Back in the day there was only one name when it came to space combat sims, and that name was Wing Commander.
Produced by Origin back in the days before they migrated to cyberspace, the games pushed the graphics and sound capabilities of the PCs of the day to their limits. From the third game onwards, the Wing Commander series also featured lavish FMV cutscenes that rivalled many movies of the day when it came to special effects .. and cost.
The driving force behind the Wing Commander series was the Roberts brothers, Chris and Erin, and it is their new company Digital Anvil which is behind Starlancer. The question is, will Starlancer be the spiritual successor to the classic Wing Commander games, or just another space combat game in an increasingly crowded cosmos?
The Story So Far
First impressions are certainly good, and the computer rendered cutscene that starts the game is stunning, even if the story that it is telling is a little cliched to say the least.
The evil dictatorship of the Eastern Coalition has launched a Pearl Harbour style surprise attack on the Western Alliance, wiping out most of the French and Italian fleets. In the chaos that ensued the Coalition has over-run most of the Alliance's colonies, with the survivors falling back to Neptune. Now it is up to your group of raw recruits to help stop the rout, and eventually take the fight to the enemy.
To get you started there is a simulation pod, which will introduce you to the game's controls and arsenal. If you have played any other space combat sim of the last ten years you should feel right at home though.
Once you are satisfied that you know your yaw from your roll and can find the fire button, it is time to head into combat...
Before you can do this though, you need to leave your cabin and head over to the briefing room. This only involves a couple of mouse clicks usually, but it results in a rendered cutscene showing your view as you walk through the bowels of the ship.
It looks great, and no doubt sounded great on paper, but once you have seen the same basic animation a dozen times you will soon get sick of it. It takes up to a minute to get from your cabin to your seat in the briefing room, and there isn't even any way to skip it as far as I can tell. Annoying, to say the least.
Having finally reached the briefing room, you then get another nice rendered cutscene as your squadron leader outlines your mission objectives, after which you can select your ship and missiles before heading into combat...
The good news is that combat itself is frantic and fast-paced, and just as much fun as it was in the old Wing Commander games.
By the end of the game you have a choice of a dozen different ships to fly, as well as a healthy selection of missiles ranging from pods of dumb-fire rockets to fast and agile missiles that can chase down their prey from a safe distance.
The space that you are fighting over looks as interesting as space can, with recognisable renditions of many of the planets in our solar system looming in the background, along with distant stars and the odd nebula. The ships that fill it are beautifully detailed, and explode into a highly satisfying spray of particles and shards of debris at the slightest provocation. Add to this the impressive smoke, weapons and explosion effects, and you have the best looking space combat sim so far.
Potential targets range from fighters and torpedo bombers, through cruisers and cargo ships, all the way up to massive space stations and bases built from asteroids. And thanks to a little innovation from the developers, you can actually make the most of these behemoths now. The game includes strafe keys, which lets you slide your ship left and right. Hardly a giant leap for mankind, but it does mean that you can circle strafe your way around some of the larger objects, a feature which was sorely missed in Freespace 2.
It's not all good news though... The AI of your squad mates is fairly poor, and all too often you find yourself ending a mission with only a handful of survivors. This makes completing some of the missions difficult at best, and downright impossible in some cases.
Mission : Impossible
The mission scripting is rather haphazard at times as well, and tends to lock you into completing your objectives in a strict order.
I was particularly annoyed when one mission debriefing accused me of a "lack of initiative and commitment", after my entire wing was wiped out within a couple of minutes, and the mission's scripting made it physically impossible to complete any of my objectives.
The idea was to take out a Coalition research facility and warp gate, both of which were defended by laser turrets, and patrolled by wings of fighters and a few larger ships. Having destroyed all the fighters and cruisers, I took on the laser defence turrets on my first target, the research facility. There were still a few left intact when my commander decided I had blown up enough already, and called in the torpedo bombers to finish the job.
One of the torpedo bombers was immediately attacked by an enemy cruiser that just appeared out of nowhere, but the first bomber was so far away from the research facility that even with afterburners on I couldn't reach it before it had been destroyed. Meanwhile the other bomber was approaching its target. Unfortunately, the research facility was so close to the warp gate that the turrets on that could pick the bomber off easily.
I tried the mission again, this time attacking the turrets on the warp gate first, but the mission was scripted not to allow this. However much ordinance I pumped into the turrets, it was impossible to destroy them. So, once I had finished off the turrets on the research facility, the torpedo bombers jumped in, the first one was taken out by the cruiser before I could get near it, and the second one was blown up by the invulnerable warp gate turrets. Again. At this point I gave up and went home.
Sadly this kind of limitation is all too common in the game, making any kind of "initiative" very hard to achieve... On the bright side, although the single player campaign is strictly linear, you are able to flunk some of the missions. Failing one or more of your objectives generally brings you a slap on the wrist from your commander in the debriefing, and can lead to future missions becoming more difficult, but at least you can continue the game.
If the stupidity of your AI wingmen is getting you down, replace them with the real thing! Starlancer lets you play through the single player campaign with your friends as your wingmen, over a LAN or the internet.
The game also includes six deathmatch maps, ranging from "Asteroid Field", a basic free for all map with you fighting amongst huge spinning lumps of rock, to "Nuclear Strike", which adds six beacons to the mix. Pick them all up and you will trigger a nuclear attack that will wipe out all the other players.
The multiplayer is perhaps one of the best features of the game, but there is one small problem... Unless you have a LAN or a fast internet connection, or you live in the USA, you can't play it.
The developers haven't included a dedicated server option, something which has been standard in first person shooters for a few years now. This means that when you play online, one of the other players is hosting the game. All too often that player will have a Pentium II and an AOL connection, and the game will be unplayable thanks to lag.
And unlike in a first person shooter, in Starlancer lag causes the game to freeze up completely. You see a screen listing all the players, and "Reject" buttons appear next to the names of any who are lagging particularly badly. Hit reject and that player is knocked out of the game, or try waiting and see if the game unpauses. Needless to say, this makes multiplayer a rather hit and miss affair.
Internet play is run through Microsoft's gaming portal, "The Zone". This would normally be fine, except that it is based in Seattle, there are no European servers, and most of the people playing on it are American. As you can imagine, this makes finding a game which you can actually play in without lagging out rather difficult if you live on the "wrong" side of the Atlantic. Your chances of finding enough Europeans online at once to play against are slim at best.
You don't have to play through The Zone, but the "Find Games" button in the multiplayer menu doesn't seem to work, or at least I've never seen it find any games. So the only alternative is to find a group of people who want to play, arrange a time, get whoever has the fastest connection to host the game, and then type in their IP address by hand.
Back in 1995 this was state of the art stuff, and I'm sure our older readers remember the joys of playing Doom modem-to-modem (another option supported in Starlancer!). But it's hardly a satisfactory multiplayer experience for the year 2000. Digital Anvil created the rendered introduction movie for Quake 3 Arena. It's just a shame that they didn't learn any lessons from the game in the process...
On one level Starlancer is very successful. It is the best looking space combat sim we've seen so far, the dogfighting is enjoyable enough, and the plot is full of twists and turns, if a little hackneyed. Replace the evil Coalition with Kilrathi, and their repetitive taunts of "allied scum" with "alien scum", and this could easily be Wing Commander VI.
Unfortunately it is let down all too often by poor mission scripting and incompetent wingmen, not to mention the occasional random crash. And the sheer annoyance of having to watch yourself wander through the ship for up to a minute before you can get to the briefing room at the start of a mission. And the missions with the "Dark Reign" ion cannon that destroys your ship in a single shot, and can somehow hit you even if you are directly behind it...
The game is also lacking in imagination in many respects - although it pushes forwards graphics and (to a lesser extent) sound, the basic gameplay really isn't any different from the Wing Commander or Freespace series. In fact, in a way it's a step backwards from the old Wing Commander games, as the single player campaign is now almost entirely linear, and your wingmen are mostly faceless drones who only exist to die two minutes into the mission.
If you are looking for a fast and furious space combat sim, this is about as good as they come at the moment. Just don't expect anything groundbreaking.