capsule review

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space

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Ambrosia Software’s classic game Escape Velocity still ranks as one of my all-time favorite Mac game experiences: As the captain of a tiny spaceship you explore the universe, amassing wealth and allying yourself with friends, making enemies, eventually scoring larger ships, more passengers and gaining the ability to travel farther out into the reaches of outer space than ever before. That’s much of the same experience that makes Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space such a delightful diversion, though, fortunately, you don’t need the days, weeks or months you need to play completely through Escape Velocity. In fact, you can have a very satisfying round of play in 30 minutes or less.

You start out by picking one of three mission types—this determines, among other things, your final goal and what sort of ship you’ve been assigned. Take a pirate gig and you’ll start out with a corvette-class ship: Fast, maneuverable and well-armed, with limited cargo capacity and only so much room for defensive technology. Or you can be a scientist, on board a ship with excellent long-range sensors, but with limited firepower. Last, you can captain a frigate for the local government—a plodding vessel but one that’s brimming with formidable weapons and defenses.

Selecting which ship you’ll command affects which mission type you’ll be assigned and by whom. You also have control over how long your missions last, what density the star system you’ll explore will be and how aggressive your enemies are.

Once you’ve got the game rolling you’ll find a star map that charts your system (the planet Hope in the Glory system) and all the areas around. There are inevitably some surprises, however—getting from point A to point B, you might discover a new black hole in the way, and you may need to find another way around. Passing through nebular gas will slow you down unless you’re able to barter for or discover a new propulsion system that works well inside nebular clouds. And you have to return to your base in enough time to suffer the consequences for being late.

In almost every star system you visit, you’ll either encounter other aliens—some friends who wish to trade or get to know you, some foes who want nothing more than to disintegrate you—and you’ll also get a chance to explore planets and, if you’re lucky, find artifacts that you can collect.

In some cases these artifacts are bizarre and seemingly without purpose. In other cases, they may be new and unique life forms your kind has never seen before. And in other cases, they may be equipment like sensors, weapons, or engines that you can incorporate into your own ship to improve it.

All the items in your ship’s hold or in its equipment manifest have a general currency value and some basic information; you can click on a question mark icon to get more data. This will tell you, for example, that the engines you’ve just found can navigate deep space at 12 times the speed of light but slow way down inside of nebulas. Or that shield you just grabbed is much more powerful than the other one you’re using. Or that the strange item you’ve found on the planet below is seemingly without practical value, but has enormous trading value.

In fact, this sector of the galaxy works on basic trading principles. In some cases, you’ll come across interstellar swap meets—places where you can trade any item in your cargo hold or on board your ship for one item that’s in the pile. This can work out very well for you (I’ve traded low-value critters I’ve found on strange planets for high-value engines that helped me skirt around much quicker). And you’ll also come across races that you can trade with.

You’ll also find rogue freebooters—mercenaries for hire who will accompany you on your missions if you’re willing to pay them in merchandise. Sometimes you might even find a derelict spacecraft you can pillage, but be careful—those sometimes contain pirates lying in wait for an unsuspecting boarding party. You might even come across a stranded ship that will join your fleet if you render repair assistance.

Combat is a key component of Return to Infinite Space—it’s inevitable that before too long, one of the belligerent space-faring species you’ve met will want to kick your butt. The game changes to an overhead tactical display that shows you at one end and the enemy at the other. You can try to retreat if you want, but where’s the fun in that? Combat is a simple effort—you simply click at the ship in your fleet you want to command and click on the vessels you want it to attack (or, if you’re more into strategy, the area of space you want it to move to) and it’ll follow your command. Battles happen in real-time and come complete with laser blasts, missile volleys, and explosions. They’re lots of fun.

There’s even a battle simulator, which takes arguably the most fun part of the game and lets you cobble together your own little battles, taking on entire alien armadas if you wish.

What’s more, Return to Infinite Space is very mod-friendly—in fact, the very first interface you see after launching the game asks you to choose a mod to play, if you’ve installed any. A Web site lets Infinite Space fans download mods and other add-ons for the game, too.

What’s more, the game will randomize each time you play—so the planets, their placement, what’s on them, who you’ll meet and where you’ll find them is different each time. That makes Return to Infinite Space every bit as fun to play each time you start up a new game.

The one downside of all this, of course, is that if you’re looking for a long game or really deep strategy, you won’t find it here. Those are minor concerns for me, however, as Return to Infinite Space doesn’t make any pretense of offering that sort of thing. What’s here is great and fun.

Return to Infinite Space hasn’t yet been updated to a Universal Binary that runs natively on Intel-based Macs I wrote this, but it was playable on an iMac Core Duo. System requirements are pretty mild, asking only for a 700MHz PowerPC G3 or faster machine and a 32MB video card with Mac OS X 10.2 or later.

A demo is available—you can download the game for $25. A DVD version is also available but only for Windows—supposedly a Mac or hybrid version is coming soon.

The bottom line

Quick gameplay, infinite variety, mod friendliness—all that adds up to infinite fun in Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.

Space is big, really big And in Return to Infinite Space, there are lots of things out there that want to kill you.
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