Like many fans of The Expanse, I’m feeling a little lost right now. Both the nine-book series and six-season TV show came to a close in December and January, respectively. What can possibly fill the Roci shaped hole in my heart? For now, the answer is Nebulous: Fleet Command.
Recently released into Steam Early Access, Nebulous: Fleet Command is an exceptionally deep, fully 3D, real-time strategy game. You command a small fleet of spaceships, giving attack orders and movement commands in all six directions. The controls can be finicky in their immense complexity, but that’s only in service of giving you the widest possible set of tactics to choose from.
It also feels like an Expanse RTS in everything but name.
This feeling starts from the very first moments of battle, when your ships enter the battlefield with their engines seemingly pointing the wrong direction. Of course, The Expanse isn’t the first sci-fi series to use a “braking burn”, but it effectively sets the same tone: This is hard sci-fi, with an emphasis on realism.
To that end, you have to start thinking in terms of 3D space. Not only do you need to move your ships in six directions, but your ship might need to roll itself in order to properly line up its railguns. If one flank gets chewed up during a fight, you can also rotate your ship to protect its wounds.
Speaking of wounds — their locations matter! Instead of a single health bar, all of your ship’s systems have actual physical locations on your ship (complete with their own hitboxes) and can be individually damaged by enemy fire. Luckily, just like the Rocinante has Amos Burton, you’ve got engineers who can repair and rebuild injured components mid-battle. And just like in The Expanse, If you’re not careful (or just unlucky) your fusion reactor can go critical and your spaceship will temporarily be replaced by a small star. Any ships caught in these stunning explosions (I still gasp every time) will be heavily damaged and nearby ships’ radar will be temporarily scrambled.
That brings me to another Expanse/Nebulous similarity: Radar is an essential part of your tactical suite, as is the electric warfare designed to counteract it. Locking onto enemy ships is critical for weapon accuracy while radar jammers will fill your screen with false enemy icons. You’ll soon feel like Naomi Nagata, setting up jamming on enemy fleets and trying to find the real enemies amongst the radar noise. It’s simply impossible for me not to hear her yelling “fast movers!” anytime you see a barrage of missiles appear on the HUD.
In Nebulous, different missiles allow for different tactics: One might be more resilient to jamming but requires one of your ships to paint the enemy with a targeting laser (a tactic employed by the Rocinante in the first book). Another can be sent on a user-selected path before it locks on to the enemy, giving you the option to fire while hidden behind an asteroid (or to attack enemies that think they’re safely out of sight). All of these missiles are a precious commodity since you won’t be able to reload in battle. And as powerful as they can be, there are also numerous ways to counteract them.
Close range PDCs will be instantly familiar to fans of the Expanse. These “point defense cannons” fill the battle space with beautiful arcs of amber as they attempt to swat down incoming missiles. You can also shoot down missiles with interceptors or flak cannons. Alternatively, you can blast the incoming missiles with radar jamming to weaken their lock or deploy some decoy chaff to pull them off target.
Even though the game can seem ponderously slow at first, once you’re in the heat of battle, the number of things that suddenly need to be done all at once can be a little overwhelming. Thankfully, the game has a customizable “action-pause” that can be activated with a simple press of Ctrl-Space. I have it reduce the game to 10% speed (for cool slow-motion explosions, naturally), but you can also set it to any percentage you want — or even pause the game completely.
The action-pause makes the game for me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed during intense moments, I get to feel like Captain Holden, (or better yet, Camina Drummer). I have the breathing room to coordinate complicated fleet maneuvers or missile paths without feeling like I’m ignoring the rest of my fleet. It’s also helping me better understand the game’s tactics while I get the hang of the complex controls.
Unfortunately, the controls will probably be the biggest barrier to entry for most people. Manipulating objects in 3D space can be tricky, and I still sometimes find myself aiming in the completely opposite direction. While the Homeworld series still has the more elegant control scheme, Nebulous’ complexity is only a reflection of the larger number of tactical options you’re given. The game doesn’t yet have a campaign, but there is an effective six-part tutorial that will get you on your feet.
Once you start to understand your tactical toolbox, experimenting with it is extremely rewarding. In one battle, I sneaked around the top of an asteroid so I could attack an enemy fleet from above. Knowing my 250mm cannons were on the top and bottom of my heavy cruiser, I had it roll 90 degrees so both turrets were ready. I ordered my missile corvettes to halt on the top of the asteroid (out of view) and drew a path for their missiles to rain down hell from above. Thanks to my careful timing, my cruiser got line of sight on an enemy frigate just as my missiles arced downwards. As my armor piercing rounds tore through their outer hull, I blasted their counter missiles with radar jamming. My barrage tore up their internal components, and not long after, lifeboats began erupting from it like a dandelion.
While I eagerly wait for the game’s campaign, I’m content for now to start diving into the game’s ship and fleet customizer. There are numerous interchangeable components and weapons, and six different ship hulls that offer intriguing combinations. I’ve already built a super speedy destroyer with a slightly higher penchant for going supernova, as well as a battleship stuffed full of missiles and enhanced jamming capabilities. Once you’ve made a fleet you’re happy with, you can try it out in a multiplayer skirmish (if you can handle playing the game without action-pause).
I just need to decide if my ships will be UNN, MCRN, or FNS.