Right from the start, I have never been good at flight sims. No matter how easy the developer claims to have made the controls - I always seem to crash and burn within minutes of taking off. Because of this occurrence I have steered clear and held a grudge against all flight sims. Fortunately, Echelon has steered me back on course.
The story unfolds with the Galatic Empire in tatters after an immense civil war. With civilians and military alike fleeing for distant uninhabited planets, the future isn't looking too promising for the humans. During the Restoration Period, society gives birth to the Galatic Federation; science and economy spring into life.
Time passes and contact with a remote alien race, the Velians, provide a new technology called Zero-Transport. This technology is accepted throughout the Federation almost immediately and is worked into daily life - almost every large colony obtained at least one Zero-T station.
Naively accepting the technology so readily proved to be a fatal mistake by the Federation, as the Zero-T stations were used by the Velians as Trojan Horses. All equipment containing circuitry stopped functioning. With the Federation in devastation, conventional military weapons virtually useless; it is up to you and your technologically advanced air craft to set things straight and return power to the Federation.
Despite the somewhat cliché-esque storyline, it suits the game rather nicely - in that, the storyline doesn't really come into play at all. Sure, throughout single player you are indulged with some nicely rendered cutscenes but in the end you don't really pull anything out of it. However, that isn't necessarily a bad thing; Echelon doesn't hold a storyline very closely, instead it focuses on fast paced, low altitude, quick maneuvered dog fights.
Unlike the mainstream, scuffles don't take place in deep space, but rather, zipping in and out of deep chasms, mountain valleys and over lush alien terrain. This is bonus for me since in outer space (read: nothing to align my craft to) I get disoriented very quickly. It's also nice to look at something that you can relate to rather than just blackness with some stars.
Graphics in Echelon are simply gorgeous. The terrain and landscapes beg to be ogled at and I can't tell you the number of times I've failed a mission simply because I was too busy staring at the environment. Particle and dust effects are beautifully added into the game and are very evident upon every crash (I tested this system thoroughly), weapon fire or explosion. Water glimmers and reflects the sun and your craft, and though vegetation is scarce on these alien worlds it really isn't necessary.
What's more, not once have I experienced a slow-down or any sort of choppiness in the gameplay - no matter what resolution, how many fighters, objects, etc. are on screen. However, with any graphics engine you're sure to find ways to flaw it and there are a few fairly obvious ones to note here.
First off, the overuse of fog on Buku's part to mask the horizon line and the ever-present texture clipping visible when enabled on GeForce.* TnL systems. Not only does this stop me from visiting the myriad of external camera angles available in the game but it's *very* misleading. While in the cockpit view texture clipping isn't noticeable but once you head into the external view it's absolutely horrible - even more so when flying at low altitudes. There's been times when I could've sworn I had just flown through the side of a mountain when in actuality, I was several hundred meters away from it. However if you switch TnL off, this problem disappears.
Fighter air craft are extremely well detailed and it shows that quite a bit of effort had been put into creating some truly unique designs. Weapons are well designed but lack originality. We've got pulse cannons, missiles, blast cannons, auto cannons and a few others but in a game that is supposed to take place when interstellar travel is possible you'd think some more creative weapons would've emerged.
Audio in the game is above par but nothing stellar. The ingame voices are well cast and do add some atmosphere to the otherwise bland missions. In some missions, however, the amount of radio chatter they produce is sometimes hurtful to the mission itself as it has a tendency to mask the objectives. One thing worthy of note here is the incredibly annoying monotonous computer voice. tJY received an alpha copy of Echelon some time ago and the same computer voice was present - I thought it had been added in temporarily to convert the Russian designed game to English, but apparently I was mistaken.
In flight, the craft handle extremely well with a very arcade style feeling. Not only did I find the fighters easy to control (which is VERY rare for me with flight sims) but they handled very realistically. If you had an engine / booster blown off you'd either go hurtling towards the ground in a spin or stay afloat and wander aimlessly through the air as you struggle to keep the craft stable. I was very impressed with the physics and flight capabilities of the craft.
Multiplay is somewhat of an annoyance as the only way to connect to a server is through entering an IP address. So unless you lurk around the Echelon forums for the sparse IP address posted or have friends who play the game… good luck on getting online. A real shame too as in addition to the regular death match and co-op game types there is a 'capture the fort' where the opposing team must capture bases and hold them for longest amount of time.
Lastly, one thing that caught me by surprise was the lack of ability to save your craft configurations. Building your craft over and over again each time you die or restart a mission is incredibly bothersome and takes away from that 'pop the cd in and play' mentality. Albeit, customizing your craft takes all of 10 secs (simply a matter of selecting your craft, then the weapon types) but still… the ability to save configurations would be very useful.
All in all, Echelon is a blast to play, despite it's minor hindrances. If you're looking for a flight sim that has a pretty face, handles extraordinary and isn't your run of the mill space shooter, Echelon is your game.