Space Sim Pet Peeve – A Lack of Decent Targeting Controls

Grrr Rage!

I love space games — “No, really?” I hear you say — especially spaceship sims like TIE Fighter and Freespace 2. Being in the virtual cockpit of a space fighter is a thrill few other types of games can match, and I’ve played and enjoyed most of the sims I’ve encountered over the years. Sure, there will be one reason or another as to why a space sim doesn’t light my world on fire, like bad enemy AI, a boring story or a useless HUD. There’s one issue that’s come up lately that has shed light on a pet peeve I didn’t even know I had…

Thanks to some unnamed suspects, I recently began to realize that poorly implemented or even lacking targeting controls just piss me the frak off. I mean, here I am, buzzing around in an itty-bitty fighter surrounded by swarms of enemies, including fighters, missiles, bombs, capital ships and so on. Situational awareness is key to these combat situations, so I need to be able to quickly target a specific enemy or type of enemy.

I beat up SOL: Exodus a lot over this in my reviews — admittedly it was the one big problem I had with the game, otherwise it was great — but I want to use it as an example. SOL: Exodus put you in the middle of several frenzied battles including capital ships, fighters, bombers, drilling drones and so on. With all this going on around you, how can you target a specific enemy? Well, you can either target it under your crosshair or…cycle through all the enemy targets in order from nearest to farthest and vice versa. That’s it.

  • Want to specifically target missiles heading toward your mothership? Too bad.
  • Want to target the enemies attacking the ship you’re supposed to be escorting? Oh well.
  • Want to specifically target the bombers heading toward an installation you’re trying to protect? Tough luck.
  • Want to try and target a turret on the capital ship you’re supposed to take down? Hahahaha!

Honestly, I found this downright MADDENING. Throwing all this crap at you and not giving you a way to quickly sort through it felt like a purposeful handicap to increase the difficulty, and I didn’t appreciate it one iota, no sir.  I know the key word there is “specific”, and while this game is meant to be more simplistic in nature to appeal to a wider audience, if I had trouble with the targeting system, how frustrating will it be for a new player?

Let’s take a look at the opposite extreme, Freespace 2. This is also a game that threw a multitude of varying enemies at you, but its creators understood the need for quick and decisive action.

  • Want to target bombs or torpedoes specifically? There’s a button for that.
  • Want to target the attacker of your escorted ship? No problem!
  • Want to keep track of important targets? Easy, put it on a list.
  • Want to attack the subsystems of an enemy capital ship to take down its turrets, or engines or weapons control systems? Go for it!

It’s likely unfair to compare a relatively simplistic space game with the crown jewel of the genre, but I do so for the sake of contrast. The designers of Freespace 2 understood that, as a pilot, we need all the tools we can get to help with situational awareness in the battlefield, and gave us the best tools in the business. Other games…not so much.

Thankfully, many space games seem to do well-enough in this regard not to make me notice, as again I’ve only discovered this recently. Therefore, to the developers out there who are making or plan to make a space combat sim, first off, thank you, we need more of them. However, secondly, please, please, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY put some serious thought and time into situational awareness and targeting capabilities. If not, you and I will have words.

So what about you guys? I’ve just ranted about one of my space game pet peeves, what are yours?

Author: Brian Rubin

17 thoughts on “Space Sim Pet Peeve – A Lack of Decent Targeting Controls

  1. I’m taking notes, Brian. Good stuff.

    What do the vast majority of space sims get wrong? Targeting is right up there. Definitely. I’m trying to give X3 another chance and I’m finding the targeting not quite fine-grained enough, but worlds better than “next, next, next.”

    It does add complexity, but it ruins immersion to leave it out. Seriously, you put hyperdrive on this thing but not a computer that can give me the next target marked in red?

    I’d actually love to read a series of articles on things a lot of space sims get wrong. I’ve been searching the site and I don’t see any indication of how you feel about frictionless games like the late, lamented Jumpgate was — that’s always a lively discussion and I’d love to hear your take.


      And wait, by frictionless, do you mean Newtonian based? JG had an odd hybrid engine, which was based on Newtonian physics, but still had drag. It wasn’t tough to acclimate too, but it was kinda weird.

      But yeah, more op-ed’s on these would be great. I did have some “best worst” articles, but this could build on those. :)

      Anyway, glad you liked it, thanks!

      1. Aw man, my memory of JG is fading already :( Okay, so less-friction instead of friction-less.

        Yes, I did mean Newtonian. From one of my recent developer-targeted rants: “Isaac Newton died nearly three hundred years ago. Atmospheric-style physics in a space game shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.”

        For the targeting yardstick, I always go back to the X-Wing functionality. Cycle all, cycle friendly, cycle enemy, target what’s under the pipper, and (so many games miss this) save target. If all that is present, I’m a happy guy.

        It sounds like Freespace 2 did it better, but played through the Freespace series so fast that I don’t remember them very well. Ah, salad days.

        1. X-Wing pretty much became the benchmark, until Freespace 1 and 2 — especially 2 — took everything good before it, melded it all together, then improved upon it. ;)

          And the “WWII turn-and-burn” style of gameplay is perfectly viable since many movies also follow this approach.

  2. This is one of my pet peeves as well. Not to toot our horn too much, but situational awareness was one of the most important UI design goals for us. In Dangerous, not only are all ships (neutral, enemy, ally, wingman) listed in the Contacts list, but their active modules are listed. Even more, each module indicates whom it’s targeting by colored brackets around the specific module.

    So at a glance, you can tell who is shooting/repairing/jamming what at whom. This helps you prioritize targets and is especially useful since you can specify a different target for any of your modules. It also comes in handy in escort and hijacked ship missions. As an example, you can sensor dampen one target to temporarily take it out of the fight while you deal with others.

    For Dangerous 2, we’ll probably expand this to let people target individual modules as well.

    1. After reading this, I finally took your game for a spin. While the tutorial kinda flew by, and I missed some buttons here and there, it didn’t take too long to figure targeting out. Nice stuff. :)

  3. In the context of assisted-targeting being a staple of SF space gaming, it makes sense to always have the function active by default, but there are instances where it makes sense not to.

    I’ve been playing a fair bit of Freelancer and the Crossfire mod, the latter of which is kind of an extended remix + hardcore mode in which you have to lead your targets. It’s very old-school WWII/Elite and makes no sense given the SF setting, but as a game it makes Freelancer combat very challenging. (Probably too challenging if I’m honest, which is why I’ve gone back to vanilla FL.) My point is that some people like that kind of thing. Not many, but some.

    As for SOL’s limited targeting options, I think that really comes down to a desire to limit controls in a market where the old space sims are seen more as action games. I assume developers have to stick with what is common to FPS and/or consoles, which is unfortunate.

    1. Oh, I’m not talking about lining up your target, though that can be a problem in some games, I’m talking about being able to select the specific target you need to attack next, like the incoming torpedo or the guy attacking the freighter you’re escorting. I think any space sim worth its salt should have those AT MINIMUM.

      1. I have to say it’s never bothered me much, but if you’re required to target sub-systems and missiles in order to succeed, there should be a shortcut to do that, I agree. A single ‘Next target’ button that’s contextual with the mission objectives should more than suffice though, and often does in my case.

        1. Contextual with mission objectives? Could you give an example of this, because I surprisingly can’t think of one.

  4. as a newcomer to Freespace 2. i gladly welcomed the ‘lock on to whatever is in your crosshairs’ button. Freespace has a button for everything doesn’t it lol. sorta like all those smart phone commercials and what-not, want to do so-and-so…there’s an app for that :p

    1. It DOES have a button for everything. The best are “target closest attacker” and “target attacker of my target”. Love those.

  5. Oh man do I miss freespace 2 and TIE fighter. Those were the games that hooked me in to sci-fi and video games.

    I have always felt that the targeting methods of most games are down right absurd. It wouldn’t be particularly hard for the command carrier or such to provide a list of priority targets, and then your ship to sort by priority and relative distance. Not to mention, multiple target tracking. Why does a ship, that can fire off accelerated bolts of plasma, or launch FOF guided missiles not have a targeting computer at least as powerful as the US Navy’s AEGIS ? The public specification says over 100 targets, and we in the far far future can track only one?
    Implementing a priority target system wouldn’t be difficult either. Is it attacking a protected objective (mothership, station you are defending, ship you are escorting?) add some priority. Is it deadly by packing heavy firepower? (bombers, capital ships with massive energy weapons ala freespace.) add some more priority. How far away is it? if its clear on the other side of the system, its not likely a priority.
    Then of course artificial priorities. Those light drones over there can’t do much, but they can shoot down our massive ordinance… take them out first.

    1. Yeah, that’s what I loved about games like Freespace 2 which had an “Escort List” of priority targets to keep a keen eye on. I can’t think of a game that would use an AWACS system like you suggest, honestly, but it would totally make sense.

      1. I believe the X3-x3:tc games (with some mods maybe?) can target multiple bogies. But only with turrets. Like you assign a turret to ‘x target type’ then go back to fighting with your forward guns.
        But its klunky and difficult. I do remember assigning one of my turrets to anti-missile duty and the others to target any nearby hostiles.

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