By Jim Rossignol on January 11th, 2011 at 10:00 am.
Little Green Men Games’ tactical space RPG Starpoint Gemini has been out for a few weeks now, and it’s been high on my list of priorities for examination. I don’t feel like I’ve played anything like enough of this (just a few hours) to warrant a full on verdict, but I still wanted to get some impressions down, because it’s a fairly interesting game. Read on for some thoughts on this space oddity.
What I should point out, before you get too excited by the screenshots, is that this is not an Elite style space game in the sense that you pilot your own ship freely in space. The world is essentially 3D on a flat 2D plane, and the ships are controlled externally, in a manner similar to Eve Online. You click in the direction you want to go, set the speed, and so on. It’s all in real-time, and it is a big, open, living world, but it is very definitely abstract, and certainly more like an RPG than your traditional fly-about-in-space game. If it’s an Elite-style game at all, then it’s in the capacity to upgrade ships, and to get up to your own devices along Starpoint Gemini’s many space lanes.
Your capacities in the world are a mixture of the nature of the ship you are in, and the character you play, and the range of possibilities for that combination is enormous. There are fifty ships in total, and each of these can fitted out with a huge range of modules – sensors, shields, grapples, blasters, railguns, torpedos, mining equipment, and on and on. A host of menus provide you with the capacity to fiddle with all kinds of variables and aspects of your craft. This variety should give you a hint of the kind of game Starpoint Gemini is trying to be: a real-time space captain RPG, essentially. Combat reflects this level of complexity by being a tactical game of naval-style positional engagement. Getting the enemies on the optimal side of your shields, and avoiding being blasted to bits because you were outflanked, is at the heart of the fighting part of the game. There’s a strong whiff of Star Trek in the options here – having to send power to shields, or engines, and so on. This is very much a game about you being at the helm of a complex starship, and that theme is reflected throughout the possible activities that the game presents you with. For example, you can occasionally scan, board, and loot a derelict spacecraft. This all happens with you watching your starship, but a little video of your crew exploring the ship and find the cargo plays out in the corner of the screen. You are not alone.
You can also interact with pretty much any entity in the game world. While some ships will simply attack you, others can hailed and conversed with, or – as mentioned – explored and salvaged.
And there’s plenty of salvage going about. Starpoint Gemini is set within a story of galactic calamity. The region of space you are in has been at war with the Earth-based overlords, and was finally cut off, with apocalyptic consequences. The closing of the connecting wormhole ended up throwing many ships into “stasis” for decades, and you are one of those suspended pilots, returning to a world of European accents and drastic changes. From there you face thirty scripted missions through a story of political intrigue and power-mongering, with plenty of room for developing your character along a number of lines, and for general messing about in the margins of space. You can even choose to start off playing with an entirely open scenario, rather than the main, scripted campaign, allow you to simply pootle about in the “living” world that the game provides. Of course this kind of “become a pirate, or a trader” sort of options are pretty par for the course of space sims, but from what I have played so far I suspect that there is far more RPG-like depth to to SPG than you might otherwise expect. There seem to be so many skills, and so many ship-native abilities, that you’re going to discover some pleasing depth to all the non-curricular activities you get up to in the game, and craft tactics quite unique to yourself. Aside from everything else, there’s a rich space to explore and play around in, and that’s the kind of game design I can agree with.
It’s not exactly going to be sliding smoothly into a game of the year spot, however. There are some rough edges in terms of accessibility – the tutorial is long and laborious and, amazingly, can actually be failed, kicking you back to the menu screen. Some of the battles rapidly become too difficult, as the tactical combat is not entirely straightforward, particularly against multiple opponents. Don’t forget to save, as there’s no quick or auto-save function to lean on, either. You will find yourself replaying missions unless you are punctual with the saves. There are also some little annoyances like the length of the docking sequence – which happens in world, in-engine – and the fact that you can be attacked while control is our of your hands.
Nor is this the most visually stylish game. It’s all shiny and pretty, but really the presentation, in both the world and the UI, is fairly old fashioned and unremarkable. The lighting and palette is undramatic, and the ship designs could have emerged from any space game in the past 15 years. The music, too, was best replaced with some Tim Hecker for improved atmospherics. All that said, I can see why Starpoint Gemini has impressed a few people who persisted with it over the Christmas break. There’s a lot there, and the appeal of just living out the life of a roaming spaceman never really loses its lustre. Worth a look, then, just don’t be expecting a masterpiece. I’ll be interested to hear what some of you guys will make of this. (Although I’d certainly suggest buying Precursors before this!)
UPDATE: Done some more spacing about. It’s rather slow, and I am already tiring of the combat. Not enough drama here.