Monday, December 27, 2010

Starpoint Gemini Review

Starpoint Gemini, developed and published by LGM Games.
The Good: Pleasing multifaceted tactical combat, plentiful abilities and perks earned through experience support multiple career paths, hire crew members for additional specialized skills, numerous ship types and upgrades, variety of activities and missions, capable AI opponents, nice visuals
The Not So Good: Mandatory laborious tutorial, no multiplayer, limited camera controls, insufficient trade goods information
What say you? A tactical role-playing adventure with abundant variety: 7/8

Space: the final frontier, mainly because after we destroy the Earth with pollution and rising seas, there will be nowhere else to go. So it’s a good thing there are so many space simulations to provide practice before we venture starward! One of these is Starpoint Gemini, a tactical game with role-playing elements featuring battles and exploration amongst the stars, possibly involving sending probes towards Uranus. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Did I mention Uranus?

Starpoint Gemini features what I think are excellent graphics for an independent game. Most space games start with the ships, and Starpoint Gemini features a finely detailed array of space-worthy vessels, complete with animated lights and engine trails for a convincing appearance. Weapons are also depicted well, with bright neon colors, though explosions are underwhelming. Planets rotate beside you, asteroids fly by during travel and fields are impressive in their scope, and the background is full of bright stars and varied nebulae that, while unrealistic, look great. The game retains high-resolution textures as you zoom closer to each object as well. The cheap showiness of nature is in full force. The sound design is also good: the game features plenty of voiced dialogue that, while noticeably accented, is still impressive in its breadth for a small title. Starpoint Gemini also features appropriate effects for combat and decent background music that fits the theme of the game well. Overall, the presentation of Starpoint Gemini was far beyond what I was expecting for a conservatively priced title.

Starpoint Gemini is a space adventure game where you go in space looking for adventure. The main campaign consists of thirty scripted missions that include frequent pauses so you can undertake side missions of your choosing. The entire game takes place in simple 2-D sectors, usually populated with a couple of space stations and asteroid belts each. Since the layouts are so straightforward, it is surprising they aren’t randomly or dynamically or procedurally generated. Starpoint Gemini mandates that you complete the tutorial before trying out the campaign; while the tutorial does a comprehensive job teaching the game’s mechanics, you can’t skip dialogue (like you can in the campaign mode) and you must wait until the voiced instructions are finished before you can click the mouse. A boring, tedious tutorial isn’t the best way to introduce new users to the game (also, friendly hint: do not save your game while undocking, or you might have to do the whole tutorial over again…speaking from experience). The game doesn’t ease you in much: enemy patrols consisting of multiple ships are common, and you’ll quickly learn to avoid them until you significantly upgrade your ship. This is a problem in the more combat-oriented missions (which is about half of them), where you are no threat for any opponent at the beginning of the campaign; you'll quickly run out of non-combat missions to gain the experience required to progress further into the campaign. Save frequently, kids (the loading screens even tell you to)! Space in Starpoint Gemini is populated with a good number of ships that do their own thing; while it isn’t as dense or varied as, say, Independence War 2, it’s still good enough. Starpoint Gemini also includes a sandbox mode, which offers the same thing as the campaign without the main missions you can ignore anyway; it would have been nice to give sandbox users more starting cash (to afford big ships) instead of having to start at the bottom rung. Starpoint Gemini also lacks multiplayer; I’d love to see deathmatch or capture-the-anomaly matches where each player can choose any ship and five special maneuvers and enjoy the tactical combat with other humans. Oh well.

Starpoint Gemini borrows (steals) a lot of ideas from role-playing games, and the first of those is character creation. You get to design your captain, starting with visual appearance and ending with skills (called “maneuvers”) and perks. There are thirty-eight maneuvers you can choose from, five of which can be accessed through the interface at a time. These vary from calling in support, more powerful weapons, speeding up repair, abrupt turns, an increase in critical hit chance, more precise shots, and more (obviously, since I did not list thirty-eight things). The variety here makes for some really interesting decisions, and allows you to customize your in-game strategy in multiple directions. I wish the skills were better organized (by career or type, for example) instead of appearing in a giant, unwieldy list, but the healthy diversity cannot be ignored. More skills are unlocked with experience earned by completing quests, destroying ships, conducting research, repairing craft, and salvaging equipment. You can also choose from one of eighteen perks that offer slight bonuses in navigation, weapons, evasion, trooper strength (for boarding enemy vessels), or trade. Finally, you maintain relationships with the different factions present in the fractured universe of Starpoint Gemini, opening up new quests and additional targets.

Starpoint Gemini is played from a third-person perspective, putting you in the role of a captain instead of a pilot like in the Evochron series. You left-click to turn (and use the interface) and right-click to select, although keyboard controls are also available. The interface is laid out like a role-playing game, with pertinent skills located in a bar along the bottom of the screen along with your current speed setting. Shields divided into four quadrants, and the strength of each is clearly indicated around your ship. The interface is not without some limitations, however: you can’t target an object if it’s too far away, even if you can see it. Also, Starpoint Gemini lacks “match speed” and “follow/escort” buttons for easier coordinated movement, and you can’t rotate your camera view (it simply locks on the currently selected ship), although the developer plans to fix this in a future patch.

In all, Starpoint Gemini features fifty different ships you can purchase and outfit with a large variety of weapons and items. Each ship comes with a set number of mounting points where you can place a power core, sensors, thrusters, engines, armor, transporters, grappling beams, weapon support systems, and various weapons like beams, railguns, plasma, shockwaves, missiles, and torpedoes. All systems use energy provided by your power core, so there is some balance required in ship design; the remainder is used to enable maneuvers (skills). The systems allow you to undertake a number of activities: scanning cargo, conversing with other ships, grappling hostile craft, mining minerals from asteroids, repairing your vessel, and investigating anomalies. You can even beam down teams (some of which are wearing red shirts, no doubt) for repair, exploration, or offensive missions. The variety here is typical for space adventure games.

You will also dock with space stations scattered around each sector. Here, you can repair your ship (for a reasonable price), hire new officers that grant additional special maneuver skills and passive abilities, purchase new items, and undertake missions. Trading is underdeveloped: while there are fifty items to purchase, the game makes no indication of what are “good” and “bad” prices (and also lacks a “sell all” button), so unless you really want to write down fifty prices at each station, trade isn’t a very viable option for earning money. Really, “trade” in Starpoint Gemini consists of selling items you took from other ships and then using the money to buy new components for your ship. Missions are decently varied: most involve scanning an object or destroying a specific enemy. Objective locations are clearly indicated on your map, and money is automatically transferred once the mission is complete (there is no need to waste time going back to the point of origin). There does need to be more missions (every station in each sector offers the same ones) and randomization would be nice (another plan for a future patch), but missions do give another thing to occupy your time in Starpoint Gemini.

Another high point of Starpoint Gemini is the tactical combat. Before you can make space dust out of the enemy, you have to enter combat mode, a completely unnecessary requirement that harkens back to Star Trek (the only thing missing is the sound effect). The combat revolves around weapon arcs: you must orient your ship towards the targeted enemy vessel. Another consideration is shields, which are divided into four quadrants (front, back, two sides): once the shields are removed on a specific portion of the ship, any additional hits cause damage to the hull. So Starpoint Gemini becomes a matter of positioning, much like combat naval simulations. The interface should do a better job indicating which weapons are ready and available to fire: there is a subtle increase in brightness, but that’s not enough in the heat of battle. You can target specific systems of the enemy ship (weapons, engines, shields), taking out their strength first and leaving them vulnerable. To accentuate the combat, each ship comes with one of twenty-one special abilities, including jamming, disable engines, reduce speed, instant movement, and an array of special powerful weapons. You can also board vessels if you have invested in perks and abilities geared towards that specific strategy. The AI is pretty good at combat, attacking vulnerable sides, maneuvering out of position, and using special skills; disabling their engines makes them less crafty. The tactical combat of Starpoint Gemini rounds out a compelling package that, despite some limitations, offers great features for a space adventure title.

Starpoint Gemini features a nice combination of tactical combat and extensive role-playing features that support a wide variety of overall strategy. You can truly undertake any of the game’s possible career paths, like trade, repair, piracy, research, salvaging, mining, or a mixture. While most games of the space adventure ilk offer the same possibilities, Starpoint Gemini takes things a step further by offering thirty-eight skills and eighteen perks earned through experience (and officers you can hire for additional skills), along with twenty-one special abilities spread across fifty ships. This amount of variety is fantastic, allowing you to forge any path of your liking. Missions are also varied, providing your primary source of income in the game since the trade interface leaves room for improvement. Tactical combat is quite enjoyable: the combination of weapon arcs, shield orientations, maneuvers, and special abilities makes for fun, challenging battles against the adept AI. The mouse-driven interface makes you feel more like a captain and less like a pilot, though it could benefit from additional features like camera rotation and clearer indications of available weapons. The story-driven campaign features thirty scripted missions plus free-form interludes, rendering the sandbox mode a limited offering. The tutorial is a pain and Starpoint Gemini lacks multiplayer, but there is good value for $30 thanks to important features and nice graphics. Starpoint Gemini is what Star Trek Legacy (and Starfleet Command, for that matter) should have been, and the robust career options and a plethora of role-playing customization features in addition to solid tactical combat only sweeten the deal.