ThreadSpace: Hyperbol his one of those deceptively deep games. It seems like the quintessentially simple arcade game at first blush, but eventually reveals itself to be one of those easy-to-learn, hard-to-master challenges capable of sponging up your spare time. Even though some pace and balancing issues--along with the near-complete absence of a solo mode of play--mar the otherwise shiny finish of this tactical shooter, the game remains intriguing both for its promise and for what it does right.
Developer Iocaine Studios began with the simple turret-shooter concept, which is practically as old as time itself, and tricked it out with strategic elements. The game is played in deep space, albeit on the two-dimensional planes of interstellar interstate highways called hyperchannels, which were left behind by an ancient civilization. These outer-space landscapes look a bit like the computer scenery in Tron due to their flatness, sparse details, and reliance on cartoony neon colors (a resemblance accentuated by the techno score and metallic weapon effects). You pilot gun-turret ships across these Lite-Brite battlefields, constantly rotating and occasionally moving both to take cover and to get a good firing line on enemies. Controls are elementary. Selecting a projectile to fire is handled by clicking on an icon on the left and bottom of the screen, while actually firing is taken care of with the left mouse button. Most missile functions are activated with a tap of the spacebar, and the camera is rotated with the mouse and the WASD keys. If you can't figure everything out on your own, an extensive series of tutorials lays out of all the particulars.
Gameplay options are somewhat blah, though. Aside from the tutorials and a couple of time trials, the only solo modes of play are skirmishes against bots. Changing the difficulty setting is the only option here, so single-player gets dull fast. The bots generally aren't very bright, and on the lower two settings they're stupid enough that they regularly blow up their own ships, and can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn when firing at you. This means that your only real choice is multiplayer, which also doesn't offer the greatest selection of modes. The gameplay types are old chestnuts such as deathmatch, team deathmatch, last man standing, and destroy objective. These games are livened up with the inclusion of three factions that influence your starting ship (there are five core ship classes that have varying capabilities when it comes to engines, projectile speed, and so forth), as well as a persistent-world gimmick in which you vote on systems to continue an ongoing war, and finally the ability to earn credits for ship upgrades.
Of course, interesting options don't matter much when few people are playing online, and the Hyperbol servers are largely deserted most of the time. Normally you can find only a single competitive match with human players, and the handful of constantly running trainee games are almost always filled with nothing but bots. So you're left with the depressing choice of either playing a multiplayer version of the solo game, complete with the same old dumb bots, or jumping right into the deep end against experienced high-level players who will mercilessly blow you to bits with their seriously upgraded ships. You too can eventually move up in level and gain access to tricked-out ship hardware, but advancement is painfully slow for beginners because the deck seems stacked against you through the first few hours of play.
No matter what selection you make, the matches favor defense. There are lots of options that enhance the strategic side of battles, maps are loaded with cover, and you can't move very far or very often due to limited engine fuel as well as slow weapon- and engine-recharge rates. Destinations have to be chosen carefully, given that you're inevitably stuck in your new spot for a few seconds while your engines rev up enough for you to move again. So if you make a mistake, you can leave yourself wide open to withering enemy fire for what seems like an eternity.
Weapons add to the sense that you're taking part in sci-fi trench warfare. Offensive projectiles such as rockets, cluster bombs, detonation bombs, and even the nuclear option presented by hyperbols and hyperplasms take second place to the many defensive choices. Certain nifty options make it more sensible to sit back and hope for a bit of good luck than to charge the enemy, including weapons such as the singularity generator, which sucks enemy projectiles into black holes, as well as the repair drone that can be used to fix up ships, the energy fences that create de facto walls, and the missile-deflecting shockwave. Furthermore, projectiles can be set up to angle after launch, so you can hole up behind objects and still curve shots right on target. So after an initial jockeying for position, you inevitably wind up with nearly everyone hunkered down behind cover, well protected by black holes and energy fences, blasting away and waiting for the other guy to screw up.
Still, matches feature an interesting blend of methodical movements and fast-paced shooting. Sixteen players can take part in games, and the cramped maps generally feature few truly open spaces, so precise tactics are frequently interrupted when you either run into a wall or wander into the firing line of a foe that has some hyperbols loaded up. There are so many options here when it comes to projectile deployment that it's always tempting to keep playing to try to figure out good tactics to get past all of the seemingly rock-solid defenses that can be constructed. Also, matches with experienced players who really know what they're doing raise the bar. If you play a few games with veterans, you soon begin to see the importance of teamwork, both when coordinating attacks and when working together to defend one another. (Buddies who know what they're doing will often help you out with some repair drones when you're helpless and taking enemy fire). As mentioned above, there is a lot of depth here; it just takes some time to explore it, and this process is slowed down by the lack of games for all player levels.
As a pure multiplayer game, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is a bit overpriced even at $20 on Steam. But despite the balance issues and the almost total absence of solo modes of play, the innovative and addictive concepts presented here are worth checking out, even if the game as a whole isn't quite ready for prime time.