Warning! This review contains some spoilers of the plot and is based on v1.0.3 of the game!
For this, my third review, I have once again gone for a fan-made modification to have a look at and this time we delve into the dark and grim world of Battlestar Galactica (BSG). The reimagined one of course, unless you somehow find the original 1978 Battlestar ‘dark and grim’ with Dirk Benedict leading the charge. Diaspora: Shattered Armistice is a mostly single player experience that uses the open source Freespace 2 engine and it follows the plotline of the reimagined BSG of the Cylons launching an all-out surprise assault against the Colonials and effectively disabling most of their fleet by infecting their computer systems with a virus. You are a pilot on-board the Battlestar Theseus and you are tasked with defending her and the fleeing civilian ships you encounter at all cost.
Diaspora is actually an offshoot of a previous Battlestar modification called Beyond the Red Line (BtRL), also using the Freespace 2 engine. A few years ago, BtRL released a demo of their version, which included 3 demo single player missions based around the season 2 BSG episode “Scar” as well as a multiplayer mode. It was the multiplayer side of things I really enjoyed. Myself and several others had quite a few enjoyable games dogfighting each other in Vipers or Cylon raiders. From what I remember of my impressions of that game overall, I was quite impressed and looking forward to the finished thing.
However at some point a few years ago, many of the devs on the project decided to split and form their own group citing creative and managerial differences in how BtRL was being made. This has effectively left BtRL dead in the water and is now assumed to be a cancelled project. This new group of course became the Diaspora team. Four years on they have made their first release and have stated that they intend to do episodic releases of the single player campaign whilst working on the multiplayer segment. As a result the game itself is actually rather short; there are only six combat missions for you to play. But if this is only Episode 1 then they’ve done a great job of opening the story and tied it in nicely to the show.
The game has a couple of tutorial missions to begin with which follows a familiar standard if you’ve played space flight sims before. Learn how to move your ship, target other ships, nav points, switch weapons etc. This is welcome since there are a large number of controls you need to be aware of as well as getting used to the full range of movement you can fly your ship in as you can use RCS thrusters to strafe in various directions or cut your engines entirely and use your inertia to keep moving whilst you turn around and fire at someone pursuing you. When getting into a dogfight it becomes imperative you use these flight features because the AI will kill you very quickly otherwise. Whilst you can play Diaspora with a keyboard and mouse – some even swear by it – I found that a decent joystick is a must for this game and my X52 Pro handled it well.
It’s here where I’m going to enter some spoiler territory. I’ll try not to spoil the entire thing but I’d like to try and give you an impression of how I felt when playing it. You are a pilot aboard the Battlestar Theseus, which appears to be a fan-made design of Battlestar that seems to kitbash some design elements of Galactica, Pegasus and their own creativity. Personally I’m not a big fan of the design, it looks too sleek for my liking and it feels a bit odd overall, particularly around the engines. In the end its design is a subjective matter. That said you’re left in no doubt that this is still a Battlestar and still a formidable combat vessel and the model itself is well made. The texture and lighting work on the exterior model are excellent quality with good attention to detail, though the landing bays suffer from some fuzzy and bland looking textures once you fly inside them, though this may be a limitation of the engine more than anything.
Most of the missions will have you flying a Viper and have you begin the mission sitting in the launch tubes of the Theseus and then being propelled out of the tube and into space. I love that they have this feature as it’s an integral part of establishing the feel of BSG combat. There is a single mission where you will fly a Raptor and start instead on the flight deck. Each mission will end with you having to return and perform a combat landing on the flight deck which, if you’re not careful, will end with you colliding with the ship too fast though the collision damage itself is actually quite light.
So assuming you’ve played the tutorial missions, you start the game right in the thick of it. With a great opening cinematic scene, the Theseus is attacked by two Basestars and you have to defend her whilst her FTL drives warm up for you to escape. As the mission goes on, a third and then a fourth Basestar jump in. Talk about shit hitting the fan! This first mission asks you to try to concentrate on shooting down the dozens of missiles the Baseships will launch but in reality, the Battlestar’s flak guns do a pretty good job of shooting them down anyway without your help. The radio chatter ominously implies the dire situation as they can’t contact any other Colonial assets for help, they’re on their own. Once the ship’s FTL drives are ready, you have a minute to do a combat landing on the flight deck or you get left behind.
Wow and this was the first mission? I’m left impressed. The second mission is reminiscent of the BSG first season episode “33”. Each time you jump a Cylon ship jumps in to engage you after a few minutes. The briefing states that we need to destroy this ship so we’re going to turn and hold our ground this time. But as the mission goes on, more Baseships jump in and it becomes increasingly unlikely you’re going to succeed in your mission (though you can succeed if you’re quick enough). Eventually the Theseus will be forced to withdraw again.
The following missions ramp up the desperation of the Theseus’ situation. The damage she takes seems to carry over from each mission. She starts running out of fuel; you find some civilian ships including a tanker and one particular ship which some of you may recall from the series. I have to say a lot of these mission objectives you’re given during the game are going to fail and this might trick you into thinking that you have to complete them in order to progress or have a better outcome thus making you restart the mission again. But this isn’t really the case and I think it helps to convey a sense of increasing desperation and despair. You’re losing, badly.
The final mission is the swan song of the Theseus, her FTL drives now damaged and out of action she makes a last stand against three Baseships whilst offloading personnel and fighters to the remaining civilian ships. It’s here you receive a transmission from the Galactica ordering all ships to rendezvous at the Ragnar Anchorage. I think you can see now where this is going. You are actually offered two potential endings at this point, but the obvious one is you escape with the civilian ships and try to get to Galactica which is where the team seems to be taking us next for Episode 2. Thus a nice tie-in to the plot of the series. One assumes we’ll get variations of the battles we see on-screen in the show as well as ones that happen off-screen to play.
I had wondered if the devs were going to take their own creative license with the original plot and present the game as a ‘what-if’ scenario. I say this because it’s not really clear to me why the Theseus survives the Cylon virus attack because the tutorial missions seem to make it clear the software responsible is being installed on the ship (Baltar’s CNP software for you serial BSG geeks). I assumed that perhaps the virus was not as effective in this version and would allow the Colonials to fight the Cylons with some of its fleet rather than suffer total annihilation. That said, it does stand to reason that more than one ship was immune or unaffected by the virus since obviously Galactica and Pegasus escape the initial destruction of the Colonies so why not others?
The missions themselves are very well made and executed for the most part. The combat feels intense, chaotic and hectic as the shows on-screen battles often were. Battlestars throw out huge amounts of firepower and as with the show, getting in the middle of a huge field of flak is a fast track way of getting killed. However, the dog fighting is really where this game is at its hardest. When combating enemy fighters, you will often find yourself twisting and turning endlessly to try and hit a tiny, tiny object moving at high speed. It’s damned near impossible to hit the things unless they’re right in your face and it will take a few hits to kill them. This is also where my strongest complaint comes in, the AI is too good.
I say this for two reasons. First, evading incoming fire is really quite difficult, even when utilizing all the various flight mechanics of the game, the AI is a bit too good in aiming at you. If you stop trying to make evasive manoeuvres, you’ll be hit by enemy fire within a second. This can cause you to get quite disorientated during combat, losing your target and having no frakking idea where the enemy fire is coming from. This perhaps might be ‘realistic’ to this sort of combat, but I found it a little frustrating from time to time and caused me several mission restarts as I kept getting killed.
My second reason is that on the flip side of this, your friendly AI is also too good sometimes. It would not surprise me to find that the AI makes most of the kills whilst you get a couple or none at all. For example, you’re chasing an enemy Cylon raider down, after twisting and turning for a while trying to hit the damned thing, it suddenly explodes as a friendly Viper comes in to help you. This happens pretty much most of the time, the AI had a habit of killing my targets before I could do it myself. Maybe I’m just a crap pilot.
Because of this though, it’s actually possible to play most the missions with minimal intervention from you. If you fly your ship outside the combat zone, you can just sit there and watch for the most part. As I mentioned earlier, the Battlestar is quite capable of dealing with missiles or enemy fighters that come too close to it, usually only suffering minor damage in each mission and often the most imperative mission objective is that the Theseus survives whilst other objectives are designed to fail anyway. The only real exception here is probably the missions involving some civilian ships. Since they don’t have gorgeous fields of flak to protect them, there’s nothing to stop enemy missiles from hitting them other than you.
My only other complaint was that the game was a little unstable for me. I experienced probably 5-6 crashes to desktop during my playthrough, a couple of those were right near the end of a mission as well which I found very frustrating. They appeared to be random CTDs, not caused by any particular mission trigger or event that I could see. One assumes that as development continues, these problems will be ironed out of course.
These concerns aside though, the game is still quite enjoyable to play and quite accurate in the combat mechanics and general feel of BSG. Visually speaking, it’s quite decent utilising an engine that has been heavily modified since its original release thirteen years ago by various freelance developers. The cockpits of both the Viper and Raptor look great, though the DRADIS (radar) display can be hard to make sense of. The explosions in particular are quite impressive and dynamic in their animations. I also quite like the way the hulls of the larger ships light up as weapons fire passes near them. The game also features its own unique soundtrack which is a clear homage to Bear McCreary’s music maintaining that BSG feel without using any of his own music. Likewise the in-game dialogue through the radio chatter is presented rather well. The voice actors do a decent job of portraying the ever dire situation as it progresses with that familiar fuzzy radio effect that BSG uses. The briefing scenes are also competently done conveying what you need to do whilst also giving some exposition on the plot.
The only part of this modification I have not played with is multiplayer. Though I have made an attempt to find a game to play, I could never see any multiplayer games at all. The dev team have stated that the multiplayer segment is not nearly as refined or finished a product as their first single player release, so I will reserve judgement on this until future releases come out and I get an opportunity to play it. If however it’s anything like BtRL was a few years ago, I’m sure it will be rather enjoyable, especially with a group of friends.
In conclusion, a very well made modification for a series which I absolutely adore and again it’s completely free of charge. The only thing I can compare it to is the free MMO Battlestar Galactica Online which I have played but did not find nearly as fun or entertaining as Diaspora has been. Despite being rather short (probably 2-4 hours at most factoring in mission restarts), some CTD issues and its AI or ship balance shortcomings, I look forward to seeing where they take us with Episode 2 and continuing the story of The Fall.
Review by Jason “Angel” Millward.
Info & Links
Diaspora: Shattered Armistice
Edit – Clarified remark about joystick – the game can be played with keyboard and mouse.