Star Control 2 is good. Damn good. There is a reason for which it became one of the most celebrated DOS games of all time - it kicks ass. In this day and age, however, memories might have faded a bit: many people might not have played it at all and some people might not remember it quite as well as when they first got their hands on it. So let us hop onto the bandwagon to celebrate this great game ourselves and say why it inspired so many modern games - this is DOS Days.
Star Control 2 is the sequel to the relatively unknown strategy/shmup hybrid Star Control. Designed by Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III, this space adventure completely blew away gamers back in 1992, so much that it was chosen by IGN as the 17th best game of all time. But what was the winning formula that got the game to reach for the stars (forgive the awful pun)?
Well, for starters the gameplay is quite difficult to describe. It belongs to no conventional genre - instead offering a strange mixture of space simulation, RPG, adventure game and shmup. A mixture which quite actually works and ends up providing a great vintage cocktail to enjoy on your PC. The writing is superb- Star Control 2 is the only game which got me to laugh several times like a hysterical chimpanzee in front of my computer, simply because the dialogue is just that hilarious.
There is also a huge amount of story events in the game (the majority optional) which greatly increase replay value. But we'll get to all of this later.
Something went very wrong here.
Star Control 2 was probably one of the very first non-point'n'click heavily plot-based games. Instead of the background of the game being explained in the game manual with you following a linear path which will make you accomplish... something, the events before the game are explained neatly in the game opening. You are part of a long-lost scientist expedition which got stuck on a planet 20 years before in search for ancient Precursor (an ancient, technologically advanced race which dissapeared thousands of years before) artifacts to help humanity fight its war against the Ur-Quan, a race of bloodthirsty green and black alien spiders. After a Precursor spaceship factory is discovered, you are sent with the skeleton of a ship to the solar system, hoping that Earth might have the materials to finish it. Sadly, things don't go as planned when you discover that the war ended shortly after the departure of the expedition and that Earth is now submitted to the Ur-Quan and placed under a red "slave shield" which prevents humanity from travelling to space. The only facility connected to space is a station needed to drop off Ur-Quan supplies.
You soon discover by talking with the commander that the station is in critical conditions, due to it not recieving any supplies in years. After getting the station back to normal, the commander explains what happened to Earth- the Ur-Quan managed to win the war thanks to a secret weapon and everyone fighting them got to choose between being annihilated, becoming servants of the Ur-Quan or being placed under a huge slave shield covering an entire planet. For some reason, however, the green caterpillars dissapeared a few years later.
After convincing the commander to get a revolution started (not "kick it into overdrive", that's another SC2), you start a huge journey lasting 4 years attempting to recover anything that might help against the Ur-Quan and gaining many old and new allies. And I'm going to stop here, because I don't want to spoil the awesome plot to any people reading this who might want to play the game.
Knife included in the costume?
The gameplay is split in three different parts working together to provide a seamless experience.
You've got dialogue, following the footsteps of adventure games. Here you'll be entertained by geniunely funny dialogue, will buy new items and will get new alien races to join your cause. It's a pretty standard dialogue system: while most of the time the dialogue is linear (with some notable exceptions), it doesn't stop the optional responses from being geniunely funny and entertaining.
Occasionally you'll have to present some objects gained through space exploration to the different alien races to proceed with the plot (to fulfill a mission or to bring them proof of something), but aside from an Ultima-8-like level of bullshit at a certain point absolutely impossible to figure out without a walkthrough (and let me tell you because I want you not to ruin the game with a walkthrough - Admiral ZEX's beast is at Delta Lyncis, coordinates 570.4, 979.5) the game keeps the pacing going quite well, by also providing very interesting characters which include but are not limited to: pterodactyl warriors, space kamikazes, terminally depressed mask-wearing... things, talking plants, the best representation of the internet I have ever seen in a video game (blob-like aliens which will first crown you king and thirty seconds later attack you just for the "lulz"), red spiders who believe that their two gods of death occasionally come on TV to chat about destruction, hippie tucans who believe in the power of love, and many more.
Oh, and the game also features a gratuitious alien sex scene at a certain point.
The second part is centered around space exploration, and endorses different genres in the process. The game uses a top-view system which works fairly well (it was 1992, after all). There is an absolutely huge map you can explore as much as you'd like (keeping in mind that you do have a 4 years timer you must follow if you don't want the bad ending).
You can enter any solar system on the map. Once there you'll find different planets, and you'll be able to quickly scan the surface for minerals (you'll need them to upgrade your ship), energy traces (special plot-based events) and biological traces (lifeforms which you can kill to get biological data and credits from the alien traders Melnorme). Once scanned (it takes a simple tap of a button) you can send your lander to the planet, where it'll be able to hunt down lifeforms and collect minerals through a shmup-esque minigame. Be warned, though: your lander will be exposed to earthquakes, lightning bolts, high temperatures and animals which just want to eat your crew currently on the planet.
So there is a (pretty high, actually) percentage of risk involved, which you can reduce by investing in research with the Melnorme or by being careful not to go on planets with a Tectonics or Weather level higher than 6 before you've upgraded. You can see how Mass Effect 2 took heavy inspiration from this, with the only exception that this time around the minigame is actually fun.
The third part is an improved version of the shmup combat (called "melee" combat) from the original Star Control, one of the very little things kept in from the predecessor. While exploring space you may encounter alien races. Some will be friendly, but others will probably want to fight you due to you violating Ur-Quan laws (they're the "servants" we mentioned earlier). Combat may ensue, and you'll be able to choose between different ships - you can either use your main Precursor vessel (provided you upgraded it enough for it not to get wrecked by the first spaceship passing by), or you can use one of the ships of your alien allies.
Your Precursor ship is the only one you can actually upgrade - you can add Crew Pods which will enable you to increase your crew (which acts as your health), a more powerful cannon, auto-aim systems, faster battery recharge (You need battery power to attack, and each attack consumes some power if not all of it) and more. While the upgrade system isn't incredibly deep, it'll keep you scavenging minerals for a while and will leave you VERY satisfied once you'll become able to destroy those pesky probes in one shot.
The alien ships are usually weaker by the lategame, but they're pretty quirky - each ship has one standard attack and one special attack. For example, the Yehat (the pterodactyls we mentioned earlier) have a ship that is pretty good for mid-close range attacks, which has a shield that if timed correctly will prevent most of the damage done to it. The Pkunk (the hippie tucans) have an attack that goes in three different directions, can only recharge battery by taunting the enemy (their special attack) and sometimes when killed will revive in a glorious "HALLELUJAH!" (yes, I laughed the first time that happened). It's a system that works, and stays pretty fresh for most of the game.
The graphics are pretty great. Every alien race has some pretty great art done for it, and this helps create just the atmosphere you'd expect from a space drama. Soundtrack is fairly good - not the kind of music I hum to myself after I close down the game, but the tracks always fit the situation (aside from the final boss, but the final boss fight is underwhelming in itself)
By reading this you probably realised just how similar Star Control 2 is to many modern games, namely Mass Effect. Bioware got inspired a lot by this game, and it shows. Is this a good thing? Hell yes, it is. I'm not a Mass Effect fan, but the aura of Star Control 2 in ME1 and 2 are probably what got me the most to get through them.
Let us conclude. What words could be used to describe Star Control 2? Many. Memorable. Unforgettable. Funny. Addicting. Charming. Flawless? Nah. It could be improved on in certain points. But is it the kind of game where the flaws obscure the merits? No, it's not. It's a fantastic game, and it deserves some time from any modern gamer. It helped shape the modern gaming world, so why not give it a try and make your own opinion? You can find the freeware open-source port The Ur-Quan Masters, or you can buy Star Control 1 and 2 off GOG for 5,99$.
Good luck, captain.