Venture the Void
Back in the mid-1990s an Italian programmer by the name of Alessandro Ghignola designed a brilliant piece of freeware titled "Noctis". Now in its fourth revision (although development seems to have ceased over the last couple of years) the software is still freely available to download. Not really a game but more a sort of space exploration simulator, Noctis was amazing for a few reasons. Firstly, the code produced (by means of autogeneration from a particular random seed) a realistically sized galaxy that could be explored through the use of a ship - the Stardrifter. Secondly, due to this method of autogeneration, the download size of Noctis was kept below 1Mb in size! And thirdly, although Noctis was non-networkable, Stardrifters from all over the world could make discoveries in the Noctis universe and, by way of a downloadable database that integrated (somewhat clumsily) into the Stardrifter, share those dicoveries with other explorers. There was no way to win, nor any particular goal to accomplish in Noctis; nonetheless, it consumed uncountable hours of my free time. Something about it would keep drawing me back again and again.
There is something about this week's review game, Venture the Void, that keeps me double clicking on the game's icon on my desktop, and I know what it is. It is the similarity between it and Noctis that is the hook. Venture the Void relies on the very same method of autogenerating its huge gameworld from a comparitively modestly sized user end client download. The main difference is the scale of the galaxies involved. Whereas Noctis generated a realistically sized galaxy, Venture the Void is content with modelling a few hundred planets, or thereabouts, depending on the world pack used.
The game plays as a space combat/trading/exploration freelancer in the vein of Elite. It is a multiplayer game at heart, with the client software used to log onto a server where many simultaneous and ongoing games in different gameworlds are in progress at any one time. I think that a better idea, at least until the game gains more popularity, would be to restrict the number of games available to two or three, since I very rarely seem to be able to join games with anyone in them. Once registered, the game will allow the player to play solo games offline. Regardless of whether playing offline or online, the experience for me has been pretty much the same.
The game has a tongue in cheek feel, with plenty of humour and a cartoony style to it that is not at all displeasing. The graphics are colourful and bright. There are features like atmospheres on some planets, explorable underwater areas, seamless surface to space transitions and good use of lighting that make the game very attractive. Since all the terrain and vegetation is autogenerated, there are some amazing natural occurrences to be explored such as huge natural caverns, deep ocean trenches and towering mountain ranges. Weather effects like rain and snow, and even thunderstorms give each planet a distinctive feel. Some moons are nothing more than huge disfigured chunks of rock (think Mars' moons in real life). By far the most compelling part of the game for me was the exploration of the various environments.
In contrast, the main storyline, player interface and general gamey elements were a bit disappointing. The lack of any kind of manual is absurd for a game of this complexity and is inexcusable. The interface is a series of nested menus that are navigated by mouseclicks, but the lack of mouseover tooltips and a reasonable inventory management system and general layout problems detracted from my enjoyment of the game. Some illogical menu choices (made for testing purposes) would leave me in a position where I had no way to navigate back to a previous screen and no way to exit the menu system. Ctrl-Alt-Del to the rescue. The player can enter buildings of cities and caves but at that point the gameplay changes to more of a text based adventure style. There are some dungeon crawl elements as well, which can be initiated by entering certain features on some planets, but these are very rudimentary in nature and not particularly satisfying.
There are some serious balance issues that need to be addressed as well. For example, mining a particular resource from the surface of a moon in one system, and transporting it to a factory on a nearby planet would yield 1,500 credits per unit, for a net gain of nearly 10,000 for a decent load, at virtually no risk to the player. Whereas hunting dangerous monsters and claiming the bounty on say, 4 of them would yield only 2,000 credits and take twice as long as well as there being a serious risk of death to the player. Deaths are common and can appear to be almost random at times. The player is given no warning of impending attack, and even worse, no explanation after being instantly killed as to why and how they died. Death, however, seems to be a trivial matter in Venture the Void and the player is reincarnated instantly for just the cost of a few experience points. Meh... maybe it's just me and my stubborn mindset derived from years of playing roguelikes that death should be permanent or at least have serious negative effects on the player, but the whole "instant kill - instant respawn" concept got quite old very quickly.
It's not all gloom and doom for Venture the Void. The ship handling and control scheme is excellent, and the physics model is very pleasing. Autopilot and jump drive technology is easy to use, but all flying can be reverted to manual control at any time. The way the player can upgrade their ship by using finance options to pay off more expensive models by the week (real time) is innovative and gives the player incentive to keep coming back to the game and more importantly keep earning money! Minerals mined and creatures slayed in the gameworld will keep respawning over time, so that there is always a source of income for even beginning characters. A rudimentary supply and demand model is evident on the planets, so that it becomes difficult to find a one-step "get rich quick" trade route, although (as intended) some are more profitable than others and it is up to the player to discover these for themselves.
Replayability is guaranteed through the massive size of the gameworld, and also downloadable "worldpacks" that can be used to set up games in completely different gameworlds. At the time of publication of this review there are a handful of worldpacks ready for download, with more promised in the future. A great addition to the game would be a user-end tool to allow the player to generate their own worldpacks, but unfortunately this is not possible at this time. (The developers have indicated to me that this is something that they would love to look at in the future.)
Venture the Void combines a brilliant concept and a fresh take on a well known genre with some gameplay flaws and an uninspiring storyline. The learning curve is particularly steep, and new players will need the entirity of their 4 trial hours just to become familiar with some basic game elements. For example, it took me days (real time) to work out that I needed to rent a hotel room just to change my characters armour layout. At the risk of repeating myself, Venture the Void needs a manual more than anything else at the moment. The in-game menu based quick tips and incomplete web based Wiki are not enough, although they are welcomed help to a dumbfounded and lost newbie. Fortunately, the game does have that "still in development" feel to it that promises major improvements; perhaps enough to boost it to Bytten gold star status sometime in the future.
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