Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spaceforce Captains Review

Spaceforce Captains, developed by Dreamatrix Game Studios and published by Dreamcatcher Interactive.
The Good: Easy to find and organize ships, three campaigns are fairly lengthy
The Not So Good: Horrible tutorial and manual, only eight maps (and four for multiplayer), uninteresting tactical battles, useless minimap, can’t tell if you’ve visited neutral structures, can’t change screen resolution, can’t issue move orders into unexplored terrain, plentiful resources means no management strategy, long load times
What say you? A very unpolished turn based strategy game: 4/8

Space-based strategy games are extremely popular. From Sins of a Solar Empire to Galactic Civilizations to Lost Empire to Sword of the Stars to Galactic Dream, we PC gamers sure like blowing stuff up in the final frontier (Alaska?). The developer behind SpaceForce: Rogue Universe has changed names and switched gears from adventure to strategy with Spaceforce Captains, a turn-based strategy game that focuses on captains (surprise!) commanding fleets of units. How will the game stack up against quality titles already in the genre?

The graphics of Spaceforce Captains are disappointing, to say the least. The game is played in 2-D but the universe is in 3-D, populated by a lot of asteroids to block your path. The developer was going for more restricted movement, but the amount of garbage that populates the maps, from huge asteroids to ancient relics, is laughable and confusing to new players. You can have choke points in space without silly-looking obstacles (see Sins of a Solar Empire). The maps don’t look like space, other than having space-based textures and models. The game maps would be more suited towards land-based exploration than free-form space. The graphics don’t look good either: Spaceforce Captains is filled with blocky textures and poorly detailed models. On top of that, you can’t change the screen resolution, so Spaceforce Captains looks really bad on anything larger than a 15” monitor. All of these poor graphics comes at a price, for some reason, as Spaceforce Captains features some of the longest load times I can remember: two full minutes for a small map? A seemingly more complicated map in Call of Duty 4 takes a fraction of the time to play. The sound design is not too good either: the background music is overdramatic and the effects are generic at best. At least the game features fully-voiced story text, though most of the time you’ll be hearing repetitive battle sounds. SpaceForce: Rogue Universe had awesome graphics, so it’s really surprising that Spaceforce Captains looks and sounds so awful.

Spaceforce Captains is a turn-based strategy game where you maneuver your forces around a map, conduct research, and take everyone over. The game comes with three campaigns (for each of the game’s races) that provide a decent amount of content. The level of difficulty is pretty high: just like in SpaceForce: Rogue Universe, the first mission features really tough enemies that are almost impossible to beat without a little luck. Why this developer seems so set on making their games tough on beginners is beyond me. After you are done with these, you are given a scant eight maps for single missions, and only four of those can be used for one-on-one multiplayer. You don’t get to pick sides for the scenarios, either, as they just load after you have chosen the map. The lack of random maps and an editor (though one is planned for a future patch) means Spaceforce Captains has much less content than most strategy games. The fact that all of the maps are in 2-D and could easily be created (either manually or automatically) makes having only eight total maps a travesty. The tutorial is utter rubbish, making Spaceforce Captains difficult to learn. The game provides tutorial objectives, but after the third message told me to pan the camera to a fogged area, I never received another instruction. Way to inform the masses! The bare-bones manual that really only covers the interface means I had no idea what the hell I was doing most of the time. When a lot of basic questions (like what cursors mean, how to make new ships, et cetera) are left unanswered, you have a big problem on your hands.

The best aspect of the interface is that every captain and space station is easily accessible from the main screen. Well, most of the time: clicking on the space station button sometimes doesn’t do anything, so that’s pretty awesome. Everything else is poorly designed, however. The minimap seems broken: all it has are faint blue squares against a starry background, with no indications of usable paths or other objects. I hope it’s a bug.
Every order is done with the left mouse button and captains are automatically selected, meaning you can actually select objects without issuing a move order to your captain as you can’t de-select anything. Move orders can’t be made into unexplored territory, so there’s more unnecessary micromanagement. There is a lot of stuff to find, mainly resources and buildings that provide experience or other stat increases, but the game doesn’t indicate which neutral buildings you’ve explored. There’s nothing like pointless clicking to make a game fun.

Like Advanced Tactics and Forge of Freedom, Spaceforce Captains features “containers” that automatically create groups of units. In this case, the container is the captain. Each captain is rated in terms of attack, defense, power, and technology skills. They are also given a specialty that is not given a tool-tip so you don’t know what it is. Experience gained by blowing stuff up can be used to gain new skills, which is cool. The grouping in the game makes it very easy to handle units, as they must be assigned to a captain. Actually assigning units to a captain should be easier (there is no drag-and-drop method) but the result is that a large force can be handled with relative ease. Everything is done at space stations under your control. You use your resources to construct new factories and defenses, research buildings, trade structures, and recruit new captains. You have to build specific factories to unlock more powerful ships to assign to your captains. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out how to get new ships: they become available at seemingly random intervals and, of course, the tutorial and manual don’t explain it. They have to become “available” before you can purchase them and I don’t know how to make them “available.” Talk about confusing. Research is equally weird: you unlock an entire tier of technologies all at once with a one-time fee. You have eight or so new things you have to learn about all at once, and there is absolutely no strategy involving which techs to research since you have to do all of them. There is also a trader available to acquire additional resources, although the sheer amount of money and resources available in the game is so large that management is almost non-existent. Spaceforce Captains removes all of the strategy from research, construction, and production.

You will need to engage enemy units in order to win the combat-heavy scenarios of Spaceforce Captains. You can get some intel about enemy forces by right-clicking on them, but the estimates are way off (it might say 10 ships but actually be 30). You can have enemies join your forces or at least be friendly, but this is very rare and depends on your captain’s diplomatic skills. The combat takes place on a 2-D grid map with no obstacles, which removes a lot of strategy (if the space maps can have asteroids in the way, why not battles?). You only have to worry about the range of weapons (short, medium, and long) and use technologies you have researched (of course, the tutorial and manual fair to explain how or when to use them). The turn order is apparently random, as sometimes you’ll go twice in a row and sometimes the enemy will. You will need to wait for the repetitive battle lasers and sounds to finish before you can issue orders. All you need to do is fire on enemy units; your cursor will change colors (red, blue, green) that indicates….well….I have no idea what they mean. If you lose one battle with your captain, you lose. If you retreat, you lose all of your ships. If you surrender, you pay a hefty price for keeping your fleet intact. This wouldn’t be so bad if they initial enemy estimates weren’t so wrong. I lost my second battle in the first campaign and consequently the game was over. Thanks for five minutes of gameplay, Spaceforce Captains.

I realize that not understanding a lot of Spaceforce Captains may be partially my fault, but when the manual stinks and the tutorial is broken, what do you expect? Sorry, I’m used to tutorials that actually explain game concepts. And I’m accustomed to strategy games in general, so I can’t imagine the troubles new players would encounter. The basic game concept is OK, it’s just the execution is really, really poor. Only eight maps. A useless minimap. A fixed screen resolution with surprisingly poor graphics and long load times. And a bunch of things that are left unexplained, like actually building new ships or what combat cursors mean or how to use technologies during combat. Spaceforce Captains plays like a game in early beta, not a finished retail product. The fact that this game got a retail release in Europe and Sins of a Solar Empire did not is a crime against humanity. The few unique concepts in Spaceforce Captains are heavily offset by a host of problems that makes playing the game frustrating at best: there are far better strategy games out there.