Sunday, September 07, 2008

Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy

Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy is another game by Ben Olding, creator of Achilles (review here; actually, Starfighter predates Achilles by quite a bit, but that's the order in which I played them), but the two games have essentially nothing in common -- unlike, say, a jmtb02 game, which you can pretty instantly recognize as a jmtb02 game regardless of what the game might actually be about, you'd never tell they were by the same person.

Well, enough about what Starfighter isn't, and perhaps a little more about what it is. Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy is a large-scale top-view 2D space action game, much in the tradition of classic games like Escape Velocity. You start out as a relatively minor participant in the apparently endless war between humans and aliens, flying missions throughout the galaxy and destroying enemies, which earns you money to buy more powerful weapons and ships. But, to be honest, I found myself comparing the game to Escape Velocity a lot of the time, and it definitely suffered from the comparison.

In Starfighter, the galaxy is divided into a 20x20 map of sectors. At the beginning of the game, you pick a faction to be allied with, and you will fight on that side forevermore; the factions are, functionally speaking, pretty much equivalent, so you're not going to be missing out on much regardless of which side you pick. The galaxy is, conveniently, linearly divided: the degree of human control ranges from 1 at the bottom row of the galaxy to 0 at the top row, and vice-versa for the aliens. At the beginning of the game, you'll tend to hang out at the bottom (or top), but as you get more powerful, you'll move closer to the middle. (Spending a prolonged amount of time in enemy territory is difficult, though.) Each sector is pretty sizeable. Some sectors contain friendly space stations where you can buy new weapons and upgrades, or even buy a new ship. Your ship has a certain amount of energy and shields; the former can be used to recharge the latter, and both naturally recharge over time. Combat is pretty straightforward -- you can fire your primary weapon (a laser cannon, which takes your energy) or one of your secondary weapons (how many secondary weapons you can carry depends on your ship). Some secondary weapons have a limited ammunition supply (which replenishes when you cross a sector boundary or dock at a friendly station), while others take energy to fire. Your laser cannon is a dumb weapon, but many secondary weapons have automatic targeting and need to be locked onto a target before firing. Should you die, you respawn somewhere else in your sector with full health and weapons, but minus one life. The game gives you ten lives to start with, and should you manage to lose all of them, your account will be reset. You can always buy more lives at a friendly station, though, so really only extreme carelessness can result in this happening. Overall, I kind of like this mechanic.

While I generally love this genre of game (the Escape Velocity series is one of my favorite series of games of all time), Starfighter has a few flaws that readily become apparent. The first is that the universe is a relatively boring place. All space stations are the same -- they've got some weapons, they've got some missions (which are always randomly generated), and that's about it. There's no flavor to any of the missions or locations. All of the missions are basically the same -- either transport some stuff to another station, kill a number of an enemy ship type, or kill all enemies in a given sector. As you advance along the game, some more types of missions become available, but they're all basically cut from the same cloth. There's no particular overarching plot behind any of the missions, nor do they ever really change. In fact, there's no particular plot at all. You're just a human and you destroy aliens, or vice versa, and that's just the way it is.

The second problem is that getting around is kind of slow. A sector is large, and getting from one end of it to another can take a while, even if there aren't any enemies to slow you down. Getting from sector to sector, then, is even slower, since you have to fly across the entirety of a sector. You can buy hyperspace capability, but it costs a lot of money for a single charge, so it's not really profitable, especially if you're just doing a dinky courier mission anyway. (There does exist an engine upgrade which gives you free hyperspaces, which is very convenient, but it's extremely expensive, and it means you can't buy the other engine upgrades which speed up your intra-sector travel, so it definitely comes at a cost.) So, ultimately, you'll spend a lot of time flying through space with nothing in particular to do.

The third problem is that the combat isn't well-balanced. First of all, there just isn't that much differentiation in ship quality. In Escape Velocity (sorry for repeatedly mentioning EV, but it really is my gold standard here -- I promise this is the last time), when you get a capital ship, you can feel the difference. Here, though, even the supposedly weaker ships can take down the ostensibly most powerful enemies without too much difficulty, given a little bit of skill, patience, and luck. Also, the secondary weapons are not at all equal in power, and the enemies seem to have them randomly, so oftentimes a combat will not be anywhere near as difficult as you thought it was. This just kind of reduces the rewards of getting one of the bigger ships, especially since, as you might expect, the bigger ships are slower, thus exacerbating the second problem.

I would be remiss not to mention the multiplayer, since this is one of the big selling points of Starfighter: Disputed Galaxy. I like the approach to multiplayer very much -- it's very simple and elegant. Certain sectors are multiplayer sectors, where you can enter and fight against enemies played by other players. There are also co-op multiplayer sectors, where your allies are other players but the enemies are still computer players, as normal. This allows people to easily avoid the multiplayer, if they prefer a solitary experience, or seek it out if they want to test their skills, and I like the co-op option as well. Well, at least I do in theory. The one big asterisk is that multiplayer doesn't work with the latest version of Flash, so I didn't actually have a chance to try it out firsthand.

The graphics are OK -- each ship has a very distinctive look, which is definitely a nice feature, but they're all pretty flat and 2D. The sounds are pretty standard, too. There are several different snippets of music, which appear to play on different occasions (returning to a station, getting caught in an ambush, etc.); the music is definitely nice, but it's not continuous, so most of the game you'll be playing in silence (except for weapons firing).

Overall Starfighter is a well-crafted game, and it's clearly the work of a competent programmer (despite its complexity, the game always ran smoothly and glitch-free), but the environment just isn't interesting enough. The fact that the only way to progress in the game is to just go around and kill a lot of enemies, and you don't even get all that much interesting stuff for reaching the various thresholds of killing, means that reaching the requisite 801 kills to receive the badge is kind of a dreary slog. It would be a lot better if there were more of a plot and interesting variety in the galaxy, but as it stands, it's just a game with unrealized potential.

(Footnote: After playing Starfighter and thinking how much better EV was, I realized that I had never actually gotten EV Nova, the third installment in the series, so I went out and bought it and played it. It really was much better.)

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