After surviving the first half of the ambush, the only thing keeping me alive is system energy management. With just the right balance of energy to the engines to maintain distance from pursuers and energy to slowly recover shields, I find myself in a high-speed chase. Mulling over a strategy to break up the fighter formation chasing me and limit their ability to attack me as a group, I realize that only the shields I've been nursing back to full strength will make this possible. With my hull armor at less than 10%, there's only one chance to survive this encounter, but first... the tense wait. This is the level of strategy that can be experienced throughout Absolute Territory: The Space Flight Simulator.
Released on September 1st, 2020, this game is a product of passion. A passion that extends back to the time of Wing Commander on the Amiga 500, Buck Rogers, Babylon 5, original Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and Star Trek. After our interview with Digitum Software in July 2020, I awaited the full release of the game sometime this year with interest. Shortly after learning what the official release date was, Skyward Flight Media was provided with a copy of the game ahead of the public release on Steam. This review is for the launch version of the game. It will not reveal spoiler information about the story but will discuss the game modes, gameplay, and other aspects of this single player space flight simulator.
From the start of the first tutorial, the overall feeling of the game becomes apparent. The vastness and solitude of deep space can be felt in each mission. That is not to say that it felt incomplete. While traveling across thousands of miles of deep space, one cannot expect to always pass by exotic star systems and space stations. Not pursuing elaborate settings like that is also a realistic production goal for an indie developer of this size.
All communications are conducted through text boxes; there is no voice acting. Certain sound effects and limited background music do leave a bit to be desired. But all of that only slightly diminishes the overall experience. Absolute Territory is a title that has its strength in gameplay more than anything else.
Gameplay-wise, space flight feels closer to what piloting a fast-moving craft in space probably should be. For those in need of a quick big name reference, the flight is more in the style of Battlestar Galactica than it is Star Wars. With Newtonian style physics applied to the game, the flight computer and highly responsive Reaction Control System (RCS) allows for precise and daring maneuvers, depending on pilots' skill. Simply rolling a direction and pulling back on the stick won't be enough to survive the battles ahead. Maneuvering the spacecraft from maximum velocity in one direction to near-zero velocity because of a sharp turn to a different direction is an excellent way to become a static target.
By learning to fly with the RCS both enabled and disabled, it's possible to stylishly slip sideways past warships while attacking them, slide through asteroid fields and incoming laser fire, and make efficient turns that keep players alive longer. While the developer did consciously apply some unrealistic force numbers to the physics model to make it easier to maneuver, space is space. The learning curve is there but it's small and it can be overcome relatively quickly.
The energy management system is what adds strategy to the battles that goes beyond out maneuvering enemies. Every fighter in the game has this system built into them. As mentioned in the introduction, more often than not, managing energy to either the engines, guns, or shields is a deciding factor. This game mechanic is easy to manage and becomes a factor in the player's mind for each engagement. This effectively changes the way combat is approached the moment players interact with it. Driving power to the guns can quickly destroy targets, but leaves the craft less shielded and moving slower. Pushing max energy to any other system causes similar adverse effects. Finding the right balance of power as the situation calls for it is something only experience in combat can bring.
There are 11 spacecraft players can pilot depending on game mode. Each has unique handling characteristics, mass, and thrust. The spacecraft roster is split between the two factions in the game. This means that fighters from the opposing force will not be available during the single-player campaign. Depending on the craft, they may come with two primary weapon selections and up to four types of secondary weapons. Light, medium and heavy fighters are designed for different roles and as such may fly faster, have more armor be more responsive to flight inputs, etc.
The designs of the spacecraft fit the 90s style sci-fi well. In particular fighters from the Endophora faction have an organic, bug like design to them, which conjures up memories of past sci-fi series. There are some restrictions that do hold back enjoying the fighters a bit. Their specifications are only available during the briefing screens of the campaign. While the cockpit view of each aircraft is modeled, the external design can only be seen from the rear while in third-person view. It's unfortunate their external designs can't be appreciated more. If there was a way to add in something like a unit database that would have all information about the craft on a single page, that would be ideal, but guides created on Steam would suffice.
Besides the fighters, there is a small selection of transports and warships with varying levels of armor and firepower. Yes, that does mean there are escort missions, but at least the ship(s) being escorted can actually fire back and destroy some of their attackers. Still, they won't handle being swarmed by enemies, so do keep close to them.
The game modes available are: Campaign, Squadron, The Gauntlet, and Mission Editor.
The 21 mission campaign represents Absolute Territory well. As a pilot for the Imperial Hemogony, the player is thrust into conflict against the Endophora Empire; a faction that invades a territory called Bold Peace. This disruption of the Hemogony's 'absolute territory' leads to a regional conflict while political deliberations are held elsewhere in the galaxy. The missions frequently involve patrols and raids on enemy forces, something standard in any actual conflict. Of course, there are unexpected twists that can develop even during the most routine patrols.
Some notable moments from the campaign involve being forced into whirling combat in the middle of a minefield, multi-part pursuits of enemy warships, and an eyebrow-raising clandestine mission. One mission uses the tried and true waypoint navigation system in a memorable way that demands players stay close to an immensely dangerous enemy for a ludicrous amount of time. The common threat players will have is flights of enemy fighters.
The campaign shows that this is not a title where massive fleet battles will occur. Larger skirmishes are mentioned in mission briefings, but the most complex engagements players will find themselves in consist of waves of fighters, transports, and warships jumping into the battle area with no allied fleet in the vicinity. You won't see dozens of warships in formation like you'd see from a sci-fi TV series season finale or Hollywood movie. Absolute Territory finds a balance in its mission types and gameplay to show that it does not have to over-extend to that scale of conflict to be enjoyable.
The two instant action game modes are good for quick play sessions. Squadron mode has the player flying against each type of Endophora fighter as they appear in waves. The Gauntlet operates in a similar manner but includes Imperial fighters as well. Results of each mode's playthroughs are then posted up on a scoreboard for those seeking to make their name known.
The Mission Editor is advanced enough to construct detailed scenarios without being overly complex. Surprisingly, the entire campaign was created with this editor. Within 10 to 30 minutes, a mission with multiple waypoints, custom weapon loadouts, conditional actions, a briefing, and a debriefing can be built. User-created missions can then be shared with the Steam workshop. This increases the value of the game in the long-term. Even if/when the developer moves on from this title, content can still be created by anyone that has purchased it.
Note: the mission editor is the only way that players can pilot spacecraft from the opposing force. the Endophora Empire. The editor is also the only mode that players can choose their craft and weapons before each mission.
Absolute Territory is currently listed on Steam with partial controller support. The developer had always intended for this game to support joysticks and HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) controllers along with gamepads and keyboard mouse controls. Other peripherals like rudder pedals and Thrustmaster MFD Cougar cockpit panels are also supported. For those seeking an experience that can utilize their advanced flight controllers, this is a solid option.
Absolute Territory: The Space Combat Simulator presented an experience that more than fits its price point of $18.99 USD; not including a 10% launch discount from September 1st - September 7th, 2020. This is a solid first release from Digitum Software that is sure to inspire players that have completed the campaign to produce some interesting scenarios in the next few weeks. I look forward to seeing and discussing some of the more interesting missions in the near future.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.