When I look at Into the Stars, I picture the stereotypical Hollywood producer, hands held up in front of the face like an invisible camera lens pointed at an imaginary marquis: "Imagine FTL," says the producer, eyes glinting, "but you fly the ship."
Boom. Elevator pitch over. Greenlit. Start production.
I mean, it says it right on the Kickstarter page: Into the Stars is "Oregon Trail meets FTL in an open world." Which is honestly a bit like saying "Oregon Trail meets Space Oregon Trail" but that's fine.
You're the captain of the starship
Enterprise Non-Copyright Infringing Name. Its mission? To explore strange new worlds, mine them for resources, and hopefully not get shot to bits by a pursuing enemy ship or have the entire crew starve to death.
It really is quite a lot like FTL, except—as mentioned in our elevator pitch—you're piloting the actual ship. You can either do so from a standard third-person external view or sit slouched on the bridge like a real captain. The latter is clearly the "correct" way to play, insofar as it's the only way to see the map, manage crew, and monitor resources.
That last bit is especially important. Into the Stars has a pretty significant resource management aspect I'm really enjoying, primarily because it's so freeform. When building your ship at the beginning of the game, you choose between various options for each main module—but it's more complicated than "high-end part, mid-tier part, low-end part."
Instead, each module requires both an up-front cost and a continued resource drain. There are currently five main resources: Hydrogen, Carbon Dioxide, Magnesium, Nitrogen, and Bio-Matter.
So you might build a ship with hydrogen-based engines, bio-matter food systems, carbon dioxide and nitrogen life support, nitrogen-based mining rigs, and hydrogen shuttles. The catch? Your ship can only carry so many resources, and you'll need to guess how much you need of each before leaving—or at least pack enough to make it to the next planet where you can do some mining and replenish your stocks.
It makes for some interesting trade-offs, like "Do I save some money and buy a life support system that uses both nitrogen and carbon dioxide, or do I spend a bit more for one that only burns carbon dioxide?" The latter uses fewer resources total, but with the former you can avoid carrying as much carbon dioxide and use that space for extra nitrogen instead (to, for instance, power your mining rig).
I suspect that at some point people will figure out ideal min-maxed ship builds, but so far weighing my options and creating my ship is my favorite part of Into the Stars—though I suspect it's because that's the part that feels most polished and unique, currently.
Ah, Early Access. My old friend and/or bitter enemy. Into the Stars hit Early Access fairly recently and…well, it's really early. Visually, the game looks surprisingly good for an early development title—especially the planets/space scenes. It might be a bit tragic when you run out of fuel and the crew slowly starves to death, but at least they picked a gorgeous place to die.
Into the Stars has its own long, Oregon Trail-esque journey ahead of it before it's ready for consumption though. The random events that crop up during your travels are largely inconsequential at the moment—more of an annoyance than a real challenge. Mining takes up too much of the game, and while it includes a nifty little minigame, it's not really what I want to spend 50 percent of my time doing. Interface elements are overly cumbersome or ill-explained. The map is only represented in two dimensions, even though you can fly in three.
And worst of all: The ship flies too damn slow. I understand that the journey's supposed to feel epic, that we're supposed to feel like we've embarked on this incredible journey to save the last of humanity (or whatever the plot is, here). At the moment though, it's a bit like driving an old (and boat-like) luxury car through wet concrete. Give me Warp 5, at least.
I expect Into the Stars will eventually shake off its Early Access chrysalis to reveal some sort of space butterfly—an FTL for people who like the idea of FTL but without its board game elements. And that sounds awesome!
But give this one a bit to mature before you don your captain's suit and shave your head Picard-bald. At the moment it's, as expected, more of a playable prototype than a full-on game—although it’s an admittedly pretty prototype.
This story, "Into the Stars preview: Call it Space Oregon Trail, call it FTL, call it Ishmael" was originally published by PCWorld.