For the first time in what feels like an infinite expanse, space is finally cool again. Being sandwiched in an era of major sci-fi epics in the forms of Interstellar, The Martian and a new Star Wars film, not to mention scientific breakthroughs such as Martian water and the Rosetta mission, the final frontier has never been more fascinating.
Video games also reflect this trend. Games such as Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky grab the headlines, while Elite Dangerous and Galactic Civilizations III return to past space-faring glories. So it would seem that the timing is perfect for a game such as Beyond Sol to exist.
Beyond Sol is a curious mashup of a 4x space sim and a real-time action game. If you can imagine a game with the free-roam space exploration of Starflight mixed up with the empire building and strategy of Master of Orion, you’ll be pretty close to figuring it out. In this way, the game is something of a singularity in that it feels unique despite swallowing matter from all of the other games in its field. While comparing the game to a black hole seems apt given the setting, this is also relevant in that the game is pretty much devoid of content.
From the get-go, Beyond Sol tries to sell you a universe of discovery and wonder. From the appropriately futuristic tones of the ambient music, to the serious attempt to explain humanity’s ascent into the stars as you start a new game, the atmosphere is rather intriguing. Beyond Sol wants you to believe in the vastness of the universe around you, although several unfortunate aspects hamper this.
Soon after embarking on your own voyage, you’ll realise that the game is fundamentally lacking in things you can build. There are several categories of constructable buildings, from outposts (military, mining and radar) to new sections for your cities, such as population and economic centres, hangars, and gun turrets. While that may seem like a fair amount when distilled into a list such as this, the unfortunate thing is that this list contains pretty much everything there is to build. You can also build ships that you can organise into a fleet that follows you around, but again, there is only a small smattering of ships available. This really dampens the grandiose mood and makes Beyond Sol seem a much more intimate affair, making you double-down on your base building rather than exploring the galaxy and squaring off against alien space babes.
None of this is helped by the lack of a zoom option, giving you a fixed camera angle on your flagship that couldn’t be much more zoomed in if it was focused on the liver spot on your captain’s forehead. Being unable to take in your surroundings, and being forced into a separate map screen for navigation, really destroys the infinite nature that usually defines space games.
Considering that the developers Praxia Entertainment have just come out of an Early Access period, it is quite worrying just how little there is to do in the game. Beyond Sol’s official Steam release still feels like an alpha build in that the basic gameplay is there, but you’re just waiting for the developers to start adding some new content any day now. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be coming.
Nevertheless, Beyond Sol does feature easy to pick up mechanics. You manoeuvre your ship by right-clicking in the direction you wish to travel, then using your mouse wheel to engage thrusters. If you need some serious speed, you can warp to another sector by bringing up the map screen, and pressing J to jump harder than House Of Pain. To build new ships and buildings, you’re going to need minerals, most of which can be mined from comets, scavenged from the exploded shipwrecks of space pirates, or drilled out of space rocks by mining stations. The goal is to beat your rivals in a typical 4x style; kill everyone, make friends with everyone, or trade your way to the top. Given that at least one of your rivals will usually be aggressive, military tactics are best employed, so anyone who has played Civilization or Galactic Civilizations will not be far out of their element here.
The basics of colony building are apparent from the start, and within an hour you’ll have built a decent population centre and a small fleet. Empire-building is fun and intuitive, even if your empire generally consists of a city or two that make Bognor Regis look like a vibrant metropolis.
While the real-time strategy elements play out around you, you are forced to engage with the entire galaxy from the comfort of your own flagship. Though this is an intriguing premise that makes you rather attached to your ship, it also means that you have to try and be everywhere at once. One moment you’re trying to build your city, the next you’re bolting across the cosmos because some pirates are attacking an outpost. This is one of the more compelling features as it means that you are constantly engaged and that you always have something to do. Anyone who has ever played Herzog Zwei for the original Mega Drive will understand what I mean.
Whizzing around the map being space-busybody would be a lot more exciting if it wasn’t for one unfortunate aspect: space combat is not all that fun. Combat consists of getting within an area of effect and spamming your weapons, with each weapon having a cooldown timer. Unfortunately, clicking on a moving target, keeping your ship travelling in the right direction, and attacking is far more awkward than it needs to be. Even with a fleet in tow, combat is not that engaging and feels more of an annoyance in that gets in the way of your other duties. Given that killing everyone is generally the right way to win the game, this seems like a fundamental issue that needs addressing.
To recommend Beyond Sol is a difficult premise. On one hand, the base building and exploration aspects are easy, intuitive and definitely the best part of the game. However, the irritating combat and restricted setting really let down a game that seems so full of promise when you first start out. Beyond Sol tries to boldly go where no game has gone before, but tends to burn up on re-entry.
Some decent moments exist within this vacuum of content.