The crafty captain who deftly commands the crew of a starship to outwit a seemingly overwhelming force is a well-known fixture in many science fiction tales. To date, no computer game developer has successfully created a game that convincingly allows players to assume the role of that captain. Interplay's recently released Starfleet Academy opted to give capital ships flight models and weaponry that made the behemoths behave as if they were wanna-be X-wing fighters. But Independence War is the real deal. Independence War not only provides the most detailed flight and systems modeling yet seen in a space sim, it also provides a complex, rewarding plot and a fully fleshed-out gaming world.
In Independence War you play the captain of a small capital ship, a Corvette burdened with a far-too-impressive name, the "Dreadnought." As the game starts, Earth is in the midst of a decades-old guerrilla war with the colorful Indies, a haphazard collection of former colonists who have rejected Earth rule and formed their own political organization. Your character is a neophyte captain in Earth's Commonwealth Navy, and you're given an introduction to the Indie/Commonwealth conflict through an impressive 14-minute-long opening animated cutscene. The game's developers put so much effort into the introduction that upon viewing it I was immediately concerned that there wouldn't be enough other cutscenes of comparable quality within the actual game. I couldn't have been more wrong. The game is literally riddled with quality animated cutscenes and other scripted events within missions, which expand upon the game's introduction and advance the game's plot. Each of the other members of your bridge crew has a well-developed personality and contributes appropriate advice or comments during missions. A number of other space sims have had well-developed storylines, but Independence War has so many scripted events and plot developments within missions that the game almost feels like it is as much an adventure game as a space sim. The storyline is always compelling, and occasionally interactive, as your character's mission choices and decisions made within missions can dramatically alter game events.
George Lucas admits that clips from World War II airplane dogfights were the inspiration behind his Star Wars fighter battles, and it's not surprising that most space sims have also largely chosen to emulate flight-sim gameplay, notwithstanding their gravity-less settings. While flight models vary somewhat in each space sim, for the most part similar combat tactics will work equally well in any game of the genre, and experienced Wing Commander or X-Wing fighter jockeys will do well in either game or in any number of similar games. But gamers who boot up Independence War and expect to be able to whiz through space, pulling gravity-based moves such as Immelmanns, and turning directions on a dime are going to run smack into Independence War's steep learning curve.
In Independence War, objects in space have inertia, don't have arbitrary speed restrictions, and otherwise respond in accordance with most laws of physics. In addition to having to learn these scientific limitations, you'll also have to get used to commanding a small capital ship, which doesn't maneuver like a nimble fighter even under the best of conditions. All of the ship's systems, from weapons and shields to waste heat disposal and propulsion thrusters, are logically explained and physically represented on the ship's hull, making them susceptible to damage. Some scientific compromises were clearly made in the interest of ensuring that the game was still fun to play, so you'll still hear some thunderous explosions even though sound doesn't travel in space, for example, and planets and other celestial bodies don't exert gravity. But it's equally apparent that Particle Systems wanted to emphasize the "science" aspect of the game's science fiction setting. The development team's plausible handling of extraordinary technology and events gives Independence War a very original, refreshing edge over other games in the genre.
There are four bridge stations in the game: command, navigation, weapons, and engineering. At the command station you'll access mission briefings and be able to assume remote control over other vessels, and at the engineering station you can give orders to four repair crews and adjust power settings within the ship. You'll spend the bulk of your time, however, at the navigation and weapons stations. The navigation station provides you with a convenient screen to guide the ship, pick waypoints, and assign targets. The weapons station gives you the opportunity to see a third-person-perspective wire-frame view of your ship, allowing you to keep your current target always in view and to effectively fight enemies who are attacking you from a variety of angles. Your ship can trek through space using basic thrusters, using an exponentially faster Linear Displacement Drive system, which is convenient for intrasystem travel, or by using handy LaGrange points to warp to other star systems using a Capsule "faster than light" Drive system.
While the ship's misleading name may invoke images of a mighty space behemoth, the Dreadnought is instead a modestly durable vessel with an outstanding "team o' Scotties" repair crew and some fairly basic weaponry. You have both a forward-firing particle cannon and missile bank and rear counterparts to the two weapons. The forward-firing cannon is on the right-hand side of your ship and initially feels a bit unbalanced and awkward to veteran gamers who are more accustomed to a fighter's duel gunned approach. Cannons will automatically track opponents within a certain range, although you can override that tracking by opting for a more rapid-fire, but unguided, attack. Missiles are either remotely or self-guided, and you can quickly send missiles at a number of opponents simultaneously using the weapons station's "rippling" fire mode. The weapons station's padlocked view also allows you to track and fire upon enemies that would otherwise be out of range of your weapons.
Shields aren't all-encompassing energy fields, as in other space sims. In Independence War your ship has two shield projectors, one protecting each of its upper and lower hemispheres, and each projector is only capable of shielding you from one attacking ship at a time. Using your weapons and shields effectively is difficult, but until you learn how to do so you won't have much of a chance against multiple opponents. Even once you're experienced, you'll have to choose your fights wisely. This is definitely not a game where you can be successful by charging in and trying to blast every enemy in sight. Time to retire your "Iceman" instincts.
The graphics in Independence War are excellent, although strangely enough that might not be immediately apparent once you boot up the game. Since the game's physics system frequently results in you travelling in a direction other than the one your ship is facing, the Dreadnought's Heads Up Display (HUD) displays a series of directional lines at all times to help keep you oriented. Similarly, other ships leave a "ladder-like" trail behind them on your HUD, allowing you to quickly visually judge their speeds and headings. While you can turn off the HUD, you likely won't want to lose all of the information it provides, and as a result, the game's impressive 3D graphics are somewhat obscured. Perhaps to alleviate this effect somewhat, the game will switch automatically to a full-screen third-person perspective in certain circumstances, such as when your ship docks with another vessel or travels through a capsule-drive warp point. The game's software-rendering mode is good, but to fully appreciate the graphics you'll, as usual, require a 3D graphics-accelerator board. Only native Glide support is included, so you'll need a Voodoo Graphics or Voodoo 2 card (even a Voodoo Rush card won't necessarily work properly) to see all of the pretty pictures.
Not every ship system or game feature that the development team included works well. The engineering and command stations are infrequently used, and I suspect that Particle Systems had more ambitious plans for the engineering station and the detailed, and celestially accurate, star chart that is accessible from the command station. Wingman commands are also fairly perfunctory. You're prevented from dividing up your forces to achieve a series of objectives, as you can only issue one order to your wingmen at a time, and all available wingmen will scramble to obey that order even if you would tactically be better off keeping some wingmen in their current positions. Force-feedback support is included, but it's only modestly utilized, especially when compared with the prolific feedback effects in Descent: Freespace.
Considering the fact that Independence War was released several months ago in the U.K. under the name "I-War," it's surprising that the manual still contains erroneous or misleading information. The ship's power management (TRI) system is never explained in the game's manual, although there is a reference to the system in the manual that directs you to a further, nonexistent section of the manual. You'll need to learn a lot of keyboard commands in this game or have a capable programmable joystick, and you can't change the configuration of the keys without manually editing the game's keybind.ini file. The game's impressive introduction doesn't play automatically, and to get it to run in full-screen mode you'll inconveniently have to specifically change its playback mode by right-clicking on the movie once it commences. Unfortunately, these little inconveniences are among the first elements of the game that players are exposed to, and coupled with Independence War's already intimidating steep learning curve and initially disorienting graphics, they may cause gamers to prematurely give up on the game. Hang in there, Captain.
Finally, the game's biggest strength is also one of its weaknesses. The game's missions contain original objectives and are generally far more detailed and involving than those of any other game in the genre. Unfortunately they sometimes suffer from overscripting, where the only way to advance the mission is to take a specific, occasionally unintuitive or finicky, triggering action. Allowing your ship to get pounded by your enemies just to advance the mission just feels wrong, and yet that's exactly what you have to do in one mission. The scripting also very much gives the missions a "puzzle-like" feel, where you have to figure out the trick to a mission before you have a reasonable opportunity of success. Since no space sim yet has allowed gamers to effectively save the game within a mission, it's not surprising that Independence War similarly excludes this feature, but its omission was even more noticeable than normal because of the length of some of the missions in the game. In the end, I found that the strength of the mission design in Independence War was the main reason that the game stands out above other games in the genre, but I was still occasionally frustrated by mission overscripting.
Independence War is easily the best simulation of a large spacecraft yet, and its originality is extremely refreshing in a genre that is quickly becoming crowded. If you're willing to cope with Independence War's steep learning curve and invest some time in learning the nuances of the game, you'll ultimately have a very rewarding and unique experience.