Overall Score 72%
I've recently been playing an old favourite of mine called "Conflict: Freespace", and it occurred to me that you don't see many 3D space shooters out there. So it's rather apt that I've now been introduced to "The Wreckless", one of that relatively rare genre. You're a pilot on board the Wreckless, a capital ship stocked with fighter drones. You don't fly the drones themselves, but operate them remotely from the safety of the main vessel, so if it gets destroyed you can be placed in another. A series of missions awaits, starting with basic training and demonstrations, then taking on all manner of foes. Are you up to the challenge?
The Wreckless doesn't really have much more to explain than that. You have a series of missions, for which you can research and switch between different types of drone. Fighters are fast and powerful. Bombers have powerful weapons for taking out capital ships. Fighter-bomber crosses are also available, compromising between the two types of ship. You aren't alone out there - you can specify the number of ships in the drone fleets, making things easier or harder as you wish. Then into battle, your wingmen surging into the fray, laser blasts and rockets flying. Defend the Wreckless, destroy the enemy! There are research points available for mission success, which can be spent on unlocking new ship types.
Unlike Freespace, which had so many controls it came with a reference card, The Wreckless is fairly easy to pick up. You have keys for thrusting forward and back, two strafing side thrusters and (for the player who really struggles with spaceflight mechanics, which is probably most of us) some computer-assisted brakes. Hold down the spacebar and you'll be brought to a stop. There are also boosters if you need extra speed and you can steer and fire your weapons with the mouse. Weapons generally include cannons with the left mouse button (for which ammunition is unlimited) and homing missiles with the right (limited, but useful), though you'll need to lock on the enemy ship before you throw a missile at them.
The graphics can seem a little basic at first, but you soon get used to the style. The simple approach does mean that you can have a lot on screen at once without lag, which means you can have decent action even in a thick asteroid field. Hyperspace jumps (yours or other ships') can, however, slow down the display horrendously - I'm not clear whether this is deliberate. Your next target is automatically selected and a crosshair symbol indicates where it is, though you aren't necessarily required to target them in a particular sequence. I don't recall any way to target ships manually, though fortunately it is not required - even for missile launches. A helpful lead indicator shows where to shoot to hit a moving target and there are useful displays on screen for all the important stats, such as your shields and hull strength, number of missiles left, current objectives, stuff like that.
Sound is something of a let down. I know that sound doesn't travel through the vacuum of space, but every space warrior worth anything knows that the sounds of laser blasts and explosions are essential. I suspect, if space battles ever do take place like this, real pilots will have simulated sound effects to fill the silence. The Wreckless has sound effects, but they somehow seem to lack punch. There should be huge rumblings in the bass range when a capital ship goes down, and drones disappearing with a kind of "phut" sound is somewhat unsatisfying. There is some background music, though background is about right - it didn't stand out at all, even when the action was quiet. I'm not even sure if it was one background track or several similar ones. And then there are the voiceovers... while I applaud using voiceovers in a game like this, which works very well in mission briefings and tutorials, it can actually be worse to do them badly than not at all. These voiceovers are apparently home recorded, using cheap equipment and without hiring voice actors; if you're unable to afford a professional job, you may want to reconsider whether you should have them at all.
Underneath the slightly garish style and the mediocre sound, however, The Wreckless is surprisingly playable. Space flight is damned difficult for humans to get a handle on, as there is seldom any point of reference to orient ourselves and judge our speed. The fast and maneuvorable ships lessen this concern, and the computer assisted braking is essential for delicate positioning, such as docking. Strafing runs are both possible and rather effective. Your supporters are reasonably intelligent and generally avoid shooting you or each other, and indeed there are some missions where you can almost just sit back and do nothing and let everyone else do the work for you. Players in need of more support or who fancy a challenge can modify the numbers and types of drones they have available, though this screen was not clearly explained and the instructions were quite light.
I'm not sure about the longevity of The Wreckless. It lacks a proper title screen, so I'm not clear on whether you can have multiple saved games running. You can replay "simulations" of completed missions in the log, which bizarrely also allows you to "replay" the current mission before you actually play it. There's a research tree that allows you to unlock new ships, but since this generally seems to unlock new ships one at a time at about the same rate you gain research points it seems a little redundant. There was no research tree in Freespace - new technology merely became unlocked at key points. Given that the missions are fixed, there's not really a vast amount of replay in the game, though this is somewhat true of the genre. A compelling storyline could keep players interested, but we don't seem to have one here; just a string of missions.
I think The Wreckless has the makings of a good game, let down mainly by a lack of presentation. It feels like a working beta version, before the main screens and the final graphics and sounds are in place. Underneath the rough and ready style, however, the gameplay is quite promising. There's something good here - it just needs a bit longer.
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