Going The Distance In FTL

I’ve written about FTL before, and if you’re unfamiliar with the game you should probably read that post first. Here, I’m assuming readers have at least a passing knowledge of the game.

Back when I first wrote about FTL, over a year ago, I didn’t think I’d stick with it that long. In fact, my exact words were:

Still, I don’t think FTL will keep me hooked as long as some more involved roguelikes (and roguelike-likes), but its simplicity is really where it shines. It’s easy to learn, and offers just enough options to make multiple plays interesting and fun. It may become frustrating to have to unlock each ship, depending on what’s required, but even with just the two I have I can easily see myself jumping in for quick games or extended sessions well into the future.

Turns out my fears about FTL’s staying power were completely unfounded. I’ve gone back to FTL regularly in the last year, in my quest to unlock more ships (and alternate layouts for the ones I already have), and I’ve learned that FTL is actually a lot deeper than it seemed at first. With developers Subset Games announcing a free expansion to be released soon, I decided it was high time to write about why I keep going back.

I managed to win the game not long after my original post, and that’s where I thought I would stop playing. I was rewarded with a new ship, which was fun to play around with, but once I had a winning strategy I found it was easy to simply repeat it every game, with a pretty good chance of success. I thought I’d seen all that FTL had to offer, and was ready to move on to other games. Before I left, though, I took a final look at the hangar screen where all the not-yet-unlocked ships appeared, blacked out and mysterious. And I noticed, for the first time, that moving the mouse cursor over one of these ships revealed a small clue about how to unlock it. Looking at these clues, I realized that I actually knew how to accomplish a few of them. I’d found some of these situations that were hinted at, I just hadn’t realized what they were at the time. I could totally unlock some of these right now!

Just like that, I was back in. No longer was I trying to win the game; I’d done that plenty of times. Now I was focused on finding these new ships, and I based my equipment, ship upgrades, and exploration strategy around this new goal. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought; it wasn’t enough to simply find the relevant encounters or situations, I had to solve them correctly. In some cases this merely meant making the correct choices, but others have strict requirements: a certain species among your crew, for example, who can handle the situation differently than others. Or certain specific equipment that’s needed to get the optimum result. The encounters are smartly designed; a failure to resolve them in an ideal manner comes with hints to prod the player in the right direction next time, so repeated attempts feel like progress even if nothing tangible was gained. They also taught me a lot about how much more hidden stuff is in FTL.

For example, I had never actually tried upgrading my med-bay before. Doing so simply increases the rate at which it heals my crew, which was never that critical, especially when I had so many other things that needed upgrading. But when I started experimenting with it, I found that an upgraded med-bay made a big difference in a whole slew of encounters in the game. I suddenly had new, better options in situations I’d seen dozens of times. This had a domino effect; I was soon exploring all sorts of upgrades and configurations I’d never considered before, and finding a whole bunch of new ways to approach old situations.

I also started to play a lot more attention to my choice of sectors to visit. The branching sector map never seemed that important before, since there’s only two choices of where to go after each jump. But when I was looking for a specific encounter that I knew only occurred in a certain type of sector, I began to plan my route much more carefully. The Slug race lives in nebulas, so I found myself seeking out nebula sectors to try and find out how to unlock the Slug cruiser. I was no stranger to nebulas but had generally avoided nebula-filled sectors in favor of sectors that promised greater material rewards, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that nebula-filled sectors brought a whole set of new encounters and events that I’d never seen before, requiring new strategies to survive.

Even the unlockable ships themselves promote different styles of play, with special abilities and specific initial equipment that set players on a certain path out of the gate. Then there are the ship-specific achievements, which provide tough challenges that relate to each ship’s strengths. The Mantis, who love boarding enemy ships and fighting hand-to-hand, have challenges relating to large crew battles, while the stealth ship tasks the player with avoiding combat for much of the game. The alternate ship layouts emphasize an even more extreme playing strategy that will test even the most experienced players. Sure, I could win the game fairly easily with the standard ships, but pulling it off with each new ship and each alternate layout is a whole different story.

All of these new things helped to counter the main problem with hunting for unlocks in FTL, which is the random nature of each run. If I’m hellbent on finding a specific encounter to unlock a new ship, there’s a good chance I won’t find it; in fact, there’s a decent chance I won’t even stumble upon the sector that it’s in. With so many goals to chase, this wasn’t much of a problem, but one I’d snagged most of the ships, things began to drag a little. I did take a long break from the game after tiring of constantly missing the things was I looking for, but I came back recently and managed to unlock one more ship. This in turn gave me some clues for one of the two remaining ships, which I went after for a while, before running into the same problems. I had originally intended to unlock everything before writing a “final thoughts” type of post, but ended up taking a break again, with two ships still to go (and a bunch of alternate layouts still to go too). But FTL has kept me entertained for far longer than I expected, so I’m hardly complaining.

And the new, free expansion sounds like just the thing to get me playing again. There will be a whole new sector with a new alien race, a bunch of new weapons that use new game mechanics, new drones, augments, enemy ships, and hostile environments, plus a bunch of new encounters and events, some of them written by Chris Avellone, of Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment fame (and who’s currently working on the high-profile Kickstarter games Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera). A bunch of new stuff to find and to fight, while I’m searching for the last few ships? Sounds perfect to me.

If you haven’t played FTL, you really should check it out. Everything I said in my first post about the game is true, and I can now happily report that it will easily keep you entertained for quite a while. It has an excellent soundtrack too. So climb into the captain’s chair and lead your valiant crew to their inevitable deaths. And then do it all over again. After hundreds of ill-fated voyages, you may find you’re still coming back for more.

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