Fractal Softworks' Starsector is a game with a lot of potential. Currently in development, the game borrows many elements from nostalgic space sims such as Star Control I and II. The developers also claim inspiration from other classic titles such as MechWarrior and Master of Orion II. If you are old enough to remember these nostalgia ridden time sinks like I am, then you recognize these are not statements to be made lightly. So how does the throwback Starsector measure up?
Starsector is available in early access on Fractal Softwork's site for $19.94 CAD.
The key concept to remember here is freedom. The game does not hold your hand or lead you through a tight narrative. Instead, it creates a vast universe for you to adventure around in and lets you paint your own story. Whether you choose to be a nefarious space pirate, a Hegemony loyalist, or a humble merchant, how the story develops is largely up to you.
That's not to say that the world is empty. The world is populated by multiple factions. These factions range from the Star Fleet-like Hegemony to the technology hating Luddic Church. These groups cover a broad base and will no doubt allow for a player to find their prefered place in the galaxy.
Among the promised features of the game is a living, breathing galaxy and a focus on the effects of your decisions. For example, the developers mentioned a scenario where illegal weapons were being smuggled to a planet to help overthrow the current government. You could wait and let it happen, intercept the smugglers and gain favor with the government, or even get your own shipment of weapons there first and cut out the competition. Though scenarios like this may be a bit off (at least, I didn't encounter any), you can clearly see that the seeds have been planted.
The meat of this game is the gameplay. The gameplay itself is incredibly complex and the learning curve is steep. This is a double edged sword; some players may be turned off by the relative complexity and detail of controlling a ship, whereas other players will appreciate the level of control given to them over their fleets. Starsector is the sort of game that gives you control over every little detail and resource in your fleet and expects you to know how to best use those resources.
The game is essentially divided into two different sections; traveling and combat. On the galactic map, players can find stations, explore uncharted star systems, travel through hyperspace, hunt pirates, trade goods, escape raiders, chart planets, and even scavenge for supplies and derelict ships. The possibilities are wide and nearly every situation is going to give you some tactical options; for example, when flying through a system the local authorities will expect you to activate your transponder so you can be actively tracked and identified. However, activating the transponder also let's pirates and raiders see you, creating a risk vs reward scenario. Do you risk the wrath of the local authority to keep quiet, or do you activate the transponder and risk revealing your weakened state and valuable cargo to potential pirates on the edge of the system?
Of course, the game also contains an active economy. You'll constantly be informed of food shortages or similar events on planets around the universe that you can take advantage of. Admittedly, I am not the most experienced when it comes to mercantile gameplay in these sorts of games, but I did find the economy adequate. I never felt like prices were unreasonably low or high.
Players can also visit stations, where they can offload trade goods, buy new vessels, refit their ships, talk with various faction members, or get missions from the mission board. The missions are fairly varied and many will put you at odds with one faction or another, forcing players to choose sides relatively early.
Ship customization is almost overwhelming. You are given control over pretty much every aspect of your ship; you can equip weapons in various weapon slots, choose how many vents and capacitors your ships contain, and even choose special systems (such as blast doors or safety overrides). Thankfully, the game provides a template system that you can use to instantly set up a ship based on a number of pre-designed builds. I feel this is a great compromise. Players are able to go as deep as they want into the customization system without being forced to master all the idiosyncrasies of ship design.
Eventually you'll have to put those ships too the test. Combat allows you to deploy any number of ships in your fleet. Initially, you are able to give commands to various ships including capturing key points, targeting specific ships, or avoiding others. However, at anytime one can hit the Tab key to take direct control of your chosen flagship. At this point, the game takes on an arcade style space shooter feel, allowing you to choose between your ship's weapon groups. You can also activate your shield. On some ships, these systems are omni-directional, whereas others require you to actively use your mouse to direct them. Some weapons and all shields actively produce a resource called "flux" which will disable your ship temporarily if it reaches critical levels. Players must balance their offense, defense, and flux to make sure that they don't run out of energy at a critical point. Players can also vent their flux, leaving them exposed temporarily in exchange for instantly dropping all the flux. There is also "soft flux", which pushes your flux meter up to a certain point and won't dissipate over time as long as shields are active. The system is complex but fair.
The game also gives you control over three critical resources; crew, fuel, and supplies. Running out of any of these during your travels will result in reduced combat efficiency and damage to your ships. In the case of fuel, it can also result in you being stranded, forcing you to risk a distress call or drift until you reach a station. These resources, as well as heavy machinery, can also be lost during survey or scavenge operations and take up room in your cargo hold. Like many of the other systems in the game, this constantly forces players to reweigh their options and make tactical decisions.
The game also includes a level up system, though, it is a bit primitive. Your character is given experience points and each level up rewards the player a skill point. These skill points can be used in any of the four skill trees to either level up the branch (increasing each skill's max level) or in skills themselves, which have three levels. Other recruited characters, gain levels as well. However, other characters simply give you the choice between two skills on level up. It's a nice addition, but in it's current state, is fairly simplistic.
To those not wanting to dive into the campaign mode, the game also offers a mission mode, where you can play battles of varying difficulty with pre-designed fleets. This mode is ideal if someone simply wants to get used to the system or wants to test out some different ship designs without having to spend millions of credits to get them in the campaign mode. It's a great touch, and I imagine that modders and those looking for an arcade experience will greatly appreciate it.
The game's graphics are highly reminiscent of Master of Orion II. The game uses 2D sprites for the ships and almost all screens display them in an overhead view. Each ship is distinguishable and unique. I greatly appreciated the amount of detail put into each ship, giving each a unique feel and look.
The universe map is fairly simplistic and straightforward. It is fairly zoomed out, resulting in little detail being visible when you are traveling. However, arriving at any planet or astral body generally results in a view screen of that celestial body, which is a nice touch.
The combat screen provides a standard combat grid, again reminiscent of Master of Orion II's tactical battle screen.
Characters also all have portraits. Upon character creation, you are given a surprising amount of options for your character's portrait. Each character you encounter also has a portrait, and I rarely encountered repeating portraits.
However, not everything is so detailed and succinct. The game's UI is cluttered and confusing, especially during battle. The sheer amount of information being presented sometimes gets in the way of gameplay. I found myself frequently pausing the game to simply read the stats of whatever ships were in combat. The text of the UI is also outdated and difficult to read at times.
The game's audio is adequate. The music has a certain retro charm, reminding me of older space sims like the aforementioned Star Control.
Sound effects are also decent. The lasers and missiles all make the expected sounds and explosions. I never had trouble distinguishing the noises and was able to figure out what weapons were being fired purely on the sound alone.
Fractal Softworks' Starsector is an ambitious throwback to 2D space sims like Star Control. The game promises something between it's retro inspirations and a modern open world game. The graphics and audio are simple, but charming. The gameplay is overwhelmingly complex at times, but always fair. Though this may intimidate some players, those willing to tackle the steep learning curve will no doubt find a rewarding experience. Starsector is a game not to be missed by fans of the space sim genre or those with fond memories of classic space exploration games.