Running a galactic trade empire can be fun and all, but sometimes you just want a hectic dogfight in space. While space sims aren’t exactly a common genre, most of them tend to skew towards the economic side of things. The good, old-fashioned war sagas like Wing Commander, Star Wars: X-Wing, and Freespace are essentially long gone. There’s one major exception though, and that’s SOL: Exodus. This is a game that’s very much built in that old dogfighting style, but brought up to modern standards. Think about what Wing Commander could have been like if the developers had the Unreal Engine 3 to play with, and you’ll have a good idea of what the developers of SOL: Exodus were aiming for. In the end, they hit the mark with varying degrees of success. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a start.
In the universe of SOL: Exodus, the sun is on its last legs and humanity wants out before it goes nova. As the nameless lieutenant of an expedition to find a new homeworld, a mysterious enemy force shatters your fleet and kills your mentor just as you find the perfect candidate. Ten years later, you’ve got a promotion, some battle scars, and have returned to a solar system under the theocratic thumb of a group of religious fanatics, dead-set on keeping everyone at home to be purified by the light. This kicks off some guerrilla warfare as you evacuate those who want a new life and contend with those who do not. It’s not exactly destined to be a stone-cold sci-fi classic, but the premise works well and leads to some exciting combat scenarios, and the voice cast does an excellent job with the material.
It helps to start with what things work in SOL: Exodus, and the list is pretty solid. The aforementioned Unreal Engine really helps to give the game some serious graphical pop, something more or less unknown in this genre. By using this engine to its fullest extent, the developers have made what is arguably the best looking space-combat game out there today. The ships look cool, the explosions look pretty, and the dense sectors of space are packed with great looking debris and stations, providing a thrilling arena to weave around in. The best part is the sheer scale of things, with hulking capital ships, giant mining satellites, and an impressive finale pulled right out of a Star Wars movie. Aside from a touch of the usual Unreal texture pop-in issues, this is a seriously nice looking game.
Luckily, SOL: Exodus does more than paint a pretty picture of Neptune. The dogfighting gameplay is generally top notch, with plenty of exciting fights and a rather nice variety in enemies. The vast majority of the enemy force is made up of small fighters, which are slightly dumb, but can get you into some pretty hairy chases with plenty of looping and dodging, Of course, there’s plenty of other enemies thrown in too, like slow moving bombers and rather formidable capital ships. Fortunately, your ship is kitted out with plenty of tricks and weapons, including a powerful mag cannon and the perennial genre favorite, lock-on missiles. There’s also a neat hacking mechanic that can be used (when prompted by the game’s script) to disable missiles, expose weak points, or hijack communications. Most of the combat is sheer dogfighting, but it’s a lot of fun, and the other objectives spice things up with some much needed variety.
The really excellent aspect of the gameplay is the controls, which are some of the most intuitive ones out there. In most space combat games, you tend to fly by the seat of your pants, with dozens of systems and short-cuts mapped onto your keyboard that you really don’t have a clue about. SOL: Exodus does away with a lot of the unnecessary junk, and for the first time, it actually feels like you have control over every aspect of your fighter. The only system that gets missed is some kind of counter-measures for missiles, but aside from that, you have everything necessary to take down just about anything. The game does support both joysticks and game pads, but the keyboard controls proved to be the easiest to grasp.
There’s a few issues to pick apart in SOL: Exodus, unfortunately. The one thing that Freespace and Wing Commander did really well, but is totally lacking here, is campaign scope. In both of those games, the battles were fairly dynamic and could be dramatically influenced by skill, bonus objectives, and even player choice, which did wonders for the replay value. SOL: Exodus has just eight missions to complete and only one bonus objective per map, which has zero bearing on subsequent runs. Sure, you get an extra upgrade point, but the campaign is very static and very short. That’s not so bad when you consider the low $10 price tag and the small team behind it, but it can be finished in just three hours and does feel abrupt. There are also no other modes or extras beyond a cursory survival mode, which refused to load despite best efforts.
On that subject, some mention has to be made of the bugs. While I experienced very few bugs, the ones that did happen were quite significant. Aside from the aforementioned nonfunctional survival mode, there were a couple of crash to desktops that were made extra annoying by restarting your mission from the beginning, cut scenes and all. The real problem was a bug that erased all traces of my 75% completed save file. This could very well be an isolated thing, but it was certainly demoralizing and definitely soured the experience.
Essentially, every moment of the actual gameplay is visually striking and a ton of fun; it’s the surrounding experience that really needs to be tuned up. However, anyone nostalgic for this seminal genre will probably be more than happy with the fun gameplay and attractive price. Hopefully this isn’t the last we see of these modern space shoot-em-ups.
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam version of SOL: Exodus provided by Seamless Entertainment distributed by Iceberg Interactive.