Version tested: PC
Kuju's "Halcyon Sun" is rather different from most space combat sims. For a start, you won't find it sitting on the shelves of your local computer games store, it's only available from the Freeloader website. It won't cost you anything either, simply sign up at Freeloader and you can download it for free. And finally, you will have to wait another 24 weeks for the game to be completed.
Yes, Halcyon Sun is one of the new wave of episodic games which is causing a stir in the gaming industry at the moment. Rather than buying a game which swallows your hard drive whole and takes weeks to complete, you buy (or in this case download) the game a bit at a time. Halcyon Sun goes the whole hog though by dressing itself up to look like a twelve episode television series, right down to scrolling credits and a "to be continued..." screen at the end of each episode.
You play the role of squadron commander Dru Avery, leading a group of hotshot fighter pilots in the last days of a war between the Nolledah and a coalition of Eridani and your own nation, the Carolan Commonwealth. To make things more complicated, your girlfriend is the Eridani liason officer on your base ship, the CSS Halcyon Sun, and relations between the allies soon become strained.
The plot unfolds through a series of lengthy but enjoyable in-game cutscenes, which introduce you to the main characters and give you an insight into what is going on in the world around you. The animations of the various characters can be a little stilted at times, and the voice acting (should you download the optional voice pack) is a little subdued as well, although it get the job done and the overall presentation is surprisingly effective. There is even a website you can go to on completing each episode to read news about the war effort and get the latest intelligence reports.
Something else which came as a pleasant surprise was the quality of the game's graphics. Although they are hardly a challenge to genre leaders like "Starlancer" and "Freespace", given that the whole of the first two episodes weighs in at just 12Mb and the game doesn't cost you a penny, it certainly looks a lot better than you might expect.
Ships are nicely detailed and brightly coloured, although the weapon effects and explosions are fairly functional. It all feels a little like "Homeworld", but without the stunning nebulae-strewn backdrops. The only real let down is in the sound effects department, with some rather flat and uninspiring noises which tend to get overwhelmed by the music in the heat of combat, instead of grabbing you by the balls and immersing you in the game.
Overall though, the game looks polished without overloading either your eyes or your hardware, and the engine keeps the action going at a fair pace even when you are in the midst of a big hairy furball involving a couple of dozen other spacecraft, with missiles and laser bolts whizzing around you in all directions. Combat itself is good clean fun, harking back to the early days of the "Wing Commander" series, and lacking any of the added complexities of many more recent games. It is hardly likely to tax your brain most of the time, making this something of a space combat sim for Sun readers, but coming through another mission with your ship intact and your enemies floating home in little pieces is still strangely satisfying.
The controls are straightforward and easy to get to grips with if you are at all familiar with the genre, which is lucky as you are thrown right into the action without any real tutorial missions. The learning curve throughout the first episode is fairly gentle though, giving you plenty of time to find your stride.
Your ship is fast and responsive, and although the AI is rather good compared to that found in some (much more expensive!) games that we could name, the focus here is very much on arcade style action rather than flight sim style tactics and memorising lots of buttons. There is just one fire button, with another key to switch between your various guns and missiles. And apart from a few buttons to cycle through targets, fire your afterburners, release decoys and so on, that's about it really.
Missions are equally no-nonsense, with none of that "fly to waypoint 3 and investigate the big swirly thing" malarky you get in most space combat games. You start most of the missions a few kilometers from your target and facing in roughly the right direction, and from there it's just a case of going in and giving the enemy a sound hiding. Most missions are based around blowing something up, whether it is enemy fighters, a cruiser, or an orbital defence station, although there is enough variety there to maintain your interest.
The second episode reaches its climax with you escorting a group of bombers towards an enemy planet. Rather annoyingly though, if a single one is blown up it's mission over, and given that you can only be in one place at a time and have no control over what your wingmen do, it's all too easy for a couple of enemy ships to slip by you and take out one of the bombers. Luckily if you fail a mission three times in a row the game will let you skip it, avoiding any excessive frustration...
Although Halcyon Sun's television show style does a good job of immersing you in the game world and making you care about the characters who you are flying alongside, it does have its flaws.
For starters, most of the game is made up of cinematics. It's entertaining stuff, and certainly much better than a lot of the tripe that shows up on our televisions, but if you want to get straight into the action you're likely to come away disappointed. I reached the last mission of the second episode in just over an hour, and much of that time was spent watching cutscenes. If you choose to skip them, not only will you miss out on the intriguing storyline and character development, but you will also find yourself with rather less than half an hour of actual combat across the two episodes.
The cinematic nature of the game also means that the storyline is rigidly linear, not only in general terms but in detail. None of the main characters are allowed to die unless it is written into the story, for example, as a result of which their ships are invulnerable in combat to ensure that they come out of every mission in one piece. It's a bit of a cop out, but then in the heat of battle you don't have much time to notice that your wingman's ship is capable of taking a lot more damage than your own...
Halcyon Sun is hardly groundbreaking when it comes to gameplay, with enjoyable but straightforward action, and a totally linear single-player campaign. It can't even claim to be the first episodic game - "Siege of Avalon" and "Arabian Nights" beat it to that, and Origin released their own series of free downloadable missions based on the "Wing Commander Prophecy" engine before the term episodic gaming was even used.
What does make Halcyon Sun stand out though is the polished television series style presentation, and the remarkably small download size for a game of such high quality - the first two episodes total just 12Mb, and even the optional voice pack only adds another 5-8Mb to that. For a few minutes download time you get two half-hour episodes of a continuing story which will unfold over the next six months. Your only problem will be finding something else to do while you wait for the next episode to be released.
Head over to the Freeloader website and grab yourself a copy while it's hot!
7 / 10