Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Star Hammer Tactics Review

Star Hammer Tactics, developed and published by Black Lab Games.
The Good: Wreckage can screen enemy attacks, short games with a quick pace, hot seat multiplayer, only $4
The Not So Good: Very limited weaponry vastly decreases strategic possibilities, tedious end-game cleanup, lacks ship customization and variety, no online multiplayer
What say you? This turn-based tactical space combat game has simple thrills but lacks depth and variety: 5/8

The explosion of mobile devices has given rise to a proliferation of cheap, inexpensive indie games. Providing simple thrills for a low cost, these titles are occasionally ported over to the PC, where they (of course) make a lot more money. Enter Star Hammer Tactics, a tactical space combat game originally released for the both the iPad and PSP. Attempting to bring the hammer down on some stars (using tactics, no doubt), how does this fast-paced, turn-based game stack up?

Star Hammer Tactics utilizes a simple presentation that is 2-D during movement and transitions to 3-D during combat. During most of the game, you’ll be interacting with flat ship models that are distinctive for the two sides and various ship classes, but a step behind Gratuitous Space Battles. More significantly, destroyed ships don’t look damaged enough (just a bit darker and slightly rotated); it should be really clear that a ship has been destroyed, and it’s not. I do like the subtle animated trail behind missiles, though. The backgrounds are pleasing, not distracting but still providing a nice backdrop to the on-screen action. In the 3-D battles, the ship detail remains generally the same as the 2-D view as the camera slowly rotates around the carnage. The weapons and explosions are repetitive but decent enough. The interface is clearly designed for a touch-based interface, with large buttons and a slider to select ships that must be dragged instead of clicked on. There are some limitations as well: you can’t zoom, and you can’t cancel a missile launch if you don’t like who the closest enemy target is. Sound effects are basic stuff: some battle effects and background music accompany the action. Overall, the graphics and sound design of Star Hammer Tactics slides comfortably into its $4 price range.

Those wacky aliens! Always trying to conquer Uranus. And who could blame them, with its copious amounts of methane. Anyway, Star Hammer Tactics includes a fifteen-scenario campaign that contains the usual mission assortment of eliminate everyone, protect a fragile ship, and defend for a number of turns. The first few scenarios are quite easy, giving you superior numbers, but soon you are matched and later outgunned by the alien horde. There is nothing terribly innovative in the campaign, but the unbalanced missions are challenging and offer more variety beyond the skirmish mode. Speaking of, you can play against the AI or a human on the same computer in the skirmish mode, where you can specify a time limit (which I found to be unnecessary, making the game feel too rushed) and choose which units to deploy based on a points system. However, you can’t take Star Hammer Tactics online, as there is no support for Internet multiplayer. Between the scripted campaign scenarios and the more free-form skirmish missions, Star Hammer Tactics should keep your busy for at least a little while.

The humans (whom you control in the campaign) come with four ships: fighter, heavy fighter, corvette, and destroyer (the aliens get basically the same ships). The differences are very straightforward: bigger ships have more missiles and more armor, but slower speed. There are no unique abilities or characteristics, which is disappointing. Each ship can do one of three things each turn: move, fire a missile, or (in the case of larger ships) repair. Movement is a bit weird: each ship has a set radius it can move from its initial location (clearly highlighted when a vessel is selected), but that radius does not take into account objects like destroyed ships or asteroids. As long as all of the movement takes place within the radius (whether it is 3 squares in front of you or 15 squares up and around an asteroid), then your ship can get there. This makes conceptual sense and it’s easier to understand, but it’s not really realistic.

The second option for your turn is firing a missile. This is the only type of ranged weapon in the game, and it goes straight from your ship towards the enemy you designate. This opens up several tactical options. First, you can send dispensable fighters ahead of your main fleet and try to intercept enemy missiles. Second, you can hide behind asteroids and destroyed ships, especially since missiles usually take two or three turns to reach their target. Finally, missiles give splash damage to surrounding ships (making them a great tool against massed enemies) and they can damage your fleet, so caution should be exercised. You don’t get very many missiles to play with: even the largest ships only get three missiles for the entire battle. Still, there are tense moments as you try and guess which ship the enemy missile is destined for, and try to move your ships behind things to absorb the projectile. While using missiles are limited in number and I’d to see more missile types effective against different enemies, there is some hidden depth in this aspect of the game.

There are a few more things you can do in the game. Large idle ships can spend a turn repairing a portion of their health. The only other tactical decision available is whether to devote more energy towards the weapons or the shields; if both sides go full shields, there will essentially be a stalemate every round, but I found this option to be lacking in significant strategy (basically, you go full shield until you are ready for close combat, then go full attack). Overall, the most interesting part of Star Hammer Tactics is the ability to use destroyed vessels, asteroids, and other ships (preferably fighters) to absorb attacks. The lack of a fog of war means you’ll always know where the enemy is located, and can use your ships and various obstacles to deflect enemy attacks and surround ships with certainty. When ships are placed next to each other, automated combat results, with each ship firing their weapons over several rounds. The results seem to be highly randomized dice rolls, and the best strategy seems to be to surround the enemy with as many ships as possible. There is no penalty for camping (and with the repair mechanic, it’s encouraged somewhat), and since both sides run out of missiles quickly (too quickly, in my opinion), the end-game usually is a slow, methodical march across the map using handful of slow ships to track down one pesky enemy. The maps are large enough where you can spend a lot of time simply moving ships forward, which can get quite monotonous. The AI is decent enough: it attacks weaker ships and aggressively goes after objectives, but doesn’t mass units for attacking well enough and uses the limited missiles too quickly at the beginning of the game when you have a chance to avoid them.

While Star Hammer Tactics has the base for a solid tactical game, some key features are lacking in areas required for increased replay value and longevity. First, the good news: the game’s simple mechanics make it approachable for a large audience, and I really like the tactical use of map objects and destroyed ships are barriers to attack. While at the start of a battle the map is wide open, soon it is filled with obstacles that must be dealt with if you are to defeat your sworn enemy. That said, the limited classes of ships and use of one ranged weapon type restricts your options. You can designate more power for shields or weapons, but this is generally a small and straightforward decision; far more interesting would have been a mix of different weapons and corresponding shields to expand tactical flexibility. The odd radial movement (you can move anywhere within a specified circle around your ship, no matter how many squares it takes to move there) is a strange simplification, and the highly randomized combat could use more depth. Games can also become overextended in length as you try to intercept the last enemy unit. The campaign is standard fare, and while the inclusion of skirmish matches against the AI and hot seat games are nice, but I’d like to see support for Internet-based action as well. The AI seems to be a competent opponent that suffers from occasionally inconsistent behavior. Star Hammer Tactics certainly has room for feature improvement, but for only $4, tactical fanatics and casual passers-by could do worse.