Following last year’s game-of-the-year winning brilliant space “rogue-like” FTL (Faster Than Light), it was only a matter of time before people started coming up with FTL clones and wannabe titles for systems. The two-man team over at WarBalloon Games made a hell of a stab at it with their Kickstarter game, Star Command, for Apple devices. But does it hold up on portable devices or should it be jettisoned out the airlock?
Unlike FTL, Star Command has a single player campaign with a story behind it. You play as a starship commander for the “Federation” framed for the destruction of a fellow Federation ship. Taking your basic command ship, you flee to the deepest reaches of known space and work with the wacky denizens of outlaw rim planets in an attempt to build up your crew and ship to clear your name. More of a single player experience than a “rogue-like” title (short playthroughs supporting multiple deaths and randomized encounters), the story unfolds the same way each time you play it. For example, the second mission of the game involves your heading to Mars and dealing with a long abandoned Russian space station, which promptly beams dozens of Russian cosmonaut zombies on-board your ship. The encounters you deal with are much more fleshed out, having pixelated “cut scenes” showing you the opposing vessel’s crew and captain, but the game loses out on replayability with the scripted events occurring in the same order each time.
However, story and not having randomized encounters are not Star Command’s chief concerns. Star Command falls down hard when it comes to controls and gameplay. Star Command‘s primary gameplay has you micromanaging the crew of your vessel; in combat, you can see a close up of the inside of your ship, where you can order your crew members to take up one of three classes: science officer, tech officer or weapons officer. Weapons officers man the ship’s weapons and can get into fights if your ship is boarded by an enemy. Tech officers can repair the ship if damaged and can help power engines and help your ship dodge enemy projectiles, while your science officers man the shields, medical bay and can heal injured crew members on the fly. Your captain has the ability to amplify your crew’s abilities in his proximity, and all crew can change from blue shirts (scientists) to red shirts (weapons) if you get boarded to help fend off intruders. So far, it all sounds good, but the problem is that there is no pause button to coordinate events throughout the ship. This is absolutely critical flaw with Star Command: while you’re zooming in, tapping on a single technician to start putting out a fire in the engine room, the enemy ship has already beamed over a half dozen of its crew and wiped out your weapons crew. So, you quickly try to take your science officer from the shield generator, throw a red shirt on him and throw him into to the hallway to shoot it out, but then another missile tears a hole in your laser weapon room. Things can get out of control quickly if your shields go down, and your only being able to control a single crew member at any one time while the battle is raging on around you makes Star Command nearly impossible to play.
Star Command doesn’t fall down just with on-ship battles (which are devastating by themselves), but the ship-to-ship combat is equally painful. Friendly weapons charge with a slow, plodding pace, upwards of 90-120 seconds of waiting for a charge to build in your laser battery. Then, you have to play a bizarre and unexplained minigame to determine the number of shots your team is able to get off in one volley. If you fail the minigame, your weapon doesn’t fire…and it is fairly easy to fail the minigame. Crew member skill doesn’t seem to effect the loading time, damage of shots or minigame difficulty what-so-ever. Meanwhile, the enemy ship decimates your shields in two hits, which leaves you open to being boarded by the enemy and its unlimited number of away team boarding parties.
Towards the beginning of the campaign, combat is reasonable and upgrading your ship and crew through Star Command’s “token” system is done at a decent pace to feel like you’re making progress. By the time your chased to the outlaw rim planets following the prologue, every battle you encounter leaves your crew decimated and your ship in tatters. It becomes impossible to keep up with the pace Star Command requires you to be at to power up your ship, as you’re constantly throwing away tokens to putting fresh untrained bodies back on your ship after your previous crew is liquefied in the previous battle. Enemy ships get larger and hit harder, and without those upgrades, you’re going to be overwhelmed quickly.
For $2.99, Star Command has a great premise, an awesome pixelated art style and could have be a must-have game to have on your mobile device. There’s an amazing game here, but unfortunately, the game’s mechanics make this game impossible to recommend without severe game patching. Adding in a pause button of some kind in order to micromanage your crew better, taking away the agonizingly long weapon load times and coming up with a work around for the feeling of never actually making progression due to spending vital upgrades to replace dead crew are all game breakers in Star Command’s case.
Editor’s Note: After having my ship overrun several hours in for the tenth time in another impossible combat scenario, I deleted the game from my iOS device with no plans on re-installing it. It is rare that I actually rage quit a game that hard; typically, I’ll leave games on to gather dust and never touch them again, but I felt that this note was important to put in.