Back To Infinity: Approaching Infinity v1.3

If you haven’t already, you should read my earlier post about Approaching Infinity first. And, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Longtime readers may remember that I quite liked the space-faring roguelike Approaching Infinity. I’d always planned to return to it, especially after it received some major updates, but kept getting distracted by other games instead. Now I have finally returned to it, prompted by a reader comment, so I can tell you what I think of the updates and give some more publicity to a great game that I fear may disappear into obscurity.

This is due, I believe, to an unfortunate mismatch of game and publisher. Shrapnel Games specialize in publishing niche wargames, with small, dedicated audiences. They only sell their games directly from their website, at relatively high price points; releasing to wider audiences at a lower price on popular services like Steam wouldn’t boost sales for many of these games, as they don’t have a broad enough appeal to get a big bump in purchases. But I think that Approaching Infinity would, especially since recent years have seen an explosion in popularity of roguelike-style games and games mixing roguelike design elements with other genres. Instead, Approaching Infinity is only available at a high price from a relatively obscure source, includes old-fashioned limited-activation DRM that annoys customers, and will likely never get into the hands of many players who might love it. I don’t blame Shrapnel Games for this; they are simply employing the same business model they always use. I just think it’s the wrong place for Approaching Infinity, and I hope that developer Ibology manages to get the rights back and releases the game elsewhere so it gets the exposure it deserves.

Things aren’t all bleak though. Ibology have released another roguelike game, The Curse of Yendor, on Steam and that I haven’t had a chance to check out yet, but certainly intend to. They also have another game called Core Conquest slated to appear on Steam soon. The more success these see, the better chance that Approaching Infinity will get a wider release in the future.

Anyway! On to Approaching Infinity v1.3. The core of the game is the same as it was in my earlier post, but there are several welcome changes that arrived in the updates. The most immediately obvious is the addition of three new officer classes, which make officers even more useful. My favorite is the Pathfinder class, which helps away teams navigate treacherous terrain on planets. Before the update, terrain such as mountains and water could only be crossed with the right equipment, and the away team could only have one such piece of equipment at a time. So I had to return to the ship often to swap equipment, and needed to set aside part of my cargo hold for all of it. Now, a high-level Pathfinder (officers gain experience and promotions as they perform their duties) can allow an away team to cross many types of terrain, and frees up the equipment slot for something else. It also makes losing an away team a much bigger setback.

The Transmutor class offers similar benefits for space travel, helping the ship avoid environmental hazards, but these hazards are generally less deadly so I did not often include a Transmutor in my crew. Operatives are more useful, helping ships and away teams stay stealthy and get away with illicit activity without angering the various alien races too much. And of course the original roster of officers are still available, so players have plenty of options in defining their crew’s specialties.

Other changes are more subtle but just as welcome. The different types of planets now feel more distinct, which is a great addition. Previously, I would work hard to buy or craft a spacesuit with high environmental damage resistance so my away team could finally explore dangerous worlds like molten planets, only to discover that the planet surface looked more or less like every other planet, with the same creatures and landscape styles. Now, planet surfaces are better differentiated, with molten planets tending to feature lava and fiery creatures, toxic planets covered in acid lakes, and so on. This makes exploring each new type of planet feel like a milestone.

Shipwrecks have also been diversified, because the generic shipwrecks are now joined by shipwrecks from each alien race. These can even be generated if the player destroys an enemy ship. This is a great addition, providing the first opportunity to see members of each alien race up close, and slotting neatly into the existing faction system. If the player is friendly with the alien race in question, then the survivors milling around inside the shipwreck should be friendly. Anger them and get into a firefight, however, and relations with that race will quickly deteriorate. Unless, of course, the player has an Operative along who knows how to jam enemy transmissions. The loot found aboard these vessels also fits with the races in question. The bellicose Gruff tend to hoard weapons, while Banker ships are full of piles of cash. In many cases, hostile survivors are too tough for an away team at the early stages of the adventure, so these shipwrecks add variety to the later game when away teams are powerful. They also provide a means to meet some alien races sooner than would have happened otherwise, so players can start building relations.

Unfortunately, my experience playing v1.3 was marred by uneven difficulty, because I insisted on trying the “Hard” difficulty setting, a decision I came to regret. My first time playing through the game I played on “Medium” and found that later stages of the game were too easy. I could explore seemingly endless caverns without any real risk, to the point that exploration got a little tiresome. I focused on following quest lines for the various aliens instead, so it wasn’t a huge bother, but I thought that “Hard” would be more appropriate for my next game. But I don’t like the way the difficulty scales at the higher setting. Away missions were just about right, offering just enough challenge to keep my skilled team on their toes, although it was sometimes annoying that things could go disastrously wrong at the drop of a dime. I also liked that it took longer to get equipped to explore more dangerous planets, so these opened up gradually throughout the game.

But the space-faring sections were the real problem. Ship-to-ship combat in the later game on “Hard” is basically impossible. Nearly every enemy vessel I encountered could knock out my shields in only a few volleys, while I could barely scratch theirs. And this is despite the fact that my skilled crew was able to craft weapons, armor and shields that were roughly five times better than anything on sale at space stations. It seemed that the “Hard” setting doles out new things at a slower rate than “Medium”, not only for equipment (after exploring 100 sectors, farther than I ever went the first time around, I still hadn’t found or managed to build a reactor with a third weapon slot) but also in terms of the variety of stuff in space; I found more interesting things in my first playthrough than I did this time, despite flying farther out. And the only way I was able to survive that long was by making friends with everyone and avoiding fights at all costs.

Some of this difficulty could be attributed to the fact that I trained my officers to boost my away team rather than my ship, but I can’t imagine that boosting my ship would have helped enough. It’s just not possible to out-range and outmaneuver other ships the same way the away team can outmaneuver planet-bound critters. This was especially frustrating because it precluded completing some of the quest lines from different alien races. Early on I was set on following the Firaxughinian quest line, but they soon asked me to attack another race, and the task was simply impossible. On another playthrough I seemed destined to help the fledgling Vordalene robotic race, but they needed defending from aggressors that I could not defeat. I had little option but to continue exploring, and since difficulty cannot be lowered during a game, and I didn’t want to start over after making it so far (in fact, I admit I resorted to save scumming to avoid this) I just pressed on through more and more sectors which had yet to reveal the same variety I’d found at the “Medium” setting. In the end, I opted to follow the Unifier quest line, simply because they wanted me to make friends with everyone instead of fight them. This did unlock a new ship, however, and I’m excited to try it out on “Medium” and hopefully tackle some of the other quest lines and find some different endings.

So, I recommend sticking to the “Medium” setting, even if it makes away team missions a little too easy. Although that may have changed with v1.3 as well; there are many new “breeder” type critters on planets, which quickly multiply into overwhelming numbers and can only rarely be brought under control. I honestly found them annoying more than interesting, but perhaps on “Medium” they’ll be a little more manageable and fun to deal with. And there are lots of other small additions too, including an option for a clearer graphical indication for which parts of the map have yet to be explored which at first I didn’t like but has completely won me mover. I’m sure I’m forgetting about many more; new enemies, layouts for planets, and probably some new items and equipment too.

Overall, despite my difficulty annoyances, Approaching Infinity is an excellent game, and v1.3 makes it even better. It still has a great progression from early explorations with limited oxygen supplies, to crafting and trading across sectors that constantly reveal new surprises, and eventually galaxy-spanning quests that can ignite wars or have other drastic consequences. All in an easy to learn package that initially seems much smaller than it actually is. If you’re interested, there’s a free demo available (right-hand side of that page) and the game can be purchased directly from publisher Shrapnel Games. The demo provides a good taste, but keep in mind that there’s much more to discover in the full game. In fact, it’s effectively infinite. So you’d better get started.

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