Escape Velocity – A 1996 Shareware Sci-Fi Trading Game

One of the greatest shareware games ever was launched by Ambrosia Software in 1996 – Escape Velocity. I spent countless hours as a child sneaking downstairs at night to play and got into a LOT of trouble! Before playing EV, I had never seen anything like it, and I adored the atmosphere of the game, the arcade-style movement, and how vibrant the universe seemed, despite the fact that the game is actually quite small.

This was a game I played before I was even aware that there were multiplayer games available outside of arcades. From our living room Performa 5300 I was transported into a tiny shuttlecraft into a strange new cosmos and given only the most basic shielding to keep pirates away, (and believe you me, they blew me to smithereens a LOT!

I was thrust into a galaxtic battle between the tough and fearsome Confederation and the unwavering and cool Rebellion (You can tell they’re cool because their ships are all red! While I and the other underprivileged traders were merely trying to make ends meet, these two factions were engaged in a ferocious and unrelenting battle for galactic dominion.

As a low level trader, you might leave a planet only to be attacked by ruthless pirates or one of the corporations or factions you have managed to enrage, so you have to be really careful who you shoot.

It was a fantastic experience to have as a child and one that adults can still enjoy to this day. With excellent programming, engaging plots that weren’t too long, and slick game play that still shines years later, Escape Velocity was an amazing game for its day, and even when playing it now, it’s not just nostalgia that makes this one of the best games ever made.

When you initially start playing, it will take some time for you to acquire the credits you’ll need to survive and grow. You can get these by flying simple missions and exchanging resources from planets with an excess to ones that need them. Buy low, sell high! It’s the way of the universe!

The long-range and versatile Scoutship is the most economical spacecraft available in the early game. It has all the essentials for survival, including fuel, cargo space, speed, agility, and, with a few lasers attached, the ability to compete with a clipper which you can rob for a decent payoff – Yes, I am a pirate! The Scoutship has enough weapons to be a genuine threat, enough cargo capacity to complete most missions, and the speed and agility to avoid conflict when possible, so you can’t go wrong with it. If you put the afterburner on it, you’ll be unstoppable.

As long as you have the space on board to load it, you may easily equip ships with additional upgrades. The game will let you set up your ship with whatever you cram into it. I believe that the best upgrades early on are to convert weapon space to cargo in order to maximize revenue from trade routes and missions and to add fuel tanks in order to increase your journey distance, which will speed up growth and help you get into a superior ship sooner, then you can start pilfering things from poor merchants a lot easier!

The Courier is one of my favourite ships in the game, though I wouldn’t suggest it for a beginner because the internal balancing does not lend itself well to the areas outside of trading. The Courier was the first spaceship I bought and I flew it for the majority of the game the first time I played.

The Courier is a nice ship if you want a challenge, but if you’re a serious gamer and a hungry pirate, it’s not worth the money. As long as you’re not focused on combat, you won’t really mess up with it though, especially with an afterburner. If you do get into combat in the Courier, you will most definitely experience the same heart-pounding rush of excitement as I did every time I attempted to board a Clipper. Speaking of these magnificent beauties…

The Clipper is the first real combat-ready ship at your disposal, if we set aside the Defender, which is about as useful as a wet napkin. It has just enough weaponry to compete with the stronger trading ships, including my personal favourite, the Argosy.

Your combat rating will increase once you’ve destroyed a few ships, giving you access to the game’s main missions! (Or quests for those of you who love Tigtone.)

You may either join the Rebellion as one of the cool kids like myself, flying their edgy red ships and assaulting known space, or you can fly for the Confederation, a team of jacked-up bureaucrats who wear the traditional and conservative blue. Whichever side you pick, you’ll have access to some incredible ships and technology!

The Manta, a triangular starship that I truly love the look of, is the main fighter ship of the Rebellion. Sadly, it will be useless by the time you receive it. Then comes the Rebel Destroyer, an upgraded Argosy that has significant ass-kicking capability, and can go toe to toe with most vessels. The Cruiser is a stunning monster that can launch out a bunch of Manta fighters and cause devastating critical damage very quickly. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t pick a battle with one of these puppies!

The Patrol Ship and Gunboat that the Confederation acquires are respectable but significantly outclassed by the time you can get them, which is a shame. Gunboats are terrifying to unleash on an unwary ship and can be captured early, which can give you a real advantage increasing your Combat Rating. Gunboats are easy to capture if you know what you’re doing and make excellent escorts for eliminating larger threats. The Confederation Frigate is the next in the line-up. They are very evenly matched against the Rebel Destroyer. The Confederation Cruiser is a fearsome creature that is about half as frightening as the rebel one and twice as big. They are also extremely dangerous ships and should be avoided unless you know what you’re doing.

There’s a lot more to flying around, picking a faction to fight for, trading and the occasional piracy. If you have taken the time to read the opening text crawl, you will have learned that you are not alone in the universe… That there are aliens out there with terrifying weaponry, and maybe, just maybe – in the middle of an intergalactic war you might have to face these aliens in combat…

Playing Escape Velocity is enjoyable and simple. The game can be played for hours on end without getting boring, and I’ve played it numerous times, starting when I was a child and most recently when I wrote this review. I’ve found that, especially while playing on hardcore mode, the universe isn’t very forgiving. If you take that risk, just remember your darned escape pod!

I give Escape Velocity a great 7.5/10. At the time and still now, it was among the best games I’d ever played. I’ve still got the utmost love for it after 25 years.

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