Reviewed: September 5, 2003
Released: March 27, 2003
Someone found what was left of an Asteroids machine and couldnít stand to leave it sit moldering forlornly in a corner. Instead they decided to resurrect the corpse by liberal application of steroids, livewire, and a copious supply of rave music. In short this game is probably one of the best kept secrets on the web, aside from the access codes to the Skywalker Ranch web server (incidentally if anyone should know thoseÖ)
My hyperbole aside, Starscape is one of the best underground titles Iíve seen. It is completely web distributed, though for those of you not blessed by the gods of the T1 you can order a CD of the game instead of downloading it. The other completely impressive thing is that the whole game, aside from a little outsourcing, was done by three guys in eight months. The only thing Iím not sure about is the music, and Iíd really like to know because itís one of the best game soundtracks Iíve heard in a long time.
On the more pertinent side of things Starscape follows the adventures of the Aegis after an experiment in opening wormholes goes awry. The ship is sucked into a rift in space time and is stuck in series of pocket dimensions, or whatever science fiction term youíd like to put there. It is attacked by a hostile alien species who steals the dimension drive responsible for stranding you there in the first place. Your mission is to collect resources to rebuild ship defenses, research and build upgrades, defeat the alien menace, and recover the drive before they can unlock its secrets. On your side against this unstoppable alien onslaught are a group of robots that sell you new technology, the Aegis that will conveniently bail on every boss fight, and the series of fighters you construct and equip. Have fun defending the galaxy, because to itís going to take a miracle to make it.
Remember that Asteroids comment? Thatís the basic engine here. You pilot your ship in different zones to fight the aliens, and mine asteroids for minerals so you can build, research, and repair. The arrow keys on the keyboard are all the movement control you have, and you get a fire, secondary fire, gravity (tractor) beam, and docking buttons. Simple huh? Well itís a little more complicated than that. See forward and backward fire jets in either direction, but thereís this nasty little thing called inertia, which youíll have to deal with. Also, the side arrow keys only rotate your ship. You basically have to keep adjusting a straight-line flight path, rather than being able to thrust independently in any of the four directions. This ends up kind of like Othello; you can learn the rules in a few minutes, but to master them takes forever.
So thatís the basics on flight control. The game itself is more than just a series of mining/fighting operations. If that were all there would be decidedly smaller scores above. The real innovations in Starscape are the research and building options, as well as the docking bay. By adding these options a basic top down space shooter has been turned into something resembling Warcraft, Command and Conquer, or any other resource collecting RTS game. There are three minerals and collecting them lets you do three things. You can repair damage to the Aegis or to your ship. You can research technologies to help defend the Aegis, to improve your ship by adding more blasters, or other weapons as well as shields. Also you can build those technologies as well as better ship hulls that can hold more weapons and have more room to pick up minerals.
The best part however is after you have built a few of those new ship hulls because then you can go to the docking bay and customize the ship, and when I say customize I mean that completely. You have a blank schematic and can add as many things as you have room for with the only requirements being a generator and an engine. Go nuts. The best thing is that you can name the ship and then the game keeps track of the best ships over the course of the campaign, and whether its still among the flying or if it has been consigned to flaming debris. You can hold up to three ships aside from the default hull and if they all should be blasted to space dust no worries because you get an infinite supply of the default shuttles so long as you can get back to the Aegis in your life pod and you have resources to repair them.
While this all sounds great it wouldnít mean anything if the actual action were boring, repetitive or just plain sucked. While combat strategies revolve mostly around circling your opponents while firing with maniac abandon there is more to the game than that. First by the end of the game you are facing enough chump ships to make even Rogue Squadron think twice about fighting. Then, in addition to all those, you have a healthy collection of capital ships, all of which require a different method of attack. Did I mention that these come in nearly endless waves until you destroy the mining ships, which have a cutting laser that does more than just tickle?
If that isnít enough you have to make sure that your own mothership doesnít get turned into so much scrap, and while you can manufacture some weapons for it, itís still your job. The boss ships are even worse, but at least you donít have to fight endless waves of ships too or protect your own ship then.
Simplicity is the rule here, at least as far as objects go. Your mothership is little more than the top down view of a sphere with guns mounted. Your actual ships are all built around a teardrop shaped life pod, but the final ďdevastatorĒ hull looks like something that could give itís namesake a run (well if you had a whole wing of them, piloted by Wedge clones). The enemies are designed with much the same idea. There are only about four or five different basic ďdroneĒ ships, five motherships, one mining vessel, and five bosses. Simple as they are though, there are definite differences in appearance that are immediately obvious.
The backgrounds of all the ďzonesĒ you explore are awesome, not only do you have a star field, but also multi-hued nimbuses, asteroids of both rock and ice, and lava covered meteors which have translucent red snakes hiding in them. Also, the asteroids have momentum and a blast radius, so if you blow up one big rock right next to another you have all sorts of little fragments hurtling out in different directions at ludicrous speed.
The best though, are the cut scene and menu graphics. The characters are all rendered in a very simple, yet excellent style. They look slightly anime styled, but nothing pronounced; in fact they look more like refugees from a 50ís sci-fi series, especially with the scenery renders. All the technology is also rendered in that simple 50ís anime styling, and the view out the bridge window is a nice touch. Iíd also like to take a moment to thank them for creating the assistant engineer and killing off the head engineer, because itís always good to have a knock out on the team.
Of course what would a space shooter be without special effects? Lasers and cutting beams abound, as do charging glows, electric discharges, explosions, missile contrails, jet burns, and a whole colony ship load of other extras. Just be sure to fly through the debris.
There are only about four music tracks for this game, not including the boss tune, and despite having put more than thirty hours into this game Iím still not annoyed with them. Thatís probably evidence enough that the sound is good, but you guys are all probably expecting a little more. Well to go along with the pulse pounding action and light show, you get music right out of a rave to complete the picture. I really wish I could get a separate soundtrack for the game with a few bonus tracks to round out the CD.
The effects are up to par as well with nice dull thuds when you hit an asteroid, sirens and alarms as critical damage warnings, and whooshes, explosions, and minerals shattering like panes of glass.
There are no voices, but thatís part of the retro style of the game (not to mention keeping in the realms of a believable budget). Besides who needs a bunch of bad voice actors hamming things up?
With a downloadable price of $24.95 how could you not like this game? Also, for those of you not blessed by the gods of T1, there is no need to despair. You can buy a CD version of the game for a scant ten dollars more, which comes with a few extras. The best thing is if you do have the patience to download it but still want an actual product, you can still unlock the downloadable version while waiting for the CD to arrive.
Tack on to all of this a good 30 to 40 hours of game play, a rocking soundtrack, customizable ship designs, and an actual story line and this is well worth the money and time required. Best of all you can even get a code from the game to post your high score on the web to challenge all the other feebs to try to match your skills.
This is one of the best little known titles Iíve run across, and I spent about three days running around in Kenita Hall at E3 so Iíve seen my share of up and comers. Starscape takes a very simple premise and control style and tweaks it and then just oozes style and substance. Will it displace the heavy hitters? No, but it is a nice hold over until the next big thing does come out.
Moonpod is a company to watch though, if they can put out this kind of product on a small budget with just three guys and a little outsourcing in eight months, Iíd love to see what they could do with a real budget and some serious dev time.