"Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here." - Emperor Ming, Flash Gordon
Time, as they say, is of the essence. You've got fifteen minutes before Junior wakes up for his hourly attention hogging. Before you know it, your significant other will be home, sucking up your free time with such mindless activities as talking, eating, or naked frolicking. You'd like to conquer the Roman Empire, crush the Horde, capture the red team's flag, but who has the time for that? You're a gamer on the go, and you've gotta get your fifteen minutes of fame in ten minutes or less.
Independent developer Digital Eel's got the cure for your time crunch, and it's called Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space.
Weird Worlds is a top-down quasi-turn-based space exploration game. It's also a real-time space combat game. Oh, and it's sort of like a space colonization game. Weird Worlds is tough to pin down, genre-wise "… it falls squarely in the middle, an intergalactic adventure where you assemble a flotilla of spacecraft and explore the world of Sector Prime, seeking new life, new weapons, or just lots of new loot.
Each game starts with you choosing one of three starships. Want to make friends with the alien civilizations you meet? Take the Science Vessel and embark on a mission that will reward you more points for first contacts, ambassadors from other worlds, and bizarre extraterrestrial artifacts. Want to conquer the alien scum? Launch your Terran Frigate and collect more powerful weapons and defensive systems while blowing up all the aliens who refuse to bow to your superior might. Or command the Pirate Corvette and just steal everything that isn't bolted down.
You'll also pick the length of your tour of duty, from 10, 20, or 30 years. Longer missions increase the number of star systems randomly generated on your star map, but don't necessarily translate to longer length of play. Even the most intense missions tend to be finished in 20 minutes, letting you fit galactic conquest in between real world meetings.
All missions start from the human home world of Hope, in the Glory system. Fly to the nearest star system and you'll find planets filled with strange and often amusing landmarks, as well as various kinds of items on the planet's surface. These can either be used on your ship or stored in your cargo hold for later. Each item has a trade value from one to five that changes depending on the mission you're on, and many items will have a "use" button. Whether or not you can actually use those items depends on the situation you're in.
Throughout the game you'll also run into several of the game's seven alien races. From the warmongering Garthans to the mercantile Klakar, each race reacts differently depending on what items you have found. For instance, in one game I found myself running into the Tchorak, massive meteor-like life forms that are next to impossible to destroy in combat. Suddenly my science officer remembers that we have the Danger Fish on board, a half-cyborg fish that shares some family ties with the gigantic rocks of doom. We decide to send the specimen over, and while the two are talking about their second cousin's uncle we bolt past them to the planet's surface below. Thank the Space Pope for diplomacy!
If diplomacy isn't an option, you'll find yourself on the combat screen. Combat is real-time but can be paused at any time to issue commands, a la Baldur's Gate. Be warned though, combat in Weird Worlds can be deadly if you don't have powerful equipment or lots of allies on your side. And even if you're lucky enough to have that massive Particle Vortex Cannon installed, victory isn't assured. There have been a few occasions where a little bit of strategy allowed me to come out just barely victorious, but more often than not I've seen my flotilla blown to beautifully rendered OpenGL bits.
Assuming you can survive, you'll return home to Glory at the end of your mission, and the points will be awarded. What items you have, how many ships you have, what aliens you met and how you handled them will all be factored into your score. Then the game is over. The longest game I've had in two weeks of playing? Half an hour. This is quite possibly the best lunch break game you'll find.
You won't need a hyperdrive in your PC to play Weird Worlds. The manual recommends a Pentium II and 128 megs of Ram, meaning that most GWJer's systems should handle it just fine. The game is graphically impressive by modern standards, with bright colors and impressive effects. Weird Worlds has a 1950's sci-fi comic style, invoking memories of Saturday afternoon B-movies full of lasers and strange rubber aliens. The sound is also phenomenal, quirky and alien and, at times, spooky. The creepy bass beats that play every time you enter combat or are about to board an abandoned alien ship give the impression that in Sector Prime, no one can hear you scream.
I haven't even talked about the modding capabilities built into Weird Worlds, and I've barely scratched the surface on all the little secrets, encounters, and humorous items hidden in the game. But why ruin it for you? The demo lets you play 10-year missions with the Pirate Corvette, and when you find out the full game in either downloadable format or shipped in a DVD case is only $25, it gets awful hard to not click "Buy." This is what independent gaming is all about: a game with fresh, entertaining ideas that you can play through in minutes, but still has enough depth to keep you coming back. Digital Eel's Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is a great example of what independent gaming can be.