There's nothing quite as liberating as finding yourself in the middle of the universe with your own ship, a million possible destinations and nothing to do except make your own fun. Mercenary. Trader. Racer. Soldier. Intergalactic power broker. Your ship can get you to your destiny just as well as it jumps between stars – if not quite as quickly.
Evochron Mercenary is one of the most absorbing takes on Elite in a long time – at least once you grapple your way onto a learning curve that involves spending more of your first hours in Wikis and on YouTube than actually in the cockpit. Your starting ship and gear are totally useless. The autopilot sees no difference between flying you to a planet and smashing straight into it. F1 is your navigation console, F3 your cargo, and F2 the “AAARGH! JUMP! JUMP!” hyperspace button. Even factoring in a spectacularly dull tutorial thrown in to show you the ropes, only the most patient space cadets need apply.
Behind this brick wall covered in severed heads awaits a universe that's usually worth the effort, though – one where planets aren't simply background scenery on a skybox, but places you can seamlessly fly down to whenever you like; where combat follows the laws of Newtonian physics, and where options to explore and interact with the economy continue to grow as you move from simply ferrying goods and fulfilling contracts to surviving warzones, hiring crew and a fleet of wingmen, and establishing your own bases.
All of this seems even more impressive when you consider that it's a one-man project, and a series that began as a simple space shooter written in a game creation tool called DarkBASIC. It's hard not to draw a comparison to the Battlecruiser series, but this one does a much better job. It's not as ambitious, but it's considerably more enjoyable.
Like a lot of space games, flying can be a lonely experience – as much as the other ships you see feel like they're up to their own business, they're not exactly chatty. You don't have to play alone, though; not only can you join a multiplayer server at will, you can do so with your singleplayer character and continue developing your career. It's hardly EVE Online – maxing out at 35 players – but still handy if you have friends to team up with.
The main problem is one shared by most games like Elite: that there's no real story to add context to your actions. Missions are generic and quickly become repetitive, while the universe has little of the atmosphere of Freelancer, Privateer or X.
Evochron does successfully convey the feel of a living place in many ways though, like the random distress calls and the other ships warping around and initiating trades with you instead of just sitting passively – and as noted, there's plenty of stuff to explore. Even so, your sense of satisfaction has to come from your personal achievements: from finally clawing together enough gear to stand a chance in combat situations, to surviving a trip down to Sol.
There's no middle ground here. If you're willing to put in lots of time, and are happy to find your own fun, Evochron Mercenary will reward it with a galaxy-sized sandbox that's all the more impressive for knowing it's effectively a one-man project.
If you need something more structured though, or demand a game that gets to the good stuff in a hurry, don't expect Evochron Mercenary to show any mercy as it silently points you to the nearest asteroid mine.