Top-down 2D space sims are a classic genre almost as old as gaming itself. VoidExpanse is a modern entry in this genre, billing itself as a fusion of old school mechanics with modern conveniences. This is another genre I have fond memories of, and I personally am happy to see renewed interest in. But is VoidExpanse worthy? Let's find out in my VoidExpanse review.
(Full disclosure: I got a review copy of this game at no charge. I have no other relationship with the game, the developers, or anyone else involved in VoidExpanse.)
Look and Feels
Let me start by saying this is a beautiful game. The ships are beautiful, the backgrounds are beautiful, the stations are beautiful, even the asteroids are beautiful.
The only thing that is really not beautiful is the character portraits:
I think they're designed to be procedurally generated, but the art style just doesn't mesh well with the rest of the game. I keep expecting the NPCs to tell me how they know that feel, bro.
The audio is pretty good, the music is very 80's sci-fi synth and the sound effects feel meaty. The only part I didn't really like was the computer voice. Luckily, many mods are already available on the Steam Workshop with alternate voices.
The basic gameplay loop of this genre is:
- Make money through trading, fighting, or exploring
- Buy upgrades for your ship and/or pilot
- Do quests to advance the plot
- Encounter harder enemies
... and repeat, until the game is over. Let's break each step down and see how VoidExpanse does.
Trading and Exploring
First, we have the exploration and trading aspects. VoidExpanse gets a lot of the basic elements right. Stations stock commodity goods, and you can buy these at stations where they are cheap and ship them to other locations where they're in demand to make a profit. You can also mine asteroids to make small profits without any initial investment.
Goods can be stored on your ship or in stations. Sometimes it makes sense to buy in bulk when the price is low and store in the station rather than carting it around with you. However, there's no indication of whether or not you have goods stored in a station unless you're docked with it.
In my game, at least, there were a good 80 or so systems to explore. Unfortunately, a good 40% started under control of the aliens, and of the rest probably 30% were uninhabited. The remaining systems had 1 station each, except for the capital systems for each faction, which had 3 stations. This means that there was a lot of travel time between systems looking for deals. There's also just 3 types of station, so there's not a lot of exploration to be done in order to see everything there is to see.
There is an autopilot feature, and it is quite useful for these long trade trips. It can get you where you're going without having to worry terribly much about running into a star or having to manually navigate a long chain of systems. However, it's irritatingly imprecise. Sometimes it gets stuck spiraling around a warp gate, where it's technically able to warp to the next system but it's trying to hit some small target in the middle instead of moving on. It can't navigate if it is stuck between several small objects. It often plows headfirst into solid objects and causes shield and hull damage. It basically works, but I found it to be terribly irritating.
Missions are available at stations, but besides plot missions and one-time encounters, only the station commanders have quests for you. There are a few basic types, but the ones I ran the most often were the "bounty hunt" and "survivor rescue" quests. They're decent for getting experience points, but not particularly profitable otherwise.
Each system was also populated by an overabundance of pirates. I lost count in one of the core systems when I hit about 40 ships. There aren't many friendly NPCs, and most of them are either the turrets that protect stations or roving merchant ships. Trying to get from point A to point B in any system tends to be a minefield of enemy encounters.
Speaking of enemy encounters, they're challenging and not particularly profitable. Even with the most powerful ship in the game, fully upgraded, I found combat to be difficult. Generally I'd have to withdraw if I was attacked by more than one or two ships at a time. Given that the systems are packed to the brim with enemies, this was a common occurrence.
There are 4 types of weapons - energy, projectile, missiles, and mines. The hitscan energy weapons are the easiest to aim, with the lock-on variants of the missiles coming in second, owing to their tendency to miss. The projectile weapons were by far my least favorite.
Why is that? Many weapons are mounted on turrets, which track the mouse cursor. Thus, you've got to orient your ship so that the enemy is in the turn radius of the turret, aim the mouse cursor to hit the ship, and then fire. Most of the projectile weapons are slow enough that you've also got to lead the enemy ship by a considerable margin in order to hit. Meanwhile, the enemy is attempting to evade your shots. Hitting with these weapons is a challenging ballet, to say the least.
Destroying enemies rarely yields profit - compared to trading, or even mining, fighting enemies is a losing proposition. Usually I didn't even have enough cash after a bunch of fights to afford to repair my ship. I mostly did it to gain experience points so I could upgrade my pilot, or to thin the herds of enemies that populated the systems I visited the most often.
When you've made bank through trading (because let's face it: mining and fighting aren't going to get you there...) and gained a bunch of experience, it's time to upgrade.
I generally liked finding new gear and watching my ship become more powerful. The ship models change to show whatever you have equipped, although normally I was pretty zoomed out when flying around and couldn't tell much of a difference. You can also swap out hulls easily - it's just another slot. Everything else stays equipped, with the exception of weapons.
Meanwhile, experience points gain you character levels, which give you skill points to drop into the various skill trees. There are several skills I'd rate as mandatory - for instance, you can't equip a lot of the larger hulls without the proper skills. There's also a limit to the weapon levels you can use until you unlock the relevant skills. Basically, without these upgrades your power level is going to be permanently stuck.
Beyond the essentials, there are a number of supporting skills covering basically every aspect of the game. You can increase your profit margins, or boost your shield capacity, for instance.
Unfortunately, at this time there's no skill respec option. If you pick a skill, that's it, you're stuck with it. This is especially problematic since you need certain weapon skills to really maximize your combat performance, but the weapon types you equip on each hull vary. For instance, you might want level 2 ballistic weapons for one hull, and level 3 energy weapons for another. Once you switch, the points spent to optimize your ballistic weapons are wasted, essentially.
Plot and the Endgame
VoidExpanse's plot is a pretty standard tale of "humans go into space, humans meet aliens, humans underestimate aliens, plucky hero saves humanity." There are some "ancient alien technology is awesome" threads thrown in there for flavor. There are several factions you can ally with, including the "Order" faction that favors military response, and the "Freedom" faction that is all about free market economics.
Most of the plot is told in text via speaking to NPCs in stations. However, the plot text is shared among all NPCs, so everyone gives basically the same (or very similar) responses to the same questions. Plot missions follow faction lines, so there's a way to win for the three major factions and one for winning without allying with a faction. VoidExpanse mentions some faction-specific bonuses, but I couldn't figure out what joining the Order really did for me, except move the plot along.
The endgame for the Order is destroying a lot of alien space stations, deep in enemy territory. I found this somewhat tedious, especially since reloading my weapons and repairing/refueling required me to head back to the nearest friendly station, a half dozen jumps away.
Multiplayer & Modding
I should also mention that VoidExpanse is designed as a multiplayer game. You can join servers or host your own. I joined a few and tooled around a bit, but having to start over from scratch kind of turned me off. Some servers are explicitly PvP, while others are more focused on co-operative content. Players were meeting up and gaining group XP for mining on one server I was on.
There's also a lot of room for mods to add or change content in the game - almost all the text, models, and scripts are fair game. You can make your own new gear if you want to, or grab stuff off the Steam Workshop that other players have created.
VoidExpanse elicits some mixed emotions from me.
On the one hand, I played it all weekend. And I don't mean "all weekend" in the sense that it was my go-to game for a couple of days - VoidExpanse sucked me in for 3 solid days and didn't let go. It features a lot of the core elements that make this genre so addicting. It's damn beautiful and usually a lot of fun to play. Some smart systems solve problems that have plagued similar games for years.
However, the current version of the game seems like it's missing a lot of things. There's a lot of rough edges and areas that should be deep feel pretty shallow. The more hours I spent with it, the more the roughness bothered me. It also seems like it needs a bit more balance to make the combat more fun, and it could use another big chunk of content to round out the experience.