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Escape Velocity: Nova – Review

by Tim Tarbet
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Retro games. Sometimes playing them is more about the nostalgia than actually having fun. Doom. Pac Man. Tetris. Sometimes, though, a game can be five, ten, or even fifteen years old and still be fun. Escape Velocity: Nova is one of those games. It was released all the way back in ’02, but the gameplay is still smooth and enjoyable, even if it is a little simplistic. 

EV: Nova is a 2D sci fi trader and combat storyline. In other words, it’s probably one of the first ‘open world’ games you’ll find. You start out in the smallest ship available and you are told to go forth and explore. As you play you’ll stumble upon factions, secrets, fight wars, trade goods, smuggle cargo, and become the hero of any one of five factions. 

Starting Out

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Anyway, you start out in a small shuttle, basically a metal box with rocket boosters. Very small rocket boosters. You have no weaponry to speak of, a tiny amount of cargo space, and no place to go but up. The gameplay is simple enough. Arrow keys propel and turn you, space fires your primary weapons, and shift will fire your secondary. Be warned, though, as you can only fire one type of secondary weapon at a time, so unless you’re planning on switching a lot in the middle of a dogfight, or you plan on running out of one of your secondary weapons, you should probably only buy one secondary weapons at a time. The most important thing to remember, though is that most of the ships that you pilot will be governed by newtonian physics. This means that once you accelerate in one direction, you’ll keep going that way until you accelerate in another direction, start taking hits, or run into the invisible wall at the outer edge of each system map. Since the AI of the time was less than brilliant, this means that you can often take on enemies many times your size by simply racing away from them, turning around, and shoving blaster bolts down their throat until they die. As long as you outrange them, they won’t be able to even touch you, and you’ll get a fairly easy kill. There will be times where you’ll want to avoid killing people, though. Not only will you get the local governments angry at you, but there are advantages to leaving your victims alive. Namely, boarding actions. You see, once you knock a ship down to 30% armor (generally; some ships are lower, some ships you can’t disable at all) they become disabled. Kinetically challenged, if you’re politically correct about it. This means that you’ve damaged them enough that they can no longer move, fire, or even flash their running lights at you, making them easy pickings. As they slowly coast to a stop, you can line your ship up with theirs and board them, giving you the opportunity to steal credits, cargo, fuel, or even the ship itself if you’re lucky. Most of the time you won’t be, but if you do successfully capture their ship, it’ll start following you around like a puppy dog. That ship is now part of your fleet. You can use them to carry cargo, pirate even more ships, or you can sell it off at the nearest shipyard, your choice. Just be careful. When you first capture a vessel, it only has a token amount of both shield and armor points, so if you sneeze at them too hard before you get to the nearest port, they fall over dead again.

Alternatively, if the pirate’s life is not for you, you can take a variety of odd jobs running cargo and ferrying passengers, eventually earning your way up to buying a slightly larger metal box with rocket boosters. If you keep at it long enough, you’ll soon have enough to buy a sleek sports car of a space ship. Heck, if you’re patient enough, from there you can even upgrade to warships, carriers, or even simply bulk cargo carriers. 

Story Missions

The real fun of the game, though is in the special missions. These come up as dialogue boxes that pop up when you enter a shipyard or a bar sometimes. Most of these are short. There’s one mission where a couple of scientists want you to carry them to the far reaches of known space to fire off a probe and then return them safely. Another where you go and hunt wild beasts on an uninhabited planet (still taken care of through a dialogue box, sadly enough). The longest and most fulfilling, though, are the six main storylines. Be careful, though. Once you pick one story, you’re stuck with it for the rest of that character. If you want to play through a different one, you’ll have to create a new character from scrap.

Anyway, the main missions are definitely the most fun. For the most part, the writing is pretty well done, and despite the fact that the amount of roleplaying that you can do in any given storyline amounts to clicking on the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ buttons, it’s still very engaging. Of course, before you can start any of them, you have to find them first, and some of them are a little more difficult to find than others. One, for example, all but falls in your lap in the early stages of the game. Another you have to go searching for in the nether reaches of Auroran space. It’s worth the effort though, because each one has a unique take on the universe and gives you access to different exclusive technologies and abilities. For example, the Vell-Os give you free ships, but don’t let you purchase any upgrades to them. The Polaris, on the other hand, have the most expensive and capable ships in the game, but you can only find the starting mission for them if you know where to look. 

Factions

I won’t go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but here’s a quick run down on each of the factions. 

Federation

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Technically, you start out as a citizen of the Federation, which is basically an analogue to the US of A. These are the ‘good guys.’ Or at least, they’re supposed to be; they have their share of dark and dirty secrets that you’ll find out about later on wether or not you follow their storyline. You start out in the Federation, and chances are, you’ll be spending a lot of time here no matter what faction you end up going with. This isn’t too much of a pain, though, as the systems are fairly well organized, making it easy to get to where you want to go.

As far as ships go, the Federation has the most normal ones of the bunch. Average shields, average armor, average weapons. They do have some pretty cool proprietary technologies, but to get anything really interesting you have to have five different kinds of licenses, all verified and accompanied with triplicate forms. They have some of the best missiles in the game, though, and their ships are very balanced in terms of speed, power, and price. If you’re looking for a good all around ship, look no further. 

Auroran

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The obligate warrior culture. They’ve overpopulated their planets to the point of absurdity: the average per inhabited planet is over 15 billion, so they have plenty of people to throw away, which is what their strategy is: lots of small, disposable, hard hitting ships. Their ships are cheap, have virtually no shields, and focus mainly on ballistics weapons. The Aurorans focus more on brute force than anything else, blasting away with rail guns, fusion cannons, and lots and lots of ships.  

The Auroran territory is about as disorganized as you’d expect for a warrior culture, and it’s a veritable pain to navigate. It’s like a toddler spilled some marbles on the floor, sprayed them with silly string, and called it a map. Still, if you’re into the whole ‘warrior culture’ thing, this faction might be the one you want to start with. 

Rebellion: Remember those dark and dirty secrets the Feds have? These guys found out about them and weren’t so happy, so they split off and made their own little group. They’ve got ships that are a little more advanced than the Feds, blending Polaris, Auroran, and Federation tech all into one without truly specializing in any one of them, but they’re basically the same as the Feds, except for the storyline.

These guys have all of two systems (oops; spoilers), and they’re hidden in kind of out of the way places. Still, they have access to the hyper gate network, which means that sometimes they’ll turn up in unexpected places. 

Polaris

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The dark and mysterious Polaris are my personal favorites. Where the Aurorans specialize in overwhelming numbers, the Polaris focus entirely on individual superiority, and for the most part it works out for them. These guys hit like no one else in the game; a single Polaran capitol ship can take on two or three from any other faction and still come out mostly intact, thanks to their vastly superior firepower and shields. Even the fighters are better than anyone else’s. Faster, more maneuverable, and armed with a powerful laser, a skilled pilot can take out ships many times his own size in a Polaran fighter. 

The Polaran map is a little strange though. It’s shaped like a spiderweb. This makes it fairly easy to navigate, all things considered, but it’s almost impossible to move through it with any kind of speed. No matter how many possible routes you plot, they all are going to have about the same amount of jumps, which is fairly time consuming and frustrating.

The main problem with the Polarans is that they’re kind of cheesy. They have an egalitarian utopia that’s just a little bit over the top. Everyone has their own caste that they live their lives in, no one is ever dissatisfied with their job, everyone’s awesome to each other, and they all live to be 500 years old at least (you think I’m kidding; I’m not). All in all, the Polarans are the Mary Sue of the game, but that doesn’t really make them any less fun to play. 

Vell-Os

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The Vell-Os are the mystics of the game. I can’t go into too much detail on them on account of just how twisted their storyline is, but they’re a lot of fun to play. As you progress through the Vell-Os storyline, you’ll gain more and more supernatural abilities, like constructing your own ship with your mind. Aw, yeah. Free ships for the WIN! On the downside, you can’t purchase any sort of upgrade, or even modify your ship in any meaningful way, which means you’re stuck with one of three different ships for the duration of your play through. Careful, though, these ships are the very definition of glass cannons. You have the sheer firepower necessary to destroy almost anyone else in the game… So long as no one hits you. 

These guys are one of two factions that technically don’t have any space to call their own, and they hang out mostly in Federation space, for reasons you’ll come to understand as the storyline progresses. 

Pirates

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The Pirate campaign is a whole lot less Piratey than you’d expect. This was back before anyone had heard of libertarianism, otherwise they might have just called this one the Libertarian campaign. These guys hold a lot in common with the Rebellion, but instead of all out warfare, they go about expressing their distrust of big government in subtler ways. Ways like smuggling weapons and contraband, raiding Federal bases, and kicking the ‘bad’ pirates out. They have a whole slew of sleek ships to do it with, making your various forms of ‘civil disobedience’ easier. Still, there’s not enough murder and mayhem to be a real pirate campaign, so it feels like something that’s almost been pulled out of a kid’s show.

These guys are the other faction that doesn’t have a presence on the galactic map. There are a few places that you’ll keep returning to now and again, but there’s no place for you to really call ‘home.’ This is a little strange, since most pirates have delusions of grandeur, and you’d think that they’d at least want to have a base of operations where they can stow all their booty and plunder. 

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All in all, this game was a lot of fun. Admittedly, it got a bit cheesy at times, and repetitive on the stints between story missions, but the novelty of blasting around space in a personalized vessel more than makes up for it. Not only that, but the replay value is high, since it takes between 6 and 10 hours to play through each different faction’s unique storyline. After that, there’s a whole slew of player made mods that range from cheats to whole new games. As long as you’re having fun earning money, buying guns, and blasting poor buggers out of the sky, this game will keep you coming back for more. 

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