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Wot I Think: Stellar Impact

Seeing stars

Brendan was not allowed to sleep during his holidays, instead we made him play Stellar Impact, which he thinks is pretty good. Shame, then, that so few of you are playing it.

Merry Christmas. I trust everyone had a wonderful time, stuffing their faces with poultry and listening to that quaint little old monarch talk about her Royal Gas or whatever. Anyway, now that I’ve insulted the Royalists I’m going to dispense with the Christmas theme because there is no way I can link it to Stellar Impact, which is a spacey game set in space. The first thing you should know about Stellar Impact is that it is a good game. There. The second thing you should know is that it is a slightly unbalanced game. The third thing you should know is that I have no idea what I’m talking about. But why?

The reason for this is that Stellar Impact has a lot in common with Dota. It’s a team-based multiplayer RTS with bases at either side, it combines long-term skill accumulation with short-term tactics, it presents multiple lanes which must be controlled and it uses stupid AI in a clever way. “But Brendan,” I hear you say. “You still have no idea what you’re talking about because you’ve never actually played Dota and you periodically forget what it stands for.” Ha ha, an astute observation dear reader. Ha ha ha. But don’t worry. That’s not going to stop me from critiquing this game. What kind of journalist would I be if I couldn’t pretend to be knowledgeable? “Quite so,” I hear you say, perhaps biting your tongue. “Quite. So.”

The set-up is recognisable right from the start. Two bases face off against each other on a perfectly symmetrical map, with dedicated lanes branching from one side to the other. Along these lanes travel clusters of small AI-controlled escort ships in a brainless bid to overpower their enemy. Between bases are capture points in the guise of planets and vortexes and the like which players, each controlling a single specialised ship, can choose to focus on.

Vortexes act as instant transporters – and are thus incredibly important – whereas planets, crystal fields and singularities (wibbly wobbly lightning bolt thingies) all increase the power of your team’s ships or the number and strength of your AI companions. In short, you want them. You want them all.

For example, crystal fields increase the number of escort ships your factories can spawn (hmmm), while owning two singularities will unlock the Titan – a bigger escort ship that looks like a big ol’ space woodlouse (hmmmmm!) These AI escort ships are weak against player-controlled ships but serve excellently as automatic radar beacons passing through the battlefield. If you want to know where your enemy is and keep them on their toes while you’re at it you’re going to have to keep your pulsating waves of AI escorts pushing forward. And that means eating up all the control points.
Picture if you will two train companies each wanting to transport cargo – I dunno, Marmite – in opposite directions. But each company has forgotten how to lay new rail. So they both want to use the same track. Off go the automated trains and away go the Marmite officials into all the towns along the way to gain support of the local populace. But then they meet in the middle and – oh no! – disaster! Conflict! Yeast extract!

You get the idea.

Ultimately, how important these control points are to you will vary according to the kind of game you’re playing. In Conquest mode, stuff like this matters. In Battlefield mode, less so. Because Battlefield mode is all about killing the red things because they are dirty, dirty Axis and deserve no mercy. A merry alternative is Infinite War mode, which is an endless cycle of Conquest but without the command points needed to continuously upgrade and win the match. In an Infinite War you’re simply given a list of objectives – destroy 15 enemy turrets, capture 20 objectives – for which you gain items like medals or weapons that grant passive abilities and increase your ships stats in the long run. I like the ability to capture bases 25% faster than normal. It makes me feel good about life.

If all this sounds like an overly technical rundown of features that’s because it’s a fairly technical game. Refreshingly so. It is sports-like in its technicalities. As an RTS it veers away from being about resource management and ends up being more about resource /deployment./ It’s deeply tactical with all the requisite mind games attached. You are constantly second-guessing other players and – where possible – working as a close-knit team to out-gun the other side. But it can also be a game about harassing your enemy in the long-term, if you really want it to be. Hiding in the shadows and playing at guerrilla warfare.

This is all thanks to the environmental aspects. All the in-betweeny bits that hinder or help you on your way to that crucial vortex. (There’s no third dimension here, if you’re wondering – it’s all played on a single plain – and in many ways I’m thankful for that. Because I’d far rather this be a game of Battleships than have it turn into a nauseous spatial puzzler). Plasma clouds will slow you right down and asteroid fields will damage you as you travel through. But gas clouds will shroud you completely from enemy radar, providing their ship isn’t in the gas cloud too.

All these plus the positioning of your vortexes mean you always have to assess your route through space. “Is it worth taking the hull damage from this asteroid field, if it means getting to our singularity quicker? Should I use the gas field to try and lose this Destroyer, or should I run and hope my shields hold up? If I do use the gas field will there be a nasty surprise waiting for me inside? Should I try and slingshot round the sun and cut our travel time in half? Oh no, I shouldn’t have. My shields have completely burned away. Why did I sign up for the Allied space corps in the first place? Oh God, my wife. My wife. The sun. My wife.” And so on, and so on. Many deeply tactical questions like that.

This environmental element conjoins with the game’s skill tree in the best of ways, since it unlocks all the major skills right from the words “Thank you for your purchase”. Medals and weapons might get you passive bonuses but the core build of your ship – be it a speedy but fragile Corvette or a gargantuan and trundling Dreadnought – can be glued together right from the start. It all comes down to developing a ship that’s balanced in the way you want to play it.

Myself: I go for what I like to call The Quantum Bastard. A nippy little Frigate with Quantum Accelerators, Quantum Beacon and Quantum Leap. Yes, that’s right, a Quantum Leap. Combined with that cheeky medal that lets me capture faster this allows me to sit on an enemy vortex adjacent to a gas field and watch it tick over to green. Then when some leviathan comes lurching into view I leap into the shroud and boost away. Weeeeee! I do this 50+ times per match. It’s really annoying.

Sadly, it’s generally the former approach of battering the enemy into submission that wins the match. Guerrilla tactics like that of The Quantum Bastard are reserved for the dispossessed, the ganked. At that stage, it’s a matter of damage control, skulking round the battlefield like a submarine. But at least the game does its utmost to make that part of a game as plausible and enjoyable as possible. Not forgetting that I have seen teams bounce back from the brink of defeat and go on to win thanks to a widespread adoption of pestering tactics. The only problem here is that it doesn’t allow you to switch ship class mid-game, something that would add to this feeling of fluidity.

Despite this concession to the underdog, balance remains a problem. Infinite War games can be used as perpetual grind sessions, whereby everybody joins one side and simply farms the enemy AI (and any player stubborn enough to stay on the other side outnumbered). This ends up sapping all the enjoyment out of battle.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a lot of Conquest games going on at the same time, for players interested in the sport of battle rather than the reward. But here comes Stellar Impact’s big problem. A problem shaped like a comet and probably just as destructive.

Stellar Impact has no players.

The most I ever saw online at any one time was nine people. Nine people in the entire world. I’m pretty sure there are more people in space right now than there are people on the Stellar Impact servers. This is not a problem of the game itself – because the game is great. The game is competitive, thoughtful, strategic, thrilling. The players are non-existent. There’s a reason all these screenshots are of me by myself. In the last half hour I’ve checked twice and there are no matches running at all. And if there was a match you could bet your bottom Euro it’d be suffering from uneven teams a regular occurrence that immediately throws the sports-like elements of game into disarray.

Partly this player shortage is down to the fact that it’s in Beta. The servers are fuller than they appear, say the message boards upon starting the game. And the marketing push probably hasn’t even been thought of at this stage, which is a pity – nae, a tragedy – because as it stands the game is easily worth the fifteen quid or so you need to throw at it. If only you could find the players to bolster the servers with.

I’m not very good at this call to arms stuff. It’s your money and if you’d simply rather wait for Dota 2 then I get it. No worries. I’d be equally understanding if you’d rather wait until a general release due to iffy-ness about Beta problems (and there are some – the lag sometimes makes your ship spin comically on the spot like a banjaxed compass, for example).

But if ever there was a game that I knew RPS readers will like, this is it. If ever there was a game that was in more need of a strong, communicative playerbase (is that a word?) to fully realise the vision of the developers, this is it. Stellar Impact has its issues but it still deserves a little more love and attention than it currently has. Similarities to Defense of the Anglicans be damned.

RPS: Who's up for a game tonight? 9pm UK time? Get it downloaded!

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