Sol: Exodus Review
This game was reviewed on PC
In the cluttered space of science fiction games, it’s hard to find a story archetype more easily recognizable than that of displaced humanity. Stories of humanity’s fall from grace and search for a new home were common well before games started becoming serious contenders in their ability to tell a story. Starcraft and Homeworld are some of the most high-profile, but dozens of other games in many genres have all toed the same line.
Sol: Exodus is one of the latest attempts. With a nonspecific backstory, involving a catastrophic war or ecological exhaustion or some combination thereof, humanity continues its small-minded competition until scientists unequivocally prove that the sun is dying. Finally able to unite in the face of a race-ending threat, the United Colonies begin a generations-long search for a new home. The brief slideshow cutscene that introduces the game gives few other details, and the player is introduced to the mechanics of the game in a brief and predictable tutorial level that finds the UCS Atlas, the mother ship of your fighters, in orbit around a suitably earth-like new planet.
The game would be fairly boring if it was simply a resource-driven terraforming sim, and so, also quite predictably, a pack of morally flexible ne’er-do-wells are brought in to mess things up, this time taking the form of a fringe religious cult called the Children of Dawn. Motivated by the idea that God or some other unspecific diety – if the writers can be lauded for anything it’s their ability to avoid any type of controversy whatsoever – would rather see humanity die with their sun, they’re completely opposed to the idea of humanity finding a new solar system to call home.
One of the game’s missteps, the very careful, very safe approach to storytelling, is quite glaring. Homeworld had an impressive ability to not only tell a universal story, but to craft it in such an unflinching way that you had to be emotionally affected one way or another. Humanity – or rather, one small portion thereof – was really just the viewpoint species in a nuanced conflict, whereas Sol plays to the idea of the capital-R Righteous versus the apocalyptically misguided. Sneering villains taunt the player over the comm and frustrate his every noble goal – rescuing transport ships and defending orbital colonies being some of the most common – without the slightest concern for the thousands of lives they’re ending. It’s a predictable and altogether unsatisfying story, unfortunately. Capitalist apathy, religious extremism and resistance to cooperation are huge contemporary issues, and the failure of the writers to challenge any of them after they’re introduced takes the bite out of the narrative.
It’s not so much the fault of the story, but more a fault in the gameplay that tries to tell it. The religious terrorism plot would be more at home with a tightly focused espionage thriller, something in the style of Deus Ex, rather than the wide-angle lens of a space shooter. The idea that a marginal religious organization like the Children of Dawn would have the economic clout and manpower to challenge the United Colonies forces ship-for-ship is far-fetched to say the least. The story simply doesn’t make sense for a space shooter.
Fortunately for Sol, the game itself is rather fun. Taking many cues from old classics like Freespace, the action is fast-paced and easy to learn, with a variety of mission types. Protecting civilian targets ranks among the most common objective types, but the varied manner in which you’re to go about them is refreshingly unique. A useful – if slightly overused – hacking mini-game is useful for wrecking enemy capital ships as well as overriding friendly ships in duress, which breaks the normal stride of simply defending helpless civilian transports by shooting down enemy bombers.
The fighters in Sol are a bit more nimble than their predecessors with the addition of a slide function. By holding the right mouse button you can continue moving in your direction of travel but swivel your point of view in any direction, making it easier to avoid hits while still dishing out damage. There is also the inevitable and physics-breaking “speedboost” giving a temporary speed increase over a very short distance which inexplicably expires even in the vacuum of space. There’s no air resistance in a vacuum, so there’s no reason why a fighter would ever have to slow down from a speed increase like that, unless there was a maneuverability sacrifice or some other such handicap. Sol neglects to give these reasons, and instead we’re left with a genre trope stuck in the game for no other reason than its predecessors had the same thing.
Sol also attempts to let you customize your own ship, but the way they go about it is sadly halfhearted. Your performance in previous missions awards you with upgrade points, and you can only spend those points on one of three upgrade tracks: hull integrity, weapons or boosters, none of which are unique enough to need further explanation. This is really the only way you can customize your experience; once your ship is fully upgraded, that’s it. Even the slide function is really just a band-aid. There are no countermeasures or tricky maneuvers to avoid enemy missiles, since the slide function dovetails as a method of shooting at the deliberately slow missiles (all of which can be easily overtaken or outrun by speedboost).
Across the board there is a problem with detail. Sol suffers from the last half decade or so of developers’ belief that most gamers simply can’t grasp complicated concepts. All that silly micromanagement stuff like messing with power allotment or assigning shield strength to different sectors that Freespace 2 allowed is clearly something that would just give a modern gamer a headache. The simplicity of the mechanics and one-dimensional story are simply a symptom of a larger trend present in the gaming community today, and Sol suffers heavily from it.
Is Sol: Exodus a bad game? Certainly not. The actual game is a lot of fun, and sometimes wiping the sneer off the face of an end-of-the-world-welcoming bad guy is satisfying enough, but what really holds Sol back are the punches the developers refused to throw. A more nuanced story built around a core that welcomes the heady complexity of its predecessors would have knocked it out of the park for anyone who used to play Freespace with a co-pilot, but there’s simply not enough meat on this bone to warrant more than a passing glance.
Sol: Exodus earns a 4.25 vented decks out of 5.
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