It cannot be wrong to generalize that, much like the first-person shooter, the space flight simulation is a genre whose visual presentation is critical to its overall quality. Although a plausible physics model, fast action, and even a good story are components whose importance are not to be understated, when you get right down to it, a space flight sim is only as good as it looks. After all, the goal of the genre is to accurately re-create what it might be like to fly a spacecraft, a goal that's become all the more approachable recently with the advent of powerful 3D graphics accelerators. To that extent, several recent contenders in the genre not only look incredible, but offer sophisticated gameplay to match - Wing Commander: Prophecy, Descent: Freespace, and Independence War all combine top-notch flight dynamics with stunning visual effects, the illusion of relativistic speed, and awe-inspiring scale.
So in light of these recent successes, it's difficult to take Ares Rising too seriously. It's a game whose visuals look worse than the first batch of polygonal space sims like X-Wing and Wing Commander III. Ares Rising offers a solid flight engine, a detailed story, a nonlinear campaign, and a slew of multiplayer features, but its graphics restrain it from any measure of greatness.
If anything, at least Ares Rising goes to show that 3D-accelerator support doesn't automatically equate to good graphics. Sure, you'll get a smooth frame rate out of it if you've got a decent system, but even at 60 frames a second, ships still look like they turn into corn flakes and cotton balls when they explode. Big bitmapped background images of planets and galaxies and so forth make outer space look downright tacky, and the ship designs in the game run the range from plain to just plain ugly. Gratuitous bits of debris drift by every now and then but do little good toward creating any sense of speed. Each ship you fly has its own clunky-looking bitmapped cockpit that obscures your view to varying degrees unless you turn it off, complete with a counterintuitive radar display and other difficult-to-read controls. By comparison, both Prophecy and Freespace feature nonintrusive, authentic 3D cockpits that shudder violently when struck, adding to either game an even deeper sense of involvement and realism. Ares Rising sounds bad, too, with rude buzzes and clacks reporting its various weapons systems, and its soundtrack bears down with heavy-handed repetition.
Just as its in-flight graphics show a lot of room for improvement, so does its interface in between missions. Ares Rising situates you within a typical Wing Commander-style facility where you can click around to various locations and do things like buy equipment, launch missions, and so forth. Aside from the high resolution, there's little evidence that the graphics on these screens are anything less than a decade old. But beneath the layers of dust, you'll find what's actually a perfectly acceptable simulation that recalls Origin's Privateer more than anything else, what with its nonlinear structure and open-ended ship design. The similarity is not homage or coincidence, as Ares Rising's developer includes several Origin veterans.
The idea is, you choose from a number of different missions, most of which are quick and fairly exciting under the circumstances. On their successful completion, you earn money in addition to salvaged equipment. You also get to advance the plot, primarily through a series of e-mail transmissions and personal log files. The story is interesting enough, and tries to make its main characters interesting and plausible, but because the lengthy e-mails and logs are so difficult to read, let alone scroll through, the story in Ares Rising is easily forsaken. That leaves just the space combat itself, which feels a little sluggish but otherwise offers enough variety and challenge. You can dynamically adjust power levels between your shields, your weapons, and your engines; you can launch missiles and countermeasures; you can lead your target with electronic tracking; and you can manage your wingmen. If you've played a space simulation before, you know the drill. Ares Rising also offers a multiplayer mode, heavily advertised on the packaging because it allows you to maintain a persistent record that tracks kills and so forth. That's all well and good, but the biggest problem facing multiplayer is the probable lack of opposition in light of the game's shortcomings.
It seems petty if not entirely unfair to lambaste a game because of its less-than-average graphics, especially if what's left of the game is all right. But in the case of Ares Rising, its look is not only disagreeable, but distracting to the point where you need to go out of your way to accept the problem. And what with this game having at least three competitors that offer gameplay that's at least every bit as good, along with some of the most incredible graphics to date, Ares Rising must be approached only with deliberation and skepticism.