Thursday, February 09, 2012

Star Prospector Review

Star Prospector, developed and published by Cryptstone Games.
The Good: An extensive universe with randomly generated planets, lots of items and upgrades to purchase between missions or find scattered on alien worlds
The Not So Good: Same starting build order every game, arduous pace, no real differences between mission types, high difficulty and less strategy in early scenarios, no multiplayer
What say you? This exploration-based real time strategy game has role-playing elements and randomly generated content but suffers from very repetitive, very slow gameplay: 5/8

Eventually (assuming we don’t go extinct, which we will at some point), humans will have to venture out among the stars in search for precious resources. Much like the Europeans who scoured the New World in search for gold and muscle cars, adventurous souls will search the stars for the next great planet to colonize and rape of natural resources, all in the name of mankind. Star Prospector takes this premise of exploration, adds in a cup of real-time strategy, a teaspoon of base building, and a dash of role-playing. Does Star Prospector come up with a tasty recipe for strategy gaming among the stars?

Unfortunately for Star Prospector, the first thing we always talk about is the graphics. This is clearly an indie effort, with bare graphics across the board. While the unit models are decently detailed (if you look at them from far away enough), the planets are very bland, with almost entirely flat terrain (with the occasional river) and rare foliage. Combat isn't very inspiring, either, with simple lasers and gunfire exchanged between foes. Units are destroyed in either a fireball or blood spatter: a fitting, simple end given the remainder of the game's graphics. Well, at least the game is in 3-D. As for the sound design, it also follows the simple recipe: really basic sound effects (though I found the “hooray!” when units gain experience to be mildly entertaining), no voice acting or unit acknowledgments, and decent music.

Star Prospector is a single-player-only game where you take your mining rig to far away planets in search of money. Your rig is similar to the commander unit from the Supreme Commander games, able to mine resources, build structures, and fight the enemy. The universe consists of randomly generated missions on planets and moons orbiting stars, offering up different mission types...sort of. While you might be instructed to eliminate an enemy unit, destroy a weapons cache, prospect for resources, restore fuel levels, collect items, or clear an area, all of these missions play out the same: you start with no base, construct your units, go to the objective locations, and shoot stuff. The missions take about fifteen minutes to complete, and the objective locations are thankfully clearly indicated on the minimap. The first couple of missions are quite difficult, as you don’t have any advanced units, structures, or abilities unlocked. As you progress in the game, your strategies during each mission can become more varied as you’ll have access to more items, and subsequently Star Prospector becomes far more interesting.

After a successful mission, money is earned that can be spent on a wide range of upgrades and items. These include items for your rig, such as potions (called “canisters” here) to heal, additional weapons (lasers, miniguns, missiles, flamethrowers), speed boost, armor, and shields. You can also purchase better buildings (radar towers, healing structures, turrets) and new units (melee, machine gun, laser, flamethrower, lightning, and air). Some of these items are unlocked only when you gain higher experience levels, even if you have the cash to purchase them. Missions don’t really reward too much money, either, so you can usually only afford one or maybe two new items after each mission. Fortunately, each planet map usually has a couple of items you can discover while scouting, getting advanced components for free. Your rig also gains experience points that can be used for skill upgrades (speed, armor, repair, vision, salvage, range); single units gain experience during a mission that provide small bonuses to attack ratings. Overall, I found there to be plenty of items available in the game, and allowing the user to choose which ones to unlock lets players decide how their overall strategy will progress.

Star Prospector is, at its core, a classic base-building real-time strategy game. The first resource to collect is ore, gathered from distinctive rocks conveniently located right next to your initial spawn point (although it might have game balance problems with enemies roaming the map, it might be more interesting to have to scout for an initial base location). Your rig can scan the rocks to see which ones contain the most resources, then you build a collection point and a factory to pump out the miners. Eventually, you’ll need to produce power to keep buildings functioning at full capacity and fuel to produce military units. The population cap can be continually increased by placing nodes that add computing power to allow for a larger robot army (I like that Star Prospector gives a plausible reason for a population cap). You’ll probably also want to place turrets (once they are unlocked), as the planets of Star Prospector are hostile locations with wandering enemies that will attack your base on sight. Sadly, Star Prospector always gives you the same barren starting conditions, so you have to use the same starting build every game: mine ore, collect fuel, generate power, increase pop cap, place turrets, and then go get the enemy. There are no half-completed bases to rescue or planets to defend, so the first ten minutes of each mission plays out exactly the same. I frankly got tired of doing the same thing every time I started a new scenario.

The slow pace of Star Prospector also hurts the game. Units move slowly, resources accumulate slowly, units build slowly, and combat resolves slowly. The game doesn’t come with time acceleration, and I spent way too much time waiting for things to happen. I think you are meant to scout for loot while you wait for units to build, so at least there is potentially something to do instead of just sitting there. You’ll usually need to explore anyway to find additional resources to increase the size of your army. In addition, because your army moves quite leisurely, it can be nearly impossible to defend against an attack on your base or a resource outpost, placing a higher importance on turrets. Buildings are also destroyed way too easily by one or two enemy units, as they seemingly have almost the same amount of health as units. Strategy in Star Prospector isn’t terribly advanced: just wait until you have enough units by building more pop cap structures and you'll eventually take the enemies out. The enemy AI is very, very primitive, occasionally spawning at their locations and attacking whatever unit or base is the closest. Pathfinding in the game can also be a bit weird, with units taking odd paths towards a destination involving a random assortment of straight lines and 45-degree angles. Units never get stuck, mind you, but two units placed side by side and given the same target might take completely different ways of getting there.

While I like several of the ideas that Star Prospector brings to the table, the overall pace and structure of the game is lacking. Because you start out the same way each mission, with only your rig and nearby resources, identical starting builds can be used for every scenario. It would have been much more interesting if you were given inefficient semi-completed bases to start with or fully-functional buildings to defend; I would think that it would be easy to randomize this content to fall in line with the rest of the game. In addition, Star Prospector has an extremely slow pace that can’t be accelerated: I spent too much time waiting for resources to accumulate and (especially) units to build. Oh, what I would give for a time acceleration option. The very basic enemy AI and sporadic pathfinding doesn’t help the tactical side of things; if you have enough units (and you can keep constructing nodes to increase the population cap), you’ll overpower the enemy. The missions introduce some false variety: while your late-game strategy might change if you were amassing resources instead of assassinating an enemy unit, you’ll still start the scenario the same way. I do enjoy the role-playing elements of the game: scouting the planets for wreckage and technology bits that can then be equipped to your rig is an enjoyable distraction while you wait for your army to build up. Star Prospector has an impressive array of items you can find or purchase, including rig modules that add shields or new weapons, improved buildings, and new units to deal with the increasingly hostile enemy threat. With more varied starting conditions and a faster pace, Star Prospector would be a recommended game thanks to its classic base-building design, role-playing elements, and extensive roster of upgrades and items to equip. But in the end, Star Prospector involves too much repetition and too much waiting.