space combat simulation

Dark Matter (Nanotainment) [PC – Cancelled]

Dark Matter is a cancelled space combat simulator that was in development for PC by a forgotten team known as “Nanotainment” around the late ‘90s. It seems the game was shown in playable form at E3 1999 & 2000, but only a few websites wrote about it at the time.

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From the old Nanotainment website we can read some more details about the ambitious concept they planned for their project:

“Dark Matter offers a new paradigm in space combat sims. Whereas before one was restricted to a single ship and battles of limited size, Dark Matter offers you the chance to pilot any of the hundreds of ships in a battle at any time. Couple this with fast paced arcade action, 8 different species with different ship types and abilities, dynamic environments, and dramatic scale, and you get the amazing game play of Dark Matter. You can play the game any way you want, from pure arcade simulation to detailed tactical control, it’s up to you. Dark Matter, a new game for the next age.”

  • Large Scale Combat: Hundreds of ships fighting all at once.
  • Massive Scale: From 10m long fighters to 4km long capital ships.
  • Fight as one of 8 species, each with different abilities and characteristics.
  • Fast paced, frenzied engagements.
  • Access to all ships on your side: Fight as a lowly fighter, patrolling corvette or titanic capital ship.
  • Give ship-level commands and species-wide orders.
  • Over 40 spacecraft you can pilot.
  • Campaign and a single battle mode.
  • Play the way you want: Play as an action game or a strategy game.
  • Arcade or simulation flight models.
  • Intense Environments: Fight in an asteroid field, minefield, or nebula. Or near a black hole.
  • Dynamic Environment: Watch asteroids split into smaller asteroids.
  • Alien Artifacts: Find ancient alien artifacts that may turn the tide of the battle.
  • Genetic AI: Learning opponents that develop unique strategies.
  • Tradable AI: Trade your specific AI with your friends.”

Thanks to the web archive we can also read an old interview with Nanotainment published by Glide Underground:

1.) Thanks for taking time out to answer these questions, first off what is the coolest feature that is planned in the full release?

Bob: The coolest feature of the game is its perspective: you are a species instead of a single pilot. This feature gives you access to all the ships in your fleet which gives you quick access to the action (by switching to a ship on the front line) and access to the overall strategy (by switching to a capital ship). It also extends play. You’re not done until your whole fleet is toast.

Chad: I think that probably the most unique feature is the ability to switch to any ship on your side of the battle. You will never have to wait to come back in to the battle, another ship will always be at your finger tips.

2.) How do you see this game competing against other games like Descent Freespace 2 which is also very similar and going to be released around the same time?

Chad: I don’t really see us in the same arena with Freespace 2. Yes we are both space sims, but our game has a definite arcade bent to it. We are intentionally keeping the mechanics of the game simple and instead of having a complex story line (as most space games have) which forces you into a single character, we are concentrating on variety of both the ships you can pilot, their abilities, space born hazards and other interesting effects. In Dark Matter, you will have access to any ship on your side, further separating us from the “adventure” game genre. Our game plays out at a much quicker, more furious pace than the average space sim.

3.) What type of single player features will be very prominent in the single player game?

Bob: Our learning AI will be at the forefront of the single-player game. As you get better at Dark Matter, the AI will grow to match you. Since our learning AI is based on genetic algorithms, each AI data set will be unique to the game play that created it. As an added feature, players will be able to trade their AI data so that their friends can see the different techniques and strategies that have evolved.

Chad: The game is functionally the same single or multi player. You have access to the same controls and game types (flag arena, xenocide, etc.), but we are also including a campaign mission set. Most of these missions are structured to teach you the basics of playing that species. Basic strategies and tactics which you can then take on to a multi player game. You can probably expect a lot of low key humor sprucing up the campaign missions.

4.) Will the game feature a very good story line as the single player game progresses on?

Story is really very slim in the game. Each campaign will have a simple story based around an overall theme, but as far as first person character or melodrama is concerned we decided against it. We wanted to do something a little different, thus went with breadth over depth.

5.) How will the multi-player game be interfaced, like how many players supported, what method of connecting players together?

We support all connection types that DirectPlay, which is to say everything. We are looking at getting a gamespy or mplayer interface for games on the internet, so you can probably expect one or the other in the final release. The games are easy to set up, but still gives the players a lot of options. From game types to species and loadout selections. We currently support 32 player in a peer to peer network scheme, but if interest is high enough we could go to a client/server system which would support many more players.

7.) What species is the best and why?

Bob: We are striving to make all the species different yet equal with the appropriate strategy. Some species will have advantages over others but on the whole no species will be the best. Kind of like Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Chad: We have tried to balance the species as best as possible. I will give you a little brief on their specific attributes:

Namoon: Pissed off space monkeys. They are the basic species in the game. Most of their technology centers around missile and anti-missile weaponry.

Graawol: The most primitive race in the game. These guys may not have the finesse of other species, but they more than make up for it in brute force. The have gattling style guns and a mean-ass ramming attack as well as marines which they can use to infiltrate and neutralize enemy corvettes and capital ships.

Ood: The Ood are a race of neurotic, paranoid aliens. They have electronic-counter-measures and a powerful force blast, but being the neurotic race that they are, they have equipped each of their fighters with a kamikaze device. This device will turn the fighter into a rocketing comet. Very devastating to enemy capital ships.

Rekenti: The rekenti are a race of silicon and crystalline based beings. Most of their technology centers around their lightning gun and tractor beam. They are also the race with the Ship Killer.

Machina: What would a space game be without a machine race. The Machina technology centers around, EMP and electronic control weaponry. They are also immune to psychic attacks, because of their machine nature.

Bloom: The Bloom are a strange race from a gas giant. All of their ships are organic based, and all of their weapons are organically created. They have a corrosive liquid projectile which does huge damage to metallic hulls.

Vander: The vander are a race of space gypsies. All of their technology is pirated from other races. Their technology is the most varied, from plasma torpedoes to reflective shields.

Shodikan: The shodikan are the most mysterious race in the game. Their technology is based around cloaking and psychic technology.

9.) Will single player games be mission objective based or will they just be fire at them and destroy all type missions?

We do not have standard space game objectives. Our games are more like first-person shooters in their implementation. Currently we have three game types:

  • Genocide: Kill all the enemy.
  • Flag Arena: Capture and hold all the flags in the arena for a certain time duration to win.
  • Territories: Capture and hold 75% of stationary buoys for a certain time duration to win.”

By looking at how the Dark Matter fact-sheets changed year after year on Nanotainment’s website, we can see the scope of their game was cut, removing 2 playable species and the size of spaceships from 4 km to 2 km. At some point in late 2000, the company vanished with no traces, with Dark Matter cancelled and lost forever.

We don’t know how much of the game was done before the cancellation, but it was at least playable to be featured at E3, so we can hope one day a demo could be found and shared online. It’s interesting to notice that Nanotainment also worked on another forgotten project titled “Fly Hunter”, that seems to have been published in 1998 and you can download a playable version on Archive.org

Thanks to Sean Paul for the contribution!

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Dark Matter: The Baryon Project [PC, Xbox 360, PS3 – Cancelled]

Dark Matter: The Baryon Project is a cancelled sci-fi shooter RPG that was in development by Pixelcage, planned to be released for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. The project was quite ambitious for a rather small and obscure team, promising to offer both on-foot first-person shooting and third person spacecraft combat.

In their old – now closed – website, we can read they wanted to create a vast universe in which to freely fly around, inspired by such games as “TIE-Fighter” and “Freespace”. You would fight in space against huge spacecrafts planned to be up to 100 km (62 miles) in size – something that would be considered a massive open-world even by today’s standards (SKYRIM’s world is about 5 km wide), gigantic spaceships-worlds in which you could also break-in to continue attacking your enemies on foot.

“When playing such games in the past, I always wondered how it would be to just ram one of that bigger vessels and just “clear the bridge manually”. With today’s hardware capabilities, we now do a swing on it. – Marco Sobol, former Pixelcage developer”

If this was not enough to hype up the project, they also wrote about “graphic details up to a grade of millimeters!”, “experience speeds of up to 3000 km/h!”, “have a million polygons on your screen – in realtime!” and “can you handle hundreds of enemies?”. For sure the team had big dreams for their first project.

Thanks to an old interview with Pixelcage by Gengamers, we can read that work for the game began in 2003 with a core team of only 7 people, with plans to expand the studio to more than 40 people when they would finally find a publisher.

“Dark Matter is a first person shooter/ space shooter with some RPG elements, such as an inventory and improving skills, but without the flaws of pondering about tables and character sheets. It will feel much like a common FPS when it comes to game controls and speed, but comes with hours of dynamic scripted scenes, a non-linear storyline and state-of-the-art sound effects and music.”

Not only gameplay and huge environments would have been quite ambitious for its time, Dark Matter: The Baryon Project was also planned to have a open-ended storyline with different endings. Pixelcage wanted to have several playable characters appearing in the game and time travelling would have played an important role, featuring morphing aliens and fierce “time warriors”.

If such an immense game like this was not complex enough to develop, the team also wanted to add online multiplayer:

“We will put much efforts in the multiplayer part. There will be several deathmatch and teamplay modes, we even plan to include a mode in which you can play the single player campaign together with your friends. This is generally possible because there is more than one prime character in the game.”

It’s easy to see how Pixelcage were a passionate team with many ambitious ideas for their project, but unfortunately it seems they never found a publisher interested in funding it. In the end they had to abandon Dark Matter: The Baryon Project to work on other, simpler games such as Switchfire (published in 2006) and Jekyll & Hyde (2010), before to close down the studio.

If you know someone who worked on this game and could help us to preserve more screens, videos and details, please let us know!

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Metal Lancer [Genesis / Mega Drive – Cancelled]

Metal Lancer is a cancelled first-person space shooter that was being developed by Yuji Naka for Mega Drive / Genesis in 1990. It’s the last project on which the the legendary japanese programmer worked on before Sonic The Hedgehog (1991). As we can read from a 2016 Denfaminicogamer interview with Naka, the game’s main character was a girl who controlled a space robot. Metal Lancer would also have featured complex scaling effects similar to what the SNES could accomplish with Mode 7

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Unfortunately, Naka doesn’t say in the interview why he dropped the project, though we can speculate that either he simply found the game too complex to develop on a Mega Drive or Sega just wanted him to work a more promising title like Sonic.

Thanks to Youloute for the contribution and Michele Zanetti for the japanese translation! 

NEXUS 2 / WARP [PC – Cancelled]

Nexus: The Jupiter Incident was a sci-fi RTS game developed by Hungarian-based Mithis Entertainment, published by HD Interactive on PC in 2004 (you can still buy it with the latest updates on Steam). While the game did not sell well at the time, it still gathered a cult following of fans, thanks to its different approach to strategy space battles. Soon after releasing Nexus, Mithis started the development of a sequel, but due to the descending market of strategy titles, it was conceived as an action oriented space combat game, with the ability of traveling in a vast galaxy from planet to planet. Seeing the differences from the original Nexus, HD Interactive decided that it would have been better to use a different name and the team reused the title of one of the test prototypes from their first game: WARP. The old W.A.R.P. prototype was a failed proposal for a fighter-pilot based version of the original Nexus, designed when the project was in development limbo and they tought to change its gameplay. In 2005 Mithis developed an early demo for Nexus 2 / WARP, but unfortunately the original Nexus was not selling enough and the market seemed to be too small not only for space-strategy games but for space games in general. So eventually HD decided not to risk it further and they cancelled the Nexus 2 / WARP reboot project. This was the end of the original Nexus saga by Mithis.

On August 2011 Most Wanted Entertainment (a team founded by former Mithis developers) tried to pitch another, different sequel to Nexus on the crowdfunding website GamesPlant, but without luck. In september 2012 they tried again with a campaign on Kickstarter, under the title of “Nexus 2: The Gods Awaken”, failing again to reach their goal. Everything seemed lost, but in September 2015 Nordic Games acquired the intellectual property of Nexus so we can speculate that they could resurrect this series in the future, as it already happened with the lost chapter in the Aquanox series.

Super thanks to Nordic Games for the contribution!

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10th Planet (Bethesda) [PC – Cancelled]

10th Planet was an ambitious space combat simulator in development as a co-venture between Bethesda Softworks (you know, the studio that published The Elder Scrolls series) and Centropolis Production, two names that in the mid / late ’90 meant an high value game and lots of hype. Centropolis is a film production company founded in 1985 by Roland Emmerich, behind such popular movies as Stargate and Independence Day.

Another small company named “XL Translab” was hired to create high quality cinematics for the game’s intro and the story that was handled by the same Hollywood team that produced ID4. Here’s a short teaser from the game’s auto demo:

Somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto, a planet full of aliens is waiting. In a centuries long orbit, this 10th planet is heading toward earth. Only your brilliant strategies and expert piloting can destroy the alien invaders. Based upon the Xngine, which provides a true 3D environment for real time space combat.

10th Planet was in development at least since 1995 and Bethesda acquired XL Translab in December 1997, possibly because they were impressed by the FMV they created for the game. The project was briefly shown in Next Generation magazine on February 1997, were they called it “the coolest space combat sim since TIE Fighter“. Bethesda planned to recreate space battles against large sci-fi armies and huge alien ships, similar to the ones seen in Independence Day, but unfortunately something went wrong and 10th Planet had to be cancelled.

A former Bethesda developer remember that the cinematics created by XL Translab were beautiful for their time, but costed a lot of money and made the real time game on the Xngine to look ugly in comparison :

yeah I remember sitting in the Bethesda theatre and seeing what you produced. It looked great if we were going to produce a new TV show but unfortunately it probably killed the product. How on earth were we ‘the game artists’ supposed to recreate the world you were selling. Too much time and money was wasted on this trailer.

At the moment we don’t know how much of the game was completed before the cancellation, if you worked on this lost project, please let us know!

Thanks to Sam Jones for the contribution!

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