Monday, January 01, 2007

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm Review

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm, developed by Destroyer Studios and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Ability to control small fighters and huge carriers in a mix of action and strategy (if you have high rank), slightly dynamic campaign with simultaneous missions, mission failure does not result in campaign failure, time acceleration for those monotonous moments, mission editor and mod capabilities, apt background music
The Not So Good: Tutorial lacks text instructions, inability to switch ships during a mission, no skirmish mode or quick mission builder, campaign mission selection becomes repetitive until you get promoted, a lot of small bugs for what is essentially an update
What say you? A slightly improved version of the flexible space action simulation: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Space games have proven to be very popular. Between Star Trek: Legacy, Space Empires V, Arvoch Conflict, Sword of the Stars, and DarkStar One, there have been a lot of games released recently in a space setting, either as a first-person simulation or strategy game. Starshatter was released in 2004 to add another game to the progressively bloated genre. In their effort to re-release every game known to man, Matrix Games and developer Destroyer Studios have added upgraded graphics, sound, and enhanced the AI to create Starshatter: The Gathering Storm. The combat-heavy franchise is back to appeal to those gamers who prefer action over trading. How will Starshatter: The Gathering Storm stack up against the stiff competition?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Starshatter: The Gathering Storm features good graphics without being a system hog or being unrealistically flashy. The game looks about the same as DarkStar One, but performs a lot better. The ships are very detailed: complete with lights, good textures, and nice effects when turning. The backgrounds are a realistic assortment of stars and planets, not the exaggerated nebulas seen in Star Trek: Legacy. The weapons have nice detail, and the explosions are powerful without being overly dramatic (watching the broken remnants of a capital ship is very satisfying). Starshatter: The Gathering Storm can definitely hold its own against the “bigger” contemporary space games. The sound, although apparently improved, still lags behind other titles. Although all of the commands between friendly pilots are voiced, they are clearly segmented: hearing a pilot calmly state his callsign followed by a frantic cry for help is a little unsettling. The weapon effects are pretty standard fare, but the background music is pleasing and very appropriate for the genre. Starshatter: The Gathering Storm looks and sounds just fine for a space game, even when compared against more heavily funded titles.

ET AL.
Starshatter: The Gathering Storm is purely a combat-oriented space simulation, where you get to pilot (and later command) ships ranging from fighters to carriers. To start you off, the game features a set of tutorials that will tell you how to perform most of the game’s actions. Starshatter: The Gathering Storm is pretty intuitive, rejecting the complexity of other space simulations in favor of straightforward combat. The tutorial is pretty standard fare, but all of the commands are voiced and can overlap, so if you miss something, you are screwed and must start over from the beginning. The game features a number of dynamic campaigns that unlock as you advance in rank. They are dynamic, as the mission selection changes on the fly. Your actions in each of the missions are persistent in the game world (a destroyed factory does not appear in the next mission): this is a nice touch. The missions for any particular level of rank are repetitive, as you’ll get the same assortment of patrol, sweep, or attack choices. Of course, since this is an all-action game, you’ll always be blowing something up, but some surprises would be nice. There is a satisfying “living world” component to the game, as other missions will be going on at the same time as yours, and you can call in backup if a situation gets too hairy. The campaigns are not without their problems: some of the mission targets are misnamed, not present, or the missions themselves lack viable waypoints. In addition, waypoints are sometimes placed within mountains during planet-based missions, causing the automatic navigation to end your mission rather quickly. Bugs like these are really inexcusable in new release, let alone in an update. On the good side, you can accelerate time between waypoints when they do work (which is most of the time), which makes the missions fly by. Other than the campaigns, you can play single missions against the AI or over the Internet, and create you own. The mission editor tools are good, and it’s pretty easy to create custom missions. However, I would like to see a quick mission builder or skirmish mode where you can select the ships and the game can automatically do everything else for you.

You can play Starshatter: The Gathering Storm with simplistic or realistic Newtonian physics, depending on your preference. The only real different is the ability (or inability) to quickly change direction in space. The game features a good user interface that is easy to use and provides helpful information. An unambiguous “SHOOT” command indicates when enemy craft are in range, and incoming missiles are denoted through both audio and video prompts. Damage is also clearly indicated on-screen. Unlike the disappointing Star Trek: Legacy, Starshatter: The Gathering Storm puts everything at your fingertips. You can control the game through the keyboard, mouse, or joystick, but there are some annoyances present. If multiple input devices are present, the game gets confused as to which you are using, and resets all of the values if you switch mid-game. For example, I like mouse control, but if you switch between the mouse and the keyboard during a game, you’ll run into problems. You need to mouse wheel to zoom in and out on the strategic map, but if you move it and then switch back to mouse control, the throttle will reset.

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm really hits its stride when you advance in rank and you’re able to control the game’s larger vessels. Unlike most space simulations that tie you to a certain kind of ship for the entire game (usually a fighter or trader), Starshatter: The Gathering Storm gives you the ability to command carriers and battleships and issue orders to subordinate craft like fighter squadrons. It is in this sense that Starshatter: The Gathering Storm plays like a real time strategy game, a rare but welcome combination. I would, however, like to have the ability to switch from commanding a carrier to becoming pilot of a fighter during the same mission. This might not be realistic, but it would be fun. The battles themselves are pretty quick, even when they involve large battleships (unlike the drawn-out snore fests of Star Trek: Legacy). This keeps the pace of the game moving. Explosions are quite dangerous: being near a large blast can disable a number of systems on your ship. In most games, explosions are just made to look good, but they actually have somewhat of a strategic element in Starshatter: The Gathering Storm. The storm may be gathering, but don’t stand too close when it blows up!

IN CLOSING
Although we’ve seen all of this before two years ago when Starshatter was released, Starshatter: The Gathering Storm is still a fine space simulation with enough distinctive components to make it memorable. Starshatter: The Gathering Storm takes the standard first person combat of other space simulations, streamlines the gameplay, and adds in the ability to command larger vessels and entire battle groups. The dynamic campaigns are nice, if repetitive. The mission editor and modding tools let creative people try their hand at morphing the game to their liking. The combat is simple yet enjoyable, and there is just enough variety present in the game to keep you interested for the long haul. Sure, Starshatter: The Gathering Storm doesn’t have a fancy license or tons of hype, but it does have solid gameplay that will appeal to fans of the genre.