29 March 2012

Game Spotlight: Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator

Last night, a few of my roleplaying-buddies and I got together to play a hybrid of video-game, life-action RPG, and social game called Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator. And it was awesome. Never before have I felt so involved in a multi-player experience and never before was a LAN-party this much fun. Here's how it went...

Artemis is a game designed to be played by a group of people in the same room. Everyone (except the captain) needs a computer as their work-station on this totally-not-Startrek-at-all space voyage. Every player plays a distinct role on the command bridge and they will only see what their role requires them to see on their screen. There is a main screen that can show different aspects including informations from each individual station as well as outside-views of the ship. This leads to a gaming experience where each player does their job on board while the captain runs around and tells everyone what to do, requests status-reports or this/that to be put up on the main screen.

In order for your ship to function properly, there is a minimum of players required for operating the whole thing effectively, as although a player can perform multiple roles, it can get rather frantic when there is ship-to-ship combat at hand and things have to be done quickly. We had three Windows- and a Linux- based machine to work with in a room at university, which allowed us to use a beamer as the main screen (also offered nice audio), while we had put up some tables in a bridge-like formation towards it. The game runs fine on Wine, as long as you don't go into one of the 3D-accelerated views so any workstation besides helmsman and weapons-officer can use a Linux machine.

On our setup, which took a while as we had to put up an ad-hoc wireless LAN and get it to work on these different computers, then ping-up the server and get everything connected in-game, we had the main laptop running two instances of the game, one as the server and one for our helmsman. To his right was our science-officer and later also communications-officer. To his right, next to the bridge's middle-aisle was my workstation, my girlfriends netbook, and I was the (somewhat trigger-happy) weapons-officer. Across the gap in tables was our chief of engineering, who did have communication-duties in the first two of our three games but then we switched that around as engineering can be a rather taxing job by itself.

Who does what? Well the helmsman steers the ship. As he is doing so without an outside-view (except when it's active on the main-screen), it can get rather technical. In addition to that he is also responsible for (in our case) punching in coordinates for the jump-drive (which we usually had our science-officer provide). The science officer uses the ships long- and short-range-scanners to scan the area for threats and assess strengths and weaknesses of enemy ships, telling the weapons-officer what frequency to set the beam-weapons to and the captain what the status of an enemy ship is (and, indeed, what type it is). Communications explain themselves, I guess. My role as the weapons-officer tells the systems what ammunition to load into the torpedo-bays (which work much like those on a submarine), which enemy in range to target, what modulation to use on the beam-weapons and, if required, to fire and target the beams at specific sections on the enemy ships. Also turning the shields on and off and, in my case, telling the main-screen what to show at any given time. The chief of engineering has to adjust what ship-system gets how much energy and coolant (failing to cool things can harm your ship, starting with peoples consoles shorting out and them being unable to do things) and, in case of damage, dispatch repair-crews. The more energy a system gets, the more effective it works. For example, shields and weapons recharge faster with more energy, the jump-drive loads up much faster etc. It uses more fuel to do it with more energy but the ship can also convert mass to energy, using, for example, torpedoes as fuel and vice versa. The captain lacks his own workstation and runs around telling everyone what to do, basically trying to coordinate the whole thing. This doesn't sound like much but in the experience gained last night I'd say that he does have the most complicated and also very necessary job in the game, as everyone else will be completely preoccupied with their station (so much in fact, that our chief didn't even notice that we had won - he didn't know what was happening outside the ship despite sitting in the same room with everyone else, it didn't matter to him. He had to keep the energy flowing, that was his thing).

So, after getting everything to work, we set the difficulty to 1 out of 10, as the only person who had previously played the game before was our captain (who was also the owner of the full-version we were using, thus being captain by default. As the whole thing had been my idea, it had originally been my claim to be captain but in hindsight I was very happy with my position as the ships gunner) and even his experience was several game-versions back and even then only limited. We wanted to get our bearings in the game, learning to use our individual stations and so we got started. Our first actual engagement saw me madly firing at our target that was not dodging anything but still wasn't hit, as I hadn't figured out the manual controls for the beam-weapons yet and our torpedoes only had a certain cone of fire that our pilot didn't really care for at the time. In the end we retreated and I dumped mines into their face, which they came into, killing the first enemy ship. We cheered and applauded each other on our first kill. Then we docked with a space-station, a series of events that required both communication and helmsman-skills to pull off. Being re-stocked with weapons, we went back out into space and after two more victorious ship-to-ship battles, we had won our first (extremely easy) mission. Good job us.

The second mission saw our chief getting along better with his jobs, no longer overheating my console when we went into battle and getting a feel for relevances of different ship-systems (like maneuvering-drives getting more power when we were in a close-ranged engagement). We also started using the other friendly ships in the area to respond to distress-calls from our space-stations when there was more than one at a time. This round featured the scene of us trying to hail an enemy ship in order for them to surrender and me blowing it up with a beam-shot whilst comms were still working out the message. I swear, I was only targeting their weapons! After defeating a few enemy ships and at one time getting dangerously close to a weird spacial anomaly that was pulling us in (the captain telling me to launch a nuke at it, me answering that I couldn't lock onto it, the pilot offering to use the jump-drive to flee), we decided to explore what the "singularity" on our long-range scanners was. Our helmsman plotted a jump-course, subtracting two clicks and then... We were dead, having jumped right into a star. Well, we had a good laugh, upped the difficulty to 3 and went into the next mission.

Before the mission, our captain decided it was time we got a little more organized. We talked through some different combat-maneuvers, with each station having specific things to do and settings to get into for them. "Artillery" would have the helmsman stop the ship at our maximum torpedo-range, me firing nuclear and standard-torpedoes at the incoming enemy and engineering diverting power to the launchers so they would reload faster. "Dogfight" would use more energy on the front shields and maneuvering-drives, the helmsman trying to keep us behind an enemy ship while I would pummel it with beam-weapons fire. "Pass" would have us running at the enemy ship, firing torpedoes, then loading mines, dropping them after having passed the enemy ship. Engineering, in this case, would have to switch power from the front-shields to the aft-shields as we were passing the enemy. "Standoff" would have us, all Star Trek-style just hanging in front of the enemy, all power to front shields and beams, hammering them until they were gone. With these tactical upgrades to our group-coordination, we felt ready to rock and entered the game.

For some reason, some ship-systems started with slight damage, keeping our science-officer from getting a good reading on some of the enemies. One of our space stations was under attack and another one, this one inside a nebula, had some unknown contacts coming for it. We sent a ship to the latter and jumped to the former ourselves. I had forgotten (and not been ordered) to turn on our shields so we sustained some heavy damage at first, fighting of two or three ships that were attacking the station. After the battle was over, I threw the status-screen up on the main screen and everyone got terrified how close of a call that had been. As we were almost out of fuel, we had to dock with the station we had just defended, in order to recharge our reactor and re-stock on weapons. This was despite the other station now actively calling for help as it was being menaced by an enemy that had snuck through the nebula. The captain decided (against my protests) we would leave the station before we were fully repaired, in order to jump straight to the other station to assist. At least we were re-stocked on all four physical weapon-types (torpedoes, mines, nukes and ECMs).

We jumped to the other station and immediately had scanner-problems inside the nebula. To make things a lot more complicated, the only screen we were able to see the enemy ship on properly was my tactical view, which lead to me telling the pilot where to turn to. We unloaded a mine onto the enemy and they disappeared. For a moment we thought we had destroyed them, even though our mine had not exploded. Our science officer said that there was another enemy ship and we turned to fire torpedoes at it. Two torpedoes on-route, the enemy ship disappeared, only to reappear a bit behind us. It dawned on us what they were doing: Using their jump-drive to dodge our projectiles by means of emergency-jumps. Not to waste more ammo on them, the captain ordered the ship into "Dogfight" mode and we came after them with our beam-weapons. Upon having them completely crippled, they refused to surrender, repaired their own beams and fired at us - we destroyed them in the "Standoff" configuration.

While we were reloading everything at the station, our science officer identified two unknown clusters of objects heading for a third station of ours, the front of them being enemies. I loaded a nuke and a mine in our tubes and we jumped to intercept them. The first swarm fell, we came in "Pass" and then went to "Dogfight", with our nukes really taking a toll on the enemy. Then the second blip on the long range scanners was getting scanned and it was a group of three ships, the leader of them a battleship. Had we returned to the station to rearm at this point, they would have caught us there and the captain thought it best to intercept them before reaching the station. We didn't have any nukes left but eight torpedoes and two mines were something. We went to meet them in our "Artillery" configuration as I had already loaded both tubes with torpedoes. With full energy on the torpedo tubes, our rate of fire was impressive and we fired our remaining eight torpedoes into the enemy flagship in four salvos. The ship kept coming and, as nothing before that had survived more than three of our torpedoes, the captain was just ordering us to run back to the station, dropping our two remaining mines whilst fleeing, the science-officer told us that we had actually damaged the battleship and their shields were down. I thought we wouldn't get another chance like that so the captain was persuaded and told the helmsman to get us into beam-range. The first beam blew up the battleship, as it had already been badly beaten by our torpedoes. Not to push our luck, the captain told the helmsman to turn around and run for the station, while I was to drop our mines in the way of the remaining to ships. They turned out to be pathetic little things though and both blew up on the very first mine. The mission was one, we had made it.

If you have friends to play this game with (and I mean physical friends you can push away from their station and yell at in person, not "friends" whose name includes numbers or punctuation marks), then this is an extraordinary experience to play through. We all felt like it was our ship and we were each very much into our roles by the end of it. I very much hope we can get another game like this going, although it is kind of hard, to organize a LAN in the world of grown-ups.

Give this game a go, everyone! There is a free demo, featuring only two of the stations BUT if you upload a video of you and two friends playing it to Youtube, you can get the full game for free.

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