I love me a good shoot-em-up game, and twin-stick shooters such as Geometry Wars are a particularly fun venture. Thus I went into Deep Eclipse, a PC shooter that replaces two control sticks with a keyboard and mouse, with no small amount of optimism. Unfortunately I was left a bit wanting. The game does many things right, but the small number of things it does wrong ended up bringing the overall experience down a bit.
A "schmup" like Deep Eclipse doesn't really need anything in the way of story in order to work, but this game attempts a bit of one anyway. Wait at the main menu long enough, and you'll be treated to a series of images explaining how one ship went to explore a spatial anomaly, but lost many of its systems and is now being attacked by numerous space creatures. The story doesn't get expounded on much in the game's campaign mode, and the initial explanation looks as if it was poorly translated from another language, making for a fairly hilarious read. Still, Deep Eclipse is not a game where the story plays much of a role in the overall enjoyment, so it's hard to fault the game much for that.
As I said earlier, the gameplay is based on twin-stick shooters that you may have seen on consoles, except replaced with the keyboard and mouse; the WASD keys control your ship's movement, while the mouse pointer indicates the direction in which you fire. The control transplant is fine; aiming is fairly fast and responsive, though you can't change your firing direction quite as quickly as you could with a control stick. Movement feels good too, as your ship has a realistic momentum to it, and it's easy to get used to moving around. You have easy access to all your other controls as well, such as firing your weaponry, using abilities, or opening up the modification menu; my only major control gripe is that switching weapons is assigned to the scroll wheel, and you cycle through them extremely fast, so it's tough landing on the one you want quickly. The number keys also work, but that involves moving one of your hands, and thus pausing the action.
There are two main modes in this game: Campaign and Survival. In Campaign, you're tasked with clearing a series of levels with fixed enemies in each one. In Survival mode, you play for as long as you can before you lose your one life, and the game tracks how many enemies you managed to destroy. Besides the progression, both of these modes pretty much play the same, except it doesn't appear that you can buy extra lives in Survival mode.
Your ship flies around a slightly-tilted 2D plane, as enemies fly toward you from all directions and try to attack. Unlike many shooter games, most of these enemies don't fire at you, but instead try to ram your ship, chasing after you. Most of the time, this results in you flying backwards through the level while being chased by a swarm of low-level grunts. There are more annoying enemies, though, like those that can attach themselves to your ship and do steady damage, or huge enemies that fire homing shots at you. The variety is fairly decent, though the strategy doesn't really change much; it only really affects who you should kill first.
There are some design choices that make this game particularly frustrating, though. For one thing, even early in the game enemies take multiple hits to destroy, and since they come at you in swarms it's very difficult to clear your screen and get yourself out of immediate danger. This leads to the aforementioned running away while firing at the enemies chasing you, which is pretty constant. The problem is that more enemies will be coming at you from all directions even as the swarm chases you, and because your field of vision is so small, you have almost zero time to react to an enemy suddenly appearing on your screen to fly into you. The radar you have helps this somewhat, but it's not nearly enough; a full mini-map of the screen would have been much more useful, or some sort of radar where your ship is not fixed in the center of it.
The end result is you flying around in jagged patterns at high speed, needing not just good reaction time but the ability to predict where an enemy will move to based on very little information. As a result, I soon grew extremely frustrated with the campaign. What's unfortunate is that this would be something easy to change, by offering a larger field of vision or a different radar; perhaps a future patch will allow options like this.
As you play through the game, you'll obtain crystals by defeating enemies, and once you collect enough (usually 2,000) you can open up your modification menu and purchase some upgrades. Here you can buy new weapons or abilities, upgrade existing ones, improve general stats like health and attack, or buy more lives. Thankfully, you can open up this menu right in the middle of combat, make some changes, then jump right back into the level with your upgraded ship. As an additional upgrade component, your ship will, at points, be prompted to upgrade along either a technological or organic upgrade path, which will affect the sorts of abilities you can obtain later on.
Getting crystals in mid-combat can be tough, though, as the destroyed enemies are part of the swarm chasing you, so you put yourself in danger to try and get them often times. Often times, crystals are your reward for taking care of a large swarm of enemies, which allows you to actually pick them up. Something else worth noting is that it's certainly possible to take the "wrong" upgrade path; if you do what I initially did and upgrade your lasers all the way, you'll find yourself with too little health or defense to take on even earlier stages. You'll need to be careful when choosing your upgrades, though this is probably only a real problem in the early stages, where the penalty for restarting the campaign is minimal.
The game has a fairly nice presentation, overall. The soundtrack is low-level while you're actually playing through stages, but during menus it livens up a bit with melodic notes, which is a nice touch; in any case, the tunes have an "outer space" feel to them. The graphics as run on my computer, even with a highly outdated graphics card, look rather nice, with your ship and enemies well detailed, as well as the background. The levels are a bit sparse, though; the actual play field is just a hexagon grid with nothing in it, and the only interesting objects are certain celestial objects that change from level to level. What's more frustrating is that you have no visual indication, on radar or the main screen, about when you're going to hit the edge of the level. Since the best way to avoid enemies is to rely on the radar to know where you can safely go, this poses some significant problems.
As an additional quandary, I can only run the game if I have administrator permissions, even on the tenth or so time. This struck me as rather bizarre.
Overall, Deep Eclipse is a well-made shooter game that is unfortunately brought down by some small design choices that add up to a frustration greater than the sum of its parts. Future updates that added things such as visible walls, a wider camera, or a different radar would go a long way toward abating the problem. If you can handle the accidental difficulty that is created, this game has a lot of nicely polished aspects that many will appreciate, such as an excellent upgrade system and tight controls. Just make sure you're prepared.
- by Jim Avery for news10.net's Game Guys
(GamersGate supplied a copy of this game for review.)
Version tested: PC