Genre: Space Combat
Publisher: CDV / GamersGate
Release Date: September 24, 2007
If games were people, sci-fi space sims would be the kind that would occasionally show up at a gaming convention just to let others know that they were still around before disappearing into the crowd of shooters and sports sims. Fans looking to scratch their trigger fingers with only several inches of metal separating them from the hard vacuum of space have little to choose from, but there are occasionally diamonds in the rough that have made the wait a little easier to bear. Tarr Chronicles gives you plenty of stuff to shoot and blow up, but similar to a leaky spacesuit, bugs and the story slowly kill the experience.
Set in another galaxy, Tarr Chronicles has plenty of backstory going for it, with enough detail in the manual alone to embarrass most titles in just about any other genre. The Mirk is a terrifying alien force that is slowly eating the galaxy from the inside out. Weapons cannot harm it, it doesn't like to negotiate and it consumes everything in its path. At the outset of the game, more than half of the inhabited star systems have already fallen to the Mirk. Humanity, along with members of the surviving races in the galaxy, is on the run. A chance discovery of a world filled with ancient, forgotten wonders may hold the key to their survival, but the De'Khete strike before they're able to learn more. That's where you, the faceless pilot, come in to save the day.
If you're wondering who the De'Khete are and why they're helping the Mirk, the manual explains their motives, mentioning a couple of races that aren't even discussed in the game. There's plenty of detail that should have accompanied the gameplay, but the story told within the game is a confusing mess, despite the solid voice-acting. References to things that only the people in that universe would understand, along with dialogue that no normal person would ever say, muddle the plot. It doesn't help matters that much of the discourse occurs during combat amidst the explosions and laser fire that fill the void. You never get a sense of who you're flying with, either — only that they're there to take some of the heat.
The end of the Tarr Chronicles story is even worse, and by the time you reach it, you probably still have no idea what's going on. Don't bother to try and figure it out because the ending delivers about as much satisfaction as a dropkick to the head. Who or what are the Tarr? Who knows? Some of this is probably due to the title being localized from Russian, leaving more than a few things lost in the translation, but it's difficult to ignore some of the more obvious problems.
Although the in-game storytelling might be weak, the visuals fill in the blanks, with the ruins of mighty civilizations crushed by the Mirk and the shattered debris of massive starships floating high in orbit over blasted worlds. Stylish, black and white cinematics try to tell the story and provide the player with details on the next mission, stilted dialogue and all, and detailed ships buzz past your canopy. Static-filled radio chatter adds to the atmosphere in your cockpit during the fight, and the sound effects are superior to the title's visuals. Orange blobs masquerade as explosions; up close, the quality of the graphics can range from detailed hull markings to flat, low-detail polygons with stretched textures. Your ship and ammo also have the occasional tendency to randomly clip through objects and foes. The music following your exploits is nothing to write back to your homeworld about; it provides just enough sci-fi ambience and little else.
At its heart, Tarr Chronicles is a space sim shooter that puts you up against foes that range from small fighters to large, alien battleships. You can use a joystick, an analog gamepad like the 360's or the mouse and keyboard to fly and shoot your way through each of the nine chapters and play the game at your choice of difficulty level. For this pilot, I used a gamepad, which worked out a lot better than I thought it would. You can also switch back and forth from a chase camera or a cockpit view for the action, although you won't be able to look around while in the cockpit. You're still part of a squad of ships, but unlike many other titles, you won't get the opportunity to ask for help or give orders to your fellow aces. Their AI-driven personalities will do what they need to do by shooting at the enemy and heading to their objectives, but you're pretty much left on your own in following closely behind them. There's also no tutorial aside from the first mission, which throws you right into the thick of it; first-time players may have to get over a slight learning curve first.
Between chapters, you'll get a chance to spend time in your private cabin to read over your pilot's journal, look up information on your foes and allies, check out your stats or head to the hangar to modify your ship. New parts become available after every major mission, and balancing the weight of your components, the energy needs of your favorite weapons and the kind of shields and armor you want are all part of what you can play with. I enjoyed this challenge almost as much as some of the action sequences. You can even break down some of these components into parts that can be combined to make special modules that can be installed for bonuses, such as allowing a faster recharge for your weapons and shields or the ability to dish out additional damage. Be careful, though, because breaking down a ship modification is a one-way street, and each will give you only a certain number of components in return, such as electronic parts, condensers or nanomodules. Since you can only break down three of these items between each mission, planning ahead becomes part of the challenge.
There are a lot of options in Tarr Chronicles, but not all parts were created equal. Different hull types determine the weight of what you can carry, such as armor, engines and, most importantly, the kind of reactor that you can load (vital for powering and recharging weapons and shields). Should you configure a fast, lightly armed fighter? Should you go overboard and build a monster bird with enough armor and shielding to take plenty of punishment, all while carrying a big, but energy-hungry, cannon? The hull type can also determine whether you can arm three guns on your ship or only one, and each gun has its own uses, whether it excels in shredding enemy shields or punching through armor. Equipping the right mix of guns and rockets can go a long way in surviving the next battle, especially since you can't change anything until the mission is over. Having the right mix of guns and rockets on your ship can easily turn the enemy into scrap metal before your engines break a sweat.
Your trigger finger will find a lot to play around with as you fly your customized death dealer into space, and while it can be fun blowing up ships against a starry backdrop of planets and dying stars, the AI can make it difficult to enjoy the spectacle. Most combat will pretty much send you flying around in circles as you try and fire your missiles at the bad guys. There aren't a whole lot of tactical surprises, other than many more ships being thrown at you. Tarr Chronicles provides you with a leading target at which you can aim to give you a better chance of nailing your foe, but most of the time, you'll probably resort to missiles to deal with a stubborn foe. The single-minded AI also applies to your team, who will engage the enemy like clockwork; if you happen to fly a little too far and become the lone target for your foes, don't be surprised if you afterburn your way back, only to find that your team won't lift a gloved finger to help you.
Many missions will require you to blow up every enemy on your radar, and on your way back to the hangar, you'll be told to blow up even more. The simple interface shows you all of the information that you'll need, including the status of your fellow team members or whom you may be protecting. A few escort missions are scattered in Tarr Chronicles to spice things up, but you won't be able to fly outside the confines of your mission area. One or two missions are also somewhat buggy, leaving you with a less-than-polished impression. Although the game saves your progress between each mission and at certain points within them, the bugs can keep you from completing your tasks. In one mission, I was told to find two lost ships, so I searched for an indicator on my radar and then cycled through my friendly targets, but to no avail. I had to fly around aimlessly until I encountered one the lost ships. Another mission had me flying in circles because my team had killed everything ... and nothing happened. Enough time must have eventually passed because I was finally able to fly back to my hangar.
A whole slew of other bugs mar the experience. Menu screens can often fail to load, although you can hear your keys activate something that you can't see. Cut scenes can sometimes cut themselves short, crashes dump you to the desktop, loads take a while even if you're retrying the same mission and some of your pilots may occasionally start speaking in Russian when they were using perfect English just a few minutes ago. There's no reason given for the characters to be speaking in Russian, so it's likely that some localization details slipped by quality control. There's no multiplayer component to Tarr Chronicles, either, leaving you with only several hours of playtime before it's all over. You can't play through again with the toys you've just earned, and there's no arena or mission editor included to expand the experience. Once you've finished the fight, that's it.
Unless you are starving for a space shooter, you may want to give the Tarr Chronicles a wide berth. The title may appear to have the potential to be a space opera that the old guard is known for, with the seeds of a great backdrop, fast and simple shoot-'em-up action and a fun modding system that gives you more control over your ship's destiny. Unfortunately, the buggy, short, one-shot gameplay, dodgy AI and disappointing storytelling leave you feeling more alone in the cold, dark reaches of space than behind the stick of the deadliest fighter in the galaxy.
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