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Why Aren’t You Playing… Nexus: The Jupiter Incident

HeaderNexus

The year is 2004. The world mourns the passing of Marlon Brando, Ronald Reagan, Fay Wray, and Brian Clough. The Six Nations rugby championship is won by France. Facebook is launched. In the midst of this despair there is one spark of hope that prevents the world from collectively throwing itself off a bridge, and that is Nexus: The Jupiter Incident.

Pretty alien ship! Spoiler: It's magic!

Pretty alien ship! Spoiler: It’s magic!

Controlling a fleet of starships is the dream of any right-thinking gamer. No, don’t argue. If you do, I’ll simply use it to prove you’re not a right-thinking gamer and dismiss your opinion with a wave of my hand. There are surprisingly few games which attempt such a thing. Most of the games that want you to think you’re controlling a fleet of starships try to fob you off with a bunch of spaceship models fighting in a 2d plane like angry dinghies in a swimming pool. Even Homeworld used a 2D reference plane for its movement and constrained its capital ships to a common “up” direction, which I suppose I could liken to angry goldfish in a pond. Nexus: The Jupiter Incident (must I really keep typing that? I’ll just use “Nexus” from now on) is 3d in a way that baffles your primitive, ground-dwelling brain.

Nexus: The Jupiter Incident laughs at your feeble notions of "up".

Nexus: The Jupiter Incident laughs at your feeble notions of “up”.

Ships point in all directions, rotating according to their own ponderous needs to bring weapons to bear, firing thrusters in all directions to appease their dark lord Newton. Frigates and destroyers spin like dervishes, darting like minnows around the outskirts of battle to provide targeting data and use their tactical lasers to disable key systems in the enemy fleet. Cruisers drive the front line of battle forward, and the mighty battleships anchor the lines, moving with the stately grace of a dustbin truck on an icy road as they bombard the enemy with powerful torpedoes.

Two Longsword cruisers attempt to chase a Stiletto cruiser from their breeding grounds.

Two Longsword cruisers chase a Stiletto cruiser from their breeding grounds.

A special mention must be made of the graphics. This is a game from 2004, and it still looks beautiful today. The more powerful hardware of today can throw more polygons around, but the aesthetic design of the game is still years ahead of its competitors. Energy weapons cause shields to tremble and burst like bubbles. The gatling cannons open up, causing gouts of incandescent flame to erupt from enemy hulls. Heavy lasers screech as they sear neon lines straight through shields and on to your retina. Fighters flit about, sparks from a distance, dogfighting with each other as flickering flak laser arrays try to sweep threats from the sky, raking across the paths of gunboats that swoop in to unleash a torrent of glittering plasma bolts that smash weapons and sensors and generators to leave the target as easy prey for their parent ship. Dying ships spit escape shuttles from burning hangar bays, which desperately try to reach friendly ships before they find themselves snapped up by a passing fighter. The ships themselves are worthy of admiration. Early on, the ships have a “2001”-esque theme, with rotating crew sections and chunky slabs of armour. Later they are replaced with more space-opera styles, but still satisfyingly solid looking. All the factions, human and alien, have their own design philosophies, and within the factions they share distinctive design features. The interface is a masterpiece of minimalism, with essential tools and information available at a glance and advanced features only a click away.

Meanwhile, in space...

Meanwhile, in space…

So why didn’t Nexus take over the world and unleash a legion of clones until we’re sick of seeing yet another Nexus-alike appear from EA? Well, there’s the learning curve. The game does a good job of teaching you the basics, but unfortunately the basics don’t really cut it once you’re past the first couple of missions. You really need to have the weapons control panels out at all times, micromanaging the targeting and power distribution for each weapon on each of your ships. This is hard to do when you have only one ship. It becomes impossible to do in real time when you have three, and when you have nine, plus multiple fighter and gunboat wings, you’re going to be spending almost all of the game paused while you peer into the corner of the screen to assign targeting priorities.

Your fleet has decided that aggression is the better part of valour and it will now "engage the enemy more closely". Don't fight it, you won't win.

Your fleet has decided that aggression is the better part of valour and it will now “engage the enemy more closely”. Don’t fight it, you won’t win.

Another reason is the independence, or possibly more accurately, the uncooperativeness of your ships. It is nigh impossible to get them to go to a particular point in space. There is an interface for doing so, but it is never explained, and even when you’ve worked it out it is functionally useless. Your ships will zoom about all over the place, constantly putting themselves into crossfires and moving out of support range of each other in their zeal to accomplish their mission. Your frigates will happily complete your orders and then decide to go off and assault the enemy battleships all on their own if you don’t keep an eye on them, and the destroyers are best kept within spitting distance of your flagship at all times or they’ll suffer the same fate. Another problem with this independence is that on some of the tougher missions you will fail the mission simply because your ships failed to achieve their objectives under their own intelligence. Oh, and the story is a long mess of incoherence, deus ex machinas, and coincidences, the characters look like they suffer from some serious developmental abnormalities, and the voice acting is like sticking rusty knives in your ears while someone pretends to be an alien bird-man by growling “bite you, human worm-baby!” and making squawking noises. I’m not kidding about the last part. It’s only marginally worse than the alien warlord who bellows his entire ancestry at you and invokes his god Shaglok while he tries to kill you.

This is you. I'm sorry.

This is you. I’m sorry.

So with the negatives, why play Nexus these days? For the spectacle. For the explosions. For the cool space ships. So you can say you’ve watched attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, and you’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. So you’ve had your day as the Admiral of a fleet, with all the chaos and accident and frustration and elation that implies. It’s available on Steam and GOG.

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4 thoughts on “Why Aren’t You Playing… Nexus: The Jupiter Incident

  1. While I do think Homeworld is a better overall experience, I agree that it just barely missed the mark in terms of its 3D battlescape (I hereby promise never to use that word again). Nexus’s general refusal to acknowledge a “home” plane goes a long way toward the “holy shit I’m really commanding spaceships!” feel of the game. Another seemingly minor touch that really increased my enjoyment of the game: the fact that you don’t have to vaporize every single enemy ship. You just have to disable them. You get your spacewar without your mass slaughter! It’s truly the best of both worlds. (Of course, you can also vaporize every single enemy ship if you’re so inclined.)

    You’re also right about the mess of a story (that and the subpar voice acting and writing are the reasons I ultimately rank Homeworld higher). Truthfully I was a little disappointed when the near-future vision of interplanetary (rather than, it is important to note, interstellar or [shudder] intergalactic) war and corporate sabotage gave way to a rather ho-hum story full of stereotypically curvy alien spaceships. I think it’s about time that sci-fi TV and games joined their novel brethren in acknowledging that the universe will be plenty interesting enough even if aliens turn out not to exist.

    • I absolutely agree with all of your points. I, too, was disappointed that it started with what looked like an interesting sci-fi setting and then threw it completely out the window five missions in for some soft space opera.

  2. Lawful Evil on said:

    Never heard of this game before, so I appreciate you mentioning it back on the RPS, will see to check it out (I see it can be purchased even via GOG – excellent). Odd, since I did read something about Nexus 2 Kickstarter, but in my world of information overload, such “minor” things are easily overlooked…

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