When I last had a hands-on with Lightspeed Frontier, it was on the crowded show floor of PAX South, where I managed to (mostly) successfully navigate my way through the tutorial under the helpful tutelage of members of the dev team. However, with the game now launched in Steam Early Access, I’m free to spend a lot more time with this open universe/starship builder hybrid.
First off, kudos to Riveted Games for including a sandbox mode. With its unlimited funds and parts access, the sandbox is the perfect place for players to hone recreations of their favorite ships from other universes, or experiment with new designs. Steam Workshop integration allows designs to be shared with the rest of the community with minimal fuss.
Components are all based on cube shapes, allowing them to snap together easily in a way that any Kerbal Space Program fans will be familiar with. Despite the relatively limited geometric options, it’s possible to create some rather good looking, if a bit pixelated, designs. Much like Minecraft art, or classic Lego creations that don’t rely on a bunch of specialized components to look good, there’s a whole lot that you can do with a bunch of cubes and triangles if you put your mind to it. Hopefully some additional color options will arrive at some point. Not all spacecraft are black, white, or grey!
The campaign mode, however, is where the meat of the game lays. Starting (post-tutorial) with a fairly basic ship, you have the ability to explore the galaxy, take on missions, fight pirates, and trade commodities in the local stock markets.
The game looks great. As you explore, the various star systems show off all sorts of character. Red stars bath space stations in a reddish-pink hue, blue stars give more of a cold harsh light, and nebulas glow like the Northern lights and crackle with energy. Every star system (and there are a lot of them) looks like a place you want to explore, if you’ve got the time and the firepower.
You’re going to need a lot of firepower. As of the early (v1.04) builds, enemy attacks are very frequent. And while enemy ships seem to be your best supply of cash, usually by selling their parts for scrap, it’s difficult to survive more than a couple of engagements. The enemy difficulty seems to ramp up progressively, meaning that hanging around trying to get those last bits of salvage from the first encounter or two is usually going to result in a third engagement that leaves your own ship as an expanding cloud of gas, bodies, and debris.
At this point, you’ll find yourself back at the nearest space station with just a pod to your name, having to rebuild your ship and start from scratch. Good luck finding that debris field of yours, it’s out there in the system, somewhere, but your radar doesn’t usually have the range to show it. Each solar system is really big, but also really empty at the moment. The developer has announced plans to improve that, with player created space stations orbiting empty planets, more factions, and additional quests and story content.
The controls too, can be a bit finicky. While gamepads and joysticks are supported, I personally found the controls to be far too sensitive. Play attempts with a dual-analog stick gamepad left me spinning hopelessly in space. Pulling out my HOTAS gear gave only slightly better results. While tinkering with the deadzone and sensitivity settings in my controller software would eventually get me to a playable configuration, it’s far more effort than most players are likely willing to go through. In the end, I grudgingly settled for keyboard and mouse controls. It works, but it just doesn’t feel right. Hopefully some joystick sensitivity and deadzone sliders will arrive in the Options menu before the end of Early Access.
Fortunately, Riveted Games seems to be putting a lot of effort into polish and improvement during this Early Access phase. Already I’ve seen them make some significant improvements to the parts system, making it much easier to pick up, find, and sell your looted enemy ship remains. I’d like to see them add the ability to prioritize or highlight certain component types when searching debris fields as well. If enemy attack frequency isn’t adjusted down, then being able to quickly pick up the best components in one or two passes would help quite a bit. More parts and abilities are also in the planned pipeline. Multiplayer is also planned, so that at some point, your journeys through the universe in the U.S.S. Fair Use will lead to encountering other players and their effects on the world.
Overall, Lightspeed Frontier seems off to a promising start. With great shipbuilding mechanics, a big universe, and a development team that seems committed to adding new features and fixing bugs, it’s a game I’ll be looking forward to watching progress, and doing a full review on once it comes out of Early Access. Now it you’ll excuse me, I need to work on my replica of the TCS Tiger’s Claw.