Children of a Dead Earth is the most promising science fiction computer game I have seen since Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It tries to do for the genre what I attempt to do with my forays into science fiction: to create a compelling vision of tomorrow based on real-world science.
Storywise, the game is fairly unremarkable (at least from what the developer has released so far). In the not-too-distant future, humans have colonised the Solar System. Two or more factions come to blows. The player, representing one of these factions, commands a constellation of warships to defeat the enemy across the breadth of inhabited space. While CDE is basically a Real Time Strategy game IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE, where the game truly shines is its dedication to realism.
The developer, Q Switched Productions, boasts that Children of a Dead Earth is the most scientifically accurate computer game ever made — and lives up to the claim. Unlike other space games, the game uses an actual N-body simulator, allowing precise modelling of orbital phenomena. On the developer blog, the developer explores the science behind the game. Everything from propulsion to nuclear power to weapons to ammunition to radiators is described and discussed in painstaking detail without losing the reader in an avalanche of technical jargon. That alone is worth the time to read through the archives.
Every ship, every component and every weapon is fully customizable based on scientific principles. You can do everything from deciding the armature material for coilguns to optimizing the operating temperature of a nuclear reactor to the type of armour your ship is made of — but you must have a solid understanding of physics to do it properly. You can, for instance, design and mount a 100 MW violet laser, but you must be prepared to shed the ferocious amount of heat it would generate, figure out how to power the rest of your ship, and mount secondary weapons to complement the laser. As the developer points out, even a laser as powerful as that isn’t a doomsday weapon, merely a long-range weapon with a specific tactical niche. If you have mass or cost constraints, you have to compromise somewhere.
Delta-v and orbital mechanics play a critical role in the game. The cunning space captain will employ maneuvering burns that will place his squadron in a superior position, force the enemy to expend his delta-v reserves, and minimise his own propellant expenditure. Ploughing through swarms of drones and clouds of missiles, then charging straight into the guns of the enemy ships in a death-or-glory attack is a surefire recipe for disaster. Better to trick the enemy into wasting his long-range weapons, knock out critical components from a distance, then close in for the kill. Or, even better, force the enemy to expend all his propellant, leaving him dead in space, without even firing a shot.
This dedication to realism means that a game like this will never be published by any of the big game companies. Take a look at these gameplay videos.
The game won’t hold the player’s hand. It won’t dumb anything down. The graphics look like they came from the late 90s or early 2000s, but they are adequate for gameplay — and truthfully, there is something hypnotic about watching streams of tracers trace an arc around a planet to strike a faraway target. Instead of focusing on flashy visuals, slick presentation, shiny doodads or impossible-but-cool special effects, the developer concentrated on realism and natural outgrowth from scientific principles.
CDE does not appeal to the lowest common denominator. It demands the player to live up to it. At the same time, it can teach the player a thing or two about science — made abundantly clear in the developer blog. It’s not an AAA game, nor is it meant to be; it’s for the hardcore geeks who’ve been waiting for a realistic space war sim.
In this sense, CDE is very much like Kerbal Space Program. They aren’t the prettiest games around, but they are intellectually rigorous and grounded in physics. These games aren’t just entertainment; they will inspire the next generation of scientists and sci fi creators.
In all honesty, If I had stumbled across the developer blog before writing FLASHPOINT: TITAN, the story would have been written much differently. I can see the developer blog joining Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto as the go-to resource for hard scence fiction spaceships.
You can find the game’s Steam page here. The community has greenlit the game and it’s expected for a 2016 release. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it. After all, for most people, this is entertainment — but for me, it’s for research.