Ceres is a game that sounded great on paper. A sandbox-lite game where the player commands a growing fleet of starships through a series of encounters, collects resources, and acquires new and more powerful technology. The first screenshots I saw solicited a feeling of nostalgia for the Homeworld series and I was instantly excited to play the game. I purposely staved off playing the earliest versions of the game to give it a chance to mature. So how was my wait rewarded? Well, I was underwhelmed at worst, feeling moderately content at best.
Perhaps my joyous memories of the Homeworld series screwed with my perception, but Ceres has some issues.
From the start, the player is thrown into the action and given command of their first ships. After a character selection that slightly changes starting equipment and stats depending on player choice, the player is set loose on the solar system. You’re free to roam around from instanced scenario to scenario engaging in combat or industry at your leisure.
The game’s story centers around an AI core that directs that player’s ship and is essentially a machine-god. Sounds awesome. The story itself is told through text blurbs in-between missions, so don’t expect too much more than typical space tropes. Earth has been destroyed, the system is doomed, you get the idea.
The visual style of the game is a bit generic, it’s not bad, but it won’t knock your socks off. The visual effects for everything from ships to combat effects make for a rich if somewhat repetitive style. The sound design is what one would expect from a small team indie title. I’ll admit that the first time “Scallywag!” was shouted through my speakers, I chuckled. Although the repetitive laser sounds do get annoying.
The actual design of the ships makes sense. The function of the various modules and systems the player will make use of is logically put together in such a way that it’s intuitive enough for any player of EVE Online or other complex space sims to figure out with some effort. Managing ship loadouts and supplies is only one of the problems the player will face. Having to collect resources while battling pirates and discovering alien technology will be pretty standard fair for most missions though. This is made slightly worse by the fact that there’s no real dynamism or procedural aspects to the game. So fighting the same pirate carrier group gets old.
The combat itself is where things start to get frustrating. The player is tasked with managing the actions of all the ships in their fleet. And this would be fine if the UI wasn’t trying it’s best to kill you. In most RPG or sim games, the dice or RNG is the player’s biggest enemy. But in Ceres, the UI design is convoluted enough that it makes some commands difficult. The reality of movement in Ceres is a bit hard to get used to. And you’ll likely crash into your allies a few times before you get the hang of it. Selecting a destination, pace and managing capacitor are all kind of thrown at the player. After a few hours though, it’ll be second nature. And at that point it could even be possible to out maneuver the AI to the point that they crash into each other, which is hilarious every time.
The information displayed to the player at any one time can only be described as esoteric to a new player. It will take some time spent messing about with the UI to learn even it’s basic functions. The tutorial is helpful but a bit lacking in depth at explaining the finer details.
Different ships have different stats that affect the way they perform in combat and their movement speed. This might mean that your nimble frigates will pull out in front of your heavier ships and will lose any protection heavier weaponry might have offered. One would think that this could be turned in favor of the player; sadly there isn’t an easy way to figure out what ship loadouts work best together, other than trial and error. And poor management of ship movement can lead to ships blundering head on into ambushes and other such maladies.
The control scheme was clearly inspired by Homeworld, but it’s dampened by poor design choices in UI and gameplay that could have otherwise been avoided. The usage of turrets means your weapons have overly restrictive firing arcs that force the player to constantly fly defensively in order to maintain a firing solution while trying to mitigate incoming damage. Being that there is little on screen indication of where your fire is being directed or what path to take to avoid enemy fire, it makes this a bit more difficult than it should be. In most cases it doesn’t end well. Throw in the addition that repairing damage costs resources and it becomes possible the player could be stuck in a loop of fighting over dwindling resources to repair ever-increasing damage.
Performance-wise the game runs well. There might be a few instances of texture bugs or zfighting that I found in my runs, but no major FPS drops were encountered even on my aging hardware.
This is the biggest problem with Ceres, the combat is the center of the game, and it makes the player struggle against their own actions. The game has potential, but the feeling of flying a fleet of gimped boats in space is inescapable. The imagination of the developer is clear, and with some polish Ceres could be much better. And seeing that the developer has pushed out patches several times in the first week of launch, I’m pretty hopeful.