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Playing For Free: DarkSpace

Each week we find more and more free games that do not quite fit into the freeware mold. Games that do not require a subscription fee to play, but encourage player usage of money through microtransactions or special subscription services. This is Playing For Free, a column that showcases these games.

While chances are your average free-to-play MMO will be Asian in origin, there are still a few exceptions to this stereotype. Once of the best is the independent MMO DarkSpace. It may not be all that popular, high-profile, or mind-blowing (in graphics, anyway), but it incorporates a lot of elements that the rest of the MMO world could learn from. It also doesn't follow the normal microtransaction tomfoolery, opting for a subscription-based service instead. It's an outlier for most people, and that's definitely a shame, as it is incredible and rivals most mainstream MMOs in quality. You won't regret giving it a try.

DarkSpace takes place in a rather normal science-fiction setting. Over the many years of history, two factions have sprouted among humanity, fueled by conflict over mining and colonization. The UGTO are located on Earth, and they represent the old rule that focuses more on humanity's birthplace and less on the rest of the universe. The ICC are the opposing faction, and represent the outer colonies and miners in their struggle for independence. Both had been at war for quite a while before the arrive of the K'Luth, a race of refugees fleeing from another threat. With this new threat comes the realization that the war is now three-sided: UGTO, ICC, and K'Luth.

The graphics and sound in DarkSpace may not be the stunning vistas experienced in games like EVE, but they are certainly not bad. The interface is very usable, and what is happening on the screen is always recognizable with very little training. The sound is much the same way: functional, but not particularly impressive. It serves the purpose and gets you into the real meat of the game, which is the gameplay. It's worth saying that a focus on function instead of form keep players from being pulled away from the game by how pretty it is and instead focus on the concrete aspects.

Gameplay in DarkSpace is broken up into two areas that intermingle with each other: maintenance and combat. Maintenance focuses on things such as base-building and resource production, where combat is more about destroying ships and taking over combat. Each interacts with the other in essential ways, though. For example, in order to invade a planet, you must have your own planet with troops, load them onto your ship, jump to the enemy planet, bomb their defenses and structures, and send down the invasion troops. Even then, victory is not guaranteed, as it depends on the fight on the ground as well as the fight between the ships in space.

Maintenance is the more rewarding part of the game for those that love to play the support role in an MMO, such as that of healer. Engineering is perhaps the most important of the sub-roles here, as it is how your side gains strength. Simply put, whenever you orbit a friendly planet, you are given the option to build on it, as long as you are an engineering craft. Planets have an excellently detailed infrastructure, with power costs, mining, ship production, population, and defenses all being taken into account as you build it up. If you'd rather just leave the planet be, you can also take an extractor and mine minerals for one of your other planets instead, dumping them off in the spaceport. The control of planets is also how you win a scenariop or increase your influence, as they provide a place for refueling and restocking as well as a staging ground for further assaults.

Combat is the more engaging role in DarkSpace, and is the intermediary by which all things get done. While you need to have a planet in order to produce the troops you need and the weapons you want, eventually you have to get down and dirty. Combat is broken into two forms: versus ship targets or versus planets. Planets can only be attacked by bombers, as only bombs will harm anything on the surface. Bombs heavily damage structures and always completely destroy infantry, making bombing a necessary weakening tactic for any planet that is about to be taken. After the defenses have been removed or weakened, the transports can deploy their cargo and attempt to take the planet by force.

Ship-to-ship combat is much more satisfying than bombing, but also much more difficult. Ship combat is reminiscent of the old PC game Starfleet Command in that you are given a complex ship that moves along a 2D plane to engage other vessels. Shields are directional, making continual movement and power distribution an important part of any good battle strategy. Weapons range from lasers to missiles to guns, and there's also an important usage of extra systems, such as cloaking, minelaying, supply systems, repair drones, and fighter squadrons. This all plays out into a very complicated, but still visually simple and compelling, ballet of ships.

Each race in DarkSpace has specific advantages that are conferred to the player in the game itself as well, and this ranges from the power of specific sub-systems to what kind of ships they have access to. The UGTO are the mid-range faction, with a good mix of offense and defense but excelling at nothing in particular. The ICC are great at defense, with strong shields and anti-missile lasers as well as powerful long-range weapons. The K'Luth are an interesting faction in that they are good at the hit-and-run offense: they hit hard and fast, but in a sustained fight they will often lose. This balance of three factions is very entertaining and makes the game very compelling to play.

DarkSpace is an anomaly. Despite being an independent, relatively unknown MMO, it's still active through the efforts of a dedicated community and the part-time programming of a single designer. Everything is community run and oriented, making it quite easily the best MMO to start playing if you want that great social aspect. The gameplay is great, the community is great, and the majority of the game is free, with a cheap subscription required for those higher levels. It's an example of what many MMOs, mainstream or otherwise, active or otherwise, should strive to be, and it really deserves more recognition than it gets.

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