Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release Date: February 22, 2005
Buy 'NEXUS: The Jupiter Incident': PC
Prior to receiving Nexus: The Jupiter Incident, I decided to do a little background research. In the process, I turned up that Nexus is what became of the much sidetracked and transformed sequel to Imperium Galactica II, a turn-based space strategy game that I literally played until I wore out one of the discs. Needless to say, I was excited. I kept scrounging around the vast intarweb and found that Nexus, aside from being in space and having big spaceships, had next to nothing in common with Imperium Galactica II. Uh oh. Instead of peerless empire building and conflict, Nexus offers a real-time "tactical fleet simulator." Not what I was hoping for, but the screenshots looked pretty enough, and I decided I would try to give Nexus a fair and open-minded test drive, despite the fact that a little piece of me died with the dashed hopes of a proper sequel to Imperium Galactica II.
Nexus takes place far in the future, during an era in which humanity is largely fractured into corporate conglomerates that have laid claim to vast tracts of space. Competition breeds armed conflict, as the corporations vie to become the dominant force in known space. The player fits in as Marcus Cromwell, something of a legend, and the son of the man who led the notorious Noah expedition into a wormhole to God-knows-where. This is a perfectly good setting for a "tactical fleet simulator," but of course … there's a twist. Aliens and lots of them.
The single player campaign is comprised of scripted missions strung together with briefings and out-of-engine cut scene movies to push along the plot. The general plot is more than adequate to keep the game going, but the Marcus Cromwell monologues can be a bit overdone and hard to take seriously. The game is thoroughly supported by voice acting for everything – briefings, in-game communications, and cut scenes. While some of the voice acting is entertaining by virtue of the writing, other bits end up on the laughable side because of bad acting or poor scripts. Personally, I would love to know why some of the alien species sound like cranky Australians with grudges against complete sentences.
The missions consist of basically what you would expect: attack this, guard that, escort this, and explore over there. To achieve the objective, the player brings to bear anywhere from a single capital ship to a substantial armada (eight, 10, maybe more) of heavily armed alien (and human) eradicating machines, many supported by squadrons of smaller crafts. Combat is handled by point-and-click commands to direct your forces to move, attack, guard, explore, or what have you, all in real time. Thankfully, you can pause and dole out orders, something that becomes increasingly necessary when you have to micromanage a large fleet while responding to vast hordes of enemies.
The "tactical" component of the game is, to put things rather bluntly, a space combat version of "Rock, Paper, Scissors." Certain weapons are good for shields and little else, others blast hulls into itsy bitsy pieces but are useless against shields, and another class of weapons specializes in rendering enemy subsystems into useless junk. Between missions, you can modify the load-out on the ships under your control, retooling your flagship for Rock duty while the others take care of the Paper and Scissors. Combat boils down to micromanaging your selection of Rocks, Papers and Scissors against your opponents, coordinating your attacks to compensate for the various strengths and weaknesses of your forces and those of the enemy.
The micromanaging is where I lost my patience for the game. Each mission will require a very carefully tailored load-out for each ship you bring into the mission. Some missions will require tactical lasers for disabling ship subsystems, others will require heavy anti-shield and anti-hull weapons to blow opponents to bits, and yet others will require specialized sensors for recon or highly defensive ships for holding out for scripted events ("You need to last 10 minutes before reinforcements come!"). Often, you won't have particularly good guidance for what the mission will specifically require, leading to large amounts of trial and error. Sadly, I think that in taking many elements of the game to the next level, the developers also took trial and error to the next level, and I became increasingly frustrated after hammering away at a mission 10 or 15 times before finally finding the right combination of ship equipment, tactics, and luck. The first time beating a mission that takes constant, repetitive effort is an accomplishment, but the fourth time is simply an aggravation, and every time after that is a good point to stop, walk away and find another game to play.
I recognize some strategy buffs may find the combat and challenge of Nexus refreshing and engaging. In effect, Nexus has distilled many of the elements of games like Homeworld and Homeworld 2 into a focused space tactical combat game. Devoid of any resource collection, unit building, or research, all a player must do is tailor the fleet from a pre-defined selection of ship weapons and systems before the mission and then give it their best shot. Some players may find this suits them well. Others, like myself, end up rubbed the wrong way by the unforgiving demands of the scripted missions and the lack of any recourse but to start over from scratch with another plan. I much prefer a real-time strategy game where I can respond to challenges by shoring up my weak spots and dynamically reshaping my forces to meet the opponents I underestimated and for which I was ill-equipped. Sadly, in Nexus, I did not have that option, and it is for this reason the game does not get to keep its precious real estate on my hard drive.
My annoyance with the game mechanic is slightly exacerbated by a few shortcomings in the interface. The ships are controlled through either very simple commands ("Attack shields on this") or by a more micromanaging approach of specifying a target for each specific weapon. Alternatively, you can allow a very rudimentary AI to act aggressively or defensively. Unfortunately, there is not a good middle ground between the simple attack shields/hull/systems commands and the manual targeting of each weapon. Issuing a new simple command overrides any previous order, even if the two could and should be executed simultaneously. Far too often, I found myself wanting to tell a ship to attack one opponent's shields and another's hull and, instead of a couple of quick clicks of the attack hulls and attack shields hotkeys, I was forced to repetitively target each weapon to each respective ship. This is a chore when commanding one ship and an increasing nuisance when trying to command many. I often wished I could select my fleet, hit the hotkey for attacking hulls and targeting one enemy and hit the hotkey for blasting shields and targeting the next, and then watch my ships spring to brilliant action. Instead, I'd toggle pause and manually issue targets for each weapon on each ship, thinking, "Argh! I'll have to do this again in a few seconds for the next two targets." I would think a "tactical fleet simulator" would have more elegant control options.
All right, so now I've griped about the game mechanics and controls, can't I start saying nice things? Yes, actually I can. The visual presentation of the game is very nice. The galactic map is where the visual styling of the game really shines through, with elaborating arching representations of orbits and celestial bodies, all readily navigated with simple mouse clicks. The whole experience is very enjoyable, giving the player the chance to zoom and fly through the galaxy. Sadly, it is all for show and has no consequence for the actual progress through the game; nothing is gained that helps in completing the missions. The aesthetic style is generally carried throughout the game nicely, with a visually pleasing in-game interface and nicely presented briefings. The engine for the game is good for the overall space genre, although I would have preferred more detail on the ships when zoomed up close; LOD-based texturing and detailing could have helped make the ships more vibrant during up-close scripted sequences instead of showcasing the slightly underwhelming textures.
The sounds in Nexus are pretty darn good. I play with headphones, so I can't speak for surround sound users, but the auditory positioning was spot on and added a lot when zooming and panning around ships in battle. As mentioned above, the voice acting often earned chuckles as much for bad acting as for funny lines, but aside from the script, the voice audio was well executed and good quality. I will say that I prefer being able to listen to communications in game rather than needing to read lengthy text when I am busy saving my rear end or blasting someone else's. The music didn't do anything for me, good or bad, and was simply average. On this point, I think I might be too demanding after having had the excellent compositions of Eve Online deeply ingrained into my brain as a result of all the time I put into that addictive time vacuum.
Overall, I have little to fault the game on … aside from fundamentally disliking the gameplay. Fortunately, gameplay is often something people disagree on, and what I may have found annoying, others may find refreshing. Personally, I can't help but think in the back of my mind that Nexus is like a single-player Eve Online combat simulator, although lacking the vast depth of Eve. Even the interface and certain styling cues were slightly reminiscent of Eve, but instead of a very deep and often very slow gameplay experience, Nexus lets players jump right into combat (with multiple ships at times) and build a fleet from menus of parts rather than requiring the demanding character development and economics of a massively multiplayer online game.
I think Nexus: The Jupiter Incident will appeal greatly to some, but definitely not all, strategy enthusiasts. It will also probably have some limited appeal to other players, particularly because of its exceptional aesthetics, clean graphics, and tight execution. The gameplay is the only part of the game that should give a buyer reason to pause and ponder before purchasing Nexus at their local retailer or online. If commanding a highly configurable fleet of ships through scripted missions, micromanaging your efforts both in the pre-mission ship design stage and during every step of combat, appeals to you, then this game is what you want. If you're looking for a more traditional, space-based real-time strategy game with unit building and resource management, then Nexus is a poor fit and you'd be better off playing of the essential titles like the Homeworld series and Eve Online.
More articles about Nexus: The Jupiter Incident