Echelon Preview

We take an updated look at this space combat game from Buka Entertainment.

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Those who have playing computer games for a while will recognize the name Echelon. Written by Bruce Carver and released in 1988 by Access Software, Echelon was one of those games that was simply too advanced for the hardware of the time. The game tried to do it all. It even included some early voice-recognition capability. Unfortunately, the Commodore 64 machine for which it was designed was unable to cope with the game's demands. Echelon was a great example of design outrunning technology.

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Twelve years later, hardware has made a few advances, and space sims have made great strides as well. While the current version of Echelon is not in any way related to the old Access product, the two games share a desire to push the boundaries of the space sim genre. Echelon is being developed by Buka Entertainment, and publisher Bethesda Softworks showed the game off at E3. Now we've got our hands on a pre-alpha build. There are a lot of things missing from this version, as you'd expect from something at this stage, but the preview gave us a good idea of how the game will shape up. Our build included a training mission, a single-player mission, and a deathmatch arena.

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The story behind Echelon is a familiar one of Earth threatened with extermination by an alien race. In the early 22nd century, civil war causes the Galaxy Empire to collapse. After a 150-year interregnum, a Galaxy Federation is established, and shortly thereafter contact is made with the Velians, a mysterious race that had abandoned its homeworld for unknown reasons but was now spread throughout neighboring star systems. These Valian systems were linked to the home planet, though, by means of a series of Zero-Transport (or Zero-T) stations. The Galaxy Federation also discovered that the Velians were quite advanced in bioengineering and cybernetics.

The Galaxy Federation accepted the Velians as full members and assimilated their technology. While strict codes were established by the Federation prohibiting bioengineering work on the human body, the Velian Zero-T technology was enthusiastically incorporated into the Federation's transport network. Almost every large colony had a Zero-T station, and trade prospered as a result.

The peace was not to last, though. Thirty years after first contact, the Velians seized control of all the Federation's Zero-T stations. These machines had hidden, built-in devices that the Valiens could switch on to disable and render inoperative all Federation machinery within a certain radius of the stations. The Valiens used these stations, now conveniently located on all Federation worlds, to cripple and then conquer the Federation. What stragglers were left were finished off by Valien cyborg troops.

In Echelon, you'll play as a Federation pilot desperately trying to turn the tide of battle in the war to save the human race from extinction at the hands of the Velian menace.

Background Info

While Echelon is definitely a space sim, it isn't set in "space," at least not in the way that FreeSpace or Independence War are. Instead, Echelon goes for a terrestrial setting, which allows the game to have a significant ground-war element. You will spend a lot of your time destroying or protecting ground targets and avoiding ground-based air defenses, while taking on a variety of alien craft in furious dogfighting action. The focus on low-level flight in a futuristic vessel is much closer to Terminal Velocity than to StarLancer.

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The graphics are attractive and do much to suggest the appearance of an alien landscape. The missions we saw took place over an alien canyon with impossibly tall cliffs and deep gorges, which created a feeling of vastness and depth. Because the game is in the pre-alpha stage, a lot of things have yet to be added, but Buka is working hard to make Echelon a visually attractive game by including such features as dust effects, realistic water and reflection, and a lot of detail in the building models. The worlds in Echelon are supposed to be massive, and they will provide a home to more than 200 types of vehicles that will appear in the game. The few completed spacecraft models in the current version of the game look excellent, and the 50-plus types of craft should provide the game with a lot of variety.

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The mission we flew involved elements of ground attack, air superiority, and air defense. After repulsing an initial onslaught of Velian fighters and getting past the air-defense systems, the task became protecting friendly ground forces from air attack. These kinds of combination missions will make up the majority of the scenarios in Echelon, and in the latter stages of the campaign you'll have some input into mission objectives and their priorities. The action was fast and exciting and was complemented by the large amount of radio chatter that kept it from feeling like just another 3D shooter in space. When the wingman commands are fully implemented, Echelon should provide a gaming experience that runs from one-on-one dogfighting to commanding a squadron of vessels in multirole combat. There will also be day and night missions as well as a full range of weather effects.

The wide range of ground unit types, combat spacecraft, and mission objectives means that you'll have to react to a wide variety of situations while playing Echelon, and the game will allow you to exercise a great deal of control over forces beyond your individual craft. Certain missions may require different assets from the ones at hand, and you'll be given the power to call in those assets as needed. This feature will be just one part of a more robust command-and-control system that gives you more control over how a particular mission plays out.

Gameplay

One of the most interesting aspects of Echelon is its plan to offer varied types of flyable craft, including three different modes of flight: fixed wing, rotary wing, and hovercraft. Each type will have a distinct flight model and several flyable craft (adding up to a total of 14 in the game), and there will be a total of 16 unique weapons systems to choose from. The craft flight models will be different enough in the three categories to provide a challenging flight experience in each, and the categories themselves will be quite separate so that flying a helicopter-like craft won't be anything like the hovercraft experience. However, Bethesda says Echelon will have adjustable realism modes so those who prefer arcade space flight without a lot of physics complications can adjust the game to suit their particular needs.

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As you would expect from this kind of game, Echelon features several campaigns in which you progress in rank as you complete each mission. The campaign will be branching, and subsequent missions will play out differently depending on your degree of success in previous ones. As you progress through the ranks, you will have increased control over your wingmen and gain the ability to designate your own mission objectives. Both campaigns will play from the Federation side, and Bethesda is keeping the Velian side as mysterious as possible right now. Expect plenty of surprises once you step into a Federation cockpit and are thrust into the middle of the war.

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The game we saw didn't have multiplayer capability, but Bethesda promises a robust multiplayer game in Echelon, including both deathmatch and co-op modes. Multiplayer combat will support up to 16 players.

While Echelon is an ambitious game, Bethesda is also trying to keep it accessible to those without the latest hardware: The minimum system requirements will be a Pentium 233 with 64MB RAM, and even the recommended system will be a modest Pentium II-450. Echelon will require a 3D card for play, as there is no software-rendering mode. The game will also support 3D sound to create a more immersive environment.

As stated earlier, Bethesda's Echelon is not based on the Access product from 1988, but the two games are not entirely unrelated. As Pete Hines, Bethesda's director of marketing and public relations, reports, the game was originally to be called Storm but that name later proved unavailable. Hines and Bethesda's Todd Vaughn were given the task of renaming the game. Hines elaborated: "One morning [Todd] came to my desk and said, 'How about Echelon?' We liked the military reference and it just sounded cool, so we went with it, hoping there would be no conflicts. We sent the name idea to Brent Erickson, who is our VP of development and has developed Bethesda racing titles out at Bethesda West for a number of years. His reply was something to the effect of, 'Sure, I like the name. I've already created a game using it.' Turns out he worked on the original Echelon when he was at Access. (He also did the original Links.) Man, talk about a small world."

Much smaller than the huge world of Echelon, which is scheduled for release in October 2000.

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