Jack Of All Trades
I have an admission to make. I have never played Elite. This is despite having played a swag of games that have taken some inspiration from the universally crowned godfather of the space trading/exploration/combat genre, and tried to offer a slightly different play experience to the others. It is with this slight reservation then, that I proclaim with great confidence that Jack of All Trades is an 'Elite-like' game. Played from the top-down perspective the player controls a spaceship to battle with enemies, trade between planets and space stations and explore a large galaxy. I will go on record as stating that I am I huge fan of Cornutopias Flatspace series, which for me has set the bar height for modern indie games in this genre.
In terms of eye candy, Jack of all Trades doesn't really get the gold. The ship and station models are best described as functional, there are no real-time lighting effects, weapons fire is quite bland, and explosions are somehow unsatisfying. There is no flare from the ships thrust, or smoke trails from damaged ships which could have made the game more immersive.
On the positive side, the planet models are reasonably varied and attractive, and the hyperspace effects are good as well. The entire game can be downloaded in a 2Mb setup file, and possibly Dingo Games made sacrifices in the graphics to keep the file size low. Indeed this is a game that those on 56k connections can download and be playing in minutes.
Sound is quite minimalist with pops and squeaks, bangs and crashes where needed. There is no title music nor are there any in-game tunes. So with below average scores in graphics and sound, the game needed to score big in the gameplay department to give value for the $20 asking price. In fact, playabillity was a bit of a disappointment as well, but I will try to be as constructive in my criticism as possible.
There is a main storyline and associated missions that the player can choose to follow. The story goes that the Muterrans and the Robotos are fighting a 500 year war and the player character is a robot drone in the Imperial Roboto Navy. After being saved from the carnage and reprogrammed by a group known as the Freedom Alliance, the player is free to assist them in their noble crusade or alternatively just freelance in classic Elite style. The missions are linear and always remain available even if the player decides to make a name for himself trading, bounty-hunting or pirating for some time.
The overall tone of the game is fairly toungue-in-cheek, and the occasional humour makes sure that the game never takes itself too seriously. The guy to the right is Lazer (of the Freedom Alliance) and he likes his name so much that he's had it etched onto his cool helmet. He even offers to bestow one upon the player in-game.
The real problem with the game is that the core mechanics just don't seem to be as enjoyable as I would have liked them to be. Combat, for example, suffers from a keyboard driven control setup which although is user configurable, somehow seems to feel clunky and frustrating. The fine tuning to course and angles that would be afforded by mouse control over the ship would have been warmly welcomed. At default speed, the game is simply too fast to be playable for me, but even after slowing the game right down using the handy slider in the options panel, I found that fleet battles (although looking quite cool), were simply suicide to take part in. I'm not a big fan of save reloading in these types of games, but I found it a necessity in Jack, and sadly, that detracted from the ingame immersion significantly. Random deaths were too common, and I simply felt too little control over my characters plight.
Trading goods between sectors is too easy since the only limiting parameter on when you can jump from sector to sector is the distance between the ship and the centre of the current sector. So, in effect you simply jump into a sector, turn 180 degrees fly for a second or two and the jump again. The only danger comes when on the last jump of the trip, in which you must fly the goods to the planet or station in the center of the sector for offload. Most of the bounty-hunter missions are fairly difficult to accomplish in the weaker ships, and so a lot of bland trading and delivery missions are really the only way to go in the early stages of the game. The stock market feature is an easy way to make a lot of money (or lose it) very quickly. Based on past trends and future predictions, the player can buy and sell shares in many seemingly randomly generated companies at any station or planet. Almost a mini-game inside the game, the stock market is a shortcut to more powerful ships such as the moblie gun platform to the right.
The big letdown for Jack is probably it's lack of immersiveness. Ships are simply randomly generated when the player warps into a sector and there is no particular feeling of danger or rivalry similar to that experienced in a game like Flatspace, where individual ships can be traced and tracked in quasi-realtime going about their business. I didn't feel compelled to keep going back for more. Although it is unfair to compare commercial releases to indies, it is noteworthy to add that I have recenly bought a copy of the impressive X3: Reunion for less than double the price of this game.
I don't want to sound too harsh to Dingo Games, but in all truth, Jack of all trades needs to offer a great deal more, or cost a lot less.
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