Children of a Dead Earth: Future War in Space

Children of a Dead Earth bills itself as the most scientifically accurate space warfare simulator ever. And it lives up to the hype.

In the universe of CDE, World War III wiped out the Earth, forcing the survivors to colonise space. The game covers a superpower conflict between the Republic of Free People and the United Sol Trade Alliance, spanning most of the inhabited Solar System. Players take on the role of a newly-commissioned Admiral in the RFP’s Navy, with the plot delivered during mission briefings and in-game radio transmissions. To succeed, players must apply a combination of military tactics and orbital mechanics in a series of increasingly challenging environments.

CDE is a niche game. One part tactics, one part space travel simulator, one part design software and one part puzzle game, there is nothing quite like it out there. Literally everything in the game is faithfully modeled using real-world scientific principles, from Young’s Modulus to thermal conductivity, stoichiometric mixture ratio to arc lamp material. The developer even included real-world reference material in the infolinks.

Being a military sim, most of the missions involve defeating an enemy spaceship or constellation. A few missions, however, are more akin to complicated puzzles, requiring you to get your ship or constellation from one point to another within tight time and delta-v requirements. The last stretch of missions combine both elements, requiring the player to gave a firm grasp of rocketry, orbital mechanics and military tactics.

Resource husbandry is the number one priority in the game: players must figure out how much delta-v to expend to get to their destination in a reasonable time, while still retaining enough propellant to hunt down and engage the enemy. In later missions, players must also strike a fine balance between conserving munitions and overwhelming the enemy’s defences.

Missions are a combination of turn-based and real-time tactics. During orbital maneuvers, players can choose how much game time passes with each ‘turn’. In-game missions run for weeks, even months, making it critical for playability. During engagements, the game shifts to real-time mode, letting players decide ship tactics and targets. With ships and missiles shooting past at high velocities, engagements rarely last longer than a minute. But that minute is packed with screaming flares, desperate full-auto kinetic barrages, dazzling lasers dancing across hulls, multicolored streams of death racing against each other to kill their targets first, and short-lived starbursts of nuclear fire.

There is no hand-holding in the game. Once past the introductory missions, the game leaves you to puzzle out missions for yourself. If you aren’t already familiar with rocketry and orbital mechanics, reading and re-reading the in-game reference documents is absolutely essential. Gamers familiar with Kerbal Space Program will find plotting burns and trajectories a simple task, but since the game utilises an N-body simulator, players must also account for gravity.

This approach extends to the ship and module design sections. Part of the game’s main draws, you can unlock the ability to design custom ships and modules and send them into combat. However, the game will not teach you how to build them; it will simply provide reference documents and leave you to your own devices. While the user interface is pretty simple, every item in-game is subject to the laws of physics. If you don’t possess multiple degrees in aerospace engineering, nuclear physics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics or material science, or at least if you don’t have reference websites handy on a second window, designing ships and modules may well become a game of guesstimation and trial and error. Which, for the patient gamer, can yield incredible rewards.

The main propulsion technology in-game is a nuclear thermal rocket. There are many kinds of NTRs in game, utilizing a variety of propellant mixes for different results. Methane is the preferred propellant of choice for capital ships, offering a balance of exhaust velocity, thrust and mass. Other kinds of rockets are available: chemical rockets for missiles and small ships and resistojets for altitude control and faster spin times.

A number of weapons technology is faithfully modeled in the game. Missiles and drones are long-range strikers, meant to soften (or destroy) enemy formations from afar. Lasers are the main line of defense against them, but they can also be employed to snipe specific ship modules from medium range. Kinetics are the game’s ship-to-ship weapons of choice: railguns are high rate of fire, high accuracy weapons for precision targets, while coilguns fire heavy slugs that blast through armour and kill ships.

Capital ship engagements present a stark view of space war. It becomes a question of how fast and how far away you can destroy your enemy before he destroys you. The game’s tech assumptions prioritises high-velocity, long-range kinetic weapons: the further out you engage the enemy, the safer you will be. There is no dodging incoming fire, not when you are inside a weapon’s effective envelope. The best ships can do is to evade kinetics from a very long way off, or take incoming fire on heavy armor in the hopes of surviving long enough to loose their own weapons. Combat tactics usually revolve around disabling the enemy’s longest-range weapons early, buying time to knock out the remaining critical systems. If the enemy manages to open fire, the only question is how badly both sides will be mauled.

Every weapon and every munition has an equation attached to it. Lasers are continuous wave weapons, doing damage by superheating targets. Their power drops off in an asymptote; past their effective range and they will be effectively useless. Missiles utilize infrared seekers: they will home in on the targets’ brightest radiators — or flares — and too many nukes in too small a space will interfere with each other, leading to much reduced effect on the enemy. Kinetic slugs do not lose power over range, but because they are unguided, ships can (sometimes) dodge them from tens of kilometres out. CDE is the first game in my collection that actually caused my gaming-grade computer to stutter and lag. Suffice to say, throwing huge numbers of missiles at the enemy is not recommended.

Graphics-wise, the game is simple but functional. There aren’t any AAA graphics here, but the art design suits the game’s vision of ultra-hard sci fi. It’s just as well that the textures aren’t of ultra-high quality; calculating trajectories and weapon effects is extremely demanding task as is. That said, every visual is realistically modeled. Exhaust is mostly transparent, only lasers in the visible frequency can be seen, explosions are brief bursts of white spheres, and a barrage of thousands of incoming tracers is terrifying to behold.

Likewise, in-game sound mostly composes of the soundtrack. There is no air in space; you cannot hear anything. Ideally, you should complete your entire mission without hearing any sounds. The sounds a player can hear are the impact of hypersonic rounds, armour crumpling, modules exploding, and crew compartments decompressing.

The most astounding achievement is that this game is developed by just one person. Five years ago I would have said it was impossible. That this game exists at all is a testimony to human ingenuity, and the easy availability of knowledge and software.

The game does have a number of flaws, chiefly the AI. The enemy AI isn’t spectacular. It will launch drones and missiles at you, it will do their best to set up favourable interceptions and dodge yours, but outside of a few missions they won’t do much. Once you’ve locked in an intercept, gameplay boils down to a mad minute of gunfire. Much of the game’s challenge actually lies in setting up burns to put yourself in advantageous positions relative to the target, or just maneuvering so you can intercept your target. In a very real sense, each mission is won or lost on in the design and orbital maneuvering stages. Most annoying of all, even if you wipe out an enemy’s capital ships, if there are still surviving drones or missiles, you must still neutralize them before you are officially victorious.

That aside, the other flaws are minor, such as typos in the written material and the lack of an ability to save your game during a mission. These can be easily overlooked. The real flaw, in my opinion, is that the game has only 18 missions. Ship design is unlocked after the 9th mission, and module design after the 12th. That said, players can retry missions at any time and beat the standards set by the developer. Players can also pit fleets of their choice and design against each other in the sandbox mode. However, this game is single player only.

Children of a Dead Earth is highly recommended for players seeking an ultra-hard science fiction space warfare simulator, with the patience (and knowledge) to model ships and modules using real-world scientific principles. It is not a game for everyone, but for its target audience, it is a highly rewarding experience.