Starfarer: Full of Potential, Oozing with Style
When I first began this site nearly six months ago (!), one of the games I promised to preview was an interesting looking indie title named Starfarer. I had played the alpha a bit and enjoyed it way back when, but sadly I got caught up in reviews and such. With a new version coming out — which is out today, by the way — I contacted the game’s author a week ago for a preview. After diving into the game for a bit, I’m ready to tell y’all what I think…
Starfarer is the work of Fractal Softworks, a five-person team that have been working on the game for some time. The latest version that just came out — and the one used for this article — was preview 0.50a, which adds a bit of the larger campaign, as well as many features to the overall gameplay. While I’ve played previous versions a bit, I’m going to write this article as if I was coming to the game cold, to try and be as objective as possible.
Starfarer starts off with a simple menu with several options, including tutorials, missions, a “new game” which denotes a new campaign, and so on. Starting where any new player should, I went to the tutorials and began with the Combat Tutorial, which sounded simple enough. The tutorial started off with the basics of control, which is a combination of mouse and WASD controls.
Seems simple enough at this point. I was then shown how to use weapons on a non-mobile ship, some fighters and eventually, a mobile ship that fought back. It was a fun one-on-one battle, and I totally gave ’em one for. Combat itself can be very visceral. A ship might have a multitude of weapons, which you can either select with the number keys or set to autofire — which is useful for defensive turrets and the like — which gives you direct control over what you want to fire at any given time.
In the tutorial, my ship had four weapons, such as an assault chaingun (to damage the hull of enemy ships), medium range missiles, a flak cannon, and a graviton beam (to disable shields). Some weapons, like the chaingun, fire forwards while others like the graviton beam fire where your mouse cursor is. I found it useful to put all weapons on autofire except for the chaingun. You also have control over shields by using the right mouse button. These can cover one to three quadrants of the ship, and require the mouse button be held down, based on my experience. This all made combat a complex affair, but it was honestly still fun managing all these systems.
Ultimately the combat tutorial was a success, which spurned me onto the Fleet Tutorial, the only other tutorial with my version of the game. The Fleet Tutorial in Starfarer gives you a certain amount of fleet points with which to deploy your fleet — similar to Gratuitous Space Battles — which I was fine with. What I wasn’t fine with is that I wasn’t given enough fleet points to actually deploy anything.
If you look at that screenshot, you’ll see I have three fleet points from which to deploy my forces. Three. As you can see, EVERYTHING I can deploy is MORE than three points. Therefore, I couldn’t actually deploy any of these fighters or capital ships that were supposedly at my disposal. This is likely a bug, as it makes no sense to make a tutorial this inaccessible. After restarting the game a few times to see if this would fix the issue, I eventually moved onto the missions, of which there are many to try.
I tried the first mission, “Turning the Tables,” which had a difficulty level of “Easy”, and was presented with the same fleet deployment screen as in the Fleet Tutorial, only THIS time I had enough points to deploy EVERYONE! Huzzah! Using the game’s built-in tactical map, I tried to give orders:
I say “tried” because, since I couldn’t use the Fleet Tutorial, I barely had any idea what I was doing. While many games have you click on a ship, then click on a target to have that ship do something to it — such as escorting or attacking — Starfarer is a bit different. Apparently, you can:
- Click on the ship you want to give an order to and select from a list of menu items, such as “Destroyer Escort” — which will escort Destroyer-class ships — for example, which will then select that ships target for you, depending on the order.
- Click on an empty area in space to set a waypoint and have certain types of ships rally there, or patrol around the waypoint, for example.
- Click on a specific item in the map to have certain ships interact with it, such as clicking on a navigation buoy and selecting “Capture” to have your small, fast ships capture it.
This control scheme seemed a bit backwards to me, but I tried to adapt to it as best I could. Sadly, even with this mission labeled “Easy”, I died again and again, even when I had all of my ships on autopilot, including my own. The enemy was just too fast for me, capturing both nav buoys before my forces could even get near them. At one point, my ship even overloaded, resulting in a glorious explosion.
On a side note, the explosions and overall…visceral nature of the combat is intensely satisfying. Explosions are very boombastic, weapons fire feels very meaty, and ship damage is wonderfully represented. While it’s a bit confusing to control, for me at least, even constant losses in this mission kept me coming back for more, just to see the combat over and over again. I would say that the controls here need to be refined, both for fleet command and single ship control, but that doesn’t hold back the sheer fun of blowing other ships, even my own, up in a glorious fashion.
I then tried the “Random Battle”, which gave me a much larger fleet to deal with, as well as much larger ships.
Another side note, a you can see here the ships are lovely in design. The designs are varied, colorful, effective and brutal in their depiction of future space vessels. The ships themselves are also quite detailed, with moving turrets, visible battle damage and so on. This makes the combat in the game even that much more fun to witness.
THIS time, instead of manually controlling my flagship, I set it to autopilot and commanded all ships to “Seek and Destroy”, just so I could see the combat in action and not deal with the control scheme, which still hadn’t clicked with me at the time. Let’s just say that this combat session was a blast to watch, with me jumping from ship to ship just to see a better view of the action. The AI in the game seems pretty competent too, as it deployed varied and timed attacks to try to get a leg up on our forces. Sadly, however, it was to no avail, as my fleet slaughtered the enemy in glorious fashion.
Finally, I went back to the main menu and clicked “New Game” to start a new campaign. Captain Brian Rubin was then furnished with a Brawler-class Assault Gunship and found himself orbiting the planet of Corvus II.
In orbit was a station full of stuff I couldn’t buy, orbiting a planet I couldn’t land on, so I flew around a bit. There were massive fleets, both friendly and not, flittering about. I tried to join the nearby friendly fleet, but all they said was “Hi, we see you, you’re adorable”, paraphrased of course.
I then flew around to some of the other planets to see what else I could do. A few times I was chased by a WHOLE PIRATE FLEET (AAAHHH!), but luckily my little ship was pretty fast so I outran ’em. Eventually I was pursued by a single pirate scout, so I figured this one-on-one type of combat was what I should engage in for now, until I can get a bigger ship, so I dove in. You can handle combat yourself, or select your first mate to handle it for you. This time, I dove in, guns blazing.
Sadly, my elation didn’t last long…
When your ship explodes, you’re given a new, totally random one at the expense of a few hundred credits. When I found myself in a new ship — a freighter — I saw I was being chased by an entire pirate carrier group. Oh yeah, that’s totally fair. This time, however, after failing to retreat, I let my second officer handle it…
So our ship was captured, and then I found myself in a new ship…in the middle of the same damned carrier group, so I lost again. And again. And a couple more times until I could finally outrun ’em and get away. At this point, I really had no direction as to what to do next, as there didn’t seem to be any missions, quests or anything of the sort, but I guess those will get added later. Finally, I took a look at the in-game encyclopedia, the Codex.
I actually spent a good amount of time going through the Codex, and was impressed at the amount of detail already in there. This reminded me of the olden days when games came with manuals, and I would pour over the technical details of the ships or planes or tanks or whatever else included therein.
So, overall, even with a modicum of frustration at Starfarer’s difficulty — which could also be attributed to my inability as using it properly, I think — I actually had a great time with my playthrough of the latest Starfarer alpha. While it certainly needs refining and fine-tuning, it just oozes with style, potential and playability. I’d say if you have any interest in this type of game at all, jump on it now while the pre-order price is still 50% off what it’ll be once finished. It’ll be worth it just to see how this game evolves.
Thanks for reading, and please enjoy all of the screenshots I took for this preview in the gallery below.