Release Date: February 2005
With the newest version of Harpoon allegedly shelved for a while, I thought it was going to be a long time before I got to play a really deep, fleet-based combat game again. Then I opened the case that contains this gem of a title, Nexus: The Jupiter Incident.
In the tradition of games like the popular (but flawed) Star Trek: Armada series and the rich history of Larry Bond's immortal Harpoon series, this strategic space combat challenge takes gamers to the reaches of our solar system…and beyond.
Remember the scene in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan when the Enterprise flies into the Mutara Nebula? Both ships were damaged, and were playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse inside a star cloud. After a few passes, Spock turns to Captain Kirk and says, "His tactics seem to indicate a certain two-dimensional thinking." With that nugget of wisdom, Kirk stops his ship, drops down vertically a few hundred meters, waits for Khan's ship to pass above, then rises, shark-like from behind to do him in. Beautiful! I mention this because my main complaint with most tactical and strategic space games is that they seem locked in two dimensions. Even the exemplary "Starfleet Command" series kept you mostly locked at the same z-coordinate in space.
Not anymore, bud! The three dimensional aspects of this game are among the best I have seen, and the camera controls are so smooth; it is a pleasure to watch. I have all of the graphics settings tweaked all the way up on my machine, and I have yet to see a screen glitch, even with multiple units on the screen. But I'll get to that later…
You begin your journey in the shoes of Captain Marcus Cromwell. No mere grunt, he. From the outset, you are famous throughout the known galaxy. You see, your father was the first child ever born in outer space, ushering in a new era of interstellar conflict. Colonization became the main source of income throughout the world, and vast corporations, now the seeming nations of the world, have amassed their own space fleets to explore, exploit and build all over the galaxy. But as we spread our empires, trouble was brewing. After the first murder in outer space, Artificial Intelligence was banned, and what followed was chaos. Entire continents went dark and helpless, and it seemed the Earth was going to destroy itself.
Your father was chosen to pilot Noah's Ark in an effort to find aid, but a collapsing wormhole apparently destroyed all hope. Now, you have become a space captain, and your journey to find out what really happened to your father has begun. As it turns out, it's not that easy.
It seems that the galaxy is again in turmoil, rival species are constantly at each others' throats, using renegade humans as mercenaries. They are now being hunted by an alien race, seemingly not organic in nature, referred to as "Mechanoids." These Mechanoids possess superior weapons and can absorb energy from normal attacks upon them to boost their own energy. It's gonna be fun…
The basic controls are a point-and-click affair. The game is completely controllable from the mouse, but don't fret; there is no lack of depth or complexity. While the ships under your control can be commanded with a basic click, the real challenge comes when you take control over individual ships' systems, allowing you to track multiple targets independently. For example, one mission requires you to disable one of your own cargo ships that have been captured, while being swarmed by enemy raptor fighters. You can assign your smaller lasers to shoot out the cargo vessel's engines, thus not destroying your own tonnage, and simultaneously bring your big guns to bear on the attacking war birds. This makes for a very compelling simulation.
The storyline is rich in areas as diverse as mythology, theology and most of the other -ologies. The dialogue is well-written, often giving a nice boost of suspense when delivered via your ship's communication systems while under an attack. You must make a decision about who to trust and who to attack based on the advice of your crew, each a specialist and passionate in his or her own area of expertise. In another mission, your military adviser is begging for a full attack, while your science genius pleads for scanning anomalies first. Which do you do? These little dilemmas pop up frequently, if not as a yes/no checkbox, then as choices you must make in commanding your fleets.
The voiceovers were not all completed at the time of this preview, but those present were very easily understood, and well-acted. Sound effects are very realistic and do not overpower the game as a whole.
Back to the graphics – this game is really beautiful. The Black Sun engine that Nexus runs on is one of the smoothest I've seen, with gorgeous light flares and shadows. The in-game animations are crystal clear, and the cutscenes, while a little slow in pace, are great. The ship and weapon designs are pretty much the same as most other games of this genre, either sleek and scary, or boxy and big. The capital ships move much slower than their fighter counterparts, which makes the in-game battle swarms look very exciting.
Bear in mind, this is not a twitch-style space fighter game. You are controlling the large ships in the conflicts, so stopping and turning on a dime are out of the question. In this regard, Nexus put me in mind of flying the capital ships in Starfleet Command. There is also a similarity to the deadly underwater ballet that is modern submarine warfare. Add the stunning three-dimensional worlds the designers have created, and the tactical and strategic possibilities are wide open.
Rounding out a solid single-player experience is a number of multiplayer battles, including the usual suspects: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Escort, all the way up to large-scale battles between tons of ships. At this time, I was unable to play these online, but using a home LAN, I was able to test out most game types. They hold up well, but it will remain to be seen how many units can go at it at one time without serious lagging issues. I'm hopeful and somewhat confident that the final release will be a great way to blow stuff up after a long day at work.
In the not-quite-final analysis (this is a preview after all), Nexus: The Jupiter Incident is a welcome addition to my current crop of favorite diversions. When the entire package is completed, I think this will be the start of a franchise destined to last beyond the stars.
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