These are the voyages: Star Command hands-on preview

By Owen Faraday 08 Apr 2013 0
Engage. Let's see what's in there.

Before I tell you anything about Star Command, do me a favor. Take a minute, sit back, and think about what you were hoping to get out of it.

With a production process stretching back to mid-2011 and developer Warballoon's skittishness about showing off gameplay (lest they get ripped off by Zynga and its ilk, they said), the game has taken on the qualities of a Rorshach inkblot. What do you see when you look at Star Command? Is it a mildly satirical sim ala Game Dev Story? Is it Dungeon Master or Theme Hospital in space? A free-ranging Star Trek RPG in all but name?

I'll show you after the jump.

Those are Russian zombie cosmonauts, btw. Shipboard combat is about positioning your crew and letting them have at it.

Let me tell you what I was expecting. Based on what Warballoon's told us, and based on the gameplay trailer released last year, I was ready for a tall Star Command ship and a star to steer her by, as I flew the wide galaxy discovering new worlds and new technologies, matching wits with aliens and even blasting a few of them to smithereens.

That's not what Star Command is. There's no exploration. There's no matching wits. There's no research. There is blasting. A lot of blasting.

There is also a lot of chatting in Star Command -- but it's not quite matching wits. You encounter new aliens in almost every mission. The alien designs are one of the game's highlights -- they're creative and interesting, for the most part. In the cutscenes where you meet other ships, you're often given different dialogue options to parlay with them. This raised my hopes that there would be multiple solutions to every encounter (as in the game's clear inspiration, Star Trek, where confrontations usually don't end in violence), but the choices are just window dressing. No matter how you broach things with E.T., it's almost always the plasma torpedoes that finish the conversation. If Star Command needed recruiting posters, a honest one might use Private Joker's line from Full Metal Jacket: "Meet interesting and stimulating people from ancient cultures... and kill them."

Sort of. The Avarians are angry.

Killing the bad guys is Star Command's focus to the exclusion of almost all else. Your ship features weapons (selected from a menu of three varieties), some support structures like a bridge and an engine room, your captain avatar, and your hardy crew. When you get into combat -- as you invariably do -- you assign crew to their stations. You wait for your weapons to charge and then play a brief mini-game to fire them on target. When boarders materialize in your midst, you send redshirts to dispatch them. The combat occurs in real time and when Star Command is at its most exciting, it's when you're juggling the demands of your ship-to-ship weapons while micro-managing the placement of your crew to fight off invaders.

If this description sounds like FTL to you -- word. It sure seems a lot like FTL to me. Star Command often feels like a light treatment of that game. No doubt that in the next few weeks you will see people saying that Star Command is aping FTL, which is unfair -- the games started development more or less concurrently and the similarity is almost certainly a coincidence. Anyway, FTL is the more nuanced of the pair by far. The basic flow of gameplay in both is similar: wait for your weapons to charge, fire them, repair damage, repel boarders, repeat as necessary. Star Command's version of the process is decidedly streamlined: there's no targeting of specific parts of the enemy ship, no weapons with special abilities, no sending boarding parties of your own. Shipboard fires don't spread and no one ever asphyxiates, no matter how many holes are in your hull. Once you have it down, Star Command's combat loop feels a bit like a rhythm game, and each ship duel feels similar to the last.

Where's Space Waldo Upgrading rooms fills them with more gizmos, which looks cool -- but also makes your crewmen a little harder to find.

Outside of combat, you can customize your starship a bit. In your ship's predesignated rooms you can add one of six different facilities, and each of these can be upgraded with three gizmos that make them marginally more efficient. After beating the ten or so missions in the game's campaign, you're given a choice of a few larger ships with space for more rooms and access to a couple of other facilities -- whereupon you can embark upon the campaign again from the beginning. The room customizing is where Star Command's Kairosoft influence (remember: the original pitch was Game Dev Story in space) is most visible.

The other nod to Kairosoft is the look, of course. The game's overall aesthetic is a weird collision between beautifully realistic illustrated starscapes and somewhat comic pixel art ships and crew in the foreground. The inconsistency is initially jarring but after a while I found it charming enough. The music is excellent, evoking Star Trek and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai without feeling derivative of either. You can see that a lot of those Kickstarter funds and the man-hours of two years' development time went into Star Command's look and feel.

Not sure how those will work on PC. Each of the three shipboard weapons has a different targeting minigame.

Star Command, at root, is a simple, repetitive, and decidedly linear game. At times, it feels surprisingly rough-shod for a game that's been in development for as long as it has. The dialogue contains spelling mistakes and grammatical fumbles. The token system with which you buy upgrades and charge certain ship systems is flat and uninteresting. The campaign has a thin story with a plot twist you'll see coming miles away.

Many of the features that were shown or mentioned in last autumn's gameplay video aren't anywhere in evidence, and the notion that Star Command is a game of hardcore PC-level complexity can be dismissed out of hand. Perhaps it could be after some considerable updating, but it's not yet.

Is it fun? I guess that depends on what you were expecting.


Star Command will be released in April 2013 -- we'll do a scored review when it launches.
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