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.