FTL: Faster Than Light | Games, Gamers, & Gaming | January 2013

There are games, and then there are games for gamers.  Those are the games that only those who have spent years sharpening their wits and learning just what makes a game work can tackle. Anyone else can still enjoy them, but they must be prepared for a real challenge. FTL: Faster Than Light is one of these.

Every sf fan has dreamed of being a starship captain—the thrill of zero-gravity naval combat, the precision of commanding a seasoned crew, the challenge of exploring uncharted territory, and the satisfaction and relief that come with victories are the great allures of this fictional archetype. FTL, more than any other game, gives players the experience of commanding a space-faring vessel on a desperate mission to deliver top-secret intelligence to home base. Along the way, the captain will face vicious enemies, bizarre alien races, allies, civilians in distress, and simultaneous dread and wonder of the unknown.

Divert power to shields!

FTL: Faster Than Light is, overall, a strategy game, but its various mechanics make it hard to pigeon-hole. There are elements of role-playing, resource management, and combat.

First, as captain you must make sure that your ship is running efficiently and your crew is manning the most vital systems. The vessel has four main systems, all of which consume varying degrees of power. Shields protect the ship from damage, engines make it more maneuverable, life support keeps the crew in good physical condition, and there are a variety of weapons. Players allocate power supply to these systems, but they can’t be fully powered simultaneously. Players must prioritize which are the most important given their current situation.

During battle, any of these systems can be damaged, affecting the ship’s performance—if the weapons systems sustain too much damage, a player won’t be able to attack; if visual observation is lost, you’re flying blind. Players can deploy crew members to repair damaged or destroyed systems, or to man certain systems and give the ship a performance boost—having a crew member man the shields manually increases their recharge time, making the ship safer in combat, for example.

Space combat involves a constantly shifting set of variables and demands that the gamer be sharp and quick in their decision-making and observation. If players ignore one system at the expense of maintaining another, crew members could be lost, the vessel could suffer irreparable damage, or the ship might suddenly be boarded by an invading enemy!

The ship of your dreams

Throughout the journey, you can customize your ship by picking up scrap and new weapons from defeated enemy vessels. Space junk can be harvested for resources, and you also can receive payment from enemies wishing to surrender, other ships you assist, or alien races you encounter. Employing these resources, users can fit their ship with more efficient parts, upgrade their systems, and—if a naval store is encountered—even have hull damage repaired and the crew revitalized.

The great big empty

The main objective in this game is to reach a base controlled by allies, but getting there isn’t easy.  You start at a safe point and then “jump” from one point to another. Each jump requires a fuel cell, and these have limited capacity. When you jump, you’ll have an encounter—it could be combat, or it might be a chance to pick up some resources or a secondary objective. After the encounter, the character jumps to a new location.

You will not be able to explore each sector at your leisure: not only is fuel limited, but the longer you stay in a single sector, the more dangerous it becomes. Thus, players will be faced with some tough choices: if you discover a naval store at one location, you may return to it after a tough battle to repair your ship, but that creates another dilemma: use up the fuel to go back there and face the threat of even more encounters with enemies or push ahead? Not to mention that repairs cost resources, so upgrades come at the cost of repairs (and vice versa).

Do you pursue other quests and assist allies to earn more resources, or go full ahead to get to the next sector before the fuel runs out and the enemy fleet overtakes you? There is never a moment in this game that resource management is not a priority. It’s a constant challenge, and the fate of the crew, the ship, and the mission is a constant concern.

The finest crew

With unlockable ships and a randomized generation of encounters, there is a wealth of replay value in FTL. It is truly never the same game twice, and with its level of engagement and excitement, it is easy to get lost in the experience. It’s a rich and fitting addition to any public library’s PC gaming setup.

Until next time, keep telling yourself—just one more level!

M. Brandon Robbins About M. Brandon Robbins

M. Brandon Robbins (mbrandon.robbins@gmail.com) is the Media Coordinator at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, NC. He's a member of the 2011 class of ALA Emerging Leaders.