I love games from small and/or indie studios - with the big players rehashing the same concepts year after year, it seems like the little guys are the only ones brave enough to actually try something different. Oddly enough, 'something different' often come in the form of looking back into the annals of gaming history and breathing new life into long forgotten gems, which is exactly what SOL tries to do.
SOL is the kind of game I would expect to find on GOG more than on Steam, but that's not a bad thing. They don't make games like this any more - if you've ever played Wing Commander or X-Wing, then you'll be right at home here.
You control your ship completely with your mouse or joystick. The keyboard is reserved for targeting and weaponry; I'm rather embarrassed to admit that it took me a while to figure out why my rockets were firing every time I pressed W to try and accelerate. In fact, all I had to do was scroll my mouse wheel up or down. This actually turned out to be pretty intuitive.
Combat itself is a blast. At higher difficulties, it can be a bit on the brutal side, but that adds to the experience. Despite my disappointment with some of the other features, I kept coming back to the dogfights. Each time I died, I came back with a vengeance. I don't think Seamless was trying to create an addictive arcade game here, but it definitely had that effect on me sometimes.
The combat does bring me to one of my first gripes with SOL: the physics engine, or lack thereof, is just sad. I crashed into an asteroid while in hot pursuit of enemy fighters, only to find that I just bounced back out of the way with no damage done. There's also no concept of acceleration present. You can easily accelerate to 500 MPH and come to a full stop within a few seconds, something that defies the laws of physics.
If you're looking for graphics to drool over, you'll be very, very disappointed; SOL could've easily been made 5 years ago. There really aren't any cutscenes to speak of, just com chatter accompanied by still portraits of whoever's doing the talking. Honestly, I just tried to ignore that. I love a game with a great story that I can get into - I really want to see video games become a real medium for storytelling - but there really isn't that much of a story here. What is here seems to have something to do with a threat to the universe that only you and a handful of freedom fighters can stand a chance against (TM).
At first I was disappointed with the mothership combat. I came expecting it to be something like Star Wars, where I would assault massive ships by taking out key points, all the while avoiding a horde of fighters and turrets. Well, the turrets and the fighters were there, but the key points weren't. Instead, I ended up having to get into position to hack the ship, either to shut down the turrets or download blueprints showing me the weak points. This actually works pretty well.
It's a challenge to 'hack' the consoles while under fire. Hacking consists of a fairly simple memory game, where you have to remember a series of letters and numbers and correctly repeat them later. This wouldn't be too hard on its own, but when you're being shot at from every direction, and you've got a capital ship of your own to protect. Once this is done, you eventually end up taking the ships apart, piece by piece.
This doesn't mean that SOL is a bad game. For $9.99 on Steam, fans of the genre aren't likely to regret the investment. I'm not sure, though, if it has enough polish to appeal to a mainstream audience. It does show promise, and I would really love to see a truly great space combat game that would make Chris Blair proud. Hopefully SOL will be successful enough for Seamless Entertainment, the developer behind the game, to give us a more polished sequel, as there's definitely plenty of potential here.
As it stands right now, SOL is game enough to brighten up a boring weekend, and its low price tag doesn't leave room for much of an excuse not to give it a try. Sadly, I'm just not quite sure if this is a game I can recommend to the 'average' gamer. It has its charms, but it's a long way from perfect.
Special thanks to John Callaham