Evochron: Mercenary is the most recent offering from the one-man-army that is Starwraith, and charges itself (as all Evochron games have) with the daunting task of bringing David Braben’s epic vision into the 21st century. Released last November, it slipped under my radar somewhat – but thanks to its recent re-release into the expansive pasturelands of Steam, now seems as good a time as any for jaunt around the Evochron universe.
And what a place it turned out to be.
Some space-trading operas have convoluted plots, draping the universe with an almost overloaded sense of drama. Others focus on economics, turning every station and star-system into one big game of energy-cell-Bejewelled. In Evochron, like Elite, it’s all about you and your ship. Most of your early game will be spent kitting-out and dressing-up your little kite with various toys and trinkets to make money easier and faster. New cargo bays, a tractor beam, even crew members to give you an edge in whatever vocation suits your attitude. A number of head-start career choices when you make a new character are available too – want to fight? Start a fighter-pilot character and be thrust head-first into a life of combat. Want to try a bit of everything? Start as a Mercenary. Each role alters your ships starting equipment and your available credits (cash).
Evochron: Mercenary has some impressive scope; the universe is pretty much seamless, and you have an immense amount of freedom to explore. The systems you encounter are vast, and with an impressive atmospheric-flight system, you can even land at spaceports on planets or explore the countryside. You can even mine minerals directly from the surface. Things are scaled down, of course, but even at a diminished level, the worlds you encounter still fill your cockpit view spectacularly. Different atmospheric conditions can buffet your ship with wind-storms and lashing rain can obscure your view – it’s all quite lovely. Space is fairly well populated too, with ships of all sizes buzzing around stations and trade hubs. Sadly, the sense of bustle is slightly lost when you realise that they really don’t do anything – when seeing a cargo-ship, flanked by a flock of fighters in X3, you feel a sense of purpose. But in Evochron, AI ships do little more than float around and jump about.
Of course, when you realise you can hire some of them as wingmen… it all clicks into place.
A simulated fuel-system also pops up as something of an early issue. Between your rather unimpressive starter-tank’s capacity, and the prohibitively high cost of fuel itself, long-haul trips have to be weighed against your ever-dwindling fuel-supply. Cleverly, though, thanks to Evochron’s inertial-flight system, you can minimise fuel-expenditure by avoiding speed corrections, and clever use of thrusters. Essentially, you can do an eco-drive with an Evochron ship when things get tight.
That’s Evochron: Mercenary in a nutshell – there are a huge number of stumbles and seemingly silly design flaws that irk for a while, before blending into the oddly stitched experience rather well. The trading system is low-fi – initially it feels simplified and frankly broken – until you start to expand into the universe and suddenly it makes sense. You start paying attention to news-bulletins, and adapting your trading strategies to suit your journey. “Last time I was in Sapphire, there was a serious machine-parts shortage due to Guild interference (or something), and I can pick up machine-parts for next to nothing in Cerulean… ROAD TRIP!”. This happens all the time in Evochron, a difficulty becomes compelling, adding to the overall experience immeasurably.
Even piloting the ship initially feels impossible – Evochron forgoes any semblance of making things easy, and simply sticks you in a fully Newtonian-physics environment and hands you a control-reference card the like the world hasn’t seen since the days of Total Air War. But, after a vague tutorial, you start to get to grips with the complexities of inertial-flight. Of course the tutorial itself is akin to being sat on a large horse and its arse being slapped, but it does give you the basics. You do eventually get better, docking at 1500m/s instead of 10. You start getting cocky, throwing yourself around a planet at an obscene velocity before slamming on the brakes and docking neatly on a surface Star-port. Then you encounter your first bad guy. And die, hitting a missile, flying sideways at 2km/s while desperately trying to stop.
And it feels impossible all over again…
But this works. This is exactly the kind of game that speaks to that little Elite-loving kid in my head. Other games have managed the same sense of scope, even improved on it. But games today are desperate to maintain some kind of accessibility – X3 made piloting the ship so easy it was frankly boring – and the challenge comes from an almost connect-the-dots approach to interstellar trading. Evochron’s dynamic can be learnt fairly quickly, even the sim-ish piloting, but getting good enough to survive out in the inky black takes time, effort and grit. Little things, like remembering to cut your engines when you dock to save fuel, or like switching your inertial stabilisers and engines off to reduce your heat signature to outwit a closing missile – it’s the kind of thing people moan about, but yet add to the immersion of piloting your ship far more than the endless automation of Evochron’s peers.
After more than thirty hours, I have a nicely setup ship, and can handle myself in a fight with multiple attackers. I have amassed enough wealth to keep myself well-supplied with high-end missiles, and even a Navigation officer who boosts my sensor range and points out uncharted points of interest. And aside from the few frustration-tantrums early on, I have had more fun in Evochron: Mercenary than I have in all the space-trading games I’ve had since I played Elite, all those years ago on our school’s old Acorn computer. And with the drop-in multiplayer mode, which allows you to take everything from your single-player game online, even the coldest, darkest regions of space need not be lonely. Exploring with a mate is one of the true joys of gaming, and in Evochron: Mercenary’s wide and oft-times surprising universe…
The sky’s quite clearly not the limit.