Television is largely responsible for the growth of science fiction amongst the general populace. For every person who discovered the world of “what-if” through the writings of Jules Verne, there were hundreds whose first glimpses of outer space were delivered by the indomitable crew of the Enterprise. So it’s no surprise that for years many video games sought to replicate the experience of “boldly going”. The original Star Command was a largely text-based venture, but its modern descendent is a pixelated love letter to the games of yesteryear.
The result of several kickstarter campaigns, it succeeds in some areas but often feels not quite finished. What does work especially well is the style of the game; it seems that the majority of their efforts went into crafting an atmospheric design for the ships, character models and animations. The first time you get to recruit aliens to boost the crew of your ship is a particularly exciting moment. When your guns batteries are blasting away at your enemy, it’s a visceral thrill, particularly when you know they’re moments away from destruction.
The first play through is fun and exciting, especially when you gain more tokens and can upgrade your offensive and defensive capabilities, though Star Command becomes repetitive as you come up on the end of the first play through and a second trip is an exercise in monotony. It’s not long after your ship is as powerful as it can get and you’ve managed to figure out the best strategy that the game boils down to working to destroy enemy ships as fast as possible while dealing with invaders that teleport to your ship when your shields are weakened.
The few occasions when the mission parameters are slightly different actually makes them easier; you’re focusing solely on repelling boarders or keeping your ship intact until a certain time is up. Once your ship is fully upgraded, that’s it. There’s no opportunity to exchange it for a larger ship. Even your customization options are arbitrarily limited. You can only have two weapons and one of each system present at a time. With a certain system your engineers gain the ability to deploy defense turrets around the ship, which I particularly enjoyed, but the system limits how many turrets you can build at a time. These unexplained design choices make every ship more or less the same, which limits the overall appeal and replay factor.
Much of the flaws in the game seem to be a result of excessive ambition on the part of the developers. The initial kickstarter campaign promised to include certain aspects of the space exploration genre that many of us find as interesting as the combat; exploring new worlds, negotiating treaties and alliances with otherworldly creatures and discovering new technologies. You do of course come across some unusual aliens but your interactions with them are pre-ordained and scripted. I was particularly delighted by one encounter and was annoyed that there was only one way to play out the scenario. I came across a ship crewed by a specific bunch I had fought before, only to have them escape at the last minute. Now however they were unrecognizable, having had their brains extracted from their bodies and installed in glass-topped robot bodies. Naturally they aimed to do the same to us. I genuinely wanted to accept their offer, but the game prevented me from doing anything other than shooting them down. Such an elaborate twist would require an ambitious re-working of the entire plot, but those sorts of touches could make Star Command a far better game than it is.
There were plot hooks that promised an interesting journey; a strange machine race that had created simulacra of World War II era American soldiers; an otherworldly dark energy being that can be bonded with one of your crew members. Both of these were stories that I wanted to follow far more than the main plot, but they only never come up again. No matter what choices or dialogue options you make, the ultimate ending is the same. Again, things feel extremely unfinished. There are planets and worlds you never get the option to travel to and suggestions of future upcoming features. If the game were in some sort of beta test phase, or had been free, it would be entirely understandable. Unfortunately after two successful rounds of crowd-sourced funding and four months without an update to the developer’s blog post, it becomes difficult to recommend paying for a game that seems unlikely to be truly finished any time soon. That said, for a price that’s less than a donut and cup of coffee, it’s hard to discount the initial charm and fun of the game. It wears off before too long, but not before you’ve gotten your money’s worth.