Gaming on a Timer

A Rogue’s Journals – FTL: Faster Than Light

 

In this new column we’ll be exploring one man’s adventures in a variety of rogue-likes and rogue-lites. Adventure! Intrigue! Terror! Lots and lots of deaths! This week, we’ll be taking a stroll among the stars with the critically acclaimed FTL: Faster Than Light.

In a far-away place, at an unknown time…

The Rebels (with a capital R) have brought the Federation (again, capital G) to its knees. The war was short-lived, but decisive – Rebel forces attacked quickly, efficiently, ruthlessly; now only a handful of Federation forces remain, ready for their final stand against overwhelming odds.

Except…

No one knows what the data really is; some theorize it’s a weapon of destruction on a galactic scale, others proclaim that it contains the secrets of the Rebel leadership, yet others insist that it is some sort of master key algorithm that will allow control of the enemy fleet. It does not matter, though; whatever its true function is, it is a means to an end, insurance against our enemies, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat… and both sides know it.

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The sector map is where all the navigation magic happens.

We have been entrusted with this data, dragooned from under the Rebels’ noses; now, with the entire Rebel fleet in hot pursuit, we alone are left to try and deliver it to Headquarters – or die trying.

FTL: Faster Than Light is, by now, probably really well-known in gaming circles. Released in 2012 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, FTL is both a testament to the capabilities of crowdfunding and a valiant attempt to bringing the rogue-like (or rather, rogue-lite) genre to mainstream audiences. The fact that, from 2012 onward, rogue-likes have seen an amazing resurgence in popularity attests to the game’s success and influence.

For the uninitiated, FTL is a rogue-like, a (mostly) turn-based, procedurally-generated strategy/RPG hybrid, in which you take command of a lone space ship carrying  valuable data, tasked with delivering it to the Federation HQ while being pursued by the Rebel fleet.

This column aims to recount the adventures of the data carrier, hopefully presenting said adventures in an interesting way. As with my previous Sorcery! columns, indented text is intended as “out of game” thoughts and observations.

Our ship, the Kestrel, has not been prepared adequately for our mission; there was no time for such extravagance – a simple Artemis missile launcher and a Mark 2 Burst Laser were all that could be spared on such short notice. Thankfully, the ship can be fitted with additional parts and components, and the on-board AI assistant can guide the crew through upgrading existing sections with relative ease. Getting the resources for such work, however, is going to be a problem.

And problems, as the old proverb goes, always go together…

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Our initial setup, balanced but not particularly noteworthy.

The First System – Civilian Sector Alpha

The ship overlay reveals just how poorly outfitted the Kestrel is: basic oxygen support, a low-grade engine and shield system, plus a basic choice of piloting, monitoring and door systems. If we hope to survive, we’ll need to make changes, and fast.

The Kestrel is the beginner ship in FTL; it comes with a pretty well-balanced mix of the core elements of the game: a missile launcher, 3-shot burst laser, a basic med-bay, one point of energy shielding and two points of engines, plus enough energy to run almost all of them at once. A crew of three humans is also provided to staff rooms as we see fit. While this setup does not excel in any one function, it provides a very good baseline from which to develop.

A few basics should be explained – the ship can be fitted with various “rooms” or “subsystems”. These subsystems affect how your ship functions – for example, the shields subsystem allows you to generate energy shields around your ship, thus absorbing enemy fire and protecting your (much harder to repair) hull against it, while a med-bay subsystem will slowly heal wounded crew members that stand in it. Additionally, crew may be stationed in certain subsystems, in order to boost their efficiency; shields and weapons get faster recharge rates, while engines and piloting confer higher evade bonuses when staffed.

Our one point of shields is not going to absorb much, but it’s a start. We also have around 20% evade rate, the chance of completely dodging enemy fire, courtesy of our starter engine and piloting subsystems , while we have -very- limited combat awareness thanks to our bare-bones sensor subsystem. A three-point weapons system is the final piece, allowing us to charge our Burst Laser II and Artemis missile launcher at the same time.

The FTL drive, our only means of escaping the pursuing Rebel fleet, springs to life as it reaches full charge. The very first jump can now commence. A nearby jump point is our only valid destination, so Crewman Downs (acting as pilot) punches in the co-ordinates and activates the drive.

The jump is… weird. While not actually painful, the entire process feels uncomfortable beyond belief, as if our bodies know what their atoms are going through and are screaming against it mutely.

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A good encounter for starting a run.

After a second, we reach the target destination. All discomforts are forgotten immediately; our sensors pick up an auto-scout, one of those unmanned, automated defense drones the Rebels employed with such great effect against the Federation.

Thankfully, this one is relatively low-grade: no shields and only two measly laser guns to attack us with. We take up battle stations quickly and…

Combat in FTL is a mixture of turn-based and real-time action; you can pause at any time to plot your attacks and (later on) activate your more exotic subsystems , but it’s only in real-time that everything plays out – weapons charging, drones performing their functions, shields recharging and so on.

The enemies in the first sector are relatively easy to deal with; most come with one or no shields, minimal crew and low-power, low-damage weapons. Meanwhile, our combination of one shield and 20% evade chance means that we can hope to avoid a lot of this initial damage, as long as we play it smart.

The actual combat in FTL is done by selecting a weapon, then targeting one of the enemy ship’s rooms; while it’s possible to target empty rooms, we almost never want to do this, as damaging rooms that house subsystems disables them (assuming we can deal enough damage to the subsystem itself), therefore making them a higher priority target.

While our missile launcher is a bit more effective (especially against shielded enemies, as missiles bypass shields entirely), they are not efficient in the present stage, because our supply of rockets is limited and buying extras is an extravagance we cannot afford initially (scrap, the universal currency, being used to purchase everything from missiles to fuel to upgrades for your ship’s subsystems).

Meanwhile, the laser is a better choice, as it requires no special ammunition (and therefore costs no scrap to fire, indirectly) and performs a burst of three shots per charge, which mean that we are guaranteed at least one point of damage against a maximum of two shields of the opponent’s (as each shield charge can block one projectile before depleting).

The battle ends quickly – our first barrage of laser fire takes out the drone’s weapons subsystem, rendering the twin lasers inert, but not before they manage to take one shot apiece. The first is absorbed by our shields; the second wildly veers above us, thanks to the combined efforts of Downs and Fenns (our acting engineer, now stationed in the engine room). Our second volley manages to pierce the drone’s hull, sending it into a slow spiral, while internal explosions rip the wretched thing apart.

A small amount of salvage is our reward for this, our baptism of fire, the first battle won. After a small, nervous round of cheers from all three of the crew, we prepare to plot yet another jump, one step closer to reaching the Federation HQ and, we hope, salvation.

In the next location, we are not as lucky: a pirate rigger spots us and moves in to attack! They are decidedly better-equipped than the auto-scout, with both a layer of shielding and a laser drone firing at us. The battle is fierce, but luck is once again on our side; our first missile strikes true, disabling the pirates’ weapons system, leaving the drone to attack our shielding alone, never quite managing to get in a hit before they recharge. A missile launched from their  ship manages to destabilize the hull, but the damage is minor – easily repaired at the next docking station we encounter.

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The drones are a much bigger concern…

Drones are another major element of the game; while the Kestrel doesn’t start with a drone subsystem, a few of the other ship choices and/or layouts that we can unlock further in-game do. Drones are a limited resource, like missiles, but they are vastly more  varied – once a drone subsystem is installed, the player is allowed to equip up to two different drone types concurrently, ranging from anti-missile ones patrolling outside your ship, to repair and combat drones inside the ship (which repair damage and attack invaders, respectively), to attack drones similar to the one the pirates had this last encounter.

Drones require energy to be activated, similar to the weapons subsystem, as well as drone parts as the cost for building them; thankfully, most drones do not expend additional drone parts unless they are destroyed and need to be re-constructed.

A drone subsystem with at least one anti-missile drone is one of my priorities this run, as our current evade rate of 20% is too low to reliably counter enemy missiles (and remember, missiles bypass shields so they do not factor in avoiding missile damage).

As the pirate ship explodes, we collect the spoils of the battle and prepare to jump again.

A Rebel checkpoint is our next destination – through some quick talking on Downs’ part, we manage to bribe the officials with some of our scrap to let us, as well as a few civilian ships, through the blockade; even though the civilians did not thank us, we avoided a potentially deadly confrontation – if not a small win, then at least a lack of defeat.

Our first “real” choice; sneak by the checkpoint, spend a small amount of scrap to assist some civilians or just plain attack the Rebel ship guarding the checkpoint? Most events have a certain degree of randomness involved; I chose the “bribe” option, as the civilians have a chance of giving you some resources and/or scrap as a reward for helping them – while I could have gotten better rewards from a fight, it also meant that I would have to risk taking damage, which would drain me of scrap much faster than just gambling on the 11 scrap bribe.

FTL is made largely of moments like this; make-or-break choices, with a good deal of luck affecting the outcome. As with other rogue-likes, knowing the possibilities can greatly increase your chances, though.

A few uneventful jumps later, we land in an asteroid belt; to add to our problems, another auto-scout emerges from hiding and closes in. Thankfully, our luck holds: the asteroids hit the scout’s weapons systems before they have a chance to fire off – this leaves the shield-less scout defenseless against our laser’s burst fire. Before long, the scout explodes, scattering metal and debris between the asteroids.

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Our luck holds, with the asteroids being particularly attracted to the scout’s weapons system!

Asteroid belts are one of the game’s environmental hazards; this particular one causes asteroids to collide with both your and the enemy’s ships, causing one point of damage to either shields or (if shields are not currently available) a random room.

Luckily for me, the first two asteroids to hit the drone both landed on their weapons system, which spared me a bit of damage in the long run.

It’s also worth noting that, given enough shield capacity and recharge rate, the asteroids become more of a nuisance than an actual threat.

As we prepare for our next jump, we receive a distress signal from a nearby location; a consensus is reached between Downs, Fenn and Kusy (our weapons expert, currently stationed in the weapon control subsystem) and we rush in to investigate.

As soon as the jump is completed, we are hailed by a nearby station; a cascade of smaller ships appear to be fleeing the station – one of which informs us in passing that the station’s been overrun by some sort of giant alien spider species. It is with a heavy heart that we power up the FTL drive once more, trying to ignore the horrors that the survivors of the station will go through in their last moments; however, with just three crew members, we cannot risk mounting a rescue attempt…

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Giant Alien Spiders?! Thanks, but no thanks!

This event, dubbed appropriately “Giant Alien Spiders”, has become infamous within the FTL community, and rightly so – without the appropriate equipment, it has a very high chance of claiming one of your crew’s lives and, while the rewards are substantial for this stretch of the journey, potentially losing one third of your crew (with no certain way of replacing them any time soon) is too big a trade-off.

Though we still don’t have access to them, a certain few subsystems can ensure success, as do certain weapon types; a clone bay would allow us to regenerate our lost crew member, while a bio beam (a weapon that specifically damages crew instead of hull/shield) would have safely eradicated the spiders and paid off handsomely, if we had found one.

Ultimately, some times discretion is indeed the better part of valor.

Another few jumps leave that sorry mess behind us; a few more daring pirates try (and fail) to bring us down and, finally, we come across a far better sight; a lone trader, willing to trade in our scrap for some much-needed upgrades and repairs. The trader, a friendly human of the sort that is keen on their privacy, seems unconcerned with the pursuing Rebel fleet; it is his belief that he is too small a fry for them to notice. Thankfully, he is just as unconcerned with turning us in, so we get down to business.

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Stores are a sore sight, in the face of the oncoming Rebel fleet. Also note the nearby, handy nebula.

Before long, our ship is back in top condition, a brand new drone subsystem has been installed (with a free combat drone thrown in with the purchase!) and our FTL drive fuel upped to a more comfortable total. While we have expended the vast majority of our scrap, we now feel much more prepared to face off against the next leg of the journey.

Traders in FTL are your only sure-fire way of getting upgrades and repairs done; aside from that, they are one of the few sources of fuel in the game – each jump from location to location costs one unit of fuel, so you want to have as much as possible to avoid running out.

To our good fortune, the trader also had a Drone Bay available for purchase; while it’ll cost an additional 2 energy to actually activate it in our current setup, we can work around that hurdle temporarily by disabling a few of the other non-critical systems. While this might seem counter-intuitive, a combat drone (which is always included when first installing a drone bay) has a high rate of fire, which means that it works really well in keeping enemy shields depleted while our Burst Laser does some real damage.

Our next goal? Getting another 40 or so scrap in order to upgrade our reactor; this will allow us to have everything powered up at the same time, giving us a few more tools to work with.

As we leave the trader outpost, Downs points out something interesting – a nebula borders the trader’s location, its vast electromagnetic interference a double-edged sword. While our sensors would surely take a hit if we were to enter, the Rebels would also be delayed while trying to pursue us through it.

A consensus is quickly made; the Kestrel jumps straight into the nebula – and to our delight, we encounter nothing hostile. Downs claims to have spotted another ship, but without fully functional sensors, we cannot follow them in this mess.

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Note how the Rebel fleet’s advance has noticeably slowed down, as I pass through both nebulae locations.

At least the rebels have been delayed slightly, giving us more time to make our escape – time that we take advantage of by heading straight to the exit beacon for this system.

The ultimate goal in FTL is to reach Sector 7, the Federation HQ – in order to do that, you need to make it to each sector’s exit beacon.

Luckily for me, the randomly generated system had a few nebula locations connected to the exit, allowing me a couple more jumps to do encounters and collect scrap/resources – nebulae will usually delay the Rebel fleet’s advance (said advance acting as the timer you work against in any given point in the game), which allows a few more locations to be explored before being forced to move to another sector.

In general, you want to do as many locations per sector as possible (assuming you are confident you’ll survive them), as the difficulty ramps up quickly past Sector 1 and the extra scrap, ammunition and potential upgrades become sorely needed before long.

Note that I will not narrate -every- location jumped at, mainly to avoid repetition. Instead I’ll focus on the most interesting stuff, be they distress signals, rare events or particularly lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be) encounters. It is safe to assume that the Kestrel has a lot more “routine” combat encounters than those noted here.

At the exit beacon, our spirits are dampened somewhat; the only available entry points in range seem to be hostile sectors – we debate for a while on which sector would be safer: Pirate- or Mantis-controlled, but a consensus is eventually made; the Mantis, while ruthless, hold no love for the Rebels and might be persuaded to lend us their assistance (or, at the very least, allow us passage). The FTL drive powers up once more, warping us towards the Mantis system.

Thus concludes the very first A Rogue’s Journals; subsequent articles will hopefully cover more ground (as we are done with introductory stuff) – out of the two sectors available (both hostile, unfortunately), I’ve chosen the Mantis one, as there’s a better chance of getting a Mantis crew member here, which has an advantage over humans in that it’s much more powerful in hand-to-hand combat.

Have you ever played FTL? What are your most memorable encounters? Do you have any tips gleaned from your travels among the stars? Feel free to share them in the comments section below!

Next time: The Second System – Mantid Beta Minor

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