It’s no secret that I love FTL: Faster Than Light. In fact, if someone asked me what my perfect space warfare/simulator game would be, I wouldn’t point to a 4X like AI: War Command, I would basically point to FTL and say “more of that”. With that in mind, it was almost inevitable that I would get into Star Command, an Android title that I picked up during a Humble Bundle. FTL? On MY cell phone? Sold.
I’m glad I picked up the bundle and didn’t pick this game up itself, or – worse – contribute to the Kickstarter, because as it is right now, the game is unfinished at best, and a pile of half-baked ideas and half-fulfilled promises at worst.
The best way to describe Star Command is that it’s a mix of FTL – itself essentially Firefly: The Game – and Star Trek. The game starts in the Sol system, on Earth, with you playing the role as captain of a Star Command vessel, fighting hostile aliens. As such, there are branching paths, political intrigue, and ship-to-ship combat, as well as the options to develop your ship into a killing machine and develop crew members with specific skillsets.
Does that sound good? It sounded good to me, that’s for sure. Sadly, the game’s promise gives way to a brutal reality: none of what I said above actually exists as advertised.
When I say there’s branching paths, what I really mean is that every single decision tree you’re given leads to the same result, no matter what. I’ll give one example: in one scene of the largely linear, disjointed and unremarkable story, an alien who I’m beating up somehow wants command of my ship. I say no. Something that I can’t even remember happens, and now my only choice is to give this alien – who I’m fighting! – my helm. He then takes me to another galaxy, where he joins with a largely artificial race. No matter what, all of the branches in my conversation led to the same conclusion; I had no say in the matter. It doesn’t help that seemingly every conversation contains some kind of “witty” popular culture reference or one-liner, intended to show the game’s humour, when instead it just shows desperation and a desire for any kind of attention, like a guy who wears a “Rogues do it from behind” shirt to a convention and laughs at the same three cake jokes he’s been telling since Portal’s release.
Speaking of the fighting, there are similarities to FTL in that it’s necessary to have weapons charge up to fire them, and different weapons doing different amounts of damage, but the implementation is leagues worse. There are four compartments on every ship: two for weapons, one for engineering, and one for healing. Choices on what to install are limited from there; there are three weapons choices, and two for everything else. Healing is easy; it’s either to heal shields, or heal people, and since hand-to-hand combat is about 10% of the experience of the game, that choice is easy. The weapons also suck; once they charge up and are ready to fire, it takes a minigame to determine how many shots are fired. The minigames get old after the first few times, which is not good because it takes a *lot* of shots to take out a ship.
Unlike FTL, where shields were regenerating based on strength, in Star Command, the enemy’s shields act as simply the first life bar before hitting the ship’s hull. Actually penetrating the ship brings no benefit except the knowledge that the battle is closer to being over. This not only makes battles that much more boring, but it proves that the enemies are playing by different rules than the player; if there’s a hull breach on the player side – which only happened to me when it was a story event – then the ship lights in flames in places, and in some cases, there are hull breaches that can suck out unsuspecting crew members. This is actually one of the few well done areas of the game; managing all of this requires attention to multiple areas at the same time. But even this bit of good news is offset by an awful interface that forces crew members to be selected one at a time, and by the fact that they are so stupid that they will literally wade through fire and a firefight to get from point A to B.
In the end, the number one way to get anywhere in Star Command – fighting – is a rote act of attrition, made only somewhat more palatable by the upgrade system, which was downgraded from previous versions of the game. Other things that were supposed to be in the game are simply not there. Each crew member has a “Contraband” section in their profile that simply says “coming soon!”. There are also other parts of the game that look like they were meant to house other ways to play. Star Command is simply incomplete, and while that would be no problem under normal conditions, in an era where kickstarter and Early Access are king, this Wired article indicates that this has been the state of the game for some time. That article was written last May, so any assumptions that the developers were still doing anything with this game can probably be dismissed.
Ultimately, this speaks to massive problems with the developers, a cocktail where the mixture is some percentage dishonesty and gross, utter incompetence. I’m willing to believe it’s more of the latter than the former, considering the fact that Star Command required two Kickstarters to reach completion. The game’s unfinished state forces me to fill in the blanks on its development myself: a bunch of kids decide they want to make a commercial video game before realizing that making a good game is hard, and managing the money required to do so is even harder. Eventually, they get discouraged, release a shitty game, and without the money to do anything further to it, they let it languish and hope it goes away.
I’m very, very glad I got this in a Humble Bundle instead of via a full, $10 purchase or via Kickstarter. Had I gone through the process of actually buying this game1, I’d be furious. It’s only fitting that my last minutes with the game went the way they did: after defeating a major enemy, I got permission to change my ship by my commander. I selected that I was ready to choose my new ship, and excitedly figured I was going to finally see what this game had going for it. My childlike enthusiasm – naivety? – figured that everything I’d gone through to this point was just a tutorial of sorts. Right as I chose to change my ship… kaboom. The game crashed, each and every time, in the same place. A game-breaking, 100% unavoidable bug, on the most common Android device (Galaxy SIII) in the world.
Star Command is a shoddy product put out by amateurs and deserves its place in infamy as a cautionary tale to not give undeserving developers money on the lure of a promise and the name-dropping of other, higher quality games.
1 – Even considering this, Star Command was a major reason I decided to pick up that particular Humble Android Bundle, so I still feel somewhat charred