Monday, September 05, 2011

Stellar Impact Review

Stellar Impact, developed and published by Tindalos Interactive.
The Good: Several ship classes with a variety of skills and persistent upgrades, requires tactical positioning to orient weapons towards the enemy
The Not So Good: Lacks AI opponents, obtuse controls
What say you? DotA enters space with a solid foundation and room to grow: 5/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Defense of the Ancients, the exceedingly popular Warcraft 3 map, basically created a genre: action multiplayer strategy games where you control a single character and defeat towers and waves of enemies while upgrading your skills. This basic design has been adapted in a number of games, such as Demigod, League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, Dota 2 by Valve, and Blizzard’s own sequel. More clones can be expected on the horizon, and Stellar Impact is one of them. Set in space instead of the typical fantasy setting, Stellar Impact features large ships invading the enemy base with automated allies instead of powerful wizards and mages. Does this somewhat unique take on the genre result in a compelling game?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Stellar Impact features acceptable graphics for an indie space strategy game. The ships are nicely detailed, although most of the time you’ll be zoomed out enough where you won’t notice. The game takes place on a 2-D plane with various objects scattered around the maps that have some pleasing animations. Missiles fly around the map and cause progressive damage on ships and turrets, with subtle but effective explosions. The backgrounds are colorful and provide good contrast to the action. The sound design is very subtle, with minor explosions accompanying the in-game action. In addition, the background music played during the menus doesn’t extend to the actual gameplay (or it’s so quiet that I can’t even hear it). Still, Stellar Impact provides good enough value for the game’s budget-level price in terms of graphics.

ET AL.
Stellar Impact pits two teams, the Allies and the Axis (how unoriginal), against each other in a game to defeat the other’s base. First, the intermediary turret emplacements must be taken care of, and the human-controlled ships are helped by automated computer escort ships. The game supports between four and twelve players; the conquest mode has nine maps that offer simple but decent variety in objectives and obstacles like gas clouds, asteroids, and plasma storms. There is also a battlefield king-of-the-hill mode, but it’s only available in practice mode and experience cannot be earned. The game is entirely 2-D, which is fine with me: the 3-D of space usually just results in more confusion rather than significantly more complex strategies anyway. Stellar Impact is online-only, which means you have to find human opponents online through the easy-to-use browser. This was a tall task, at least during the times that I tried (afternoon in the eastern U.S. seems best). Sadly, Stellar Impact provides no alternative, as the game does not include AI bots to play with or against. Even a poor computer opponent would have offered at least something to do when nobody else is online. As it stands, you simply have to stare at a game lobby and wait for other people who might not even show up.

There are five ships to choose from in Stellar Impact: the frigate, corvette, destroyer, cruiser, and dreadnought. Each ship has slightly different attributes (speed, hit points, weapons) and can equip four skills at once: there are twenty to choose from (all initially unlocked, thankfully), covering maneuvering, recon, attack, defense, and command. The big difference between each ship type is that there is a limit on how many skills of each type a ship can have, sort of like a hard-coded way of representing their classic strategic role. Now, you can still place any skill on any ship, but you can’t load up on skills that are inappropriate for your class. Still, the system gives you great freedom in customizing the ship to your play style. In addition to the skills, you win items at the end of each game (even if you lose) that can slightly improve your hull, ammunition, and weapons. Ships are limited to using seven of these at a time, so veteran players are restricted in using all of the loot they have earned after battle. In addition, medals can be redeemed to activate passive skills. I’ve found that these bonuses aren’t too significant (just small compliments to existing abilities) and don’t drastically skew the balance of the game.

The controls for Stellar Impact are…odd, and definitely take some practice to master. In some weird mix of strategy and shooter gaming, right-click sets a destination, but you need to move using the W and S keys, changing your speed from “full stop” to “full steam ahead”. Left-clicking chooses a target, and spacebar fires your weapons. It really takes some practice to get a handle on using the mouse and keyboard to move effectively in the game, adjusting your course while choosing targets and avoiding obstacles, all in real-time. Weapons must turn towards the enemy before they fire, and like any historic naval combat game, most of your guns are pointed out of the side of your ship, so you must navigate accordingly. The game projects helpful green and red lines towards your target to indicate when weapons are ready to fire, which takes some of the guesswork out of the equation. It definitely takes some practice to master the controls of Stellar Impact, and the lack of an AI opponent doesn’t help matters.

As with any good space-faring vessel, the ships of Stellar Impact feature shields and a hull, the latter of which takes damage in stages, and each additional stage disables another system on your ship: pretty cool. In order to tip the balance of the game, each map contains several objectives that can be captured: planets award more command points, singularities more research points, crystal fields double the number of automated escort ships, and vortexes can act as instant teleports. You can build a temporary force field around each objective to lock it down for a period of time. Command points are used to improve your ship or those of your automated escorts, improving the armor, shields, radar, damage, or firing rate. Research points are used to upgrade your skills; those who have more experience in the game receive more research points and can unlock more higher-level skills, the only significant bonus veterans receive in the game.

The overall gameplay is similar to other DotA games (obviously), but the naval-style combat adds an additional layer of complexity and tactics. Stellar Impact is still about working together with your teammates, using complimentary skills, and taking out turret after annoying turret. You usually don’t have enough health to take down a turret by yourself in one go, so teamwork is a must. This slows down the game a bit, but the time penalty for death is large enough where the other team can chip away at the defenses (or capture an additional objective) and turn the tide of battle. I do like that the combat in Stellar Impact is a bit more complex than a typical DotA game, since you have to be mindful of positioning your craft effectively. There are lots of turrets that must be dealt with on the way to the enemy base; since the winning side can usually be determined after about fifteen or twenty minutes of play, extending the game through the tedious destruction of turrets seems extraneous (although there is a “surrender” button available). Stellar Impact can be an interesting tactical exercise, but it needs more well-rounded features, namely AI opponents or a larger online player base, to stake a claim in the ever-expanding DotA marketplace.

IN CLOSING
Stellar Impact takes the now-familiar DotA game mechanic and adapts it to a different setting with decent results. Success requires more slightly talent than some other DotA games, since you must position yourself so the brunt of your weapons is facing the enemy. The control scheme makes this a little more difficult than it should be, with its mix of standard strategy and shooter mechanics, but you’ll become accustomed to it after a couple of matches. Skills are useful and nicely varied, and recharge times are long enough where battles don’t become unorganized chaos with tons of skills being used constantly. The skills also allow for a variety of strategies, from offensive juggernauts to support classes. Items earned after each match can be used to further customize your ships; although veteran players will obviously have access to more passive bonuses, the advantages are not too extreme. Stellar Impact features traditional DotA-style maps littered with objectives that grant small bonuses meant to break the mid-game stalemates. Unfortunately, the biggest slight against Stellar Impact is the lack of AI opponents to practice against: the relatively low online population of the game means it’s sometimes difficult to find a match, and playing against the computer would have provided at least some consolation. Still, Stellar Impact can be entertaining when you can find opponents of equal skill, providing an alternative in the DotA genre.