The Exploration Pact of 4578 has expressly forbidden any exploration of Sector Prime by any unauthorized ship, a rule that will stay in place until the imminent Thorium Fission drive has been fully developed. All five continents of the Earth are poised to take advantage of the great opportunities that may lie in Sector Prime. This is where Lextor Mucron, robot smuggler, Tiberium moonshiner and gangster, comes into your life. He proposes a risky longshot, offering you a ship, crew and basic systems to go on a ten year round trip of exploration, discovery, combat and exploitation, illegally reaping the spoils for your combined personal profit. Collect what you can find and bring it back for glory and money, or die trying. The thinking behind the game is to take this story and deliver the player a compact and quick gaming experience, with the whole title designed to allow you to finish it quicker then you can go through the first two chapters of the manual of something like Masters of Orion. Or two smokes, depending on your yardstick. The ten year time limit is your major incentive, with your overall score going down for each week you go over your due date. There's no mucking about getting the whole thing rolling either. Run through the small installer, click on start, name your ship and captain, choose your difficulty settings and then it's off you go, blazing away into uncharted space with money on your mind and your mind on your money.
The interface is simplicity itself, with all exploration done on a single screen, all combat on another near identical display, all control through the mouse. The largest view is of Sector Prime, randomly generated according to the options you chose at the beginning. You have a ship readout at the top left of the display, with your cargo list below that and a target info panel coming in at the bottom. The star map consists the various planets waiting to be explored, the path to which is occasionally peppered with hazards such as nebulae and black holes. Playing the game is again simpler than deciding to have a third pint when you came out for 'just the one'. Click on your ship, click on where you want to go, check how long it will take you to arrive, then engage the engines and ping off to the new planet. When you arrive a multitude of things may happen. You may have come across an empty world, there may be some valuable artifact or improved system you can install on your vessel, you may encounter a saboteur or a solar flare.
There are many different events that you can come across as there are also a healthy variety of lifeforms. There may be some mercenaries willing to aid you in exchange for a tasty trade or you may come across a new race, the famed First Contact. This can lead to one of two things. Either the new entries in the space yellow pages are friendly, where they will initiate trade with you, or they want to extinguish your little trek there and then. Combat time! Another screen pops into view, near identical to the last; however the star screen is now your tactical display. The simple mechanics remain, click on the baddie you want to off and hope for the best. Combat has a random, luck driven feel to it for your chances of victory have been mostly pre-ordained by what upgrades and allies you have already come across. If you get caught out on your first planet, you're gonna die. If on the other hand, you already have a nice haul of stronger shields, guns and missiles, not to mention the impressively large array of goodies such as an auto repair unit or a ghost projector you have a fighting chance. There is room for manoeuvring into a better position and to cycle your weapons but it is clever strategy on the star map that will bring you victory in combat. But get used to dying a lot, it is a frequent occurrence. Fortunately it takes no time to get into another game. I played through fifteen attempts in about 45 minutes on my first session. The graphics are basic, even primitive. They do the job they are set out to do and are lucky to have had some talented artistry put into their design. The sound effects are varied and thoughtful and there is a nice ambient soundtrack playing in the background. SAIS will not tax even the most ancient of systems, making it a handy title to take with you if you're gonna be stuck at grannies for the evening with your old cast-off Pentium 90 for company, or even a crappy terminal at work.
The unfussy simplicity of SAIS is one of its strongest points, allowing you to pick it up and play with whatever snippet of time you have open to you, but it also hampers the long term appeal of the title. It doesn't take too long to come across almost everything the game has to offer. I found myself wishing for more content and more poignantly the option to have a longer game, say 20 or 30 years. This would need an extension to the star map however. I feel the developers could do themselves a couple of other favors. One would be to make the game available for purchase and download from their website (here) as it's a small game at under ten megs and would tax not even a 28k modem owner, allowing the admittedly small price to be knocked down a little, or at the very least for the impatient to get into the game's humor and fun that much quicker. The option to play the game in a window would also be a great boon, giving it the chance to replace solitaire as the time filler of choice while your computer performs some mundane task. Digital Eels, all three of them, have done themselves proud with this tight, enjoyable and entertaining little game. If you don't come looking round their website for a MOO or Alpha Centauri clone but rather are happy with quick and cheerful game like we used to have, then you can do much worse than supporting the smaller developer out there, striking a blow against the corporate assimilation of our leisure time and getting yourself a copy of Strange Adventures in Infinite Space.
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