Premature Evaluation: Starpoint Gemini Warlords

Every week, Rob Zacny heads into the uncharted systems of Early Access in search of new cargo to bring back to the mothership. This week, Starpoint Gemini Worlds [official site].

Starpoint Gemini Warlords is admirably straightforward in its Steam Early Access statement, warning-off potential buyers with an upfront admission that the game is currently an early alpha with only the most basic systems implemented. The problem is that it’s so basic that I’m having a hard time discerning what is going to set Warlords apart from both its immediate predecessor and the growing field of space-freelancing simulators. It calls to mind games like Privateer and Freelancer… but also games like Elite: Dangerous and Rebel Galaxy. The stripped-down work-in-progress comes across like a nostalgic throwback that remains blissfully unaware that a revival has taken place, and these kinds of open-ended spaceship adventure can be bigger, more ambitious, and more exciting than they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

In its current version, Starpoint Gemini Warlords is a very simple game where you fly your capital ship around a star system visiting a handful of stations and planets, taking the missions you find there, and perhaps bringing cargo from place to place. It’s the standard template for games like this: you can pick jobs from a short menu at each station, ranging from escort missions to search and destroy to repair jobs, or you can ignore all of that and get into trading and exploration, though that’s a slower and more challenging way to make money.

A lot of it is mind-numbingly repetitive at the moment. It won’t take long before you’ll notice that your dogfights usually end with the enemy ship apparently forgetting what it’s about and flying in a straight line while patiently waiting for your weapons to eventually grind its hull into atoms. And because enemy ships don’t seem to have any interdiction capability, you can race between bases on delivery missions without ever having to fight or evade.

That also makes the upgrade system feel a tad inert, because you don’t really need anything to survive in this place, and the drydock UI is so confusingly laid-out that it’s often not clear what you’ll actually get out of an upgrade, or whether it will be compatible with your ship. I once unmounted my main weapons only to discover my new weapons weren’t compatible with my ship, and then it took me ten minutes to figure out where my old guns were hiding. I could buy lots of minor upgrades for my existing gear, but the effects were so marginal as to be undetectable in combat. Not that it really mattered because no enemies seemed to be trying to fight me.

Even if the universe felt more lively, and combat were more of a challenge, I’m not sure what Warlords is building towards that will make it more than a retread of Freelancer, or an interesting alternative to the likes of Elite or Rebel Galaxy. Because that loop of grinding missions to earn cash for upgrades to allow you to grind harder missions for more cash? That’s not enough anymore. It needs to be accompanied by some procedural depth and complexity. Otherwise, you’re just running errands around a vision of space that feels more like a strip-mall than the final frontier.

Even Elite struggles with this at times, but it ultimately succeeds because each type of job requires a set of learned skills from the pilot, and the mastery of unique game mechanics and equipment. Running down a fleeing bounty might end with a familiar and slightly underwhelming direct deposit statement, but it works because there was an entire sequence of pursuit, capture, and battle leading up to that moment. Exploration requires the gear and experience to be able to survive beyond the frontiers of settled space.

My concern with Warlords is that most mission types don’t really require the same level of investment. A repair mission involves flying close to something, bringing up a radial command menu, and highlighting the “repair” option. Then magical green lights shoot from your ship and heal whatever damaged satellite you’re tasked with maintaining. Hunting down a bounty means flying to the exact spot on the map where your bounty is hiding, and then shooting them a lot. No matter what you’re doing, it all feels like it boils down to going from Point A to Point B.

Simplicity can work, but it needs to have more style and variety. Rebel Galaxy mostly worked because it felt like a lively universe where you could quickly find yourself in over your head. There were characters to talk to, decisions to make during missions, and places and enemies you could aspire to conquer. You might have been flying from one place to another and spamming missiles at enemies, but there was just enough resistance coming from that universe to make it feel rewarding.

Warlords hasn’t fleshed-out its setting or its enemies enough to bring its universe to life. You can see hostile pirate ships hiding in asteroid belts, or friendly patrols drifting between outposts…but they don’t get up to much. Enemies will take a potshot at you as they fly past, but there’s no sense of danger as your push into hostile space, or explore a new location. Warlords’ clockwork universe does not yet have its gears and springs; it sits motionless, stirring to life only when the player comes near enough to trigger a drowsy AI reaction.

Where things have more potential to get exciting is with the single player campaign. It opens with the standard “routine mission goes horribly wrong” and tasks your character with trying to get revenge on the enemy while also restoring his or her lost reputation. There are hints in the game that you’ll be able to play a strategic role in this universe, building-up space stations and fleets in addition to commanding your own warships. But the campaign isn’t going live until Early Access ends.

That’s a problem for Warlords as an Early Access game because what you’re left with is an empty sandbox. It could turn into a fine spaceship game with more development and updates, but for people who aren’t already committed to this series, I’m at a loss to see why the potential of Starpoint Gemini Warlords would be more exciting than the existing games in that genre. If it were five years ago and my option were this or X3, I could see Warlords being appealing, but space is a lot livelier than it used to be.

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17 Comments

  1. legopirate27 says:

    Awesome, always good to get Mr Zacny’s take!

    Quick note for the editor: I think the subtitle is slightly wrong Worlds -> Warlords

  2. Muzman says:

    Oh god, someone please finish a proper Freelancer-alike. One that’s, like, single player and doesn’t cost the earth or doesn’t secretly want to be a 4X or a shooter or a full on RPG and is good at the same time.
    Is it that hard? It must be hard. It’s too hard isn’t it. Oh well.

    • SomeDuder says:

      I’m seriously doubting we’ll ever see anything resembling the likes of X2 – The Threat ever again – now THAT was a proper building shootan tradin and lots of flying space game with small scout craft and massive battleships with lots of turrets and crap. Terran Conflict was fine too, but was missing something.

      The people that want to make these games (independent developers) don’t have the time and funds to spend ages on making content and making sure all the details are correct, while the big publishers only want to make games that will draw lots of Lets Play scum to spread the holy word for The Product® (Single-player games don’t enter into that, apparently)

  3. Phirmware says:

    Or a proper Freespace 2. I want a story in my space game!

    Back on topic, I trust that the guys over at LGM will get things sorted out. At this stage of the game its hardly more than a tech demo.

    • Waltorious says:

      I believe you meant to say Freespace 3. Because Freespace 2 already exists and is one of the best games I’ve ever played. I need to go back to it with the Freespace Open upgraded engine and try all the awesome mods I keep hearing about.

  4. Ericusson says:

    I really enjoyed Rebel Galaxy at first but the sheer repetition of it made me abandon it just a few hours away from the end and I couldn’t bring myself back to it.

    Please ! The emptiness of space does not forbid reasonably fatty flesh all around !

  5. Leafcutter says:

    This could be the next Freelancer.

    link to everspace-game.com

    Currently in Alpha/Beta (pay to join)… it’s shaping up to look fun, involving and story driven.

  6. Miacelis says:

    I remember well the LGM studio. Been following them from beta stage of Starpoint Gemini 2 Early Access. Always open and honest, they really included a bunch of ideas from forum discussions to subsequent updates. They had about 30-40 updates in EA before game was released if I remember correctly. I am quite sure they know what they want to achieve and they will make it good again.
    And congrats to them for including community so much in development, it probably screws their masterplan but they still do it!

  7. Espege says:

    Hey all,

    first of all, as part of Little Green Men Games, I would like to thank Rob and Rock, Paper, Shotgun for doing a preview on our game.

    We do have some things to add. As Rob stated correctly, we told people not to buy the game in Early Access if they don’t want to be involved in development process and because since it’s alpha, it can have some issues ocassionaly. That said, Starpoint Gemini Warlords is far from over. We are working on the game, adding content updates almost every week. New content update, third one and the biggest one yet is coming this Friday (lucky Friday 13th) and it will not only fix many reported issues but also add plenty of new stuff.

    This game will be huge when finished, and the way we work paid off in SPG2. We give ideas and basic concepts and then talk to our community daily, making the game bigger and better over the course of Early Access.

    I’m at a loss to see why the potential of Starpoint Gemini Warlords would be more exciting than the existing games in that genre.

    Because we are different. We are not MMO like EvE Online, nor first person flight simulator like Elite: Dangerous. We’re not 2D naval combat game like Rebel Galaxy or 4X game like Stellaris. We are a blend of genres, and the main focus of the game is tactical combat with capital ships. There are no oneseaters in SPG games, only big ships, that only get bigger as you progress through the game, and the gameplay also changes accordingly.

    You start as a captain of one ship, but as you progress, you get bigger and better ships, you have your headquarters which literally unllocks new features with every new module installed, you can build and deploy fleets, conquer parts of the universe and have that feeling of impacting the whole universe, while still having fun and dynamic battles with your ship, mercenaries, fighter wings. The game starts as primarily combat game which slowly evolves into a blend of RPG (leveling up, gaining new skills and perks), 4X (building your empire) and strategy (managing your fleets, fortifying your regions, deploying fleets and micromanaging your systems, equipment and skills in combat).

    So we feel that we do have to offer something new and interesting on the space market but of course we need time to do it since we are working closely with our community. Warlords is already changing and it will change during Early Access just like Starpoint Gemini 2 did so we are confident that not only our old fans will like Warlords (they already to judging by Steam reviews), but also that our pilot roster will fill with many new captains as well… :)

  8. Espege says:

    I forgot to introduce myself so I apologize for that. I’m Zeno Zokalj, Community Manager in LGM Games. If you have any questions, I’ll gladly answer them here or on our Steam forums where I live in my little cozy cave under the General Discussions sign. :)

    link to steamcommunity.com

  9. Thorgald says:

    And this right here is why there is absolutely NO point to even attempt to review a game as early in its development as this is… I made the same argument on the Steam forum a while back and this just proved my point… DON’T “review” games unless they are considered release candidates… Even the next major content update will pretty much invalidate most if not all the issues whoever wrote this had…

    Wasted time writing, wasted time reading..

    • Espege says:

      Even if I agree with you on most things, I do have to say that if nobody writes about our game, nobody will know we exist and that could pose a problem. The idea is to work with our community on the game, and the bigger community gets, better ideas we get and that means the final game will also be better.

      So yes, many current issues will be resolved in a month or two and the game will completely change in 6 months, but if this article brought the game to anyone’s attention than we really appreciate that. ;)

    • Premium User Badge

      kfix says:

      No. Just no. If the developers are asking money for it, it’s a legitimate subject for review.

      This is not some closed beta test, it’s a product on sale. The special nature of Early Access is acknowledged in the article (Premature Evaluation FFS), but it’s still for sale. Potential buyers want to see reviews to help them make a decision.

      Do you have some argument why this should not be so?

  10. Allbrother says:

    This article seems very poorly researched and frankly a bit half-arsed.

    There’s no introduction to the developer and their body of work or the franchise itself and not even a link to the title’s store page.

    There’s no mention of the planned features, the foundations of those features already in the game or even a look at the game’s update history.

    I doubt all these omissions are intentional, but they do show a lack of effort to do one’s due diligence.

    Nothing written in the article is a lie, but I feel that you’re doing your audience, the developers and the Early Access program itself a disservice with reviews of alpha titles based on what boils down to “I got this early access game this is what I noticed in the hour I spent with it”.

    • Premium User Badge

      kfix says:

      I often wonder what some of the commenters we get here think is the business model that sustains writing on the internet.

      You sound like you expect some sort of massive journalistic enterprise where daring investigative journos with press passes in their trilby bands are out working for days on deep investigations and dictating into public phones while teams of fact-checkers and sub-editors scrutinise each article.

      Well I got news for you, Scoop – this is not the Washington Post circa 1972. This is a games *criticism* site and quite frankly “I got this early access game [and] this is what I noticed in the hour I spent with it” is exactly what you should expect. Unless you are willing to pay the freight to get a different job done, by different people who might care what you think.

      Some of us *do* pay for exactly those hour-long impressions, and the (sometimes much) longer and more in-depth pieces, and the three paragraph hilarity that is Alice on a Friday evening, and everything else that comes along with them. And we’re getting exactly what we expect and value. Which is John trolling the internet, often.

      So please, do yourself a favour, mate. Piss off back to the internet where you came from, and if you want something different start up your own sooper dooper news site. Do let us know how you get on raking in all those internet dollars from people excited to pay you for your words.

      • Allbrother says:

        Are you the resident troll? In two replies here you’ve managed to already contradict yourself. “If it’s being sold, it should be reviewed so customers can have information… but we don’t want full information, we want half arsed three paragraph hilarity and John trolling the internet”… wut?

        I also don’t need to start my own “sooper dooper site”, there are already plenty of people on the internet who put in some effort in their work. And they even do it without being part of a media conglomerate or the 70s. Crazy, I know

        • Premium User Badge

          kfix says:

          That’s not a contradiction – one is about the legitimacy or otherwise of reviewing an early access game, the other is about what counts as a review.

          Not every site (or every article on a site) has to provide lists of “facts” about every game, nor provide extensively researched articles about every single game available including the history of the developer and their update history. Sometimes it’s fine for the writer to just tell us how they felt when they were playing the game. The existence of this type of writing does not negate the existence of the other kind (even on the same site), and it does not actually hurt or inconvenience you in any way to just click somewhere else for your objective games journalism.

          So to say that to do other than what you feel is appropriate for a review is doing a “disservice” to anyone is absurd.