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Nice Tech Demo, Undistinguished Game: An Evochron Mercenary Review
Space flight simulation has always been a rather sedated game genre, much to the woe of its fans. While players are rarely left in the lurch for first-person shooters, sports games, role-playing games when looking over the year's current and future releases, new space sims of note are a rarity in the games market, and the number of quality titles is short enough that any recommendation list tends to consist of the same list of titles. Unfortunately for Evochron Mercenary, latest of the Evochron series by developer StarWraith 3D games, while Evochron Mercenary raises some eyebrows with its embrace of massive scale in a seamless Newtonian universe, it ultimately fails to impress anywhere on the scale of such staple space sims as Freespace, Freelancer, Independence War, and the X titles.
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Evochron Mercenary Review: Gameplay
As a sandbox space sim, Evochron Mercenary is fairly conformist in terms of the features and opportunities available to players. Starting the game with a basic ship, you are free to perform contracts, trade, and harvest resources as you see fit, and must defend yourself against raiders, rebels, and various other threats. All the regular fixin's of sandbox space sims are present, but are just that: present. There's no particular depth or distinguishment in any particular department, and in some cases are little more than minimalist cash-grab affairs, lacking even a thin surface layer or detail to scrape away and forget about after several hours of gameplay.
Where Evochron Mercenary stands out is its sense of scale. Unlike more popular and traditional space sims, where planets and stations are oftentimes only a single factor larger in size than your ship, objects in Evochron possess size much more befitting of their nature. Planets are no longer background art, but physical objects that you can orbit, complete with atmospheres and gravitational fields that you can enter, exit, and be burned to a crisp in with excessive flight speed. Solar systems aren't compact affairs that span only a few dozen kilometers, but massive entities that must be navigated with care and the use of jump gates and jump drives. The universe itself is seamless and massive, and while jump gates are much more convenient for long-distance travel, there's nothing besides the size of your fuel tank that can stop you from manually jumping from one system to another - and there's plenty to find in uncharted space.
Also touted by Evochron Mercenary's developers is its ship customization system. Whereas upgrades in other games are either complete ship swaps or invisible component swaps, you can upgrade the individual components of your ship, including chassis, engines, wings, cargo hold, fuel tank, and shield generator, each of which can be scaled, scrunched, stretched, and positioned as you see fit. Unfortunately, while there's an abundance of parts to select from when upgrading one's ship, the actual upgrades have little impact other than acting as a simple +1 modifier, and the assembly requirement for parts leaves you with little choice as to what direction to take your ship's direction. In the end, the abundance of parts add up to very little, and asides from a few more equipment slots and a few more points of shielding, ships all wind up feeling and performing largely the same.
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Evochron Mercenary Review: Controls
While Newtonian physics are a common talking point for space sims, very few games implement it in meaningful ways, let alone full-blown Newtonian flight. While Evochron Mercenary supports a traditional arcade-style flight system with automatic thrust vectoring and inertial compensation, you can instantly switch to a full-on Newtonian flight mode with a press of the space bar. Newtonian flight offers a variety of new tactics for combat, such as fly-by strafing runs or orbital maneuvers with the use of maneuvering thrusters, and the higher speeds achievable through Newtonian flight - even the slowest of ship builds can hit 4,000 meters per second with enough afterburner abuse - can whittle down travel times in areas where jump drive use is simply impractical. Newtonian flight is also an important aspect of fuel control, as more powerful engines consume more fuel, which can be expensive to buy in large quantities later in the game.
In terms of input, Evochron Mercenary supports numerous control schemes. For players of X3: Terran Conflict and Freelancer, a mouse flight system serves more than adequately functional, and allows easy access to functions such as target selection and menu interaction, while more hardcore flight sim aficionados can opt for the use of a full joystick. All supported control schemes include full button remapping, and setting a custom command map is painless.
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Evochron Mercenary Review: Multiplayer
Perhaps its one saving grace, Evochron Mercenary includes a cooperative and competitive multiplayer system in which players can work together to complete contracts and tasks, or butt heads in direct competition. Multiplayer in Evochron Mercenary is a drop-in drop-out form of singleplayer, with the host opening their single-player universe to whomever wishes to join. An integrated clan ID system allows players with common username elements to join forces, and clans of players can undertake high-paying contracts otherwise unavailable or suicidal for a single player to handle alone. Said clans can also vie for control of a specific system by performing special contracts, and those that hold the majority of power in a system will receive a share of all trade transactions undertaken in said system. Players are even able to join their ships together in a turret binding system, with the second player able to provide cover for the first with a 360-degree firing arc. An integrated voice chat system makes communication between players a breeze, and as player account data is shared between both singleplayer and multiplayer modes, multiplayer is an excellent way for new players to acquire equipment otherwise unavailable to them - providing they have a friend willing to spare the time and effort to kit them out.
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Evochron Mercenary Review: Graphics
From a technical standpoint, Evochron Mercenary's graphics are respectable enough: though nowhere near hardware-straining, the graphical overhaul from Mercenary's predecessor is considerable, and in terms of shading, particles, and other graphical tidbits that have increasingly become the norm over the years there's little to see that offends. Art-wise, however, Mercenary falls flat on its face. Ships, stations, and planets have design, but very few have any real sort of style, and there's little in the way of fine details to distinguish one flying winged brick from another. Individual ship parts and frames are only one or two curves and faces short of identical, and ships designs are soon relegated to a name and little else.
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Evochron Mercenary Review: Audio
Evochron Mercenary is completely and utterly unremarkable in terms of its audio achievements. While functional and flawless in terms of clarity, nothing about Evochron Mercenary's sound effects stands out in any way whatsoever, and you'll quickly learn to mentally minimize the presence of cannon fire and engine thrust. Music in Evochron Mercenary fares only slightly better, and while the primary background track played during all non-combat situations is decent enough and even memorable to some extent, other audio tracks are quickly forgotten in the heat of conflict due to a lack of long-term impact and intensity.
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Evochron Mercenary Review: Overall Rating
Though bringing some nice ideas to the space sim design table, and featuring multiplayer well suited for killing a few hours here and there, Evochron Mercenary just doesn't have any staying power to keep players hooked once they've been lured in for a look. As a tech demo and proof-of-concept piece, Evochron Mercenary is more than successful - doubly so considering StarWraith 3D Games' small size - but when put against bar-raising titles like Freelancer, Freespace, Independence War, and X3: Terran Conflict, there's just not enough content to distinguish it from the rest of the pack.
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Evochron Mercenary Review: The Fine Points
- Seamless, vast universe with a scale befitting the genre
- Newtonian physics are a blast to exploit, and lead to interesting combat options
- Multiplayer mode is satisfying for both competative and cooperative playstyles, and is great for quick action
- Gameplay elements are rather barebones, with little in the way of polish or depth
- Actual ship customization impact is rather negligable
- Graphics are passable, but designs are boring and uninspired
- Sound effects are adequate, but music lacks any impact beyond sheer repetition
- Most multiplayer servers seem to have given up the ghost, so finding some online action is a crapshoot
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All images are from Evochron Mercenary.