Nebulous: Fleet Command - Live Out Your Space Battle Dreams

Playing Nebulous: Fleet Command is like being in The Expanse
Odin Odin (147)
Our rating: 4.25/5

Without a doubt, Nebulous: Fleet Command offers one of the most innovative modern approaches to space combat games, building on a legacy of physics-realistic combat simulations, to bring you the perfect platform for pretending you’re in command of the Rocinante taking out Free Navy ships in the belt. The game is absolutely early access, but already shows the sort of promise that promises a superb, fully-featured game a couple of years down the line.

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In this review, I take a look at the tutorial “campaign” as well as the essential gameplay elements themselves.

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Nebulous: Fleet Command - gameplay
Gameplay of Nebulous: Fleet Command

Gameplay is where things get a little harder to judge. On one hand, Nebulous clearly takes its premise seriously: this is a game designed to bring the realistic feel of naval combat into the three-dimensional realm of space combat. Radar profiles, tactical positioning, strategic missile pathing, realistic blind spots, and intense damage scenarios all meld to create a heart-pounding experience. I spent half an hour during one of my earliest games just burning far out from the center of the engagement zone, occasionally (and fearfully) turning my radar on to try to get a fix on my enemy’s position (whilst trying to hide mine from their target lock).

On the other hand, once engagement begins, it quickly feels like all your careful planning and advanced early positioning is useless. Part of this is due to the time it takes to react to threats, especially if you’re commanding a larger fleet. Even when you get the hang of the incredibly complex controls, it’s difficult to take charge of five different ships in 3D space while under attack from a clever AI. There are some fixes that I hope the developers will institute throughout future patches, but the possibility of modding the game might also introduce solutions.

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The game is in pre-release for at least two years, but already there’s a lot to show. There are hints in the tutorial (which is both fun and utterly vital to understanding the controls of the game) that the single player content of the game is destined to be exciting and rich, with more characterization and storytelling than one might have expected from a combat simulation game. This is hugely welcome, and I’ll go over that in more detail later in this review.

The basics of combat and maneuvering need work to make them accessible and fun, but there’s a lot in here already that deserves attention from fans of the space-combat genre and tactical warfare alike. And the visuals, though currently simple, showcase the platform for an extremely polished and nostalgic experience that really immerses you in the gritty moment-to-moment experience of space combat.

Nebulous: Fleet Command - The tutorial
Nebulous: Fleet Command - The tutorial

The tutorial of Nebulous: Fleet Command is not optional. Even if you have played games like this before, you’re going to need the tutorial to make timely sense of both the controls themselves and their many varied uses.

Luckily, the tutorial is a blast. The fully voiced character LT Hazel leads you through the basics of maneuvering in space, firing weapons, and handling the complications of electronic warfare. There are some glitches in how the tutorial progresses, and it doesn’t hold your hand as well as it should, but Hazel was such a delightfully acted character that I hardly minded.

I think we can see a taste of what is to come later down the road when the developers put out proper campaign content, and it’s a taste that makes me very excited. Too many games in this form fail to feature well-rounded characters with full voice-acting, preferring to rely on text-only. That’s a huge mistake in my opinion, and seeing Nebulous break from that tradition and offer a deeper level of immersion is really cool.

Nebulous: Fleet Command combat
Nebulous: Fleet Command combat

Combat in Nebulous currently comes in three major flavors: missiles, point-to-point mass driver weapons (cannons, railguns), and electronic warfare. The latter of these is currently limited to various forms of radar interference, but already has a huge impact on the outcome of encounters. Scrambling an enemy’s radar tracking at the right time can mean the difference between being struck by a dozen missiles or survival. Using your electronic warfare suite at the right moment can also make cool tactical scenarios possible, like tricking the enemy into thinking a couple of small-but-loud ships are your main force, while another two hot gunships sweep around silently from behind an asteroid.

Guns play out like you’d expect: point and shoot. These are, thankfully, semi-automated. Once you tell them what to fire on, they just keep shooting. You can switch between armor-piercing and explosive ammo, but otherwise there’s not much to say.

Missiles come in different flavors, with some automatically locking on to a target via their own radar, while others can be set on predetermined flight paths of high complexity. The latter are the more interesting, since you can theoretically tell them to fly around an asteroid and attack a target from a blind spot — or lure a target in close to a ship while several missiles secretly arc back in from the sides.

In reality, however, I found that most of the strategic potential of combat is currently just that: potential.

The game offers one type of realism but does away with another by leaving all the control in your hands. The “crews” aboard the various ships don’t really do anything apart from repair damage; they certainly don’t operate the ship on their own. Literally, nothing happens unless you directly command it, and that quickly starts to feel frustrating. If you’re just controlling one or two ships, this is less of an issue, but in almost all cases I found myself wishing that the crew of my ship would take a little initiative.

For every ship in your fleet, you are directly responsible for manually maneuvering and attacking. Point defenses will fire on their own, but without proper maneuvering and use of the electronic warfare modules this often doesn’t do anything to save your ship from a sneaky missile attack.

So, while tons of fun tactical potential exists, I mostly found myself charging straight into the AI fleet and launching all my missiles at the last possible moment, doing catastrophic damage while constantly rolling my ships to ablate damage across a larger surface area.

The Future of Nebulous

I hope that part of the development is a move towards autonomous and semi-autonomous ship control. It would be great if you could select certain ships for various levels of autonomy, sending them off on prescribed flight paths (for instance), but with full self-control to break off to defend themselves as necessary. Space warfare of the type imagined in Nebulous during its alpha release feels a bit like controlling a swarm of space drones, rather than overseeing the movements of a human-crewed fleet.

It would be a lot more fun to step back and control ships only as you see fit, rather than being wildly forced to control the whole fleet at once, from their firing solutions down to their orientation. There’s just too much to do, and it doesn’t feel realistic.

There is the ability, under “accessibility options” to turn on something called “active pause”. As soon as I found it, I found myself playing with this on the entire time because it slows the game down 25%. It also throws up a massive and extremely annoying “game speed 25%” message in the middle of the screen, clearly indicating that the devs don’t really feel that it’s fair to play that way.

I disagree with that assumption, and I’d take pausing in Nebulous much farther. Rather than active pausing, I’d introduce game-speed as a dialable control for normal gameplay, and include a full-pause functionality under accessibility. Those who want to play MMO style would probably have to forgo that, but, for the rest of us who like playing games single-player, this would be a game-changer (literally).

Being able to fully pause the game could allow us to actually execute all those cool firing solutions, or have time to react to intense surprises. It simulates having an entire crew of adept officers as they react to a situation, allowing you the chance to queue up some responses which you would then adjust as you go. Since this is a physics-based game, it’s not like you could change the outcome of a direct hit, but you might be able to have a lot more fun trying to do so.

Nebulous: Fleet Command maneuvering
Nebulous: Fleet Command maneuvering

Maneuvering your ships in Nebulous is at once fulfilling, exciting, and deeply, deeply frustrating. While some of the difficulty is inherent to a game where “up” is relative, some is also baked into non-intuitive controls and non-intuitive graphical interfaces.

You have two modes to play in: the live mode, where you are actually looking at your ships as they glide through space, and a strategic mode that allows you to zoom out farther and provides a wealth of vital flight and targeting data.

Live mode is more fun in some sense because that’s where you get to see the real action unfold, but you’ll likely end up spending more time in the strategic mode as you try to keep track of all the dozens of moving parts the game foists upon you.

In the strategic mode, you have a more visible way of experiencing the “globe” of space surrounding your ship, and you can use this area to plot maneuvers and advanced missile paths. It all looks nifty, too, like something out of an '80s science fiction series heavily based on submarine combat. But, this all becomes frustrating as well, since it’s quite difficult to make your keyboard and mouse movements correspond to a fully-3D sphere of movement. Trying to target above and below the central axis of one of my warships became a grueling activity.

Some graphical aids would help with this, such as making part of the sphere blue and part of it red, and perhaps offering a keyboard key that aromatically switches you between “top” and “bottom” or “front” and “rear”, so you can more easily move control which part of the sphere you’re actually targeted on.

A pause function would be invaluable here as well, as it would give you time to check in on what’s happening in the larger field of combat, set up some missile strikes, and respond better in the heat of a crisis. More importantly, you could pause the game while you actually figure out if you’re even shooting in the correct direction, or if your graphical representation of space is playing tricks on you.

On the other hand, the subtlety of the maneuvering in this game, when in the live mode, was a treat. You can roll your ships, orient them with fine-grained precision, and create paths for them to follow as need arises. All of these elements become vitally important for when you arrive in combat, or for when you’re trying to get the drop on an enemy. There’s something satisfying about dropping a warship with a small profile “down” toward the center of the engagement zone, only flipping it at the last moment to reveal both its massive radar signature and its impressive array of cannon.

At the end of the day, this is an area that needs to be fine-tuned for player enjoyment and ease-of-access…but clearly has the bones and muscle of an invigorating and fun experience.

Should I buy Nebulous: Fleet Command?
Should I buy Nebulous: Fleet Command?

Yes! But with a caveat or two.

The gameplay is highly unpolished at-present, which makes sense since this is an early release game. Expect to wait about two years for the game to take shape enough to be fully playable.

If you love space combat sims and already have a lot of experience in the genre, this will be a game you should take to easily. Likewise, if you love real-time strategy and tactics games—though the 3D playing space and complex controls will take some getting used to. The soundtrack is another big point in favor of this game, adding flavor and immersion in a way that makes battles feel positively cinematic.

I hope that the game features move toward accessibility and increase the level of AI-support that’s natively applied to friendly fleets. It would be nice if your ships each functioned on their own except when given direct orders or set to specific action profiles. It would likewise be great if, even if just for accessibility reasons, a full-pause were an option, with a normalized active pause in place for the tactical map view.

The current tutorial will get you started playing, and is fun because LT Hazel is so well voiced. However, don’t expect to be immersed beyond that in terms of story, and do expect many elements covered in the tutorial to have a far steeper learning curve.

I’m happy I supported this project because I want to see the full game take shape, and because I’m willing to tough it out with some of the gameplay elements that are more difficult to learn. Presently, it’s definitely not a game I’m going to spend hours playing, but having it at the pre-release price is nice as I wait for more features to be added and polished.

Borderlands 3 is free on Epic Games Store until May 26th!
Odin Odin (147)

It’s Thursday, and that means it’s free PC game day over at the Epic Games Store!