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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

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Everspace 2 - lovely shooting, lovely looting, and the caves are brilliant too

On a wing and a rare.

That detonator drone. Cor! Drones can be a bit dull in games - stuff to swat away in annoyance in the latest Ubisoft offering, stuff you know is the sort of thing that can probably be picked up at Currys. But in Everspace 2, those drones. Those detonator drones. Lovely.

It's a clever blend. They are Asimov and Popcap, Foundation and Peggle. They come at you and explode. So far, so drone. But as they approach they ring out these escalating notes. I'm back with Jimmy Lightning, the ball bouncing over pins one to three four - Ode to Joy! Except it's inverted. I'm frantic to stop the escalation, to shoot it away or EMP it or dash to safety.

Everspace 2 is the space game I didn't know I wanted. Now it's here I really want it. And I wonder why I wasn't initially that excited.

I think it's because it threatened a formula I loved. The first Everspace is a very beautiful space dogfighter wrapped up in a Roguelike structure. You're a cloned pilot rushing from one end of space to the other, one hop at a time. It's FTL but it's also TIE-Fighter. You dash into a zone, try and grab some resources and make it out alive, while blasting anybody in your way to pieces. Meanwhile the backdrops offer up asteroid fields, glinting schists in the eternal darkness, or the sonorous coffee-surface rings of a gas giant, it's noble bulk half-shadowed. What a game. So much beauty, but that hand always at your elbow. Forward! No time for this. Make it through! Get on with it!

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Everspace 2, which has just launched in Early Access, is another very beautiful space dogfighter. But the Roguelike structure has gone. Your clone is down to his last life, so you're save-filing your way through an expansive open-universe adventure. Still so cosmiscally pretty, but I worried: would the energy of the thing drift away without that hand at your elbow?

Nope. This is one of those Early Access games that, based on my handful of hours, feels very polished, just incomplete. We're promised 25 hours of fun on the current build at least, and the team plans on keeping the game in Early Access until 2022. What's here is the start of a grand space opera. And it is grand.

Firstly, the new way the universe is delivered. Everspace is a bit of a magpie - FTL in the first game for its caballa-like route maps and sense of episodic adventure, and this time we're borrowing the multi-speed travel from stuff like No Man's Sky and also the way the open world is divided into little planetary instants with lightspeed tunnels in between from something like the wonderful barnstormin' Rebel Galaxy. But Everspace has its own agenda. No space-to-planet transitions like No Man's Sky, and no fixed plane for the action like Rebel Galaxy. In fact, the game that Everspace most reminds me of - and this is a good thing if you ask me - is Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge.

I remember having a demo disk with Crimson Skies on it and spending hours and hours on the single open-world level it contained. It was beautiful, of course - I still remember the thrill of rushing low over the seas and seeing flecks of ocean spray on the screen - but it was also so busy, a straight-ahead shooter that was nonetheless filled with distractions, a whole spread of land to explore and lawnmow for missions.

This is what I love about Everspace 2, I think. Stripped of the Roguelike, this is an expansive game, that even now promises a whole star map with names of places I know I want to visit: Union, Zharkov, Khione. The main campaign is developing nicely - for the first few hours it's a get-back-on-your-feet narrative with plenty of eager busywork - but those distractions! Every time I blast off for the next waypoint on the central storyline, I find myself zipping past abandoned space hulks, past weak signals that promise mysteries. This is one of those open-world games where the side-quests are often the most fun. And it's because of the fiction. The side-quests make the universe feel genuinely vast and mysterious and scary and filled with promise.

The core of it is dog-fighting, and it's lovely stuff - clear targeting and nice swooshy handling. You can switch between a handful of different weapons depending on what you have installed, and the more damage you pile on, the more you charge up a special attack that does something extremely cinematic. Ships are also fitted out with slots for gadgets - I like a turret that sticks to nearby asteroids, and nano-bots that patch me up - and also things called Devices, which you can find out there in space and in shops, and which each do different things. Online I have read of really thrilling devices, but even the starter two aren't bad. One is an EMP blast and the other gives me the chance to boost out of trouble - or into it. As I level up, I can trick these devices out with skill points. My EMP blast might restore my shield, for example. Devices promise to be where a lot of the long-term fun comes from. I'm already hunting for them whenever I get the chance.

As the devices suggest, the dog-fighting is broken up with sifting through loot, buying new equipment and even ships, and generally tricking out your build. Everspace promises to be a full-on looty action-RPG, and I'm certainly having fun comparing stats in the menus when I've landed somewhere, pondering percentage increases in engines, shields, protective plating. How deep will this all go by 2022?

The thing that I'm really enjoying at the moment, though, isn't quite the loot and isn't quite the dog-fighting, but something that involves both. Listen: Everspace 2 has really great caves. Those space hulks are caves of a sort, man-made mazes of busted metal and sparking control panels for you to puzzle your route through on your way to a big pay-off. But go down to the surface of a planet - and you can in Everspace 2, even if it isn't a continuous movement - and you might pick up a mission that sends you down into a mine. The chasm beckons and in you go, in I go, ducking mining equipment and threading my way around jutting crystals, all while the baddies flock and the detonator drones do their escalating Peggle pings.

Out in space it's much the same, an asteroid a bit bigger than expected, with its own hollow interior. In you go. What will you find? Everspace 2 is No Man's Sky and Galak-Z and Rebel Galaxy and a dozen other things. Somehow, miraculously, it's mainly itself.

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