Review: Spacecom

By Alex Connolly 09 Jun 2015 0
Charlie Sheen dials back the bombast some. Charlie Sheen dials back the bombast some.

If games like Defcon and Neptune’s Pride have taught us anything, it is that pace is never a good indication of intensity. Defcon needs no further feathering; the glacial NORAD simulator took what could have been a cliched and highly abstracted setting and made it into a bracing slow-motion horror show of wireframes and numbers. And Neptune’s Pride, well, that’s our closest living relative today to Flow Combine’s Spacecom.

In Spacecom, you're a chin stroking and brow furrowing fleet admiral; bathed in the glow of a tactical map and shunting flotillas between systems, subjugating worlds with your wits and fleets. This sedately-paced space strategy game was fantastic on PC last year, and has transitioned to iOS in style. Prepare your comfiest captain's chair.

The high degree of abstraction doesn't undermine the tension. The high degree of abstraction doesn't undermine the tension.

The game features the same node-capturing mechanics as Phil Hassey’s light-touch strategy classic Galcon: planetary systems form hubs and points of conflict, with each system being connected by hard space-lanes. Fleets ply these lanes in a bid to annex enemy systems by out-numbering their opponents. The whole thing is rendered in minimalist 2D and plays out in agreeably-paced real time. Spacecom is all svelte sophistication -- it borrows liberally from the Galcon formula, but applies just the right amount of strategic layering to make it more than merely a numbers game.

Unlike Galcon, where every star system is as good as any other, Spacecom offers a few different types that specialize in manufacturing, resources, homeworld hubs and maintenance. The early game phase is crucial in locking down intersystem bottlenecks and creating manufacturing and defensive bulwarks. Projecting force isn’t simply a case of having a fleet pass through a system, either. This is where the fleet types become important.

There are three main fleet variants available for manufacturing on planets sporting the capacity; battle fleets, invasion fleets and siege fleets. Battle fleets are the primary combat pieces, sent as scouts or on interdiction, bolstering systems against enemy fleet encounters. Invasion fleets capture systems and do battle against ground forces, as well as deploy colonies on systems sporting more than one planet. Siege fleets lay waste to systems, effectively rendering them useless to all parties. Fleet composition is paramount to sustaining any sort of worthwhile push into neutral or enemy territory, especially as fleets can . Do you spike through an occupied system to hit a valuable resource point and stall their production capacity? Do they have a worthwhile junction world? Should a Maginot outpost be created and bolstered by frightening (and frighteningly expensive) orbital lasers and kinetic shielding?

New Espoo? I guess Nokia turns things around in the end. New Espoo? I guess Nokia turns things around in the end.

It all hinges on the dance of the fleets. The over-the-horizon radar pings of enemy fleet movements let you know the general vicinity of a marauding fleet, but where it halts or assaults is anyone's guess. Dispatching an interdiction fleet could head off an invasion at the pass. Alternatively, the bogey just might divert to a different system or bounce straight on through your lines if the timing is out, leaving your ships in a goose-chase or double-backing to its original post.

Another delicious wrinkle in the tactical fabric is that of supply. Construction of any sort requires resources to be shipped to the location of creation, so therein lies another strategic target. These automated convoys run the same lanes as conventional fleets, and if any system on said supply route is invaded or has an enemy fleet in orbit, the en route convoy will perish. Figuring out where to strike to destroy convoys and stifle production is as much fun as rolling out the next grand landing.

The audio-visual experience of Spacecom is as well-conceived as the mechanics. It’s a slow game, and the crisp iconography and abstraction only helps to infer the protracted grandeur of large-scale military science-fiction. I couldn’t see it working any other way, much in the same way Defcon wouldn’t have had the impact it did by being bombastic or vulgar. Just the great void, her clutch of systems and the operatic naval and ground-pounder encounters that ebb and flow within.

Where we're going we don't need space roads. Where we're going we don't need space roads.

As a hopeless ambient music fan, one splash screen telling me to take advantage of headphones for ‘a meditative strategy experience’ immediately put Spacecom in good standing with me. It's heard to overstate just how good the soundtrack is here -- it matches perfectly with the unhurried demeanor of the game, etched with muted, modulated fleet chatter. Like the game's visual presentation, the music presents just enough body to get across what it needs to -- it's elegant and minimal and it's difficult to imagine a better soundscape for the setting.

This really is a game with the legs for a specific kind of multiplayer experience; a slow but highly tactical affair within a very small strategic spectrum. There will be no cheesing, no rowdy blitzkriegs or head-spinning APM wizardry. Just the glacial plying of triangular fleets, the pulse of logistics and a peripheral awareness on bogey radar pings. But the strange and sad rub is, despite the game touting cross-platform multiplayer, I couldn't find a single person to play with online.

Granted, we're working with a GMT +9 timezone, but across the weekend, the silence in Spacecom's lobby was deafening. The PC launch heralded a small but fervent clutch of star-Pellews, seemingly not replicated on iOS.

A minor gripe alongside the seemingly stillborn multiplayer reception is the lack of mid-mission saving in either the campaign or skirmish. Given the languid pace of Spacecom, the inability to save seems all the more glaring when delivered on platform such as a phone. Granted, it does automatically divert to the pause screen as soon as the game is minimised, but the option would have been appreciated.

For that glaring deficit wholly on the part of the community at large and having to play out missions in their entirety before progress is recorded, Spacecom still gets a very firm recommendation. Buy it, gift it, skirmish it, campaign it; whatever happens, just enjoy it. Spacecom is nothing more than it needs to be, and it very much is.

Reviewed on iPhone 5S and iPad 3.

Review: Spacecom

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