Premature Evaluation: Stellar Tactics

Every week we wake Brendan from his cryo-slumber and present him with an early access game. This week, the sci-fi zombies and janky combat of Stellar Tactics [official site].

Everything about the premise of Stellar Tactics suggests a game that is so far up my street, it is practically in my house – a squad-based science fiction RPG with extensive character customisation, space travel and tactical turn-based combat. In other words, XCOM in a wider, explorable universe. So I should be disappointed when my last soldier, a frighteningly perceptive riflewoman called Shirley Not, dies at the clawed hands of the opening mission’s zombie bad dudes. But really, I am just relieved. It is the perfect excuse to stop playing.

Things start out promising. Four crew members wake up in the cryo chambers of the Dauntless – the last ark of humanity with a few hundred thousand sleeping refugees, fleeing an earth ravaged by a virus called the Phage. But something has gone wrong during the long journey and we are needed to kick some jerks in the bonce. You are the last special forces team, basically. So far, so tropey. But on the bright side, the game is letting me name my squad and give them specialties. Something I approve of very much.

Shirley Not is just one of the crack team. There’s also Gonads MacAllister, who has forgone a rifle in exchange for hand-to-hand combat expertise and a body made of rock (he has an ultra high endurance stat).

Unfriendly Joan is the intelligent one, and our resident hacker – she likes pistols.

Finally, there’s Cheekbones Gaston, charismatic pilot and professional bullet-sprayer with a submachine gun.

This is always the part of a character-driven game I like the most, before the niggles and quirks start to gnaw away at the potential. Usually that decay takes a few hours. Here, the warning signs began immediately, as I was affronted by the crowded help screen shown below. The on-going tutorial otherwise takes the form of people talking to you – a pair of opposing doctors locked on different parts of the ship – filling you in with walls of text about lore while interjecting with an occasional “out of character” advice and directions on how to hack keypads or move things around in your inventory. It’s a stumbling and inefficient way to teach new players the ropes.

Gonads and co carried on through the bowels of the spacecraft regardless, noting as they went how samey and repetitive the environments where, whole corridors and rooms repeating over and over again, huge spaces filled with nothing much to pick up and nothing to do, all navigated at the squad’s sluggish mouse-clicking pace. Sometimes the story sends you back the way you came, before demanding another return. It’s sacrilegious level design from the 1990s. And then you get into a fight.

The combat system, speaking plainly, is a mess. It usually goes like this: you enter a room or a corridor and freeze – the game has detected enemies. But you might not see them, perhaps your perception isn’t high enough or they are behind a corner. At this point, they’ve more or less ambushed you. The way to avoid this is to enter every unexplored space or room by pre-emptively entering “combat mode” thus turning the team’s slow pace into a glacial one. I decided I could live with being ambushed all the time.

Most of the enemies in the opening levels are your working class zombies. Some of the later ones shoot fire from their hands, for some reason. One of them has a giant hammer and can throw grenades, because he’s the captain. To fight back you click on a certain body part of your foe – torso, legs, arms, head – which fires your gun (or punches them) thus eating up some action points. Moving also costs AP, as does kneeling to get better aim, or simply turning to face another direction. Sometimes you can inflict an injury that affects the enemy’s behaviour, and you can also be affected this way. A crippled status increases the amount of action points needed to do anything, the stun status makes you miss turns until it goes away, poison leaches health from you over time, and so on.

Basically, it’s going for a old-style Fallout or XCOM system of fighting. It doesn’t really work. Firstly, the tight corridors mean that you can often block yourself in. And I found no way of switching between characters aside from straight-up ending the character’s turn, so re-aligning and re-grouping into a usable formation is often impossible. Turn order between both your squad and the enemies is based on some opaque initiative formula – sometimes only one of my characters would get to move or shoot, at other times all of them would get the chance. Sometimes enemies attacked once or simply chilled out, other times they hit my soldiers in the face generously and with great enthusiasm, four or five times.

Having seen the simple, clean and efficient turn order systems and shooting mechanics of the game’s obvious inspirations, the newer XCOMs, the combat here feels clunky, buggy and at times downright unknowable. For example, you can move your troops but they will always face the last direction they were running in – not the enemy – and it costs AP just to turn them back around, making retreat or reorganisation of your troops an unpleasant, time-consuming and systematically “expensive” mish mash. They will not always move where you want them to either, and it isn’t clear what spaces can be occupied and which are deemed unusable.

For a game with “tactics” in the title, the only really viable tactic is to “shoot the baddies before they hit you”. There’s no useful cover, no discernible bonus to flanking, and (for this whole section) no other weapons aside from the default pistol and assault rifle. Some stun grenades show up later, offering the valuable chance to stop your enemies in their tracks. But it’s not clear how many turns this effect lasts and even figuring out how to throw the grenades is a mission, thanks to a confusing and underexplained user interface (you have to equip them as a secondary weapon, switch to them, click on their icon again, aim the arc and left click to throw).

All this might have been forgiveable if there was something interesting going on elsewhere – a story with some humour maybe, or new equipment that changed the way you approached a fight. But each new story NPC you meet is a damp cluster of bore-lore and cliché, and each of the infrequent chests of goodies contain nothing but cogs, magnifying glasses, springs, lighters, twine, canes, USB sticks, hip flasks – all of which are labelled the same way, as junk you will some day be able to sell. I have never understood this practice. Give me something of significance, or just give me money. If loot is just money in the form of junk with an identical description, what is the point?

The whole misadventure culminated in Gonads and the gang jogging onto the bridge and meeting the doctor whose dangerous experiments (oh no!) started this whole zombie disaster. Thinking that the game might be about to display some of the RPG parts of an RPG, I selected the charismatic Cheekbones Gaston to talk to the doctor. Perhaps we can convince him to relieve command of the bridge with reason and words and a sexily sculpted face. No such luck. He demanded all the lifeboats for himself, called in six of his zombie pals on either side of the squad, then whipped out a powerful SMG and started spitting bullets into Gonads MacAllister’s arms.

Meanwhile, each of my squad had less than a dozen bullets left in their gun, and a single underpowered frag grenade. Unfriendly Joan got it in the neck from a zombie, Gonads fell to Crazy Doctor’s bullets, and Cheekbones did his best to lure the zombies away but died unheroically after running out of bullets. It was only Shirley Not left, running down corridors pursued by baddies. Every time she ran, she used up all her AP, since to use some to turn and kneel (never mind taking a shot) would mean the zombies would close the gap and instantly kill her. After a few more pointless runs, I turned and took a few half-hearted shots before the zombies closed in and finished her off. It was my second ‘game over’ screen. Shirley did not even bother to do a death animation for it.

I enjoy a game that’s tough. XCOM is tough. But you can fail a mission and then just keep on going, a little worse off, perhaps critically, but it isn’t game over until it’s Game Over. Here, you die and you have to do all that again, the same fiddly combat, the same slow-paced and expensive movement, the same attempts at careful repositioning ruined by the same spammy enemies. Earlier in the game, for my first game over, I marched back in, determined to see if there was anything to redeem Stellar Tactics from how I now felt about it. After defeating the hammer-wielding captain and his fire-chucking lackeys the second time we fought, I was rewarded with a rusty whistle.

On the second game over, I didn’t bother going back.

Stellar Tactics is on Steam for £14.99/$19.99. These impressions are based on build 1490843.

27 Comments

  1. vegeta1998 says:

    so a solid 7/10 then

  2. Shadow says:

    Looks like this has all the ingredients to make a fine 2000s failed X-COM clone.

  3. Michael Fogg says:

    ‘Smells awful in here. Something dead?’, he ventured, while looking upon a corpse sprawled in the middle of the well-lit room.

  4. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Too bad, I’d noticed this one on Steam and was curious. Sounds like unless the turgid exposition and lack of tactical control are reworked significantly, this won’t be a fun one.

  5. jasta85 says:

    I remember this when it was on kickstarter, it failed to get funded, but at least they stuck with it.

  6. Silent_Thunder says:

    I see my usual gut instinct of seeing obvious stock FaceGen characters being a red flag is still apt.

    Except in sports games.

  7. LennyLeonardo says:

    Not very OT, but it just struck me how horrible it would be to know discover that your face was created by the ‘random face’ button. Which begs the question: are there any games with character creation in which the PC becomes aware that you created them? Sort of like Animal Man or something? I think that would be neat.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      “it just struck me how horrible it would be to know discover that your face was created by the ‘random face’ button”
      I’m pretty sure that’s how most people get their faces.

      • RNGod says:

        Not quite a random roll really, parameters are set by your parents genetics.

        • Ergates_Antius says:

          Your parents genes provide the dice, they’re still rolled.

    • Cyroch says:

      I’m not to sure what’s worse. The thought of my face being created by someone on purpose or by random roll.
      At least with the random roll I’d know it was just bad luck. If someone did it deliberately, I’d want to have words with them. I mean, what were they thinking?

    • Monggerel says:

      In Max Payne, the main character (also named Max Payne, but not the one the title refers to) has a drug-fuelled psychotic break and is left a mental wreck upon arriving at the epiphany that he is in fact a player character in a third-person shooter (which is the cause of his permanent, never-changing smug grin). I suspect that might be as close as it gets, for mainstream gaming at least.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        Yeah, I was trying to remember how that went, thanks! It was a lovely touch. The first Max Payne was proper wierd wasn’t it?

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          It was utterly fruit-loops in the most wonderful way. Now that I think of it, that’s probably why it’s stuck in my mind as my favourite Max Payne.

      • fabronaut says:

        I remember the psychotic break levels, but I don’t remember that interpretation being obvious?

        Did they just tongue in cheek the whole thing? Was it fairly subtle?

        I might’ve been a bit too young to recognize it for what it was on the first playthrough. I just remember the really annoying platforming bits where you walk on the blood trails inside the hallucination void.

        God, I loved the pulpy writing though. It chews the scenery like a massive wad of bubblegum, throwing in some of the most overwrought metaphors possible. It’s bloody brilliant…

        I played Max Payne 2 through in one sitting on the hardest difficulty a number of years ago. What a great game! I’ve had MP3 sitting in my Steam library for awhile, figuring I’d play it once I get a fancier graphics card. Not that my current one can’t handle it, but I like to crank silly spectacle games up to the max and kick back on the couch with a controller when I do so.

        • fuggles says:

          It was in those annoying blood bits “I was in a video game” pretty on the nose.

        • Tsed says:

          It wasn’t particularly subtle:

          Michelle Payne: [the note reads] You’re in a computer game, Max.

          Max Payne: The truth was like a green crack through my brain. Weapon statistics floating in the air, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. the repetitious act of shooting, time slowing down to show off my moves. The paranoid feeling of someone controlling my every step. I was in a computer game. Funny as Hell, it was the most horrible thing I could think of.

  8. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    So I take it the tactics are not particularly stellar.

  9. azfalt says:

    For starters this game is in pre alpha state and only have aprox 10 hours of playable fun thus far…

    Tactics is mostly based on creating bottlenec situations and ambushes, send one teammember to lure the zombie like creatures to follow, then catch all oponents in crossfire no casualties and noone from your team gets hit if played out right.

    No big issue to get thrugh this prologue, way to easy for my gaming experience, yes the game is a bit slow at warious points, but since its still in pre alpha stage its delightfull that so mutch is already ready to be played thrugh.
    Also have in mind its a single person doing all the programming and design stuff aso. so I think its quite remarkable, and am looking forward to see this charcoal formed into a rough diamond.

    The developer dont hide that his goal is to get a setting similar to what could be experienced in the fallout clasics, nothing similar to x-com, so clasify this as a x-com spinoff is way off track.

    this game is somthing new… both space simulator with some squad controll side missions on space stations, space ships and planet sites, exploration and something els…

    Calling this game a x-com spinof, would be like calling x-com interceptor a wing commander wanabie faliure, in comparison.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      For starters this game is in pre alpha state and only have aprox 10 hours of playable fun thus far…

      If the devs see fit to charge money for a game, it’s fair game for criticism. Also:

      Tactics is mostly based on creating bottlenec situations and ambushes, send one teammember to lure the zombie like creatures to follow, then catch all oponents in crossfire no casualties and noone from your team gets hit if played out right.

      No big issue to get thrugh this prologue, way to easy for my gaming experience

      Now Brendan could be terrible at the game, but his struggles may also have other origins, like the poor tutorial.

    • mbpopolano24 says:

      The fact that the game has been developed by a single person is admirable but, at the end of the day, irrelevant.If I buy a game I only care if it is fun to play, not how many people did it.

      The game is still in pre-alpha, so there is still time for the developer to take criticism seriously. Everything that was said in the article might be fixable. If not, this one is going to stink pretty badly.

  10. cpt_freakout says:

    I first read “Stellaris Tactics” and was both confused and excited for a whole 4 seconds.

  11. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Rusty Whistle is my least favorite sex act.

  12. Weedcloud says:

    First of all this game has nothing to do with XCOM. (Xcom is earth and aliens)
    Most gamers here are young. This game is like MEGATRAVELLER SERIE.U know The nice boxes with Floppy’s from 1980. It’s the same concept. But XCOM REALLY HAS NOTHING 2 DO with this game. Wonder how u play the games and remember them.

  13. Nevertheless says:

    For me the criticism on Stellar Tactics goes way too far. From what I’ve seen, the prologue is several things in one.
    1. Pre alpha playground for debugging. There are extremely few bugs to detect any more.
    2. Pre alpha playground for game mechanics. Mr. Wilkins still changes concepts with the help of the community.
    3. Tutorial for early access users. At least I had no problem with it.
    4. Story primer for the game.

    I wonder what made the author of the article compare Stellar Tactics with X-Com. I also wonder what he expected of pre alpha software. Maybe the fact that there are so few bugs left to detect, made him criticise the level design and the loot in a tutorial level instead..
    However, some of the points he made really could have helped the game, if the author could have practiced constructive criticism, because that’s what the game is on early access for, and that’s what helps to make games better. But instead of that, he just made fun of the game, which might hurt the game for a time long past the early access phase.