Friday, April 25, 2014

FTL's amazing difficulty spike

FTL’s not shy about throwing curveballs at you. I’ve jumped into a sector only to immediately have my sensors disabled and a warning that intruders have boarded the ship. I’ve had my weapons arbitrarily disabled. I’ve succumbed to unstoppable internal fires. But usually, the challenge is surmountable. The Rebel Flagship is another story, however.

The Flagship represents what is perhaps inarguably the sharpest, most dramatic difficulty spike in the game. And depending largely on how fortunate or unfortunate you are throughout the game, it’s a final obstacle that you may find simply insurmountable that round. No other ship that you’ll have fought previously even comes close to the Rebel Flagship in deadliness. You might have fought ships with hacking systems; you might fought ships with triple or even quadruple shields; you might have even fought a ship packing a powerful Glaive Beam and/or cloaking systems. But you haven’t fought a ship that has all of these things and then just about everything else.

The Flagship is a monster. It has quadruple shields. It has a triple missile launcher. It has cloaking, and hacking, and a crew teleporter. It might have mind control. It has a Glaive Beam. And that’s just its first stage. Did I mention you have to beat it three times in a row? And on the second and third rounds it has new tricks up its sleeve, like a Zoltan super shield.

Many ship configurations that might have worked quite well for you throughout the game are stopped dead by the Flagship. Going in without a defense drone or two? Have fun with those rockets! Big on the laser and beam one-two punch? Good luck dealing with shields and cloaking! Gonna roll in with a boarding party? The ship has an AI that takes over once the crew is all dead; oh, and it just hacked your Crew Teleporter.

Now, I’m not trying to sit here and write a complaint post. Just as there are builds that hopeless against the Flagship, there are others that will get you through without it even managing to scratch the paint on your ship. A Flak Cannon will rip through its shields, leaving it vulnerable to anything you want to dish out. The Osprey’s Artillery Beam will, just like in any other situation, create a losing battle for the Flagship, as long as you can hold out and keep it online.

I just find it remarkable just how vast the gap between the Flagship and just about any other challenge or enemy you’ll face in the game is. Flagship is such a significant looming threat that once you become familiar with its typical weaponry and dangers, the entirety of FTL becomes a race to properly equip yourself for this final encounter. You find yourself tossing away weapons or systems that would be great under most circumstances purely because they’re not ideal for fighting the flagship. Suddenly that 4th shield upgrade doesn’t seem like a sound investment compared to the protection that a basic defense drone or a better engine might add.

I don’t play a bunch of MMOS or RTSs where this sort of thing is probably more common, but I can’t remember the last time a game forced me to build so specifically around the endgame. Enemies aren’t challenges or obstacles anymore; they’re opportunities.