No, I’m not talking about STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. That’s next week.
This week, I can’t help but be slightly obsessed with the iOS starship management game STAR COMMAND.
STAR COMMAND was one of the first games on Kickstarter and one of its early successes. However, as games development often goes, it needed more money and had to ask again via Kickstarter, then met with more delays and went past its original release date before finally launching a couple of weeks ago.
I’ve had space and starships on the mind lately. Anything to provide an alternative to the increasingly tiresome cliché of war and terror in genre fiction, and space opera has always been inherently optimistic: the notion that we manage to survive long enough to take entire fleets of ships into space is an attractive one. This is STAR TREK, EVE ONLINE, John Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS, the Mars landing, the Mars One program to establish a human colony there, the upcoming orbital thriller GRAVITY. Even watching the generic Earth-bound dystopia of DEFIANCE makes me think about crazy things happening with spaceships.
Of course, being the snarky bastard that I am, I can’t look at anything with reverence for very long, and so STAR COMMAND had the misfortune of floating into my orbit.
You might have read the reviews of the game, which are decidedly mixed. Several of them expressed disappointment in how the game turned out, where the end result was a far less ambitious game than the developers originally promised in their Kickstarter pitch. Where they originally promised role-playing elements like diplomatic missions and exploration, the game game released is barely anything more than a pew-pew turn-based space battle game with wonky AI and frustrating controls. Some enraged commenters and editorials have painted STAR COMMAND as a Kickstarter precautionary tale: that people who give a game investment money with no accountability risk having their money spent on a lesser product than promised.
I didn’t put money in the Kickstarter, so I don’t feel cheated or shortchanged. I was curious about how the game would turn out, though, so I paid a couple of dollars for the game on iOS. What’s interesting to me is how STAR COMMAND has reduced the military space opera genre as established by STAR TREK to what every little boy dreams about in the first place: space battles. Big, slow, clumsy ships that steer like cows on rohypnol trying to shoot each other out of the sky.
It seems that in the need to get the game out, reducing it to just a clunky management battle game was the best they could do for the time being. Their ambition seemed to outrace their abilities and release window. With the whole game reduced to just combat, the player is forced to go through a long and tedious round of micromanaging the entire crew, directing redshirts to run around shooting at alien boarding parties, having science officers heal the injured before they die, waiting for the weapons to charge up before being able to fire on the enemy ship, move crewmembers out of harm’s way when the enemy’s weapons score a direct hit, causing fires or, worse, a hull breach that can suck anyone nearby out into space. The whole game becomes a mad scramble of micromanagement until either your captain dies or the enemy ship explodes.
Then some players discovered some game-breaking flaws in the game that enabled them to cheat: your ship is indestructible. It can get shot at so many times that the corridors are all on fire and there could be hull breaches all over the place, but the ship is never going to blow up or fall to pieces in the cold deadness of space. You only get a Game Over if your captain dies. That meant there was a way to beat even the toughest enemies by simply having the crew hide inside the weapons rooms. Have enough redshirts to shoot any enemies that beam aboard and try to raid the weapons rooms. Have enough engineers to repair the room when it gets hit by enemy fire. Have a blue-shirted science officer in the room to heal anyone who gets injured. All the while waiting for the main guns to charge up so you can keep firing at the enemy ship. If your ship gets messed up enough by enemy fire, and end up with hull breaches, so much the better – enemy boarding parties that beam aboard will just get sucked into space. Your crew is safe as long as everyone stays inside the weapons rooms. You just keep firing the main guns at the enemy ship until it finally explodes. Thank Destructoid for pointing this out.
This breaks all the in-game fiction logic: everyone may be safe inside the rooms they huddled in, but if all the corridors are on fire with breaches, it means no crew member can step out to repair the ship without either burning to death or getting sucked out into space. If there’s no one in the engine room or the bridge, it means no one is flying the ship. In order to not get yourself or your crew killed, you’ll have to be the worst starship captain ever, using the most fucked-up tactics possible here, tactics that, in a universe where the laws of physics are normal, would get everyone killed.
I find this hilarious.
If you take story seriously, the immersion here is utterly broken. Unless you read it as a metaphor for something, like, I don’t know, the paranoid state of America where everyone’s terrified of stepping out of their rooms lest they get killed by enemies or nature so they stay inside with guns. Yes, I know that’s completely ridiculous and reaching for meaning that wasn’t intended, but hey, my mind wanders when I look at silliness and absurdity. In a way, the disappointment of the game’s lost promise of something more ambitious and complex is completely in line with how Hollywood action movies are now reduced to tedious FX-laden shoot-fests, despite the best intentions in the world.
As reported, the game is selling well and the developers are promising to fix the game in future patches so it’s not just a tedious slow-motion shoot-fest and are even looking to hire a writer to help them with scenarios involving diplomacy and exploration rather than just pew-pew, but who knows how that’s going to pan out. I would love to be able to talk the enemy to death.
I don’t regret spending a couple of dollars for a look into the problems and limitations of games design and have some cheap laughs at the absurdities of space opera – some of them are even jokes put there on purpose. There are worse things to spend a couple of dollars on if you know what you want out of them. It’s all very educational if you let it be so. I laughed a lot while waiting for my laundry to dry.
STAR COMMAND is on the Apple App store now. An Android and PC version is also planned.
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