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Star Command Review: A Great, But Never Fully Realized Idea
Space. The final frontier. And, incidentally, the setting for myriad video games over the past few decades.
One of the latest of which being Star Command, a Kickstarter success turned strategy game available on iOS. With a neat art style and the ambitious premise of being a space captain in charge of a crew, there’s definitely a lot of potential promised to fans. But does Star Command rise to its somewhat lofty expectations?
You’ll start the game in the same way as an old school RPG or sims in the same vein as Star Command. Pick a captain, name them, give them an appearance, pick a ship, and launch on your adventure.
The first part of the game takes place in our current universe, and different missions will take you on a tour of our galaxy (and others) like something out of a kid’s fantasy planetarium trip. You’ll encounter evil bug people on Mercury, Russian space zombies on Mars, and even get tangled up with a princess and end up on another galaxy.
Throughout the missions, you’ll be able to engage with different alien life forms scattered throughout multiple galaxies, and will even have the chance to make decisions regarding how you interact with them. Each of the aliens have their own distinct way of talking and interacting with humans and with each other, making the game feel like an awesome Mass Effect/Star Trek hybrid with a great sense of depth and a lifelike quality attached to the universe. On the surface, it works really well and was nothing if not addicting to play. Where the game fell apart for me, however, was in its deeper strategy mechanics.
While it’s a strategy game, there’s a surprising lack of depth to the gameplay of Star Command. You’ll build rooms in your space ship that serve different purposes, including healing, weapons, and engineering. Then, you’ll hire crew members on Earth to join your ship and assign them to work in different areas of the ship respectively. But that’s about where the management ends. Yes, you’ll have characters generate tokens that unlock different abilities in combat, and will see them scurrying off to make repairs and fight off teleporting invaders on the ship, but as a whole, characters aren’t always necessary and will spend a lot of time walking aimlessly around and tinkering with different buttons in whatever room you’ve assigned them to. Something like researching upgrades or keeping crew members busy by developing new items or abilities would have made the game a bit more engaging on the management end. Instead, you’ll find there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to combat or management of your crew outside of ordering characters to move to whatever area they’re needed in as disaster strikes.
Furthermore, the game is slow. Slow, slow, slow. Slow to recharge weapons, slow to load tokens, slow to move, slow like a grandmother driving down a country road on a Sunday. Battles last much longer than they should due to the game’s tediously slow nature, which caused a pause in engagement on my end while playing on several occasions. And although they’re available for purchase using tokens earned during missions, even upgrades didn’t help to hinder this issue much. You’ll spend a majority of your time in battle watching meters slowly fill and being rendered helpless as enemy ships attack your ship while you wait for your basic weapons and dodge moves to recharge. The pacing was probably the biggest disappointment of the game, and something that ought to be addressed in a patch or a future game in order to encourage more interaction between the player and the game’s basic systems.
Sadly, the game does a poor job of explaining its systems and functionality to the player themselves. You’ll be dumped into combat without much by way of explanation, instead being left to figure things out for yourself. Now, this can sometimes work in games where the mechanics are tightly tuned and you learn the different cues of the game and what is appropriate to use at certain times. But when I spend ten minutes trying to figure out a minigame to fire my lasers at an enemy ship, there’s a problem with tutorial design.
The presentation of the game is truly where it shines, however. Using a mix between gorgeous hi-res backgrounds and pixelated enemies, Star Command feels part retro, part new age in a way that is uniquely striking, like FTL on steroids. It’s a great look, and one that works to the game’s benefit 99% of the time. The only parts of the presentation I found to be a bit awkward were some of the sequences that saw pixelated alien forms set against a hi-res background with lots of detail. It’s a minor complaint, but the juxtaposition felt a bit awkward upon execution.
In many ways, Star Command feels like an incomplete thought. Sure, there are many great elements to it, and it has a great sense of personality and embraces its atmosphere in a way not many games in this genre do. But for all it succeeds upon, there are still so many mechanics that feel half-finished and in need of another layer of polish. Bugs abound, uncharacteristic difficulty spikes are unforgiving, and crew members often feel so worthless and die so easily that you don’t feel attached to them in any way a la XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rather, you feel more like a callused businessman, sweeping away the dead ones to make room for whatever new sucker you pick up on Earth.
I have mixed feelings about Star Command. On the one hand, I really enjoyed it and each of the neat Star Trek-y beats it had going. But on the other, I can’t help but feel like some of my enthusiasm forced me to push through the shoddy bits in order to allow myself to enjoy it. Being that it is a mobile game that costs the same amount as a cup of coffee, I suppose it’s not a big loss for folks to download it and give it a try. But it’s not a game I’d necessarily recommend to strategy fans or those who are wanting a game in the same vein as Faster Than Light.