Monday, January 5, 2015

Nexus: The Jupiter Insipid

I'm tempted to call Nexus: The Jupiter Incident a Homeworld clone as that is what I was hoping for when I grabbed it on sale last year, but that wouldn't be fair. While Homeworld used the standard RTS resource acquisition routine, Nexus is a tactical squad-management game. Aside from capturing the same 3D cinematic ballet of ships through the inky void, the two games have no more in common with each other than with, say, EVE-Online.

In fact, much of Nexus feels very EVE-ish, from the obsessive focus on ship subsystems to the fragility of strike craft to the importance of preset jump points in the storyline. Perhaps this ambiguity can also best summarize Nexus' unfortunate failure: yet another product which didn't know what it wanted to be when it grew up. This game contained a few good elements but they're torn between RTS and RPG, between the vastness of space and the personal touch of squad combat, between story and gameplay.

Oh, it starts out well enough. You learn the ship movement patterns and commands, glide through the void as master of your own interstellar microcosm, everything's smooth and slick and appropriately "techy" and you can really get to like your little ship. And then you're thrown into another one. Just like that. Screeching lane-change. But it's OK though because there's little difference between ships anyway. Then the story catapults you into an alien solar system to meet two new races... through a cinematic. No player involvement in that major event. Just like that you're fighting aliens instead of earth-men... except the aliens're just little green men who talk like cartoon pirates. Meh. By this point you're supposed to be really getting into building up your fleet and commander. Meh again. Assign a stat point here and there. Ship gear? Cannons with different stats.

And so it goes. For once, the usual schizophrenia of interesting, unpopular games is reversed. The technical team did its job. Even the visual artists can't be criticized. Where Nexus failed was in overall direction. A lot of the little people put in excellent effort, but this project's leadership was not up to the task of assembling those disparate elements into something memorable. The pacing of the whole thing is off and ship/weapon types tend to either blend into each other or be too obviously the "right" choice. Jarring lapses or disconnects plague every aspect of an otherwise solid foundation.
The storyline skips madly along its track, failing to sustain its momentum, despite the great potential shown by individual chapters.
Bargain-basement voice acting and stock characters ruin the otherwise quite effective visual immersion.
Ship combat is a lengthy, languorous ballet - until your strike craft start exploding second by second.
The story is supposed to be partly a character-driven hero's journey - but the hero has the personality of a pet rock. Without the googly eyes.

Worst though is the disparity between the game's grandiose setting and its gameplay. Squad tactical games depend a great deal on fabricating a role-playing adventuring party feel to character development. My own positive experiences with the genre, Mech Commander and Chaos Gate, not only gave the player enough options in customizing characters to allow for some sort of personal investment in their lives but went to great pains to emphasize different gear and equipment, to make player choice at least appear meaningful. Having one of your pilots iced by a missile barrage in the previous mission makes that missile launcher you salvaged afterwards that much more delicious.
There is after all a crucial difference in how players see the objects on screen in an RTS versus an RPG. In the first, on-screen objects are just objects, pawns, throwaway tools toward victory. In the second, they are the subject and we are meant to empathize with them. Good squad tactics games borrow a bit of that RPG immersion to make up for their less grandiose battles. They make us care about the game pieces we place on the board, every pawn and rook.

Nexus, on the other hand, simply dumps vaguely similar gear and ships in your lap.
Don't just tell me this is a frigate and that's a destroyer. Have me capture a destroyer. Have a voice actor exclaim "my god, that destroyer's coming right at us" beforehand.
Don't just add anti-missile lasers to my inventory between missions. Have me salvage a cargo-ship full of lasers during a mission.
Don't just tell me my fleet commander's a hero. Have me-as-him do something heroic to prove it.
Don't make me set up my ships blindly beforehand then just throw random challenges at me during gameplay. That's not a challenge. It's gambling.

Nexus lacks the AI or mapping elements for freeform gameplay, and whatever short lifespan its multiplayer had certainly didn't make any headlines. However, even a decade later its graphics and basic combat mechanics hold up well enough that its campaign might have made for an enjoyable week of late night fleet commanding. If only you ever really felt involved. If ever it pulled you in. No wonder its sequel's crowdfunding failed so miserably.
It is, ultimately, an utterly forgettable game.
For the love of ham, game designers everywhere, you have to give us something to care about: a Muad'dib, an Ender, a Case, a coterie of intrepid soldiers of fortune to mold in our own image, a sandbox for our ambitions... something other than a by-the-numbers exercise in moving ships we don't care about filled with people we don't care about toward some random goal you're going to cheat us out of in a cinematic voiced by interns.

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