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Tachyon: The Fringe (Windows)
Voices from beyond
Since the advent of CD-ROM, it's become the status quo for PC games to feature voice-overs. In the early days of CD-ROM, said voice overs were not always of a particularly high quality; in fact many games featured performances that were less impressive than your average school nativity play. Mercifully, this has changed as most in-game voice-overs these days are of a high quality featuring voice actors who actually have some semblance of talent. And somewhat oddly, a new trend is emerging, of getting big name Hollywood actors in to do the voices for games. That is, a trend which does nothing for the games industry. Why? Because it means the money being given to said star isn't being spent on games development or testing for a start. There's also the danger that games companies will start thinking they are justified in putting out mediocre games just because a star name is attached, relying on the star's name to sell the game. Some punters may even buy said games thinking they're in for a quality title. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Having a star's name associated with a game is no guarantee that the game will be even approaching decent. Take Jurassic Park: Trespasser - this title featured Minnie Driver doing the voice for the main character. Unfortunately, for game punters in particular, the game was so bad that this was like putting a bikini on a rotting baboon and trying to enter it for Miss Universe. And as for Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun , not even James Earl Jones's presence could stop the game from being utterly mediocre. So it should come as something of a relief to learn that while Bruce Campbell lends his voice to Tachyon: The Fringe from Novalogic, the game itself is not cack or even mediocre. In fact, it's a rather decent space shoot-em-up.
The premise behind Tachyon: The Fringe is that some time in the far future, in a time period that I can't be bothered to look up in the manual, mankind has colonized space. That's no big surprise in itself, but what might come as a surprise, especially to any alien-hugging readers, is that the colonists found absolutely no breathlessly evil alien forces waiting to crush them. Nor have they apparently encountered any face hugging xenomorphs or other creatures. In fact, they've had pretty much a free reign to expand ever outwards - a little like the Wild West, albeit without the Indians. The end result of this is that while things are all happy and fluffy around Earth, further out in the galaxy things are a bit messier, with pirates, colonists and mega-corporations all at each others throats and lawlessness generally prevailing. And this is where you come in. You play a space pilot, who just happens to sound exactly like Bruce Campbell, with a ludicrously gung-ho attitude and a penchant for fancy flying. Things are going pretty well for you until you're framed for a crime you didn't commit (cue A-Team music) and find yourself exiled to the Fringe, the outer reaches of space, far away from Earth. This is where things really get interesting...
You see, you're not alone in the Fringe. Also populating this area of space are bunch of colonists known as the Bora who are striving for their independence, the employees of Galcop, a territory hungry corporation, a good few pirates, and some slightly odd characters who have set themselves up as Barons and Baronesses of the new land. You can count on running into pretty much all of these characters as you try to earn your living in the Fringe.
Unexpectedly, this is not a queue for an galaxy roaming game, but a 3D shoot-em-up which has more in common with X-Wing than with Elite. You start the game with a fairly basic ship, docked at a starbase in the Sol system, with a few credits in your pocket. From within the base you can choose read the TNS news bulletins, which are pretty much the same every time you play but do serve to give a little bit of back story. Or, you can check the galactic map to see whereabouts in the galaxy you are at the moment. And when you're ready to embark on a mission you can head over to the job board to choose a particular venture, whereupon you'll be taken to the armoury to arm your ship if necessary and then to the hanger to head off on your mission. In fact, choosing a mission is the only way you can exit the star base, though there are, later in the game, special "missions" which read "Jump to Gate X" or whatever, and these, when selected, take you to the another StarBase. But can't undock from the starbase without undertaking a mission so exploration is right out.
Brush with death
Luckily for all you wanna-be space pilots, Tachyon Fringe compensates somewhat for this lack of freedom by featuring stacks and stacks of varied missions for you to embark upon, including three training missions to help you get the hang of your craft. Some of the missions can be failed without impeding your progress through the game and are just used to make money while others are essential to the progression of the plot - although you only find the latter out when you're told you have to restart the mission. There are essentially two paths through the game, depending upon which missions you choose to undertake. You can end up working either for GalSpan, the corporation trying to take over the Fringe, or the Borans, the colonists who got there first and object to being kicked out. Whichever side you play as you'll be up to your neck in laser fire and missiles as pretty much every mission involves you taking on a number of foes, mostly in fighters, some of them in larger capital ships, but you usually get aid from other computer controlled fighters in the latter case.
The missions are fairly varied and involve attacking ships, escorting others, sneaking into bases and stealing things and other activities. There's also a set of missions where you get to take part in an Arena contest, although there's a flaw there in that all the other competitors attack only you and not each other (the AI in the rest of the game is okay). A plus is that when the missions pit you against almost seemingly insurmountable odds, you're not required to blow away all your opponents - there are several occasions where you have to fly into a battle zone, grab something, and get the hell out, frantically ducking and weaving to avoid the ten or so pursuing ships. The missions are scripted, but there are still plenty of surprises, such as fighters zooming out of the gate behind you just as you think you've got things sorted. And while the money you get paid for each mission increases as you go through the game, so do the risks you're exposed to.
Most of the missions in Tachyon will pit you against other fighter-bound foes and so it's inevitable you're going to find yourself involved in combat. The combat system in Tachyon is as good as any, and the ships are fairly easy to control, which is partially due to the lack of real inertia in the game, so if a foe is chasing you, you can spin on a sixpence and, using the 'slide' key, keep flying in the same direction while blasting them the face. Naturally, your foes will do the best to give you a run for your money and while they're not intelligent enough to pull anything off like the slide maneuver, they can blow you into bits if you get too complacent. Despite Bruce Campbell's slightly cocky voice-over and the in-game blurb about Jake Logan being an ace pilot, you're not indestructible.
It's a good thing then that your ship comes complete with a shield and afterburner shield system. These systems and also the lasers and engine draw energy from the same source and, as in X-Wing, you can change the distribution of energy between each of them, giving you extra engine and booster power if you're being chased by a large enemy force or bolstering your shields and lasers if you're on the offensive. The catch is that as you progress through the game the enemies get tougher and better armed so even fiddling with your energy systems isn't enough to keep you alive. Instead, you have to upgrade your ship's weapons or even buy a better ship. That's where the cash you earn from completing missions comes in. Each side in the game has access to the same weapons and items, more becoming available as you progress through the game. Items include more powerful lasers, guided and unguided missiles, shield and afterburner reserve boosters, devices to aid you in aiming and more. There are about thirty different items and weapons in total. There are five different ships to choose from as well, from light fighters through to bombers and general multi-purpose craft. Both sides in Tacyhon have ships that perform comparably to the opposing sides ships, only the look and names of the craft being different. As you'd expect, upgrading your ship costs money so you're going to have to do a fair bit of blasting before you get access to the larger bottom-kicking ships. You can also draft in a wingman to help you out, and order them about mid-game to defend you, attack targets, escort ships and so on. However, a flaw here is that you can only have one wingman at once, which seems odd given that usually about four are on offer at any one time.
Tachyon's graphics are certainly impressive, especially when you've got a couple of capital ships duking it out (which happens a few times in the game), although there is some noticeable slowdown when there's a lot happening on screen. The sound effects and voice overs too are up to scratch, although it wasn't really necessary to have Bruce Campbell drafted in to provide the voice for the main character since most of the other voice actors give good performances.
In terms of gameplay, single player Tacyhon , while not standing head and shoulders above the rest of the space shoot-em-up crowd, certainly gels well to make an entertaining game. It's strangely addictive and you'll keep coming back to get bigger and better ships and just to see how the game turns out, although its replayability is questionable. The game does also boast a multiplayer mode which features both arena and base fighter combat, the latter differing from standard fighter deathmatch in that you fight in teams with different bases and gates leading towards your opponents bases. I didn't actually get to test deathmatch mode much as, after applying the latest patch, multiplayer seemed rather unstable, crashing quite often even after following the trouble-shooting instructions on the site. It seems odd that few if any multiplayer games offer fighter and capital ship combat, perhaps with some players controlling fighters, others acting as gunners. If Tachyon had offered this, it really would have had major multiplayer appeal.
As things stand, you'll probably spend most of your time in Tachyon in single player mode, and if you like your games with a kind of space-western setting and a heavy dose of blasting Tachyon: The Fringe , while not perfect, is well worth checking out.
Review By Games Domain