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Independence War II is one hell of an ambitious game; it's part space combat simulator, part space trader, set in an enormous universe with a unique back-story. Once you get deep into the game, you'll find that it's heavy on story, heavy on combat, and a bit light on the trading. It's also extremely difficult.
I can't say enough good things about the game engine and the way space travel is handled in Independence War II. The universe presented to the player is trillions of miles wide and contains over a dozen separate star systems made up of hundreds of planets and bases. And believe it or not, it's all precisely mapped out in a single 'star-map', which lets you logically cycle through all the available systems, planetary orbits, lunar orbits, and space stations. The interface is cleverly designed, allowing you to quickly browse through hundreds of possible destinations while still giving a sense of the immense distances between them.
There are three methods of travel in the game. First is your ship's engines. Second is a sort of light-speed warp drive. And third is instant travel between 'Wrinkle in Time' style jump-points. A well designed auto-pilot system allows you to simply select a destination from the star-map and command your ship to take you there the quickest way possible, but you always have the option to fly there manually instead. The game does require some patience to get from one place to another; traveling from your base to the start of a mission generally takes about five to ten minutes. Incredibly there are no loading screens, even when traveling from one end of the 'known universe' to the other.
The space travel and weapons technology portrayed in the game is well thought out, with a lot of clever touches - like how the game's fictional jump-point technology is associated with the real scientific phenomenon of Lagrange points, or how your warp drive can be disabled by dampening fields. These game mechanics provide a sense of scientific believability while also serving to enhance the gameplay. The game contains an extensive in-game encyclopedia which discusses many of these concepts, as well as outlining all of the spaceship technology available to you and providing a brief history of the star systems in your neck of the universe.
Independence War II has a very engaging story. I'm not sure why I connected as strongly with the story and characters as I did. But from that opening cinematic on, I was on the edge of my seat. (I'm sure it helped that the cut-scenes and the voice acting are both of outstanding quality.) A lot of the story progresses through emails that you receive at your base, but there are also cut-scenes and radio communications scattered throughout many of the missions. I thought the game did a great job of telling a coherent and meaningful story while still allowing you to do many of the missions in whatever order you wanted to. The middle Act is especially good in this regard: it begins with one simple objective, to "find allies in other systems". And as you explore the universe and make new allies, that one objective snowballs into dozens of missions. Unfortunately, not all of the sections of the game provide as much flexibility as this middle Act.
The other aspect of the game, the pirating and trading, is of course extremely open ended. Many different factions exist in the world of Independence War II (government, corporations, allies, enemy pirates, etc.) and they are all constantly moving cargo between their bases. All of that cargo is available for you to hijack, provided that you can deal with the escorts protecting it. At your base, you can trade captured cargo items for spaceship technologies and then add those upgrades to your ship. I found this part of the game to be very addictive; there are many ship upgrades available and it takes most of the game before you can obtain them all. I generally found myself alternating between storyline missions and freelance pirating expeditions. Unfortunately, the pirating and trading aspect of the game isn't quite as deep as it seems at first. You can't obtain more than three ships during the whole game, so once you've gotten your hands on the best ship and fully upgraded it, there's no point in pirating or trading beyond that.
The combat is unique compared to other space combat games. A realistic physics model and sense of inertia make it difficult to turn on a dime or reverse direction suddenly, so most of the time, you don't want to be flying forward at maximum speed. Your ship is also equipped with lateral thrusters, allowing you to strafe left and right as easily as forward and backward. The ship's maneuverability and the way you'll want to fly it is similar to the ships in the Descent series; you need to do a lot of circle strafing and dodging of missiles to stay alive.
The biggest problem with this game--and it is a major problem--is that combat is very difficult and you cannot save your game mid-mission. Even after you master the necessary combat tactics and upgrade your ship pretty well, it's still surprisingly easy to die at the tail-end of a 20 minute mission. And boy does it suck when that happens several times in a row. In fact, the game is so difficult that even though I come back and replay it about once a year, I have yet to make it through the entire game without cheating. Each time I vow that I will not cheat, and I usually get a little further than before, but eventually I'll fail a mission several times in a row, get frustrated, and break out the cheats.
Another weakness of the game is that you often need to do things in a very particular way, but the objectives you are given don't get specific enough. For example, a number of missions require you to go steal a cargo pod from someone. In some cases, you are supposed to dock it to your ship and fly it back to where the mission started. In other cases, you are supposed to order your salvage guy to pick it up and take it back to your base. It's not always clear which you are supposed to do. Also, many missions require some puzzle solving to complete. For example, in most cases when you encounter an enemy base or capital ship, you can't just shoot the hell out of them; there's some secret weakness or clever tactic that you need to employ to take down their shields or get past their defenses. Your crew-members often drop some hints as to what you're supposed to do, but it still usually requires some experimenting, and you may occasionally get stumped.
If you love space combat games, welcome a tough challenge, enjoy a good science fiction story, and have some patience, then I recommend this game to you.
Fantastic review. Thank you!
I'll add that there is a really wide range of missions in the game. There are a few plain-vanilla escort and delivery missions with some combat in them, but there are also some very clever and even nail-biting missions (spray paint, and disabling gunstars, anyone?). As mentioned, the puzzle-type missions can have very obscure solutions but there are some excellent mission walk-throughs available online for those that seem impossible to solve.
Right on about the trading. You aren't doing it for money, but instead to trade x quantity of Commodity A for y amount of Weapon B. Once you have schematics for a particular item, you can also use some of that salvage to create scrap in order to make those more desirable and useful items. I only did this a few times (isn't there a mission that requires it?) but the option is there. But yeah, later on there really isn't any need to salvage.
Navigation works pretty well but there are a few routes the autopilot uses that will stretch a short trip into a quite long one. Autopilot favors jump points over LDS travel (in-system high-speed travel) and will sometimes take you through three or more jumps just to get you someplace that you could have flown to manually in under a minute. Minor gripe, and sometimes hitting all of those jump points can have you stumbling on a freighter with a heavy load of soon-to-be salvage goods, or will get you into some tough random combat with a faction you've irritated in the past.
Combat offers plenty of options to keep things interesting and to give you multiple ways to win battles. Weapon loadout, for instance, offers you several types of beam or cannon options, and there are a good dozen or more missile types, as well, with more variety than simply the size of the boom and how well the weapon tracks a target. You can target specific ship systems in order to subdue a vessel or take it out without having to whittle down the shields and armor until it explodes. Of course, system targeting works better on some opponents than others, as opposing fighters move too quickly for pinpoint hits. Capital ships and freighters, on the other hand...
Graphically, this is a really nice-looking game, even on older hardware. Space is easier to draw than interior rooms and the game takes advantage of the decreased graphic overhead by making the ships and stations nicely detailed. No fuzzy blobs in this game, and framerate was never an issue for me, even on an old (circa 2001) rig. Some of the camera angles provide some neat fly-bys and space-scapes and can help tactically in some situations. The sound works well, too.
A few things I'd like to see:
- more ship variety. You're limited to just a few platforms. Nothing wrong with that since the upgrade options can turn a lowly cargo boat into a decent killer (I think a couple missions have you going back to your older ships), but it would be nice to have just a few more choices.
- more depth to the trading, which is really more like salvage. On the upside, the typical money-based trading system in some games means that accumulation of a lot of cash has the player able to make very powerful ships too early in the game. The current system works but I'd just like to see it fleshed out a bit, with more reasons to accumulate some of the ordinary trade goods. However, you're never left in a pickle with no weapons to finish a mission and no way to earn more salvage to obtain the weapons you need.
- more reason to visit and explore some of the systems you gain access to later in the game. About mid-game you're able to do whatever you want at your own pace but toward the end you lose a bit of that freedom. That, and those recently opened systems toward the end just don't have as much to do and see.
- mid-mission saves. Operation: Flashpoint made a good compromise in this regard. Some missions in that game had auto-save points but you were also allowed a single save mid-mission, at your own discretion. There are a few missions in I-War II that are just begging for a bit of save-game mercy.
- other than that, just more missions. The game was long enough but I'd love to have more more more of this game. Very fun. I suppose the mod community has answered that request but I haven't delved very deeply into it.
There are lots of mods available at the fan site that address some of the issues you've raised - improved trading for one thing.
Post edited July 09, 2010 by Ravenger