FTL Advanced Edition: the definitive version of Subset's strategy game
FTL: Advanced Edition is free. The goodwill of that gesture to fans, to expand the hit space sim's feature set and narrative possibilities for nothing, is a neat way to get people talking about the game just as it emerges on iPad. For me, FTL has been a go-to game, something I've played every day for as long as I can remember. The additions to the combat feel generous, and certainly justify picking up the game again even if you've logged tens of hours with it previously.
The basic principle of crossing the game's eight sectors is unchanged. One nerdy tweak to the interface I quite like is a heavier use of symbols in dialogue boxes, so you're not always staring at white text on a beige background. But why am I talking about UI and not the new space combat bits, which are clearly the more interesting addition?
The biggest additions are the Clone Bay, Mind Control, Backup Battery and Hacking systems. Hacking mucks up one of the opponent ship's systems, Mind Control grants a temporary ally among the enemy crew and Backup Battery offers a finite power boost.
The Clone Bay is the one I'm most engaged with, a system that removes the Med Bay from your ship but replaces crew members who die in battle, providing the bay itself isn't damaged. I can't really work out if it makes FTL easier or not—it certainly lowers the stakes in those scenarios where you send someone to a burning ship or dangerous planet, only to have them die, but it's a very small price to pay for something that considerably expands your tactical repertoire.
My proudest moment so far in using the Clone Bay came when three rooms in the middle part of my ship - including weapons - were on fire, and my remaining crew struggling to fight the flames. With their health bars on the blink and the Clone Bay itself about to be destroyed by the inferno, I opened all the airlocks, draining the atmosphere and consequently stopping the fire immediately. I purposefully murdered my entire crew as a strategic manoeuvre, but I minimised damage to the ship—and 15 seconds later they started reappearing, minus their experience stats. Tactical firefighting.
This is just one way to use the Clone Bay. Clones also make it a lot easier to deal with enemies boarding your ship or you boarding theirs, since you can throw waves of less experienced crew at them without any long-term consequences. That kind of option makes the Advanced Edition an essential add-on to FTL for me, and there are still loads of possibilities I'm sure I haven't come across, roughly eleven games later.
Advanced completely opens up your strategic options by adding just a few features. I've only just got to grips with mind control, which temporarily turns one member of the enemy crew against the others. You can turn boarding soldiers against each other, or even have them help repair parts of your ship temporarily.
The changes aren't limited to the make-up of your ship, either - there's a conscious effort to expand FTL's fiction, as well. A new alien race comes in the form of the Lanius, who suck oxygen from wherever they're positioned and have their own type of starship. Their presence adds variety to the kinds of foes and potential crew mates you'll meet out there, which only helps when you've spent countless hours among engi and slugs.
Helping to mitigate repetition are the new story scenarios, thrown into the pot with the existing ones in Advanced. Obsidian's Chris Avellone has written some of them alongside narrative designer Tom Jubert, and when you've dealt with slaver ships and Tuco the pirate countless times before, having that fiction expanded makes FTL feel more complete.
Easy mode feels a bit softer now, too. Every time I do an easy run through I've breezed to the last sector in the Kestrel without taking more than half hull damage, and that's rarely avoiding conflict. With a newly added hard mode, it's tough to work out if Normal has changed or not—discussing it with PC Gamer's Chris Thursten, he's found a couple of games to be fairly easy until he hits an enemy ship with a hacking drone, when the journey comes to abrupt end. I've had the same issue, and it seems to always come down to hacking drones putting you at an immediate disadvantage by targeting a vital room on your ship. They've got access to the same new toys as you, of course—maybe this is just a balance check I have to be better prepared for.
Yet I'm pleased that almost two years on, FTL has given its fans a load more outcomes to be wary of as they crawl to sector eight. This is surely the best kind of expansion, one built without a business model in mind that only enhances the original game and rewards long-term players. With Subset Games having now created a basically definitive version of FTL, minus maybe a couple of possible tweaks in future, I can't wait to see what they move onto next.