This time, Redshirts die last
Star Command had a pretty rough development cycle. After seeking help on Kickstarter to finish the game, a series of unfortunate events resulted in a mismanagement of the project's cash flow, leading backers to wonder if the game would ever come out at all.
Hailed early as "Game Dev Story meets Star Trek," Star Command tasks you with managing a ship and its crew as you explore the depths of space and destroy all who would oppose the human race. It's not nearly as deep as I'd want a space simulator to be, but it's still a great way to spend an afternoon.
Star Command (Android, iPad, iPhone [reviewed on an iPhone 5])
Developer: Star Command LLC
Publisher: Star Command LLC
Release: May 2, 2013 (iOS) / TBA (Android)
As you can probably gather from the title, Star Command starts you off with a small ship to commandeer, and a Captain, which will serve as the main character of your journey. If he dies, it's game over -- no pressure. You'll have the chance to customize your Captain a bit with the option of gender, two skin colors, hair, and a (male) sexy Riker beard. Honestly, that's about it, as Star Command doesn't offer much in terms of customization -- thankfully, your ship can utilize a wide variety of color options to help it stand out.
After a fairly brief tutorial, the game kind of just pushes you out of the nest, and hits the ground running. You'll start assembling your crew, and embarking upon an epic space journey filled with deception, pacification, and sometimes, all-out war. Through the choice of (very limited) dialogue options, you'll have the chance to blast your way out of some circumstances, or go for more peaceful options -- or in some cases, avoid a particularly nasty situation through caution. It's not nearly as deep as most RPGs on the market, but some choices will have a minor effect on the story later on, which is a nice touch.
So how do you actually manage your ship? For starters, there are three types of rooms to build: weapon rooms, defensive rooms, and healing rooms -- all of which have two to three variations. Each crew member assigned to a room will earn themselves a role, including soldiers that can blast boarding enemy units (Redshirts), engineers that can fix your ship (Yellowshirts), and scientists (Blueshirts) respectively. You can also station party members in the bridge (which creates more Redshirts) or the engine (which creates more Yellowshirts), and the Captain can assume any role.
Essentially, combat will play out like this for the entire game: you'll fight off boarding units with reds, you'll manage your shields and repair hull damage with yellows, and you'll heal units from either hull damage or enemy unit damage with blues. You'll tap your units once to select them, and tap them again to move them to a certain square and perform an action in a visible bubble area around them. It sounds straightforward, but here's the catch -- in order to fire your ship's main weapons or accumulate dodge tokens, at least one crew member has to remain in the appropriate room (in this case, a red weapon room or a yellow dodge engine room).
Eventually, you need to actually blow up the opposing ship to stop enemies from boarding -- so as you can imagine, having to juggle assigning soldiers to load ship weapons and/or battle off boarding units with handheld weapons can get tricky, as each decision could be your last. Units will be sacrificed as they load up that one last laser shot, some will fly out of the ship into the cold depths of space after a hull breach, and others will cower in a corner, hoping the Redshirts will actually win that crucial skirmish.
Things get more than a little bit hectic as you're juggling between your ship's weapon systems, battling enemies on-board, healing your crew, prepping ammo, and a lot more. Decisions like choosing whether or not to pull your crew out of their duties to battle in-house foes will make or break you, and it only gets more complicated as the game goes on. Another complication arises when you start to get acquainted with the token system. Tokens come in red, yellow, and blue varieties, and allow you to hire new crew members, as well as upgrade various rooms. Deciding when and how to spend your tokens is a huge part of the game, which is where the simulation part comes in.
For the most part though, any strategic value is found in combat, as the simulation aspect really isn't that deep. The first ship you'll get in the game only has a few rooms to manage, and honestly, it's not difficult at all to figure out how to min-max. Only when you complete the game -- roughly two to three hours long -- and unlock bigger, better, and more badass ships will you have to deal with any advanced form of ship management; until then, it's a pretty basic experience.
Speaking of combat, it's the true highlight of the game. The rush of ordering soldiers into different rooms to guard weaker crew members, or quickly repairing a hull breach as your best soldier is sucked out into the abyss can be extremely satisfying. Although ship-to-ship combat mostly boils down to firing your ship's weapons when they're ready (through the use of a non-guaranteed mini-game) with the occasional dodge, on-board combat is where the strategy element really shines. Of course, this is actually taking place in real-time, and although you can technically pause the game, every second counts -- there's no turn-based XCOM-style combat here.
There's only one major hang-up -- combat has the potential to become utterly broken. For starters, your ship cannot be destroyed. I repeat -- you can only lose if your Captain or another optional NPC (the Princess) is killed. This leads to a lot of exploit-based strategies of massing a defense force to protect the Captain while you let your ship get pummeled, and just trade fire until you eventually win (a few missions don't have enemy boarding, so all you have to do to pass is literally have your Captain stay indoors). Sometimes this exploit isn't an option, but even during the game's toughest battles, it was; which really cheapened the experience for me. It's almost as if the developers couldn't figure out a way to balance the game so that your ship could explode, and left it out entirely -- it feels incredibly lazy. I also had a few crashes on an iPhone 5 that made me lose progress, which is unacceptable.
The narrative itself can branch and converge, which is an interesting prospect, but it's not all that compelling. Star Command is basically your run-of-the-mill sci-fi story, complete with a Borg-like race, and many more sci-fi tropes. There's some referential humor built in, but it's smirk-raising at most. It's not a rogue-like with random encounters (although you can find a few optional fights on the galaxy map if you want to grind), so every experience will be the same, even after you complete the game and unlock New Game+ mode (which in turn unlocks another playthrough), which grants you a bigger ship.
It's sad that I even have to mention this, but Star Command completely lacks any microtransactions, or sleazy form of forced online connectivity. Simply, what you see is what you get here -- a junior sized space simulator game -- albeit, with some "coming soon" promises of updates initially pitched in the Kickstarter campaign.
Star Command is an addictive sci-fi simulation experience, provided you're willing to stick it out until the second playthrough to get to the real meat of the game. There just isn't enough there the first time around to captivate the majority of potential buyers, as most of the initial gameplay boils down to a few repetitive, shallow actions. Still, good things come to those who wait, and if you're looking for a fun, cheap sci-fi game on the go, this is it. If you go in expecting a more zen garden-like experience than a real space sim, you shouldn't come out disappointed.
Star Command reviewed by Chris Carter
A solid game that definitely has an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
How we score: The Destructoid Reviews Guide