Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Praxia Entertainment
Publisher: Praxia Entertainment
There are some days when I sit in front of the keyboard preparing to begin typing yet another hideously deformed review and simply cannot think of anything to say in the intro that will segue me into actually talking properly about the game. This is one of those days, and thus I present to you some words; piffle, squiddle, squash, waffle and hornswaggle. Now let’s get on with this review, eh?
From your awkwardly zoomed-in perspective you take control of your starting ship and establish a city in a likely looking sector of the relatively small map and then set off in search of resources to further fuel its development, adding living areas, commerce zones, shields, weapons and more while also upgrading your own ship and building fleets of A.I. controlled ships to either follow you around or guard your territory. The eventual goal is to expand your empire and win through military might, economic dominance or diplomatic brilliance, but while you’re doing that the A.I. is obviously doing the same. War is a near-constant thing in Beyond Sol. Diplomacy is an option, but right now the A.I. seems to opt for aggression more than anything else, especially if your border is right next to theirs. It’s like a fast-paced, real-time, sci-fi version of Civilisation, albeit far more limited in its scope. This is a game light on options, and as we’ll see throughout this review I’m somewhat conflicted about it.
Expanding your city is done by connecting new buildings together, creating a strange hodge-podge of civilisation that usually ends up looking like it was designed by a drunkard who firmly believes he’s the greatest architect in the world despite being unable to figure out how his own front door works. To further expand your control you have to fly out to a new, unclaimed sector and plant either the cheap radar station which will naturally pick up any ships travelling through the sector, construct a mining platform above a planet that will grant you extra resources, or go all out with a military outpost, which costs a small fortune but will also grant control of all adjacent sectors as well. Back at your city you can toss down some weapons and even a shield generator, too, just in case space pirates come raiding or an enemy decides to declare all out war. It’s good fun for the first hour; you blast around, usually reacting to the constant alert stream on the side of the screen which is directing you to comets, valuable minerals, space debris, battles, distress beacons and more from which you can acquire the resources needed to build new stuff. You’re always moving, always doing something. After that hour, however, it becomes far less interesting as you realise that there’s not very much to build or do. There’s a mere twelve buildings for your city, and just three outposts. Sure, they can be upgraded, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. There’s nothing cool to discover or unlock as you progress. What you see in the first five minutes is all you have available for the entirety of the game, and that in turn means that whenever you fire up a new map there’s no way to do anything very differently when constructing your city. The layout might be different, but its basically the same.
There’s some other issues that crop up when trying to construct your city. Take, for example, the fact that to build anything you need to pilot your ship to the city first. That means that even if you’re on the other side of the solar system mining and want to finally building something now that the credits have rolled in, or NEED to hastily toss-up some new defenses because of sudden pirate invasion, you have to stop whatever you’re doing and fly all the way back to your city. The flip-side to this is that it does create a constant sense of movement; you’re always reacting to events, shifting from one thing to the next as you attempt to manage your time. It’s frantic, and works quite well, even if its difficult to believe that in an age with hugely advanced technology nobody has heard of delegation or having a second-in-command.
Quite a bit of what you’ll probably end up doing is fighting other ships, often in the shape or pirates but frequently A.I. players, too, which is a problem because the combat is, to be honest, crap. You click the right mouse button on an enemy to target them, or use the tab key to quickly focus on the nearest foe, and then tap away at the weapon keys until something dies. Each weapon has a recharge time, giving it a slight MMO feel. There’s some minor skill involved in the sense that missiles work best against unshielded enemies and lasers are effective at taking out shields and such, and in making sure you don’t get swamped by enemy forces, but otherwise there’s just no depth or even excitement to the combat. You simply fly around trying vainly to keep the enemy within range and spam the attacks keys until either you die or they die, the weedy sound of your weapons utterly failing to convey a sense of…well, anything really, except disappointment. You can purchase AI ships to fly around with you and offer backup, but there’s no way of controlling them or altering how they’ll behave in combat to make them attack the ship you have targeted or go after specific foes. You just have to trust that they’ll be able to look after themselves, which a lot of the time they can’t. A prime example is a type of ship that can intercept missiles, a handy ability that could potentially save you and your offensive ships from being destroyed. Naturally a ship like that needs to stay out of trouble, and yet in my experience it seemed to enjoy diving into the middle of fights and chasing enemy ships around.
The other things which frequently seemed unable to properly look after themselves where the military outposts. With ships assigned to them a military outpost is naturally intended to defend the nearby area, yet on most occasions it failed to react to incursions or was far too late, leaving me to once again hurtle across the galaxy to try to save the day. On numerous occasions pirate fleets travelled through territory defended by an outpost without issue. Another time my outpost only reacted to a pirate base, which was clearly within the area covered by the outpost itself, when my personal fleet launched an assault against it. There’s no way to command an outpost manually, either, so you can’t order them to intercept an enemy fleet or engage a pirate base. I began to realise that it really was just me and my fleet doing all the work, that I couldn’t entirely trust my defenses to do their job.
Diplomacy is an option, but once again there’s a very limited selection of things that you can actually do. You can of course declare war, but you can also send gifts, offer peace treaties and do a couple of other things. The best ways of staying friendly is to trade with other cities and help them out in battles with space pirates which tends to garner quite a lot of favor. However, if one of your sectors of space is adjacent to one of theirs there’s a hefty penalty for so-called “border tensions” that is applied for each and every instance of adjacent territory, and thus on quite a few cases I found that people I was friendly with mere minutes ago had claimed space next to mine and were now hostile due to border tensions. In another strange incident a city close by which were relatively friendly with me and had a “diplomatic” personality style suddenly lost a whopping 75-points of reputation with me and then declared me a rival, before politely informing me we were at war about five seconds before trying to attack me. This also provided an apt demonstration of the wonky A.I. which insisted on attacking the same radar station every 2 minutes or so despite getting its ships annihilated each and every time. Had it bothered to check the situation out it would have quickly seen there was easy access to my main city which had minimal defenses at the time, but it never did. The problem was with the A.I assaulting me every few minutes I couldn’t get the time needed to go gather more resources to either build a good enough fleet to destroy the A.I.’s city or to construct new military bases that could hold the sectors while I went foraging, or do much of anything at all. We ended up locked like that for a while, because I’d run out of space to build anything without an incredibly expensive command centre upgrade and therefore was left struggling to increase my command limit in order to get enough ships, or upgrade my own ships weapons. It was frustrating and dull, and just one example of numerous daft A.I. behaviors.
In other words diplomacy seems a little hit and miss at the moment. Expanding to claim new sectors is one of the primary methods of earning more credits, as well as to getting a steady stream of resources, so its pretty hard to avoid border tensions, and in turn I found that maintaining peace with anybody was very challenging. Most of them seemed far happier with just declaring war because they’ve expanded right up to your border and now apparently hate you for having the audacity to be there. I also found it interesting that there’s no way of taking over enemy territory without actually destroying their city first. Even if you wipe out their military outpost you can’t then construct your own outpost and claim the sector as your own and thus push slowly toward the enemy.
There is a strange compulsion to it all, however, as limited and simple as it is. You’ve always got something to do and keep an eye on; to expand to a new sector you need to increase your population size enough to man the new mining station or radar array, so you gather the resources to build a new apartment complex or upgrade an existing one, but then you’ve not got enough power so once again you need to get the resources to increase that, too. Then you need to head off again and built a military base, which again means you need a higher population, then you need to build a fleet to garrison there as well. Eventually you’ll run out of space and will have to save up the huge amount of cash needed to upgrade your command centre and thus the construction space available to you. You constantly have to expand your territory, upgrade your city and keep everything balanced, a never-ending task.
But every time I’d really begin to get into the rhythm of Beyond Sol, every time I’d manage to look past how simple most of it was, the game would do something to ruin it. For instance, having to fly all the way back across the system because my city’s stockpile had become full and you’re unable to sell resources without your ship being there is nothing short of a pain in the ass. I can accept that buildings and upgrades have to be done with me physically at the city, but the sale of resources should be something the player can do from a distance. Some options to set the city to automatically sell certain resources when they get to a specific amount would have also been very handy. As it stands having to stop and fly back breaks the pace of the game, especially when you’ve got a strong flow of resources rolling in and mere minutes after you’ve set off again to do a few things at the other side of the map, like perhaps wage war with an enemy, storage is full again. Of course later on as you grow your city you can expand storage space exponentially, something mitigating the problem. Likewise not being able to see how much an upgrade to a mining outpost or to a military outpost is going to cost without flying all the way over to it is pointless. It’s this desire to tie the player to one ship and force them to physically be there in order to do just about anything that is both the game’s strength and its weakness, providing it with its breakneck pace and acting as the source for many of its problems, too.
Another issue I have with the game is its save system which only activates when you quit the game, so you can’t create separate save points in case of crashes or just in case you want to go back an hour or two for whatever reason. It also means you can only ever have one game on the go, although the incredibly limited scope of the city construction and upgrade system means that every game plays out mostly the same, so there’s not much reason to have two or more maps in play.
For whatever reason the developers haven’t seen fit to include any sort of tutorial, and instead there are tips that pop up very, very occasionally on the sidebar. There’s no manual, either, and the official wiki contains very little information. This leaves quite a bit to be discovered by the player, which I greatly enjoy to a degree, but there are a lot of things that really do need explaining. Figuring out how you transfer ships to a military outpost so they can patrol your territory, for example, isn’t a brilliant eureka moment and an enjoyable experience, it’s irritating and something that should just be explained from the very start. As it transpires you have to open up the map screen, select fleet management, then click on the desired military outpost and then drag ships from your city’s panel to the base. This feels somewhat odd since the fleet panel you can access when you’re at the city seems like it should let you transfer ships to bases, but doesn’t. You also can’t just transfer ships directly between outposts, instead you have to fiddle around transferring them to the city first, and then selecting the new base and then transferring them again. Weirdly being able to transfer ships from the map screen is the only thing you can do without having to fly to city or outpost first.
Multiplayer is hampered by the fact that you need to join a friend’s game using their IP address, which is utterly bloody insane in the year 2015. Joining a friend’s game should be so much easier, and what about playing with random folk from around the world? Still, once you get a game going its stable and having real players in place of the A.I., who frankly seem to cheat a lot since I’ve seen them claim territory without being in it and seemingly teleport fleets across the damn map, helps hide some of the flaws.
Beyond Sol is one of those games where you’ve really seen everything it has to offer you after just an hour or two of play. There’s a lot of people enjoying it, at least based upon its Steam reviews, but it hasn’t managed to capture and hold my attention. I enjoy it in brief stints, but after half an hour to an hour of playing I find myself tiring of the repetition, the gameplay simply not strong enough to keep me grinding away.