You got here just in time. No, really! If you were reading this eXcursion back in December when it was supposed to be published, you’d find a very different article. It would be about my growing disillusionment with Ceres as I struggled with bugs, glitches and unrefined gameplay. But since the game’s launch in October 2015, developer Jötunn Games has been making slow-but-steady progress in addressing the game’s shortcomings. Ceres has come a long ways in the last few months, with seven patches and counting. Bottom line: given a little more love, Ceres could become a standout indie title.
Ceres fits comfortably in the space-sim genre, combining pausable, real-time tactical combat with a trade-based economic model, an experience/leveling system and a somewhat open universe. If you’ve played the classic Escape Velocity or X series, that should give you a good idea of the feel.
The game takes place entirely within a post-Terran Sol system. Humanity has abandoned Earth after it was turned into a chunky lava donut by a hyperspace gate gone awry.
Since the catastrophe, the “Gate” has been connecting to random points throughout the galaxy, bringing all sorts of unusual and often very goofy-looking alien life forms to our doorstep. I won’t go over all of the factions since there are tons of them, but it’s clear that Jötunn has put a lot of time and effort into fleshing out their universe and its inhabitants, and it’s one of Ceres’ greatest strengths.
I’m going to turn this Friday eXcursion into an After-Action-Report following Captain Domitianus as he sets out on his journey to save humanity. (He doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing, but we know better, right?) So, on with the show!
After choosing to play as the Stellar Navigator and selecting a voice set, I find myself near the Municipium Dardanorum, a Terran Alliance trading station. I receive a hail from Captain Romulus, the captain of the Terran Alliance Battlecruiser Marius. As it happens, humanity is in the market for a protagonist, and Captain Romulus very helpfully points me in the direction of the nearest plot device to set me off on my hero’s journey. The garrison lost contact with a nearby mining station, and, in typical you-are-our-only-hope fashion, it’s up to me to check it out – under the supervision of the supposedly capable Captain Octavius. (Apparently the Terran Alliance is descended from some long-lost tribe of Turians or something.)
Thankfully, there’s a navigational beacon on my HUD for the mission objective. I click the waypoint interface and set a course. Or at least, that’s the plan. Only now I can’t find the objective on my waypoints menu. Furthermore, the waypoint is right in front of me on the HUD.
At first, I thought that maybe it was a bug, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. From what I can gather, sometimes you just don’t get waypoints on your navigational computer. Lacking the ability to auto-pilot myself to the waypoint, I do as the load screen suggests and double-click the destination on my HUD. My ship points itself toward the objective, Octavius’ own vessel moves to my flank, and we we blast off!
Yes, that’s me clipping into the station, about four seconds after punching in the order. And no, I wasn’t exactly nestled up against the station to begin with. The pathfinding just drove me straight into the nearest obstacle.
Eventually, I get myself to the first mission waypoint. And what should we find waiting for us, but a pirate attack! Sweet, our first taste of combat! The combat system was one of the things I was most interested in, so this should be good. Unfortunately, the pirates fall easily to our military-grade hardware, but it’s enough to whet my appetite.
After we secure the area and save the local traders, Octavius directs me toward the next waypoint. We don’t make it far before we’re ambushed by another jackal pack of pirates. Again we easily dispatch them. However, in both combat instances, I notice something strange. If I order a ship to attack, it stops in its tracks. If I tell it to move (to evade fire or get into a better position), it sometimes stops shooting back. The turrets can only turn so fast, though, so I think to myself that maybe it’s a question of getting the shots lined up. I put it out of my mind and continue the mission.
Finally, we arrive at the mining station. Or what’s left of it. It’s taken quite a beating, and it looks like most of the crew is sucking vacuum. Work of the pirates, perhaps? Octavius has his doubts. He asks me to scan the wreckage.
Once I’ve completed the scan, the nearby (formerly friendly) Terran Alliance turrets open fire on us, and we reluctantly turn them into very expensive space-hood ornaments. Upon scanning the turrets’ remains, we learn that they’ve had been hacked by Hydra, a faction of A.I. hostile to humans. Octavius and I follow the A.I.’s signal back to its source.
After gathering some space loot to restock our supplies and repair our ships, we head to the final objective of our introductory mission. The source of the hack, it turns out, is an enormous Hydra A.I. cruiser with a flight of frigate escorts… far more than Octavius and I can handle. Fortunately, Captain Romulus pulls a timely Big Damn Heroes, and with his help, we’re able to blast the unfriendlies to pieces. Mission accomplished!
Well, almost. After the battle, the resident MacGuffin – a creepy-yet-ostensibly-friendly A.I. named Ceres – lands squarely in our lap. It has some interesting things to say about A.I. and the catastrophe that destroyed Earth… but I won’t spoil the plot for those who want to experience it for themselves.
Originally, this is where the play-by-play ended, and the bug reports began. It wasn’t pretty. But then, in December, Ceres received a few new patches, and I knew I had to give it another shot. And boy, is it a good thing I did. I breezed through the tutorial without any major problems. If that doesn’t sound impressive, note that my first time through, it took me a full 12 hours to complete the tutorial mission because of bugs.
This time, I made it past the tutorial mission, onto the first leg of the central plot, and beyond. Once I started making some headway into the game, despite the rough shape of the UI, the poor controls, and the still-prevalent bugs, I started having fun. Actual, honest-to-goodness fun!
First off, it’s great just being, existing, in the world that Jötunn created. I love the sensation of being cut loose in a big, unfamiliar void. Experiencing the sense of the unknown and of space – for lack of a better word – is a great joy in space sims, and Ceres really nails it. The introductory mission helpfully dangles a narrative thread for you to follow, but you can just as easily wander around the Khaos Cloud or any other sector – if you think you can brave the dangers, that is. The aeons-old nagging question “What’s over the next hill?” is a powerful driver in human nature, and Ceres does a great job of tapping into it. At 36 hours in, I’ve only made it to the first few sectors, and the world still feels fresh and interesting.
But what good is all that exploring if you don’t have anything to show for it? Ceres gives inquisitive captains plenty of goodies for their efforts. Whether in the form of unusual anomalies, encounters with other ships (friendly or otherwise), interesting loot, or flavorful world-building points of interest, it’s hard to fly from point A to point B without running into something fun, interesting, or at least salvageable.
That leads me to the game’s setting, which I’ve already mentioned is fantastic. There are four major factions – two human, one A.I., and one… Horatio? – and nine minors consisting of all kinds of mercenaries, freaky doomsday cultists, mechanical automata, and regular blokes just trying to make a buck. Add to that the unusual and sometimes malevolent alien lifeforms and a captivating central plot, and you have a pretty compelling mix.
Ceres also gives players a decent degree of flexibility in terms of how they play. Along with weapons, armor, and engines, there are modules for radar, drone control, cargo space, shipboard A.I., and more. For their part, the weapon types are many and varied. Lasers, railguns, missiles, torpedoes, plasma, drones, and nuclear warheads all feel and behave very differently than the others, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Deciding what to do with your precious, limited hardpoints is tough (in the best way!)
The ship customization mini-game along with the captain XP system enables a variety of playstyles. Focusing only on kinetic weapons and armor strength can make you a tough cookie, but skills like Trader, Leadership, and Cargo Organizer can be just as useful. This kind of variety ensures that the player always has some interesting choices to make – a hallmark of the genre.
Once everyone’s decked out and ready to go, then comes time to use all that precious hardware on anyone who gets in your way. This is secretly why we play space sims, right? That flood of endorphins when you buy your first big, badass ship and feel all sexy and awesome? Yeah. Ceres has it. The giddy rush as you get off that perfect shot and watch your enemies melt into so much hot (and salvageable!) slag? Got that too. The mental kung-fu of getting every last ounce of performance out of all your assets? Well, maybe that’s not quite as viscerally and overwhelmingly kickass as the first two, but it’s definitely also there, yes. I feel like this paragraph needs a concluding sentence, so here it is: In case you didn’t infer, the ship/module game in Ceres totally rocks.
All these pieces come together to make for a strong, satisfying space-sim experience. It scratches all those itches in an almost one-more-turn sort of way. At its core, Ceres is a great example of its genre, and it’s exactly the game I was looking for.
That said, Ceres is still a deeply flawed game. I’ll skip the problems that were addressed by the patches (and a lot of them have been!), and instead touch on some of my biggest remaining grievances.
- Navigation. As I briefly mentioned in the AAR, I had a lot of trouble getting my ships where I wanted them to go. Even when using nav points, the pathfinding displays next to no collision avoidance. You’ll find your warp jumps cut short by the flat end of an enormous asteroid more than a few times. At least there’s no collision damage from hitting environmental objects.
- Combat maneuvers. This gets its own special category apart from navigation. Ceres only sports two combat options: “attack and track target” and “follow.” This means that any sort of tactical maneuvering is tedious and difficult, and most battles look more like a game of chicken than a proper dogfight. Furthermore, this lack of variety combines with the poor and unresponsive movement commands to makes lighter, faster ships a liability instead of a viable option. I know it wouldn’t be easy to add more complex commands, but giving the player more useful commands like “maintain X distance,” or “prioritize turret uptime” or “evasive maneuvers” would provide more interesting options while skirting the touchy and often frustrating movement interface.
- Bad A.I. Hostile ships follow one golden rule: fly straight at the enemy until one of you is dead. This makes combat much less engaging than it could be. One of the biggest A.I. problems has been fixed (enemy ships stacking up on top of each other and failing to return fire), but like most of Ceres, there’s a long ways to go before the A.I. is really up to snuff.
- Bugs and glitches. From losing the ability to pan the camera to dialog boxes that won’t close and keep you from using the rest of the interface, glitches are often a bigger hazard than the worst the brigands, aliens, and angry Siri can throw at you. As for bugs, they range from minor (inexplicably losing the ability to refit one particular ship) to moderate (inexplicably losing the ability to repair a ship) to monumental (friendly ships spawning as hostiles and killing the player). Fortunately, it seems most instances of that last category have been fixed, but a bug-free game session seems a long ways off, at the moment.
- Lack of information. Many interface elements don’t have mouseover tooltips and sometimes the game just plain doesn’t give you any information at all. For example, take a look at the menu for hiring an escort:
I’m not holding anything out. This is all the information you get if you want to hire a ship. How is a player supposed to make a decision based on that? Sure, the asking price is low, and you can always save-scum, but this is really inadequate design.
Even in instances where you’re given all the information, it’s often presented in a way that makes it hard for the user to make sense of. This leaves players (especially new ones) drowning in data but starving for meaning. To use the weapons market as an example, the technical specs of each module are spelled out, but to a new player browsing dozens of mods, there’s no way to get a sense of what makes each one stand out without clicking back and forth and doing a line-by-line comparison. It would be extraordinarily helpful to give each of the hundreds of modules at least a line or two of unique tooltip text such as, “Weapon XYZ has huge power draw, but makes up for it with its long reach and low cycle time.”
It’s very possible that I overlooked some things here. Even at 36 hours played, I haven’t learned all the ins and outs of such a vast and complicated game. While I spent a lot of time looking for more information online and in the manual, it was by no means an exhaustive search. What I can say for certain is that the amount of time and effort I’ve put into trying to come to terms with Ceres is far more than what can be reasonably expected.
As it stands, Ceres is a very, very rough gem. If Jötunn stays with it and keeps up the patches, they could have a cult classic on their hands. I hope they do, because I really like Ceres on a lot of levels, I’d love to see their maiden voyage become a roaring success despite its rocky launch.
I also know that my experience may not reflect that of the average gamer. As of publication, 70% of the player reviews on Steam were positive. Most users report bugs and glitches, but given the number of people with an overall good impression of Ceres, I think it’s safe to say that I’m something of an outlier. That said, my write-up must be based principally on my own experience.
As it is, Ceres isn’t quite yet at the point where I can give it the thumbs up. That said, there’s something really great here, and a patient gamer will find a rewarding, if flawed, experience. If you’re looking for a new space sim, go ahead and give it a shot. Although, considering the current state of the game and a sticker price of $20 US, you may want to wait and grab it on sale. If you’re worried about the lack of polish, check back in down the line and see how Ceres has come along. Jötunn’s on the right track, and I’m confident that they can give Ceres the shine it deserves.
See You Space Cowboy…
TL;DR: Rich in both potential and flaws, Ceres has much to offer, but hides it behind worlds of frustration. If you can push through all that and appreciate the game for what it is, there’s a really great time to be had. The gameplay is rewarding and the setting is fantastic. However, if you’re the kind of person that demands a smooth and stable experience, this game will leave you sucking space dust.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You appreciate strong atmosphere and worldbuilding
- You like space sims in the vein of the X or Escape Velocity series
- You’re looking for a pretty meaty spaceship customization engine and can overlook the sub-optimal combat system
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You prefer your gaming experiences to be stable and bug-free
- You’re looking for a clear and straightforward interface
- AAA graphics, sound, and interface are important to you
- You don’t have the drive to grapple with the game’s idiosyncrasies
- You don’t have the patience to deal with a barrage of numbers with few contextual clues
- You’re turned off by the prospect of micromanaging combat in order to be effective
Ben played 36 hours on his Apple MacBook Pro, split between Mac OS 10.9.5 and Windows 7, an Intel Core i5-3210HQ @ 2.5GHz, 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, and an Intel HD Graphics 4000 gpu.