It’s no secret that Fractal Softworks’ Starfarer is one of my most eagerly followed alphafunded indie games. A shockingly in-depth space shooter/strategy blend with RPG elements – it might sound intimidating, but the combat is accessible, the interface is well designed and the sandbox elements are very reminiscent of Mount & Blade even at this early point. It’s been quite some time since a new playable build was released to pre-purchasers, but this one is fairly massive, to the point of actually having four staggered change-logs.
While the scale of the game is still sadly limited to a set of standalone missions and a single sandbox star-system to explore (the final game will have a large part of the galaxy to freely roam around), the individual components have all been tweaked, tuned and refined here. The ships themselves are much more interesting now – previously, they were just hulls onto which you mounted gear, but now each chassis has a built-in ability/feature that defines it. One might have anti-missile flares, another a short-range teleporter, a powerful but damaging booster engine and so on.
Another major gameplay feature is phase-cloaked ships, which can fade in and out of reality. They’re not just invisible, but largely invulnerable while cloaked, capable of even phasing through the front of an enemy capital ship, turning round, un-phasing and unloading some cannon fire into its exposed engines. There’s already a range of tools and tricks to counter these new ships, and they’re largely limited to the ‘high-tech’ factions of the game such as the Tri-Tachyon corporation.
The already-impressive AI has gotten yet another overhaul, too. The importance of this can’t be understated – while you have command over a fleet in Starfarer, it doesn’t work like a traditional RTS. You’re an admiral, and pass orders down to your captains. How these captains carry out those orders depends on how well supported they are, their morale, their personal skills, stats and so on. It’s much more RPG-like than you’d first think, and this requires ship AI capable of holding its own.
The AI feels a little more human now, and more aware of exactly what ship it’s flying – strengths and weaknesses included. There’s already been some players caught unaware by the newfound survival instinct of the previously hapless Buffalo Mk2 missile barges. When threatened and cornered, they’re likely to launch their entire cargo of missiles while retreating in order to save their own skin. Conversely, aggressive hunter-killer ships will now actively seek to bring down missile boats sitting on the edge of battle in order to clear the field for their less agile bretheren.
Reminiscent of Cortex Command, Starfarer may still be a long way from completion, but it already has a large and dedicated modding community. It’ll take a while for the current wave of mods (and there’s dozens, if not hundreds – some even adding whole new playable races) to update to the current build, but the game should grow even faster now that modders have these additional features to play around with.
Starfarer is available for Windows, Mac & Linux PCs, and planned to cost $20 when it finally hits V1.0. Until that fateful day, you can buy in early for $10. While there’s only a finite number of missions and a small sandbox, I’ve probably sunk more hours into this than many AAA blockbusters already, so I can easily recommend it if you’re a fan of space combat games such as Freespace, or would rather that Mount & Blade be about spaceships and lasers instead of horses.