The Battle of Sol is the closest thing to a Battlestar Galactica game I’ve ever played. It puts you in the seat of a fighter-class spacecraft, wherein you command a ragtag group of loveable-but-gung-ho pilots as they assist their fleet in securing a new planet for settlement. Almost every aspect of TBOS‘s design feels borrowed from another sci-fi property, be it its ship designs, its combat, or its characters. It’s as derivative as all hell, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to shoot some mother-frackers out of the sky.
As per the classic dogfighting games of yore, TBOS is set squarely in a cockpit, and delivers its story through visual pop-ups and comm chatter. You play two roles, that of Lt. Williams, a United Colonies of Sol (UCS) fighter pilot (just imagine the Twelve Colonies from Battlestar Galactica mixed with the UNSC from Halo) and Brother Aelius of opposing religiously motivated faction “The Children of Dawn”. It’s an interesting dynamic, playing out the same battles from two different perspectives. It never gets tired or feels repetitive either, because each separate mission tasks you with wholly different objectives to its mirror version.
Missions usually require you to engage in one of a few varied tasks: engaging in dogfights with smaller fighters, attacking turrets in order to hack into a larger ship’s systems, or taking out frigates in order to protect allied ships. These engagements are brief, explosive encounters, but they’re generally very well put together – the game doesn’t outstay its welcome by putting you through long turret demolishing slogs.
It all works so well because TBOS’s fighters are so easy and fun to control, despite their seemingly obtuse controls. The key to becoming an ace pilot along the lines of Starbuck or Apollo (yeah I’m still on that), is to learn how to balance a few key systems. The right analogue stick (I played with a gamepad) controls the ship’s speed, and its ability to roll, while the left stick changes the ship’s direction. The d-pad and the shoulder buttons allow you to use weapons and thrusters, or allow you to sacrifice thrusters and/or weapon systems in favour of hull integrity. It’s an odd system to get to grips with at first, but it keeps you on your toes and makes for some challenging missions that might feel a little stale otherwise.
The only thing missing is a quick-use dodge mechanic. In order to avoid incoming missiles, the player can release countermeasure decoys to attract their fire. It’s much more difficult, however, to avoid the hull of an incoming frigate, or adjust your speed quickly enough so as not to become space waste. Star Wars Battlefront II included effective “barrel rolls” and quick turns in order to avoid these frustrating collisions, so something of that nature wouldn’t have gone amiss here, and would have made for some pretty spectacular near-misses.
While Lt. Williams’ ship boasts missile systems, and aforementioned manual thruster/weapon controls, Aelius’s ship lacks missiles and uses automated systems (i.e. his thruster metre is used in one burst, his hull integrity can only be restored if he doesn’t take damage for a certain amount of time). This means that Lt. Williams is more suited for bombing runs on larger ships, while Aelius is better at nipping about the battle area picking off small fighters. They’re subtle differences, but they go a long way towards preventing dogfight fatigue.
It helps that TBOS‘s dogfights are strung together admirably by a fun if frenetic plot. Almost every character is a stereotype – the foulmouthed badass, the brooding, grumpy one, the traditional, by the book soldier – but they’re generally all well written, and they spout enough genuinely funny one liners to endear themselves towards total personality vacuum Lt. Williams. Brother Aelius is probably TBOS‘s most interesting character, since he represents “the other side of coin”, and his struggle to deal with his faction’s brutal methods is a much more engrossing arc than Williams’ journey to the top of the military ladder.
Speaking of “The Children of Dawn” – while I loved their ship and character designs, their mysterious leader, Brother T’jien can go suck a lemon. Though he commands a huge fleet of cultist frigates, he appears to look like some sort of evil Dalai Lama, and speaks in a sort of hokey, borderline offensive, laboured Chinese accent ripped straight out of Kung Fu Panda. It’s a fairly minor blunder though, and doesn’t distract from the real reason we’re here – to blow stuff up.
It is a shame though, because most of the game’s characters are well portrayed, if totally cheesy and over the top. At times, it feels like you’re one “Oorah” away from a Starship Troopers adaptation.
Though it’s populated with some lovely skyboxes (spaceboxes?), grandiose ship models and blaring lighting effects, there are certainly some murky textures and fuzzy graphical niggles amidst The Battle of Sol’s expansive battle zones. It’s still satisfying to burst through the carcass of an exploding fighter you just destroyed – particularly because there’s some strong sound design at work in TBOS – but there’s something off about the aesthetics of each fight. Larger ships appear static in cutscenes, and some of the fire and laser effects appear weak and outdated. It’s not a bad looking space-sim, but it doesn’t look as good as it could for a game built in UE3.
The Battle of Sol delivers where it counts. It offers up huge areas and fills them with cool spaceships, then lets you blow them up. It ties satisfying dogfights together with a surprisingly well executed plot, and manages to make its battles challenging without being unbalanced.