by Chris Barylick
December 30th, 2005
A Classic Reborn: Escape Velocity: Nova
It probably shouldn't have begun the way it did. In the summer of 1996, after a senior year project of revamping the local water company's Web site, a summer position opened to bring the latest and greatest web technologies of the day to the site (read: frames, blink tags and mail links). During the midst of the job, a friend made the mistake of showing me Ambrosia Software's original Escape Velocity.
The rest of the summer became a blur.
Mix space drama, action, strategy, terrific graphics, realistic sound, all the customization of a role-playing game, and an intricately threaded story and you had Escape Velocity. Both simple and epic in scale, the player started with next to nothing save for a nigh-useless shuttle and an almost laughable amount of money to their name. From there, they could become just about anything they wanted to be as they explored an almost impossibly large universe.
The necessities of the game presented themselves fairly quickly: Prosper or die. With that, players learned how to use the trading routes to their advantage. Ship upgrades, once saved for, allowed players to forge deeper and act more independently. If your ship jumped into a sector in which a conflict was taking place, odds were that you'd need to purchase defensive upgrades to at least survive and limp away from stray fire in order to jump to a safe sector.
Once a certain level of proficiency had been reached, players began to learn to cut corners where possible in order to enhance their wealth and the strength of their ship. Some performed this legally by hitting the trade markets, buying low and selling high where they could if a component or material was rare or valued on a distant world.
It was the extralegal story lines, however, that began to make things interesting.
Something that differentiated Escape Velocity from similar space trading/campaign titles was the number of available story lines a player could become involved in. A player might decide to contract out and support the ruling government or assist the rebellion. Players could also venture into the world of crime and smuggling or support scientific and exploratory interests provided that appealed to them.
Simply land on a planet, walk into a bar, see who walks up to you asking for your services and see where it takes you. And if someone had worked their way up the food chain and upgraded their ship into something truly fearsome, they could take on the powers that be and attack worlds, demanding tribute to see if they could defeat the planet's defensive forces and subjugate the planet, thereby forcing it to pay into the player's bank accounts.
Escape Velocity grew with its Override and Nova sequels with the authors offering continuations of the original plot lines. Graphics, sound, items, weapons and game play were improved upon and models took on a more detailed feel. Add in a frenetic user and modification community and the game gains additional value, despite its $30.00 shareware registration fee (somewhat expensive for shareware and one almost wonders if it's worth this to stop Cap'n Hector from swooping in to remind the user to pay up every few minutes). Modification, hack and cheat communities added everything they could to the title, from Star Wars and Star Trek conversions to sub-programs that could boost the player's finances or make them all but invulnerable in battle.
Although the game has been out for more than two years and is far from new, Escape Velocity: Nova is worth the download and at least a few hours to experiment with it. True, the game's universe is intimidatingly large at first glance and there's almost a sense that even though you've just invested a fair amount of time in several missions and probably haven't even covered a fraction of the game's content, the Escape Velocity series always provided enough feedback to make things interesting.
The player begins from absolute zero and grows, each step being important. For every little victory you make, such as escaping a hostile zone alive or getting an optimal price on a trade to buying the first ship that could actually hold its own both as a freighter and a fighter to subjugating your first planet, the player feels a sense of accomplishment. This is the kind of game you invest a fair amount of your time and thus yourself in, but with the amazing number of paths available, becomes that much more interesting in the long run.
Escape Velocity: Nova is available as a Carbon-compatible application and requires Mac OS 8.1 or later and 128 MB of RAM to run. The download, a 77.3 MB file available through MacGameFiles.com, occupies 184.4 MB of hard drive space when expanded.
Catharsis, Improved: Ragdoll Masters 3.0
When Rag Doll Software released Ragdoll Masters a while back, they were on to something. Here was something different from almost everything that was out there. On the surface, the game might not appear all that different in its concept from any other single or two player fighting game that had ever existed, but Ragdoll Masters is centered purely on the physics of zero gravity combat within confined borders.
With almost no conventional way to control the character, the player had to imagine they were the ones in this situation and work from there. The best way to phrase the resulting control mechanism would be to move your center of gravity as much as possible by shifting your weight. Now translate that to the arrow keys, see what you can come up with, then remember that the player is involved in floating hand to hand combat and must deal damage, place themselves in the best possible position on the grid and be defensively capable all at the same time.
It may drive you insane, but this actually makes the game worth playing.
Version 3.0 of the software picks up where the original left off, and does so nicely. Sound, graphics and physics have improved, as have the game's interface, camera and hit effects. A wider variety of opponents, especially those that dwarf the player's character, make the battles visually gripping and draw the player's interest.
From a cathartic point of view, the title is just about perfect. Not the kind of thing you'd sink several continuous hours into, but the perfect way to kill a quick 10 minutes, Ragdoll Masters is worth its moderate US$9.95 registration fee, which unlocks all levels, play modes, options and removes its between-level nag screens.
Ragdoll Masters requires Mac OS X 10.1 or later to run and is available as a 5.4 MB download, which occupies 6.3 MB of hard drive space when expanded.
That wraps it up for this week. As always, if you see something new, cool or useful in the Mac universe, let me know.