To say Children of a Dead Earth isn't quite what I expected is, perhaps, an understatement.
I expected something akin to Kerbal Space Program: Guns Edition. It was (mostly) not so. I expected an intellectually demanding and verbose space combat simulation. It was neither overly complex nor too frenetic. But above all, I had somewhat cool expectations, and this title well exceeded them. If anything, Children of a Dead Earth is pleasantly unique, and, while it doesn't arise to be nearly as mentally intimidating as one may initially suspect having seen the trailers, it proved to have a good balance of scientific modeling with gaming ease-of-life features.
A simulation that I also found to be a fun game, in short.
Saying that, the title certainly follows in the steps of many simulation titles, forgoing overall graphical luster in favor of a richer experience, and I sadly have little to say about the graphical experience that will leave visual aesthetes craving more. It is a plain looking thing, with low detail textures on the ships, and simple image pulls from NASA stock for the planet textures, it was very much a function over form experience. I enjoyed the combat effects, which had a certain science meets sci-fi flashiness to them, but even these were actually quite simple, if enjoyable. Graphically, it's nothing to write home about.
Dull visuals get something of a pass in my book if the mechanics or audio can pull some weight, though, and here Children of a Dead Earth both gets said pass and displays it's true focus. The title is broken up into two distinct modes of play: a navigation mode—where one manipulates the orbits of their ships and tries to set up rendezvous with ally and enemy alike—and a combat mode, where the action of the game really heats up and the fruits of your skillful (or, in my case, mediocre) planning in navigation mode can really pay off.
On top of that, The attention to detail and scientific realism is immediately apparent in the orbital mechanics of the title, which go into such depth as to have your navigation be affected by solar wind and the complex gravitational fields of the many orbital bodies. The pre-mission briefings even cover some of the basic real-world reasons behind why such mechanics exist and how they affect the game, which I thought was a nice touch. Speaking of this added attention to detail, I also enjoyed that planetary and celestial details were backed up with direct links to the Wikipedia pages for the bodies in question. A little education in a game is never a bad thing in my book.
Clunkiness is, though, clunky controls are the quickest path to turning me away from a game for good. Again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the controls felt very natural. From the camera to the actual flight and combat controls, everything was very straightforward, once explained, and even the complex art of intercepting an orbiting target is handled in a smooth, easy manner that told me any real issue I had with it was less to do with the controls and more my own simplicity. I would even be comfortable saying that this is actually less complex to use than Kerbal Space Program, despite having a similar degree of attention to physics at the larger orbital level (it doesn’t delve into sub-orbital territory).
Seeing as orbital navigation makes up the bulk of the game-play, that ease of use and smoothness of manipulation is critical.
It’s just as important in the combat phases too, as that’s where the title gives the majority of its action, but, much like with navigation, much of the process for combat is fairly easy to grasp, and brings with it some level of automation. It works primarily by pitting the player into a separate combat mode, where regular navigation is done away with in favor of abstracted vessel control on a smaller scale, allowing the player to control velocity and vehicle orientation and issue combat commands. All of this is displayed in a manner reminiscent of a computer console you might see on a spacecraft, with a large, radar-like panel on the right to display range data for your and your opponent’s weaponry. The bulk of combat is automatic, in that you can tell your guns to target specific points on the enemy vessel, but they fire and aim on their own, leaving the real skill on the player’s part to the management of weapon ranges, arcs, and ship resources (ammunition and fuel, essentially).
In keeping with the “game-and-sim” feel of things, the player can also select, zoom the view to, and visualize the enemy craft in real time. There’s definitely something satisfying about watching your shots find their mark up close and personal, even if you aren’t really aiming and firing them yourself. I would even go so far as to say that “satisfying” is a good description of Children of a Dead earth on the whole, barring the graphics and perhaps the music – of which my untrained and uninitiated ear has little to say, except that it is there, and I didn’t find it terrible.
So then, Children of a Dead Earth, a game I count easily among the more enjoyable space simulations I’ve played in a good while, is available on Steam currently. While I’m hard pressed to say the $25.00 price tag is something it lives up to at the current level of graphical and audio polish, I can see the mechanical strength of the title making it worth the investment for a particular sort. At the very least, I would certainly count myself among them.