Oh, why do they insist on making the same mistakes time and again? Like Hollywood, the video game industry is often looking more at how to capitalize on past success, rather than trying the risky business of innovating.
Echelon, a "futuristic" flight combat game is a good example of this mindset. Look at the years of success of titles such as LucasArts Secrets of the Luftwaffe (the best combat flight sim ever!) and Microsoft’s Flight Combat and it’s easy to see that there is demand out there for this genre.
And hey, futuristic stuff is always good right? But we’ll keep it a flight combat sim, instead of a space combat sim. Following along so far? Well, Echelon opens up with an explanation of how the year is 2351 and there’s a galactic war with the Velian race is brewing on a single planet that could bring down the "Galaxy Federation."
Now here’s the kicker: 350 years in the future, man has traveled to the stars, he’s developed advanced energy weapons and is fighting to preserve a civilization that spans an entire galaxy. So what the hell is he doing flying atmospheric sorties on an alien planet? What, they don’t have space ships? They can travel faster than light, but they can’t rain destruction on a planet from outside the troposphere? See this is the point where someone with an idea realizes that maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea after all.
Furthermore, while Echelon is rich in types of weapons and craft, they all fall into the classic categories of bombers, fighters, cargo, etc. And they all perform like such craft do today, despite the fact that it is obvious that they are not relying on traditional aerodynamics to keep them aloft. The press materials and published interviews with the Bethesda Softworks folks make much of the original physics models behind the flight characteristics of the different craft. And while there are some differences from craft to craft, there’s really nothing we haven’t seen before. The craft may look different, but they don’t fly noticeably different from planes, helicopters and other conventional flying craft.
Why not take a few liberties and make the craft fly like nothing ever created before? I’m not saying they should have the craft disregard the laws of physics (what kind of sim would that be?), but they should follow their own rules, not the rules governing flying craft today.
So instead of a truly "futuristic" look at what it would be like to fly something 350 years from now, we’ve got a plot shot full of holes surrounding vehicles that look like the future, but fly like the past.
There are however some bright spots in this game. First of all, as is literally required these days, it looks awesome. Nice rich, realistic textures, life-like terrain, and interesting environmental and atmospheric visual effects are the mainstay.
Secondly, the game play has an interesting twist. Missions do not have to be successfully completed for you to move on, it just changes the plot, creating a branching structure of possibilities.
Those who do successfully complete missions will also be rewarded with higher rankings and more command opportunities. This will definitely be interesting, bringing a higher level of strategy to the flying fighter genre.
Also, the variety of weapons and craft really are very well designed in terms of looks, which is saying a lot considering there are over 50 different types of craft. Everything from the fixed-wing and helicopter type to "futuristic" (straight out of the game’s press release) hovercraft.
And to make all those craft worthwhile, the game provides a large space in which to fly your missions. However, the missions included in the preview we looked at didn’t take very good advantage of all that room.
Because the copy we reviewed was only an alpha release, we were willing to forgive a lot with this title. Including such things as lots of Cyrillic writing (the developers are a Russian company), glitchy graphics and poor sound quality. It doesn’t help that when there is text that is in English, it is so slaughtered it nearly incomprehensible. Get a translator guys. Examples include: "High Commandment decided that it is time to develop success." and "Due to carrier damage our forces were unable to pursuit Velians and they got away." Somebody needs a class with the folks at Berlitz!
When you’re looking at something that is as far away from release as an alpha version of a video game, you have to sort of mentally scrunch your eyes and see what might be, rather than what is.
What I see is a sort of cool combat flight simulator overburdened with a poorly developed concept. When it comes out, it will (hopefully!) have stunning graphics, English text, and mind-blowing sound. However, I can get that from pretty much any action title these days. What makes the top-of-the-line games standout is that they give gamers a reason to become obsessed. While Echelon still has the potential to do that in its production release, it has a long way to go to become more than a visually-stunning rehash of old ideas.
For a game that is supposed to ship October 2000 (as in this month), there is certainly much to keep the developers busy and popping No-Doz. To get this game into some kind of reasonable shape, expect them to take until at least Spring of 2001 before anything ships. If it were released today (and assuming the technical and language problems were taken care of), I would give it 3 1/2 GiN Gems.