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Attack Ships On Fire Off The Shoulder Of Orion – Starfarer [Preview]

Missiles tumble wildly through space as automated point defense guns desperately try to intercept their flight. Hulls buckle and burn as energy beams cut deadly arcs, slicing ships asunder. Space combat is intense business, especially when you’re at the head of a fleet, and doubly so when you have to play the long game, balancing books and making sure that each fight leaves you better off. Fractal Softworks have let us have an early peek at the first build of their upcoming action/strategy hybrid Starfarer to include the sandbox campaign/RPG mode. Here’s what preordering folks have to look forward to soon.

We first had a look at Starfarer last year, and this new version is leaps and bounds more advanced. For a recent point of reference, the current version of Starfarer could be fairly described as a 2D Mount & Blade… IN SPAAAAACE. Starting with a miserable pittance in funds and a single frigate-class ship, the current Starfarer build drops you into a single solar system caught in a three-way fight. The Hegemony rule this region for now, but the technologically savvy Tri-Tachyon corporation are making their move. Constant raids by pirate clans trouble all involved – Hegemony, corporate or independent alike. It’s messy, and a good place to learn the ropes.

A complex firefight. Space combat is messy, even in 2D.

Gameplay flow in the sandbox will be immediately familiar to Mount & Blade fans. You’re a very small fish in a very big pond (the largest fleets are enormous), and the only way to get bigger is to eat other little fish. A few successful engagements with pirate scout units (usually a single frigate or fighter/bomber wing) will earn you some cash, loot and maybe a captured ship or two, and you just keep rising up the ranks from there. It’s limited at present, but still a compelling rise to glory, and keeping your entire fleet alive during an equally matched encounter is rewarding both monetarily and personally.

Right now, there’s a simplified economy in play, with new ships and a good range of weapons available from a Hegemony-held station. In addition to worrying about having enough fuel and supplies on each sortie, crew and marines are important to hire as well. Each ship has a minimum crew requirement to fly it around, but to be used in combat you need a full complement of spacey seamen. After a battle, disabled (but not wrecked) enemy ships can be captured by sending marines aboard, and if they’re successful, you’ll be able to fly away with a whole ship, so long as you can at least field a skeleton crew for it. It’s a good way to work your way up the ranks and make money, as unwanted ships can be sold for plenty of cash.

A very positive result. Some damage taken, but the enemy fleet is crushed.

Being an alpha version, and the first build to feature the sandbox mode, things are still rather limited at the moment. Rather than bouncing freely around space, you’re currently limited to a single solar system, and there’s nothing to do right now beyond work your way up the food chain, earn money and build up a fleet. A lot of the higher level stuff, like character management and assigning captains to your ships are also absent, although the rather Mechwarrior-esque ship configuration screen did make it in, allowing you to easily make significant changes to both the external and internal makeup of your fleet.

Refitting ships is immediately familiar stuff to anyone who has played Mechwarrior 4 (which is now freeware). Each ship hull has a maximum weight limit, and a series of color-coded turret hardpoints. Some points are straight forward-firing, others are rotary. The color denotes what type of weapon can be used – projectile, energy or missile – and there’s various size classes of weapons, too. If you’ve still got excess weight left over after placing guns, you can invest in additional reactor capacity or venting (good for energy-weapon heavy builds) or internal modules like extended missile magazines, faster-tracking turrets or wider shield coverage. The interface is simple, but a quick reconfiguration can completely change the role of a ship.

The ship refitting interface. Simple, but powerful and very useful.

What the game does contain in addition to the new campaign content is the dozen or so standalone missions that previous alpha builds have offered, now feeling somewhat meatier now that the combat engine supports systems damage, and powerful hits that can knock out guns and engines. While the campaign now provides a greater meaning behind all this flying around and shooting stuff, the heart of the gameplay is the combat engine, and it works marvelously even at this early point, and was the sole focus of development up to this point, which explains why it feels so polished and refined, even in Alpha.

Combat takes place on a simple 2D battlefield, reminiscent of Gratuitous Space Battles, to a degree. Unlike GSB, you’re in direct action-style control of your personal flagship, and your other craft can be assigned general goals, although micromanagement is eschewed in favor of a common-sense ‘chain of command’ where ships are intelligently assigned to goals as you set them. Say that you want a navigation buoy captured, and some fast-moving assets will break off and try to claim it quickly. Say you want the same location assaulted, and a larger, slower force will assemble to try and punch their way through. It feels more like being a captain/admiral, rather than a babysitter, and the remarkably capable AI has a knack for self preservation rarely seen in games.

Battle-scars from combat as very visible, and persist the whole battle.

The combat itself is highly detailed. Locational damage is a key element – each ship has two layers of defense. Energy shielding (which puts strain on the reactor, same as weapons, and can shut your ship down briefly if overloaded so should be used sparingly) and armor plating. As you take damage, parts of your ship become visibly burnt and broken, and repeated strikes to a particular point will gradually punch through to the inner hull and do proper damage. A wing of light fighters won’t do much damage to the armor of a cruiser, but if you’ve stripped away the armor on one side, the same fighters can do terrible damage if they strafe the open wound.

As mentioned, there’s systems damage as well now. Externally mounted weapons and engines can be knocked out by direct hits, and some wider hulls with engines at each side can be sent into a painful wild spin into space if one engine is disabled. Ship components can’t be outright destroyed, and will return to full functionality after a while, but this additional level of complexity really fleshes things out. Picking and choosing which are the most dangerous guns on an enemy capital ship and disabling them with precision fire is not only viable, but highly recommended.

Future plans for the campaign sound ambitious, including a greater focus on RPG elements, with each NPC captain having their own fighting style and skills, although I’ve not heard of any plans for multiplayer… yet. Oh, and as a final bit of icing on the cake, the game is available in Windows, Mac OS and Linux flavors so everyone with a halfway modern PC can try their hand at the game. A free demo is apparently planned for the near future, if you’re still on the fence.

It’s an impressive package already. The full game is set to cost $20 (due ‘When It’s Done’), but you can get in now for $10. Personally, I reckon there’s easily ten bucks worth of gameplay in this current release, and more if you dig around the official forums – the game has a dedicated fanbase and extensive modding support, so there’s already plenty of new missions and ships to play around with. Keep an eye on DIYGamer for more news on Starfarer, and hopefully a full review closer to release.