Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shattered Suns Review

Shattered Suns, developed and published by Clear Crown Studios.
The Good: Meaningful custom ship designs, orbiting objects add unique strategic layer, non-linear campaign with variable objectives, skirmish games with randomly generated maps, automated sophisticated trading and supply model
The Not So Good: Lacks multiplayer, initially unwieldy interface, uneven presentation with no voice acting, can’t rename ship designs
What say you? It’s a bit rough around the edges, but this space RTS comes with several innovative features: 6/8

There has been a number of excellent strategy games released this year set in space. I think it gives developers more flexibility in creating a familiar yet innovative environment in which to place their game world. Plus, everyone is tired of elves, orcs, and World War II by now (at least I am). With the ever-increasing number of strategy titles coming to the PC (especially ones in space), newcomers must bring something new to the table, or relegate themselves to an anonymous fate. Shattered Suns offers two such unique components: custom ships and dynamic maps with orbiting planets. These are two good ideas, but the impact on gameplay and feasibility in a real-time environment are two concerns that surround their effectiveness. How concerned should we be? Personally, I’m more concerned about the possibility of suns shattering: that’s never a good thing.

For an independently developed game, Shattered Suns has some OK graphics. While the level of quality is not quite on par with some other space RTS games, there are some high points: the ships and planet surfaces have some high-resolution textures that look great up close. The weapon effects look almost out of place in their simplicity, and the charged clouds of autoemitter weapons don’t amaze with quality. The backgrounds are pretty generic for a space game, with an obviously 2-D texture that could look more realistic. Panning the camera quickly results in throwing the icons to the side of their ship: an odd effect. Shattered Suns doesn’t have any voice acting and feature average and generally repetitive music to fill out the presentation. There are a couple of bright spots with the graphics, but, for the most part, Shattered Suns is just your average strategy game in terms of graphics and sound design.

After taking a while to load (but at least you don’t need the disk in the drive), Shattered Suns gives you several options for gameplay. The tutorial is integrated into the campaign and covers most, but not all, of the game’s mechanics. There is a number of minor things that are briefly touched on (if at all) in the tutorial and not mentioned at all in the inadequate manual. Overall, Shattered Suns has clear signs it is an independent product: it comes with two great features but fails to successfully completely the package. The campaign is quite lengthy: 34 missions that are not activated in a set order. It utilizes an instant messenger interface (to compensate for the lack of voice acting) that presents new text one sentence at a time: very slow going. Thankfully, I discovered (not in the tutorial or manual) that space bar will skip ahead, taking the 15-minute-long presidential speech (and all of the corny jokes) early in the campaign down to a much less boring time interval. Most of the missions are combat-related, but there are others that rely on resource collection, repairs, ship design, and diplomacy. This is more variety than you would typically see in a real time strategy game, and some of the missions are optional and others you can’t lose (lucky I deployed those repair drones!). There is no autosave (boo!) and quitting mid-mission fails your scenario, as there is no way to go from a mission straight to the main menu. The campaign offers up enough variety to keep things interesting, although a lot of the missions take about twice as long to complete as I would like.

After you are done taking it to the enemy in the campaign, you can undergo skirmish games against the AI. Shattered Suns randomly generates a new map each time you play, depending on the size you set. You can also customize your experience by defining the victory and defeat conditions (which can be different) of a time limit or complete annihilation, starting resource levels, and resource abundance. There are no teams in skirmish play, but diplomatic options are available. There are plans to have more scripted missions apart from the main campaign in a future patch. Notably, Shattered Suns lacks multiplayer, so now it’s time for the great multiplayer debate. I like multiplayer in any game I play, but most “small” games just don’t have the audience to justify spending development time on adding online multiplayer. Do I want it? Yes. Is it worth doing? Maybe not. But I’ll still mention the lack thereof.

The user interface takes some getting used to. It’s not quite on par with other RTS games, but it gets the job done for the most part. You are given hard numbers on most of you ships’ parameters (shields, armor, weapons), but hull strength is mysteriously left out, except for a green bar above your ship. Things that are active (like mining or trading) pulsate instead of being constantly highlighted with a special color. While Shattered Suns clearly warns you if further research required, you are given absolutely no indication on the progress of research: the icon just pulsates. Do I have ten seconds or ten minutes left? It can also be difficult to find things, as clicking on the bare mini-map puts the camera there and not the center of the screen there, as is the case with every other strategy game. I miss the empire tree from Sins, as on large maps you’ll have to click back and forth a lot to see what’s going on. Shattered Suns also doesn’t display the types of docked ships and getting around the 3-D interface takes some practice.

One of the two big features of Shattered Suns is custom ship designs. Even a step above of Galactic Civilizations, Shattered Suns lets you customize many components on a scale of one to ten: engines, cargo holds, miners, builders, scanners, shields, armor, advanced defenses, and four types of weapons. You can even customize the weapons: power, blast radius, reload rate, and flight speed can all be altered. Obviously, Shattered Suns gives you tons of flexibility, but ship design, like most everything else in the game, isn’t without problems. First, you cannot rename your ship designs. I hope you’ll remember that “Class 1” is a miner and “Class 2” is a trader, because I know I forget. Coupled in to the ship design is the concept of efficiency: each additional component reduces the effectiveness of all components; this prevents you from making “super ships” and puts the focus on craft with narrowly defined roles, like resource collection or military combat. A level 10 engine running at 80% efficiency is the same as a level 8 engine running at full power, so if you are going to spend all of that time and money on upgrades, you better make sure they are worth it. Custom designs carry over from scenario to scenario: a good thing so you don't have to redesign the same ship every time. If you don’t have the requirements researched yet (the game highlights them in red), just build it anyway and the best components you know of will automatically be introduced. The ship design aspect of Shattered Suns is well balanced and a neat feature that can easily be done in a real-time environment.

The other big feature of Shattered Suns is that everything moves: planets, moons, and space stations. While they obviously progress much faster than they would in real life, this adds a unique layer of strategy to the game (it says so in “The Good,” so it must be true). The sense of scale is way off (planets and moons are quite small compared to ships), but having to tailor your attack to the planetary progression is a neat dynamic I’ve never seen before. It frankly surprises me it’s taken this long for a game to do this (if I remember correctly, Hegemonia was the only other game to come close, and it wasn't that dramatic of a feature). Your empire centers around space stations, rather than colonizing planets and moons (they are simply resource supplies). Each station has an independent level of resources and technology (another unique feature), so resources must be shipped to friendly stations in order to produce ships and conduct research there. Thankfully, this can automatically be done by building a ship with a lot of cargo space and telling it to “auto trade.” The independent nature of the stations means, like the ships, you will have stations fill specific roles: resource collection, ship building, et cetera.

Some of the missions involve diplomacy, and Shattered Suns comes with some basic trading and peace agreements. When all else fails, combat is the order of the day: it is automatic and lacks tactical planning, as it is simply the end result of your designs. Just pick a target and go. Shattered Suns has an almost fast pace: shields and armor go down quickly, but it can take quite a while to completely destroy a hull (especially since there is no numerical indication of how many hit points are left). This is fine (although annoying when you’ve clearly won and it’s just a matter of waiting for the hit points to count down), especially when you consider the low population cap: you’ll only ever have a handful of ships (20 at the most) to deal with at a time. This includes resource collectors, so battles will not involve a large quantity of vessels. It should be noted that destroying the hull will also decrease the efficiency of ship components (engines, weapons, shields), so that’s realistic and also pretty cool. The AI is just OK: while they serve up a decent opponent, there are definitely problems: ships routinely run into planets and moons, and while the AI will build stations at every available moon and planet, they are slow at getting resource collecting (and subsequently military production) up and running. Since all you have to play against is the AI, Shattered Suns will keep you entertained for a while, but the computer opponents aren’t too difficult to defeat.

Shattered Suns takes two good ideas and runs with them, almost to the point of being a hallmark strategy title. The game is plagued with a lack of polish that is common among games developed by small developers. I can usually look past these things, but only to a point. Fortunately, all of my issues with Shattered Suns are not design related; rather, they are associated with this being a game from a small developer and can be fixed (and most plan to be) with time. Sometimes all of these minor issues are enough to add up to a major headache, but the new features Shattered Suns brings to the RTS table are quite notable and overshadow most of the shortcomings, in my opinion (which, clearly, is all that matters). I sure do like the unique core mechanics of Shattered Suns, though, and innovation always scores high in my book. The ever-changing battlefield is really neat, as the planets and moons circulate through space (albeit a lot faster than in reality). Giving the user the ability to design their own ships and stations is nice, and it has definite impact on the gameplay. The lack of multiplayer is troubling, but the AI skirmishes and non-linear campaigns should keep you busy for a while. With the developer’s continued support of this game after release, I am fairly confident that the full potential of the game will be realized and all of the small issues I have identified while playing the game will be minimized or removed. Sometimes having two great new things is enough to stand out, and that’s the case with Shattered Suns, although there are definitely some areas that could be enhanced.