesn’t just happen in mid-space because someone six levels higher and of the opposing faction wants to take it out of your hull. So we’ll see when the game prepares for its public debut.
Conclusion: Strong graphics, compelling story, interesting universe…
Black Prophecy has an extremely beautiful graphics engine, a wonderful musical score proper to a space simulator, and an extremely compelling narrative to follow. In fact, I kept playing the game and grinding levels as far as I could in order to complete the narrative and join one of the factions—just to see the why and where that the storyline was going to take me. While there’s also a lot of cutscenes, and they play havoc with the whole idea of grouping together, they are extremely important to developing the story and giving you an idea of the universe.
The world building in this game is magnificent.
If you’re already a fan of space fighter sim games, especially those that I listed above, you’ll be treated to a game that apparently takes its cues from a lot of them. However, I think that they’ll need to develop a lot after the prologue (or even redesign the prologue itself) if they want to encourage group play. Otherwise the game will be a lot like the above listed space fighter sims which have a solo game for people who want the storyline but also allow people to log into servers to fight in competitive PvP matches.
I had no time to check out the PvP in the game for the purposes of this first impression, but I’m told that it exists. The separate factions set up the oh-so-common dichotomy between different sects who separate themselves on philosophical or moral grounds.
As a game Black Prophecy has some big britches to fill; but it’s already got a lot going for it.