No fringe benefits.
I'll just come right out and say it: Bruce Campbell is The Man. Not only has he defeated countless hordes of pearly-eyed, slogan-quipping deadites in the classic Evil Dead movies, but he has also single-handedly managed to do something usually impossible - make a mediocre game fun, even inciting.
The game is Tachyon: The Fringe. Tachyon is a space combat, freewheeling, Han Solo sort of experience in which you take on the role of Jake Logan (voice of Bruce Campbell), a respected contract pilot in Sol sector. Without much warning, Logan finds himself framed for the horrific destruction of a hospital facility and is exiled from the relative civilization of Sol out into the wilds of The Fringe, a newly colonized region of space run by madmen. It is in this region of guile, treachery and conflict that Logan must rebuild his life, make a new fortune, and discover the secrets behind the atrocity that landed him there.
The principal authorities in the region are GalSpan, an unscrupulous mining conglomerate, the Bora, a group of colonists fighting dispossession at the hands of GalSpan, and the Star Patrol, a ubiquitous police force. After getting your feet wet in The Fringe, you have to decide how to cast your lot - Bora or GalSpan.
Gameplay is sort of a cross between Privateer and StarLancer. While you have freedom to take side missions not provided by GalSpan or Bora, the major missions play out in a linear fashion and you only have as much freedom as is convenient for the plot. The Fringe has several large regions, each of which has various locales. You initially have very little access, though by the end you can cruise all over the place.
Time goes by at your own pace. Missions hang around until you do them, no matter how time-sensitive their briefings might make them seem. To compound matters, some Bora and Galspan missions are non-essential, so you might find yourself at the end of the campaign but still able to play one or two of the first few missions. It's a pity, because this eliminates much of the feeling of progress you normally expect from a space combat game.
Speaking of which, the way that Tachyon handles upgrades is severely flawed. Instead of showing you almost everything available so that you have a goal to work towards, Tachyon only makes advanced hardware available after the completion of certain missions. You don't know what you'll unlock with each mission unless you have a strategy guide. While this provides incentive to play the independent missions, it eliminates much of the freedom. You can't even see all the ships until the last couple missions. This basically curtails the privateering, freewheeling feeling that is the basis for most non-military space combat games. There is no elite-style trading either - you're just a mercenary.
You're also a very curt mercenary. Often, just when things are heating up in a mission (like when you take out a few fighters but two capitol ships hyper-space in), your contract is completed and you don't have to stick around for the drama, nor are you rewarded if you do. But that really doesn't matter much, because fighting and flying in Tachyon isn't much fun.
The ships you fly handle decently, but not very smoothly. It doesn't feel natural, especially after the realism of StarLancer. On the bright side, there are a few cool advanced features, such as reverse thrust and a slide option that keeps your direction vector constant while you can pivot (an old feature from Wing Commander 3 and 4).
Still, enemy AI is plain. Enemies don't maneuver enough. Weapon energy and afterburners are on short supply and take very long to recharge, which results in slow space-flight and fairly lethargic combat.
The ships are modeled well, with the GalSpan being sleek and technological and the Bora looking slapped together from old rusty parts. Space stations are massive, spanning miles of complex pipe-work. Just on size alone, they are very impressive.
The texturing, however, is crippled by the old Glide (native 3DFX 3D acceleration API) limit of 256x256 texture resolution that makes everything lack sharp definition. D3D or OpenGl would have worked better, or even a detail texture system likeUnreal and Unreal Tournament. Also, there are a lot of 2D sprite based effects that were rendered at low resolution only and look blocky and cartoonish at higher resolutions. Landing lights, shield effects, and even the nebula representation lack detail or realism. Weapons are fairly plain, except for the railgun, which looks great. Explosions are decent, although abrupt and lacking variety.
Overall, Tachyon looks good enough to just barely get by, but its dated appearance is a dead giveaway to the engine's origins in NovaLogic's flight simulations like F22-Lighning 3, F-16 Multi-Role Fighter, and MiG-29 Fulcrum.
This is also a buggy game. NovaLogic has already released two patches, but there is a very annoying and unpredictable crash bug which freezes up your computer and necessitates a hardware restart.
Sounds are also fairly bad. Weapon effects, ships sounds, and the rest all are grainy and unconvincing.
In an odd twist, voice acting is what saves the game. Bruce Campbell does such a good job of creating the Jake Logan character and making you care about him that despite the failings and halfway successes of the game, you are drawn into the stories and compelled to see how things turn out. Bruce Campbell takes a fair game and makes it fun.
Despite Tachyon's various problems, it is a fun ride. It even includes an innovative team-based multi-player option called Base Wars, which is something like a real-time strategy game with everyone playing a role. But if you want good space combat, look elsewhere to StarLancer, FreeSpace 2, or X-Wing Alliance.