Early Look @ Solar Storm

I’ve traveled the galaxy and saved the universe more times than I can count. I’ve been to other planets and discovered new races and civilizations. Space travel isn’t some new concept that I haven’t tangled with before. So when I was asked to try out the alpha demo of the currently in development Solar Storm I wasn’t worried at all.

Boy was I wrong. Who would have thought that it would be so challenging just to get from Earth to Mars? Lucid Dreams Studios is working to create a game that is both interesting and challenging, while not overly complex in what you’re actually trying to do. It’s not a 5 year mission to see the universe and discover new life. Nor is it just build a rocket and get it into space.

It’s a perfectly balanced goal that takes time, but not forever. Just get your ship to Mars. Can you make it to the nearest planet from the one you’re currently on? I thought “of course,” but now I’m having second thoughts about my space travel skills. I’ll admit that since it is an alpha, it has a ton of flaws, bugs, and inconsistencies, but I really like the concept and I see a lot of potential for the final product. Hopefully by the end of this early look you will too.

GRAPHICS DJMMT - Graphics

The graphics are a real mixture at this point. Some things look great and other elements look horrible. The whole game is in 2D and I’m very happy with the general feel of Solar Storm the way it looks now. I was especially impressed with the backgrounds. Outer space is simple, yet vast. The black backdrop filled with stars, nebulas, and other space bodies of various sizes and distances looks and moves great. It really captures the feel of the open void that is space, giving you that mixture of fear and awe that can only come from being in the presence of something monumental.

I was also impressed by the launch background when you first leave Earth at the beginning of your mission. It’s not nearly as vast or epic looking, but Lucid Dreams Studios did a great job. I’d love to see some colour added to it though since there’s colour in the space portion of the game.

Opening Cutscene Screenshot

Screenshot of the opening cutscene

The opening sequence is exceptional. Done in all black and white except for a single red dot in the distance, it tells a long and complicated background story in just a couple minutes. While I feel that it actually comes off a bit too simple looking in comparison to the actual game, I really liked its mildly dramatic, noir style.

The opening sequence is exceptional.

I’m hoping the menus are just place holders in this demo, because basically all the interactive text and menus both in and out of game look horrible. Not ok, not getting there, but just horrible. The font is bad and inconsistently sized, the menus are ugly, and a lot of the in-game text bleeds into other text boxes during events. Without a doubt this is the worst visual element currently in the game.

Title Screen

The title screen

The ship graphics look pretty good. While not overly complicated, ship components are very detailed and give the player a chance to really bring personality to their own vessel. The building system uses visible block based units in order to help you properly build your ship exactly the way you want it. While I found the building system to be pretty buggy, I was quite satisfied with the way it looks.

My first ship model.

My first ship model

All the in game elements such as icons, meters, navigation controls, weapons, foreign space bodies, and event markers look ok. They’re all acceptable and easily identified, but none of it looks great save the background. Enemy ships look fine because they’re similar to user vessels, but the targets, alerts, and other battle elements pale in comparison to the ships in battle. Again this is an alpha and I wasn’t expecting too much from it visually, but let the records show that if the final project hasn’t been intensely polished visually then I would have to lower its final score considerably.

GAMEPLAY DJMMT - Gameplay

Since this is an alpha demo, I understand that there are a lot of issues with the gameplay and that many things will ultimately be changed. That being said, I’ll be as honest and transparent as possible about my experience playing Solar Storm in its current form. Let me start by saying it’s buggy as hell. Every time I paused the game I had to exit it and start over because it would just freeze on the pause menu or quit the game on its own.

Pause Screen/Menu

Pause screen/menu

The point of the game is to journey from Earth to Mars. You start by building your own ship. The ship editor gives you a blank slate and the ability to build a ship however you see fit. It can be big or small, compact or long, shielded or bare bones. The system works by giving you a list of components with descriptions and allows you to place them wherever you want. Each component has a corresponding set of green squares over it during building in order to show you how much room it needs, what angle it needs to be connected from, and how many other components can be connected to it. Components must be connected by corridors.

I like the idea of the builder, but it needs work. It definitely requires a lot more hand holding at this phase of gameplay because currently you can launch just about anything that remotely looks like a ship.

New Ship Build Screen

New ship build screen

Based on the menus, I know there will eventually be a impassibility system that will tell you if your ship is space worthy. It also needs to tell you if it’s actually possible to make it to Mars, barring events, with the amount of power and fuel it has, because you need to take that into account too. It’s also a bit difficult to figure out since there are currently no in game directions or tutorials. It took me forever just to learn how to turn components while building.

My biggest problem with the current ship building system is that it doesn’t allow you to move parts around once they’ve been set. You have to delete them and replace them. This presents a problem when the squares don’t line up the first time. To add insult to injury, the delete component function often wouldn’t work for me. This was especially true with saved ship models.

Pre-Launch Options Screen

Pre-launch options screen

Once you actually get your ship launched you have a number of different screens to look at during play. There’s a screen for long term routes where you initially plot your course to Mars. This is where you can see your general progress and how close you are to reaching your goal. You can also use this screen to implement major course corrections, but not much else. It doesn’t show you events or specific information. Course corrections use fuel which is the life blood of your ship. I would like to see more specifics added to this screen. Specifically the amount of time left to reach Mars, the amount of fuel required to complete the mission on current course, and possibly a chance of success meter.

Long Range Course Screen

Long range course screen

Your second screen is the event radar scanner. This shows a medium view of your ship in relation to everything else. You can’t see planets or larger celestial objects, nor can you see your ship’s individual components. This screen only shows you events approaching in the near future. You can make smaller course corrections from this screen in order to dodge or make contact with events.

This is also where you can choose to scan nearby objects to see what they are. Sadly the scan system doesn’t work as well as you would like. I’m not saying that the gameplay doesn’t work, mind you. The scan system is intentionally built to be spotty because often you wouldn’t be able to get proper readings of foreign objects in space until you’re very close to them. It’s important to note that minor course corrections in this screen do affect your overall course so you have to make sure you’re changing between both screens. You actually don’t need to use the radar screen at all if you don’t want to avoid any events. Chances are you won’t make it to Mars if you do though.

Event Scan Screen

Event scan screen

The final screen is the ship screen. This is where you can see specific components of the ship and crew. From this screen you can direct the crew to different parts of the ship and check specifics such as which, if any, components are damaged or missing. This is also where you will give battle commands when you are attacked. In this screen you will see exactly what’s going on with your ship and crew when things go wrong. Components can be destroyed by enemy ships or knocked off completely. You will probably spend most of your time here when not avoiding events.

Main/Ship View Screen

Main/ship view screen

Events can be quite interesting and varied in Solar Storm. You can get attacked by other ships which you will have to battle with your weapons. They fire automatically when chosen but must be aimed. Once you’ve chosen a target they will continuously fire until the target is destroyed or you run out of power (different from fuel). Some events require you to destroy a target in a certain amount of time such as a rogue satellite in your path. There are also things like meteor showers which sadly you can’t use your weapons against. You simply have to avoid it or your ship must whether the storm.

Meteor Shower

Meteor shower

Not all events are negative. Sometimes another ship will call you for help and you can choose whether or not to respond to the distress signal. There are moments where you can collect more fuel from space clouds or even derelict ships. Internal events can occur as well such as a crew member going crazy and attacking others. You can even get hit with multiple events at the same time. There’s a real mixture of things that can happen that varies from play to play.

Often though, events happen back to back or simultaneously too often. It’s almost impossible to come back from certain scenarios when you just finished a battle and get thrown into another battle without any time for recovery or power recharge.

Simultaneous Events

Two separate ships attacking at the same time

Your crew plays an important role also. You can have as many crew members as you want, but the more you have the more your fuel and power are affected. Crew is used to repair part of the ship in real time. You can send crew members to any part of the ship and they will automatically repair it. You can even send them outside through airlocks but they can only reenter through airlocks as well. Crew can be lost if they are in a part of the ship that is destroyed or detached or if they are outside and a hard maneuver is made.

Blue circle indicates crew within ship. Red circle indicates crew outside of ship as result of damaged parts.

The blue circle indicates crew within ship. Red circle indicates crew outside of ship as result of damaged parts.

While it is buggy and often inconsistent in some respects, I really like what Lucid Dreams Studios is going for, and I truly believe that with proper direction Solar Storm will end up being tons of fun with epic journeys through the vastness of space.

SOUND DJMMT - Sound

The sound quality in STS-96 is a bit hard to judge. The opening cutscene sounds great. The narrator has a great voice and does a fine job in his monologue. Along with that, the sound effects are top notch. There’s static mixed with machine noises and technicians talking to each other. All this plays over a light, but increasingly dramatic song that’s very appropriate. The sound is strong and well chosen, but at the same time it often cuts in and out. I’m not entirely sure if this is an issue with the sound or the game itself because it is rather buggy all over anyway at this point.

Monologue starts with opening image.

Monologue starts with the image and word “Earth.”

The menu and in game music is quite good as well, when it’s playing. As with the opening cutscene, it’s light but dramatic. There are multiple tracks which go in and out, but often the breaks between tracks can be rather long. There is also a great deal of static while playing. The problem is that I’m not sure if it’s intentional, which would make perfect sense for the setting, or if it’s just bad sound quality. For all I know it could actually be a combination of both. I do like the music but there needs to be a lot of clean up between breaks and static. I would suggest the static be pulled out completely when not a part of actual dialogue, assuming it’s intentional.

There is . . . a great deal of static while playing.

There aren’t too many sound effects in the demo. Not nearly as many as I expect to see in the final product anyway. Building your ship is a good example. There are general working sounds like a drill and hammering in the background and a sound when you hover over ship components. But there’s no actual sound for when you build something. I found the rest of the game to be very similar. A lot of general sound effects, but not enough specific ones tied to your actions. There are sound effects for weapons discharges though, but I didn’t really like them. They were ok, but not great.

There's isn't a proper launch sound/sequence.

There’s isn’t a proper launch sound/sequence.

I’d say the sound in Solar Storm is currently at about 70% of where it needs to be. Certain things are great and other things need to be fixed. Some things can be removed or altogether replaced. The music is good, but the timing needs to be put on a closed loop with much shorter gaps if any.

WRITING DJMMT - Pencil

The alpha demo is technically a prequel to what the actual Solar Storm will ultimately be as far as plot is concerned. For that reason the demo is actually called Solar Storm STS-96 and doesn’t follow the story of what the final product will be. The plot for the demo is very good though.

The story begins with the opening cutscene which tells us that man is finally ready to leave Earth and seek to travel to and ultimately colonize Mars. A group of terrorists known as the Great Filter Movement are against the mission to Mars because they believe something will destroy Earth and humanity in response to man’s arrogance for journeying to other planets. But man will not be denied the heavens and the mission will go on as planned. You play as the commander of this first mission to Mars.

Result of a bomb planted by the Great Filter Movement.

Result of a bomb planted by the Great Filter Movement.

During the mission a number of different events can occur. Enemy ships can attack, crew members can become violent, asteroids and other space bodies can come into your path, old satellites can hurtle towards you, and other spaceships can come into contact with you looking for help. The way these events are written is pretty good for first drafts. They try to have a very professional, astronaut type of feel, but they need some editing. Scans are also an important part of the writing as well in how they convey or, more often than not, fail to convey information to you.

One of many event notices.

One of many event notices.

From what I understand, the demo plot will ultimately be reworked as the tutorial for the finished game and prequel to its story. The final game’s plot will center around the fact that man has already made it to Mars and is now trying to explore the rest of space, but is unable to due to powerful and dangerous interstellar hurricanes. An important ship was lost in such a storm and has now been detected in the asteroid belt. Your mission will be to build a ship, fly out to the belt to find the missing vessel and bring it home.

. . . The demo plot will ultimately be reworked as the tutorial for the finished game and prequel to its story.

All in all, the plot is quite good and for the most part presented in an exciting way. But it does need a bit of editing here and there. I’m very pleased with how the demo (tutorial) plot will serve as a prequel to the final game and ultimately add to the experience and length of the title.

REPLAY VALUE DJMMT - Replay Value

I’m happy to say that Solar Storm has a heck of a lot of replay value. In fact, no 2 plays will be exactly the same. This is the case for a number of reasons. First you can build/customize your ship as many times as you want. You can add things to models you’ve already built or see if you can still win after taking things off. You can build hundreds if not thousands of different designs and alter them for variable challenges with each run.

My incorrectly built first attempt at building a ship.

My incorrectly built first attempt at constructing a ship.

Even if you use the same ship model multiple times there are always different events. They come at random and have so many different effects on the outcome that it’s almost impossible to get the same run twice. Not to mention the fact that you can respond to events in a number of different ways or avoid them completely. Many events have 3 choices in how to respond to them so there are plenty of reasons to play multiple times.

Certain events allow you to make choices.

Certain events allow you to make choices.

The game is also long. One run can take quite a bit of time even if you lose. You are travelling all the way to Mars after all. Couple that with the fact that plenty of things can go wrong and you may have to change course a number of times during your journey. As long as you aren’t just playing to get to your goal once, you will have plenty reasons to do multiple runs without doing the same thing multiple times. The release price is currently projected to be £9 ($15.42), which I feel might be a little high for what it currently is, replay value aside, but I believe the final product definitely has the potential to live up to this price if done right.

You will see this quite a few times.

You will see this quite a few times.

CONCLUSION <DJMMT - Conclusion

In its current form, Solar Storm is a pass for me, but this is just an alpha. I see so much potential with this game. A number of key fixes and changes coupled with a heavy spit-and-polish will breed something worth playing over and over again. The core idea is great. The writing is good, the sound is going in the right direction, and the gameplay is already interesting and enjoyable. I’m definitely not ready to buy, but I am very excited to see how this project develops.

Logo

Solar Storm is currently seeking support on Kickstarter. Lucid Dreams Studios is hoping to have the game completed and released early 2015, pending funding. You can and should download the alpha demo for free from their Kickstarter page.

the author

Writer at ManaPool. By day, DJMMT is a struggling college alum surviving by making pizza in Wisconsin and looking for better work. By night, he's a top shelf gamer. His favorite genres are platformers and real time action RPGs. Want to have a long discussion about any topic in gaming? Me too. Send me a message and let's talk.