Review: Star Command

Space. The lost frontier. Once upon a time, space games were everywhere. Star Trek: Bridge Commander. X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter. Wing Commander. Homeworld. All very different games, but sharing a deep love of the endless black beyond our skies. And then they faded away. Gaming lost interest with space: for legitimate reasons perhaps, but it saddened me. In the age of Kickstarter, however, it seems no genre of game will stay dormant. Space is back, baby. And one of its champions is Star Command.

Or, at least, that’s the intention of this iOS/Android title, soon to be headed to PCs. Star Command is about captaining a starship in the glorious (and titular) Star Command, a federation of humans and other humans to explore and… well, actually, I guess the game isn’t all that clear on the matter. We’re meant to read between the lines, and this organization is set up as an expy (a blatant, unapologetic copy) of Star Trek’s Federation, right down to the colored uniforms– red for combat experts, blue for scientists, yellow for engineers. You’re a new captain, it’s time to grab your crew and secure the galaxy for humanity.

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How you do that, however, is not entirely clear at first. The tutorial feels thoroughly half-baked, thorough in areas like room construction and unit management but completely useless on others. I spent five minutes in the first fight trying to get the laser cannon I had built to fire, and failing over and over. Eventually, I had to turn to the game’s forums, and found an FAQ that gave me an answer. The game also fails to explain how any of the rooms you build work, what the cooldown-based abilities your crew have are (and even that they have any), the idea of ammo tokens, and more. I have seen reviews that were inaccurate, simply because the reviewer didn’t understand something and the game never told them. It’s distressing that the game is so bad at teaching.

When you get past the confusion and the setup, the game is a lot like another recent Kickstarter release- FTL. Now, FTL and myself have a strange relationship. I spent a few days with it after hearing the buzz, and walked away wondering if I had somehow gotten a different game than the rest of the world. The internet seemed to adore this game, tons of positive buzz and ultimately Game of the Year nominations from people I greatly respect. But it seemed like a piece of trash to me. A solid idea, executed mindblowingly sloppily. There were maybe four random encounters that just played out over and over, the combat was mostly sleep-inducing except for when your ship was physically on fire, the customization and development options were lacking, and the diplomacy was essentially nonexistent.

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If FTL didn’t work at all to me, Star Command is an FTL that almost works. It explains itself badly, the combat can be quite tedious with long stretches of waiting, and there is not really any exploring to do. The difficulty, too, is completely out of whack– the only way to lose is for your captain to die. If your ship gets shot to shit, it will not explode, ever. This makes it very hard to lose (sometimes impossible– there are missions where your job is simply to “survive” for an amount of time, and since it’s impossible to die, there’s no point in you even being present as the game runs), but very easy to get stuck in a position where you are chipping away at an enemy at such a rate that in about three days they would be in a very dire situation.

All of these flaws are present, and they are a big deal. Yet somehow, I enjoyed Star Command, and I enjoyed it a lot. For one thing, it’s a work in progress– there’s a lot of content coming, for free, in addition to bug patches and tweaks. For another, it was three dollars, and I’m used to console prices, so I certainly feel like I got my money’s worth. But excuses aside, it’s just fun. The art is wonderful and vibrant, the writing is lighthearted and enjoyable (not brilliant, but cute), the game’s plot is straightforward and predictable, but a warm shoutout to the sci-fi days of yore.

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And when the gameplay works, it is genuinely fun. Frantically sending combat teams to hunt down alien kill squads roaming your ship while your engineers try to seal a hull breach that just spaced one of your finest is awesome. Hammering an enemy ship with both weapons banks at once and watching their shields drop like a phat beat is great. And upgrading your ship as you fight your way through the universe is satisfying, and a great goal to keep striving towards.

What it comes down to, perhaps, is that Star Command is an okay game, and not much more than that… but the sparks of greatness are here, and if they support it and nurture it properly post-launch, it will achieve greatness. As is, it’s a really fun pocket game, and a nice distraction for a few days, which is already more than I can say for FTL. I hope it becomes the really special game that is faintly visible beyond the veil of nonsense.

Three Stars out of Five

I rate games not by overall quality, but by how much I enjoyed them, and think you will enjoy them. Rating their relative perfection is not interesting to me.