A crowdfunded project from small Melbourne-based developer Three Phase Interactive, Defect certainly does well in terms of loading the game’s essential concepts into its title (perhaps it could teach the upcoming Horizon: Zero Dawn a few lessons in this department). Returning to base as ranking officer in the space navy of the planet Asbestos, you find your homeworld’s fleet devastated by a surprise attack.
It’s up to you to cobble together a spaceworthy ship from spare parts in order to set things right – with limitations on just what’s possible to build, though, it’s bound to have a design flaw or two. (Defect, meaning one.) With a ship designed, it’s into the fray from a familiar top-down perspective of the space battle kind that hails all the way back to the days of Starcon.
Having eliminated the immediate threat, though, you’re let down by the Asbestos space navy’s recruitment policy of employing prisoners as crew. Now finding themselves in possession of the system’s most powerful warship, the mutinous ingrates boot you out of the airlock, and take off for a life of bullying and piracy (Defect, meaning two), giving you no choice but to head back to the shipyard to put a new vessel together for the next mission.
At the conclusion of that mission though, the mutineers will be waiting – flying your former ship (via AI) against you. And victory, sad to say, will only precipitate another mutiny! You’re therefore forced into a series of dogfights against your own mission-beating designs. Here’s your chance to either teach your past self a series of embarrassing lessons, or be punishingly beaten by that cocky, arrogant version of yourself from 35 minutes ago that no-one likes.
The foremost pleasure of the game is putting spaceship designs together. There’s a massive range of parts to play with, each of them recalling classic sci-fi looks and coming complete with often gently amusing item descriptions: 'Armour and crew and power usage are all really boring. Nothing is more vital to spaceship design than pointy parts'.
Crucially, the shipbuilding tools are easy and intuitive to use, and make it easy to get the look you want. So, you can either let your creativity run wild, or get busy recreating defect versions of your favourite sci-fi franchise icons. (I, for one, immediately built an A-wing.) And within certain parameters, the game will always make whatever your random design is a functional, flying ship. It’s rather clever.
Spaceship design is not just about a sweet look, though. Each ship component has stats – their required power level, the number of crew needed to man it, and a mass – so balance is required. Too many heavy weapons and the ship will fly like a brick, but too much zippiness and it won’t be able to take any punishment. It’s also a good idea to put engines at the back and armour over the top of important bits.
You’ll also need to stick within a total scrap budget of parts, although this last factor rarely seems to impact your design in the campaign. Because of these parameters, ship designs are fairly limited in functional scope in the early going, but considerable possibilities and complexity open up as you progress through the story missions and unlock larger power supplies, hull shapes and functional modules like tractor beams, shields, radar, mine layers (note: place at the rear of ship), and so on.
The individual story missions cover classic spaceship-game fare such as escort missions, scanning cargo, defending space stations, attacks on capital ships, and so on, each capped by an attack from the mutineers. Battles take place on a large starfield where zooming out considerably is often necessary to get a handle on the tactical situation – it’s not unusual to conduct combat at nearly maximum zoom, blasting away at targeting reticles marking enemy ships that are too small to actually see. In close though, the game is quite pretty, with some unusual space ship designs and colourful stars glowing artistically in the background, and distinct effects for each of the many different weapons, engine contrails and so forth.
In theory, many missions seem designed to require a horses-for-courses approach to your ship design for success – and some do – but more frequently it’s tempting to go back to a previous design (each ship design used for a mission is saved) that’s proved successful and tweak where necessary. Swapping out an extra gun for a flare launcher on the same ol’ tried and tested design may feel like a bit of a betrayal of the game’s core idea, but it’s often the most effective approach.
Always at the back of your mind, though, is the fact you’ll be fighting your own craft in the near future. There’s nothing more frustrating that getting through the majority of a tough mission, only to have your own design genius come in and wipe the floor with you at the end. Back to the very beginning of the mission you’ll go, but you literally only have yourself to blame.
Present you has a bit of an advantage over past you, however, in that there’s a basic ship management system in play during combat, allowing you to switch to manual control of one of your vessel’s key components to enhance performance. With a click of the mouse, you can switch between boosting engine speed, take manual control of the ship’s turret, or decide when exactly to fire those flares out.
Components can even be given a bit of scripting during the build process; tell your turret to target enemy engines first when on automatic, for example. It seems to be an idea designed to bring a bit of FTL-style micro-management to proceedings, but for most of the campaign (until you get to a battleship sort of a level), you’ll likely have it locked on your weapons, as the ability to fire exactly when you want to (removed without manual control of weapons) is key to winning dogfights.
Repairs, too, must be prioritised on the fly as parts of your ship are damaged. They require scrap though, which can only be claimed by destroying enemy vessels and collecting bits from the wreckage. Damaged components malfunction, so it’s possible to end up with no weapons, no engines, or even no control of the ship. Successfully staying alive by flying around in desperate random circles long enough for the repair process to restore control is the kind of classic "heroic save" moment that makes for great gaming, but serious damage sustained early in a mission is typically a certain death sentence without an adequate supply of scrap yet collected to rectify it .
With many missions pitting you against weapons more advanced than your own, no in-mission checkpoints, and some often tricky parameters (escort missions here are, as always, a source of looming dread at briefing time), the game can be quite punishing. One interesting problem for the player is that sometimes hard to tell if it’s your ship design or your flying that’s not up to scratch.
Fortunately though, the campaign structure provides a hex-tile grid map that allows you to tackle missions in the order you wish as you spread your influence through the galaxy, so if one task is proving particularly hard, there will be three or four other missions you can do to try and unlock more ship parts which could prove to be the difference in a tough encounter.
A challenge mode adds wave survival, mission replays, one-on-one duels between player and AI in existing designs, and the ability to battle it out with friends with favourite designs or build-and-fight challenges. Only ship parts already unlocked in the campaign can be used in the challenge mode though, so you’ll need to complete that if you want to go toe-to-toe with a friend with the full arsenal at your disposal.
A neat little time waster that’s a great example of what might be called the "concept game", Defect is a godsend for the budding spaceship engineer, and still a pretty good time for everyone else. The mission design doesn’t quite maximise the potential of the ship-building tool and the difficulty curve is often steep, but frustration is often just a good excuse to go back to the spaceship-drawing board. And besides, there can be few more inherently sci-fi-esque scenarios than blowing up a hostile enemy spaceship and triumphantly yelling “Suck it, past me!”.