Star Command is a story two years in the making. The Coombs brothers — first-time game developers operating under the name Warballoon — made a tantalizing pitch back in 2011, promising iOS and Android gamers a sci-fi combination of Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, X-Com, and The Sims: truly something for everybody. Their vision was so appealing — and their knack for communicating that vision was so natural — that they successfully funded not one, but two Kickstarters.
Between 2011 and today, Star Command has inspired the sort of tribalism that we usually reserve for Yankees-Red Sox postseason baseball or smartphone OS allegiance. Over the past two years legions of fans have been won over by Warballoon’s tongue-in-cheek promotion — and hordes of detractors have been alienated by the Coombs brothers’ unearned swagger and willingness to throw down on message boards.
Two stories are waiting to be told. In one corner, the peanut gallery is ready to immerse themselves in schadenfreude when Star Command turns out to be an over-hyped failure. In the other corner, true believers await Warballoon’s ultimate vindication when Star Command’s greatness redeems their expectations. Which story will the actual game support?
Neither, I’m sorry to say.
As a fan of games, I wanted Star Command to be brilliant. As a games writer, I wanted it to at least be a great finale to the story of its development by occupying one extreme or the other. Instead, Star Command is merely OK. For the tribalists, there can be no more unsatisfying conclusion.
Warballoon’s opus is set in a colorful science fiction universe where the Solar System and its many human worlds are defended by Star Command. When I say colorful, I mean that literally. One of the best things about Star Command is the way it looks: it’s bright and exuberant and not afraid to explore the little-used edges of the color palette. The game’s sprites are rendered in pixel art that manages to feel fresh despite that style’s chronic overuse in recent years — the backgrounds, on the other hand, are painted starscapes that are equally beautiful but are jarringly out of place behind the pixelated sprites.
Borrowing liberally from conventions laid down by Star Trek, the starship you’re commanding in Star Command is crewed by members of three distinct divisions: the science division (clad in blue), the engineering division (yellow), and security (the red shirts). Moving these people about is your chief function in the game. You assign your crew to different rooms around your ship: engineering personnel go in the engine room, security man the bridge or the weapons rooms.
Warballoon’s launch trailer for Star Command talks up how you’ll build your ship and recruit your crew, but there’s vanishingly little to either activity. Your crew are all entirely identical when you recruit them, differing only in name, race, and hairstyle — they only gain skills and abilities through experience, so the act of hiring them is just busy work. “Building” your ship boils down to deciding which of the six different rooms you’ll put into the four room slots. There’s so little variety in the customization that you wonder why the devs bothered.
Your job is to flit about this universe, traveling between good old Sol and some distant stars, picking fights with aliens of every stripe and uncovering a conspiracy within Star Command itself. At every place you visit, a cutscene plays out which advances the story or introduces you to a new alien species. Sometimes you’ll have dialogue options, and sometimes (in a feature that’s been added since the press preview back at the beginning of April) your dialogue choices will have some influence on what happens next.
What happens next is almost invariably combat: this is the core of the Star Command experience. In ship-to-ship combat you wait (quite a while) for your ship’s weapons to charge, then play a reflex mini-game to fire them. Ship combat is straightforward toe-to-toe slug-fest where your guns wear away at the opponent’s health bar until he explodes — there’s no special abilities or status effects and all three of the game’s weapons are functionally identical, save for their rate of fire and the kind of quick-time minigame you play. Engineering and science rooms provide support abilities that similarly depend on your patience for their operation.
Things are a little more varied when it comes to shipboard combat, which occurs when hostile aliens beam aboard your ship. Some of the aliens have special abilities they use against your crew, but the prescription for fighting them is pretty much the same. Your crew is smart enough to fight automatically when bad guys are in range, but not smart enough to not stand in a fire or go see Dr McCoy when they’re half-dead, so your job is to micromanage their positioning while they blast away at ET.
Neither kind of combat is particularly deep or interesting. It’s at its most exciting in the latter parts of the game when opponents are so powerful and numerous that the gameplay turns frantic, but basically everyone playing Star Command will make the same decisions — you’re not going to be swapping war stories about this game. Plot-wise, there’s one choice you can make early in the game that effects the way some of the plot missions play out, but this is a game where you’re mostly along for the ride, admiring the art and playing usher for your listless, inert crew.
There is much to like about Star Command, but it’s all in the candy shell of the game: the visuals, the strange and inventive aliens, the intricate starship designs, the first-rate music. The gameplay at the center is hollow and repetitive. It’s beautiful to look at and entertaining enough in five-minute doses — but it’s not a game anyone is liable to play twice. Warballoon have an eye for aesthetics and a knack for world-building, but they should have passed the game systems design and the writing off to more experienced hands.
Star Command is not a bad game, but the most remarkable thing about it is how unremarkable it has turned out to be.