I’ll put my hands up now and admit that I enjoyed Spore, and that I especially enjoyed the space stage. I don’t usually go for sci-fi, but there is definitely something liberating about being able to create your own spaceship, equip it with lasers and rocket jets, and then blast your way through the solar system. Defect is, hands down, the best spaceship designer I have ever played (but, then, I’ve only played something like two).
Defect peddles itself as the Spaceship Destruction Kit, and has the player go through a potentially endless cycle of building spaceships to complete a given mission, only to have the crew of said spaceship bugger off with it and leave you, as the captain, needing to create a new ship. You’ll complete more missions and be faced with old ship designs that need to be destroyed if you want to complete the mission, at which point the crew will mutiny again. If that sounds repetitive, that’s because it really is: but that’s the joke, and Defect manages to pull off the punchline masterfully every time.
Designing a spaceship is the first thing that the player gets to do, and although there is a tutorial, it is very much welcome. The building stage is a challenging balancing act of ensuring there is enough energy to power the vessel and enough crew to manage the ship’s components, all while working within your own visual preferences and stat parameters. Creating a beefy space-tank will take just as much intricate designing as making a light and fast combat plane, and every failure at a given mission will likely send you back to the drawing board to make those final tweaks that lead you to victory.
The game really impressed me with how it dealt with spaceship design and how significantly every detail impacted how the craft worked: placing laser blasters on the tips of your wings may seem like a nice idea aesthetically, but the spacing will mean that you won’t be able to hit anything you’re aiming at. Likewise, you may very well prefer the look of the thrusters on their own, but unless you lay some armour over the top of them, they won’t take much punishment before they’re out of commission. I really can’t flaw the design phase, because even though it’s frightfully complicated to create a halfway decent ship that does what you want it to, the 2D drag and drop system offers a ridiculous amount of creative freedom and versatility.
The second phase of the game is where it gets really exciting, because you get to fly your abomination. Or not: I mean, I forgot to put wings on my first few vessels and they just wouldn’t turn. After selecting a mission, the player is dropped into a space environment and given a number of short objectives to complete whether that’s defending a downed cruiser, winning a race or destroying an enemy fleet. As you fail a mission, you will be given the opportunity to return to the ship builder in order to add that last piece of armour, or perhaps a functioning auto-turret, before diving straight back in. In spite of this infuriating cycle of trial and error you will eventually pull through, at which point your last ship will turn up and an awesome boss fight will ensue. Here’s where the dilemma comes through: how do you make an all-powerful ship, knowing that you will need to pulverise it to proceed to the next mission? I’d love to hear your answer, because I designed an indestructible death machine and now I’m stuck.
Spaceships control like tanks, with the left and right buttons being used for turning and the forward button being used for thrusting; this can understandably be a little off-putting, because if the ship hasn’t been optimised not only for the mission objective, but for your own reaction times and preferences as well, the task will be nigh on impossible (there is a difficulty setting, but I won’t touch it). That’s where gameplay stops: all weapons will fire on their own, so it’s the player’s job to be facing in the right direction when they do. However, you’re also given the option (and incentivised) to take manual control of one of the ship’s components at a time. By diverting extra resources to the wings or the engines, the ship will increase its power by a staggering amount in order to give an extra edge over the competition. Selecting weapon parts will give direct control to how they fire, allowing you to offload more bullets at a time and actually choose whether or not you want to shoot in the first place. If it’s a turret you’ve selected, it will move to where the mouse is, meaning that you can kill rivals that are flying exactly where your lasers aren’t pointed.
The fact that every part is taken on its own terms doesn’t stop there: when a given part is hit (say, your engines take a missile to the face), they will stop working until either you manually repair it using currency, or are completely destroyed. This mechanic can also be used against your opponents: pursuing a fast moving pirate can be made easier by first taking aim at their thrusters before destroying any exposed guns they have in order to de-fang them. It’s an intelligent system that works like a charm: it forces the player to think, but the thinking process feels logical, rather than simply attempting to keep within arbitrary game rules.
Defect is an Early Access game, and so it’s by no means perfect. The difficulty can feel a little unfair at times, and many ship parts all tend to either look the same or perform the same: most of my fleet looks like the same vessel with different trimmings. Budgeting for my newer spacecrafts never seemed to be an issue either; all of my sacrifices came from energy requirements, and I never really needed to look at how much I was spending to create my unusable death stars. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re looking for a light hearted, challenging space game that promotes creativity, this one is a must have.