Review: FTL Advanced Edition for iPad

By Owen Faraday 02 Apr 2014 0
We can bounce back from this, guys. We can bounce back from this, guys.

There's a lot of space inside this spaceship. I'm no scientist, but the spaceship seems to work better when the space is on the outside.

Half of the compartments on the Bethnal Green have been opened to the void--by me--in the hopes that an invading boarding party composed of four Rebels would asphyxiate. In other compartments, where the doors are shut tight, the air has leaked out through the holes in the hull that were punched through by missiles from the Rebel cutter hanging in space just over there.

There's no air in the weapons control room, either, but that's okay, because weapons officer Geryk is a mercury-blooded monster whose alien body chemistry doesn't need (or even particularly like) oxygen. No, the problem in that room is that a well-targeted blast from the Rebel ship's burst laser has knocked all of our weapons offline, and Geryk is frantically trying to cobble back together enough systems to get even one gun back in action.

In the next room there's my veteran pilot Alyssa, tending to the Bethnal Green's helm. I could order her to go help Geryk, which would double the rate at which our weapons come back on line -- but if she leaves the cockpit, we won't be able to evade incoming fire anywhere near as well. And just a moment ago I heard the cough of a Rebel missile launcher unleashing another rocket.

I could pop off another defensive drone to try and shoot that missile down, but I've probably only got a moment before those Rebel boarders cut through the door into the drone control room. I don't have enough crew to fight them hand-to-hand and repair our weapons at the same time. And I've just noticed that the engine room is on fire. And so is my chief engineer.

Which member of my crew is about to die? And how many more will follow before this fight is through?

There's a surprising amount of new kit to outfit your ship with. There's a surprising amount of new kit to outfit your ship with in the Advanced Edition content.

That crystallised moment of drama is FTL at its very best, and its often at its very best. This is a pauseable real-time game where you manage the crew of a tiny spaceship crossing eight randomly generated sectors of space, one step ahead of an armada that's hunting them.

FTL is not always a nail-biting action movie about repair triage and fisticuffs in an airlock. In fact, it's often a quiet game about exploring the vastness of space and playing choose-your-own adventure vignettes, spooling out amid a soothing electronic soundtrack by composer Ben Prunty. But when it comes time to fight, it is the most thrilling game on the App Store.

A common logline in my inbox these days reads "it's FTL in [different setting]." That alone should tell you about the respect and popularity that FTL has enjoyed since its 2012 PC release. But nothing since has managed to bottle FTL's genie.

Though it's a real-time game, FTL is about methodical planning and prudent investment, not lightning reflexes. The game's currency is scrap, which you recover after fights or are awarded from random events. You spend scrap on your beautiful, fragile, almost infinitely-extensible ship. If you barter for or find a cloaking device, you can install it: but you'll need to spend scrap to upgrade your reactor to power it.

If you thought fighting drone scouts was infuriating in the old FTL, wait until they hack your shields. If you thought fighting drone scouts was infuriating in the old FTL, wait until they hack your shields.

FTL's entrance music is "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Stones. Jump to this star instead of that one? That will commit you to a particular path through this sector because the Rebel fleet is getting closer with every jump. Spend the scrap you recovered from the last fight on a new cloaking system? That means you can't afford hull repairs, and probably won't be able to patch that damage until you jump to the next sector. Your reactor has a finite output capacity, which means that you can't have every weapon you come across, and you can't run too many powerful weapons simultaneously.

Sometimes FTL will seem capriciously unfair, but the game is actually quite moderate in how it doles out results from lucky (or unlucky) draws. Maybe after your very first jump you'll find an enormously powerful weapon -- but you'll have to spend a lot of time and scrap to alter your ship's systems to use it. Maybe sending your crew onto that abandoned space station means that one of them won't come back -- but you'll never lose the whole crew in one fell swoop. There's a fair amount of luck in FTL, but when your crew dies and you lose the game, it's never because of one dice roll. Your choices and their impacts spiderweb out across the whole game. It may not look like one of his games on the surface, but this is a game design straight out of the Sid Meier school.

If you played FTL on the PC, then all of the aforementioned is old news to you. This Advanced Edition FTL that we're getting on iPad features quite a lot of new content to discover: several entirely new classes of weapon, new ship subsystems like hacking and mind control, a wealth of new random events and new music. But all of that is being made available to FTL owners on the PC as well.

The real reason to pick up FTL on the iPad if you've already played it on PC is because this is the single best tablet port ever made.

A common ending. A common ending.

Every port that has come before this one, even outstanding ports like XCOM and Panzer Corps, there's always been that sense that you're not playing a tablet game, you're playing a PC game in disguise. There's that onion skin of difference separating even the best ports from truly native games: a fractional response delay here, a touch that lacks visual feedback there.

FTL is such a native-feeling game that to call it a port feels like a slur. The UI has been completely reworked and tuned to perfection. Migrating from playing on the PC, there is an initial awkwardness as you re-learn how to play, but once you get fluid with FTL's touch controls you will never want for keyboard hotkeys or a mouse.

To open or close doors your ship, you just tap the door controls and swipe across the hatches to be shut. To reroute power from engines to shields, you pull your finger down along the power graph of the engine room and sweep up the shield graph. It's clean and responsive and it just clicks. There's almost nothing to betray its PC origins.

Almost nothing. For all of Ma & Matthews' alchemy in transmuting a widescreen PC game into an iPad app there is the occasional hint of FTL's lineage. Much of it is down to the lack of real estate: examining your weapons launches a totem pole of a menu that obscures your crew roster. The weapons power graph necessarily has a slightly different control idiom than its fellows -- there's no pulling and sliding on the power allocation here because you have to activate each weapon individually. It makes perfect sense, but not immediate sense the way almost everything else in the UI does.

Fire *everything*. Fire *everything*.

The interface is also fundamentally designed to feed information to someone sitting a foot or two away from a PC monitor. Playing a game on a desktop, your eyes take in the entire display at once, so FTL has most of its controls located around the edges of the screen. On the iPad, you're much closer to the device and much more focused on the center of the screen -- looking to the edges means taking attention away from the action. You know, that place where your crew is dying. It's a trivial concern, especially in a game that's pauseable and prominently features such a large, friendly pause button in the lower right-hand corner. But it does ever so occasionally remind you that you're playing a port.

But if that's a problem, it's a problem I'm too happy to entertain. FTL: Advanced Edition is a great game, but that was never in doubt. There's no better game for getting lost in a Captain Kirk fantasy (not the shirtless ones) of commanding your own starship: not the one-dimensional Star Command; not even the excellent Out There, which is trying to stimulate an entirely different part of your brain.

A whole journey in FTL can be completed in half an hour to forty-five minutes and there's so much content to experience and so many ships to unlock that I find myself compulsively starting new games long after I'd meant to put it away. There's also a new "hard" difficulty that presumably adds replayability for someone -- but if you know somebody who thinks "normal" is too easy, send me that's person's name and a list of the performance-enhancing drugs they take.

FTL: Advanced Edition is the new yardstick for mobile ports, and that is a triumph. It arrives to us on mobile with absolutely no compromises from its PC incarnation, and the tactile delight of controlling your sci-fi spaceship from a touchscreen is no small wonder. If this isn't the best iPad game of 2014, I can't wait to see what will be.

FTL was played on an iPad Air for this review.

Review: FTL Advanced Edition for iPad

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