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Premature Evaluation: Starpoint Gemini Warlords

Dead space

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 Warlords [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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Rob Zacny