The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
The temptation with Star Command is to see all the elements that might have been included, and criticize their absence. Star Command does indeed miss some clear opportunities to deliver more meaningful choices in dialogue, upgrades, and ship selection, but the core experience – battling enemy ships and their boarding parties – is enjoyable enough to stand on its own. Star Command may not be as big and flexible as its opening minutes imply, but the challenge of keeping your ship in one piece is more than enough to make for a great time.
You are a loyal captain in the Star Command fleet, but your new ship is running on a skeleton crew and lacking in basic systems. By tapping around the ship layout, you add medical bays, engine rooms, and shield boosters, and bring on new crew to man the added stations. Over time, successful encounters grant tokens that may be used to upgrade ship systems, lending a light RPG feel to the affair.
The galaxy is a hostile place, and nearly every alien you encounter is out to blast you into space dust. Some battles are prefaced by the façade of a choice-driven conversation with the enemy, but you’re inevitably steering toward a life-or-death fight, subtracting from the sense of player agency in the way the story might roll out. Nonetheless, meeting different species and warping off to alien galaxies is a blast.
Combat is intense, challenging, and built around juggling multiple tasks at once. Fire a weapon, and you need to tap the torpedo room to prepare new ammo. Listen for the alarms of incoming fire, or miss the chance to dodge the blast. Fighting boarders on the starboard side of the ship? Watch out for the second boarding party teleporting aboard portside, or risk your engineering crew facing a grisly demise. Each battle starts out slowly, as weapons, shields, and other systems charge up. Once things get going, keeping track of everything is challenging. Small mistakes leave you floundering, but wise decisions and quick finger tapping keep your crew alive and your ship ready to take on the next fight. The challenge factor is high, and restarts are common, but diligence pays off until the final battles of your new game+ run, at which point an absurd difficulty spike ruins some of the fun.
Managing boarding parties ends up being the most difficult task, since you need to reassign crew members into a balanced mix of engineering, medical, and tactical personnel, and track the health and abilities of each character involved in the fight. The controls aren’t robust enough to handle the task, and don’t offer enough flexibility to move in groups or set crew to patrol automatically. Firing ship weapons has an enjoyable extra component in the form of distinct mini-games for each weapon type. The game fails to adequately explain how to play these quick sequences, but once you figure them out it makes for a rewarding test of reflexes.
Star Command can’t help but draw comparisons to the indie darling FTL: Faster Than Light. The two games share a number of similar conceits, but Star Command’s focus on timing, large-scale shipboard battles, and quick screen tapping help it stand apart. Even with some iffy systems and a railroad approach to story, Star Command is undeniably charming. The homage to Star Trek comes through loud and clear, and the sprite-driven art style is colorful and attractive. While I can’t help but point out some notable missteps, I also can’t deny Star Command’s irresistibility, and I happily recommend it to fellow sci-fi enthusiasts.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.