A little while ago, my eyes were opened when the developers of Interstellar Flames, Xen Games, dropped a brief press release informing me of a 3D space simulator coming to the Pocket PC. Avid fans of this genre, alas, have not had much luck in the past few years. After the ill-fated Starlancer, few titles came out to fill this void. Try as it might, Independence War was a simulation of a large corvette or cruiser while Battlecruiser 3000 still has yet to reach widespread popularity. So for some time, after seeing Interstellar Flames firsthand, I held out my hopes that perhaps my days of Freespace and Wing Commander would be played out on the small screen.
With almost a year of development time, Flames has been in the works for a long time—for a handheld title. In first-rate PC products, multi-year project times are the norm and a year would be considered somewhat quick; probably built on a pre-licensed engine. But Flames, compared to Xen Games’ previous title, Strategic Assault, had little to build on. Its former release was strictly a top down RTS, making the release of Flames all the more precarious. Could Xen Games work magic from a strategy title into a 3D space combat? Would 3D effects actually hold up with Pocket PC devices? The answer is surprisingly yes, although the result is a lot different than what I had expected.
The visuals not only look great but they capture the mood of all those titles I mentioned before, Freespace in particular. Cruising above lengthy battleships with deck guns, the mix of WWII methodology and space futurism has always attracted me. Current naval battles, for example, would never employ the use of a deck gun; note the disappearance of deck guns from submarines. Yet, that era and everything that represents it innately appeals to us. Like Star Wars’ pillaging of WWII for its battle scenes, Flames uses what works for us rather than what is plausible and what is realistic. Furthermore, Flames manages to get everything right, with detailed textures for capital ships and fighters. Textured backgrounds and vibrant lasers help add to the mood, the only shortfall being the explosions, which turn out to be sprites and quite artificial. However, for a brief fleeting moment when I started Flames up, I had a glimpse of an epic title here.
Unfortunately, after a few levels (the terminology is a particularly telling sign), Flames began to degenerate into a rail shooter type of game. I’ve followed up on the Flames screenshots and I always thought it looked amazing with your craft swooping down on to the decks of capital ship hulls. The screenshots, however, don’t tell you that that is practically all you will be doing. Flames is not a 3D space fighter simulation like Wing Commander, Starlancer or Freespace. It’s more like the fighter sequences in a Star Wars arcade title; the ones that began with the cinematic Shadows of the Empire. You’re confined to a fixed path, not too confined like the rail shooters of the CD-ROM days (Rebel Assault comes to mind) but enough that you don’t have much freedom in the maneuvering of your craft. The end result is solid arcade action, played out in typical console fashion.
Flames features a multitude of levels but holistically, they never accumulate into something that packs quite the same punch as the first few minutes you’ll spend with the title. There are over twenty and at times, progressing through them becomes a rather mechanical repetition of dodging head-on (and always head-on) fighters while disabling capital ships ad infinitum. In spite of this, Flames shows potential. The engine that powers Flames is fast. Even with fighter craft on screen, explosions and weapons firing at you, there is never a slowdown. The game is one of the first to tout specific support for XScale handhelds but I found the title is generally optimized, in the sense that it’s optimized for the general public’s non-Xscale PDAs.
With such a flexible engine, I have to wonder, would Flames be a better candidate for a 3D space simulation? Multiple objectives, cinematic storyline, different choices of ships and loadouts are some things that came to my mind that would not only make a game but create a world. Origin’s motto for Wing Commander used to be, ‘We Create Worlds’. In some sense, despite the hectic firefights and visual eye candy, Flames feels a bit empty. Some of the options I mentioned above could easily be fitted into the game now to improve it, without necessarily making drastic changes to the gameplay.
Improvement is no stranger to Xen Games. They followed up Strategic Assault with an expansion pack. Naturally, we will probably see something of a follow-up for Flames too. While it has no subtitle yet, this inaugural release should really carry the subtitle: The Prelude. Priced at $6.99 US, this is an absolute steal even if you have complaints about the game’s music or simplistic play. It’s going to be the bedrock and foundation of something great that will hopefully be helped along by a good follow-up. Origin’s Wing Commander, when it came out on the PC, ushered in new graphics, sound and technical wizardry that had never been seen before but it was the element of human drama that was the sine qua non that turned good wizardry into an outstanding game. That element was always crucial and subsequent franchises that succeeded it (Freespace, X-Wing Alliance) continually took that into account. Those that did not, like the sterile X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, were damned to oblivion. With Flames, Xen Games has something special here. It already has de facto bragging rights with its 3D engine. With a little more content, it can easily light up and torch any competitors.
[09/10] Program Size
[13/15] Learning Curve