It's been almost five years since Chris Roberts' last game, Wing Commander IV, hit the shelves. The WC series always prided itself on pushing back existing boundaries in computer gaming, and inspired many of us to spend our hard-earned cash on a hardware upgrade, so we could play the latest instalment. Yes it had its detractors, notably fans of the X-Wing series, but no one could argue that it tried to do something new: mix an interactive movie with varied space combat missions. Since those ambitious days, we've seen the likes of FreeSpace 2 and X- Beyond The Frontier become the new benchmarks of the genre, moving away from FMV and concentrating more on the combat (or in Xs case, trading) side of things. After starting their own development house, Digital Anvil, Roberts and co have produced their own contender for the top spot, StarLancer. But is it something different or just a spinoff of the Wing Commander series?
Let's face it, an original idea comes along about as often as a solar eclipse, which anyone with even a hint of astronomical awareness knows isn't all that often. So don't be surprised when I tell you that you're not going to find anything particularly new when you play StarLancer single-player campaign. Before you start sending me letters of indignation, telling me that this is the greatest space game ever, calm down and read on a little. No, StarLancers original, but it is, for the most part, very good. So, now that that's sorted out, let's see what StarLancer has to offer in terms of gameplay.
Tell Us a Story
StarLancehs a mixed bag of the generally excellent and the occasionally inadequate. The intro fills you with anticipation, setting the scene brilliantly. It all revolves around the Alliance (a thinly disguised version of Nato) and the Coalition (you guessed it, the Russians), vying for control of the Milky Way in the not so distant future. Unsurprisingly, during the proposed signing of a peace treaty, the evil Coalition launch an attack on Alliance forces, sending them into full retreat. Due to the desperate need for pilots, the Coalition recruits’ civilian volunteers, and that's where you come in. You're a member of the rookie 45th Volunteers Squadron, and you must help the Alliance fight off the Coalition aggressors (stop me if any of this is sounding a bit familiar). The scene is now set for a titanic battle to save your side from annihilation, with the plot furthered throughout the game by means of news reports and the occasional cut-scene.
Bunk and You'll Miss It
When the pretty cinematics are over, it's time to get to grips with flying and fighting. This is done in the sim pod, which leads you through the basics step by step.
If you're confident that you can fly (and believe me, those of you who've played the Wing Commander games should be as the controls are pretty similar), then you can take on wave Upon wave of enemy fighters by selecting the Instant Action option. The first thing that strikes you is just how fast StarLancer is. It's more arcade than a simulation, with droves of enemy craft bearing down on you, and very little time to dispose of them. After playing FreeSpace 2 and X -BTF, it's striking just how much of an adrenaline rush the combat in StarLancer provides, both in the sim pod and in the actual campaign missions. You don't have time to think, you've just got to fly on pure instinct.
Prepped, Primed, Loaded, Locked
Once you feel confident enough with your piloting ability, it's time to tackle your first mission. After a detailed briefing, you're taken to the ship selection and weapons load-out screen, reminiscent of (you guessed it) Wing Commander IV. At first you only have four fighters to choose from, but by the end of the game you're given a selection of 12. The variety and quality of ships is excellent and should cater for the flying style of every type of pilot, whether you're swift, fearless and deadly, or slow, cack-handed and easily confused by fast moving vehicles. There's also a host of weaponry to equip your ship with, and, if you don't pay enough attention to the mission objectives outlined in the briefing, you'll probably choose the wrong missiles for the job. Do this, and you'll really struggle to complete certain key objectives.
If You Want Something Done...
So, you've practiced in the sim pod, listened to and digested your mission objectives and selected your ship and weapons accordingly. Now it's time to mix things up in the vacuum. In no time at all you've raced through the first five missions and you're left thinking you're a one (wo)man army. The worrying thing is, you pretty much are, but fortunately things do get harder after about mission five. One of the biggest criticisms I have of StarLancers the lack of teamwork, the lack of any feeling that your squadron care about you, or even know you exist. Too often all you seem to get is your wing leader bleating a stream of orders at you, telling you to hurry up killing those nine enemy fighters, while fending off a wave of bombers and protecting your capital ships from any torpedoes. If you don't do it, it's rare that someone else will.
However, on the flip side, if it wasn't for all these objectives, the game would be too easy. Some of the enemy flying is laughable on easy and medium levels, although this does improve considerably on the hardest difficulty setting. Paradoxically though, their teamwork is superb as they try to suck you away from the carriers you're protecting, in order to give their bombers a clear run at your unprotected capital ships. You're provided with a copilot, who tells you when you've been locked on to, and when you should consider running away. Not only is this helpful, it also goes some way to rectifying the problem of little or no teamwork from your squadron.
One of StarLancer's strongest features is its open-ended nature. Many missions have more than one objective, and most of them provide you with the chance to take the initiative to complete secondary tasks, not stated in your mission outline. If you're ordered to blow up an enemy warp gate, but a Coalition carrier jumps in just as you've finished your mission, then it's up to you to instigate an attack and take it out. The decisions you make affect your promotional chances as well as the war's progress, all of which will be conveyed in news reports.
StarLancer's lack of rigidity also paves the way for its excellent multiplayer co-operative option, something which has been sadly lacking from other titles in the genre. You and three friends can play together through the campaign, or up to eight of you can play against each other in a death match. The multiplayer option makes StarLancer come alive, because it overcomes the game's major shortcomings in terms of teamwork, especially if you can play over a network.
Something Borrowed, Something New
It's true that much of StarLancer mimics existing titles. The storyline is tense, but never ground-breaking; the combat is fast-paced, but similar to that of previous Chris Roberts space sims; the missions are usually either search and destroy, rescue or escort runs; and the Al isn't going to win any awards for innovation. Even though it copies, it manages to do so very well and, while much of StarLancers done by numbers, it's the option to play with other people that sets it apart from its competitors.
StarLancers well worth buying, but if you're a fan of space sims, be prepared for a heavy dosage of Deja vu. Link up with your friends though, and you're in for a great new experience.
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
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2018-11-26 Starlancer game added.