For years, I remembered playing a demo of some kind of a space shooter game, which I remember I loved. The named escaped me more often than not, until I finally remembered the name, and remembered to keep an eye out for it - StarLancer, Microsoft's/Digital Anvil's predecessor to Freelancer, a very flawed, but still rather awesome game. Once I had the chance to buy it off Amazon, I did - old carton box, original CD's, the manual and a reference sheet in the deal.
My first somewhat sad surprise was that the game needed a joystick - no mouse support. Well, I thought, I was planning on getting one for Mechwarrior games, so why not, I'll play this once I have a joystick. And lo and behold, where I work they had a spare, a dusty old thing, hardly used by anyone. I started playing the game using that. Two weeks ago, my girlfriend got me my own joystick (in a rather depressing thought, I realized that by now the joystick is pretty much a dead peripheral - among the tens of different pads and several different steering wheels, there were only four joystick models) and so I was able to enjoy the game "on my own" as it were. How was it?
Well, StarLancer is definitely a mixed bag. It does some stuff really well, other reasonably well, and fails in other still. I think its best to present this as a short list.
- the dramatic feel of the game. This is probably its biggest strength. You fight a losing fight. There's a lot of losses you cannot help but take - capital ships, team mates, legendary pilots will die around you. And somehow, despite giving all of them minimal characteristics, you feel sorry even for the anonymous bomber pilots. They will scream while they die, they will call for help, they will curse you with their dying breath for not defending them. What is VERY important in this, the game doesn't arbitrarily finish when you flunk an objective. No, usually it continues. You hang your head in shame as the landing control tells you "What the hell were you thinking?" and the debriefing tells you how much of a failure the mission was. Sure, you can restart the level... but would it be as dramatic an experience?
- the fighting/flying. Yes, the game does that part pretty good. It's not as annoying as in Freelancer (which turns half-way into the game to an "I hope I have enough countermeasures or else the next missile that hits me will kill me" affair), it's not as impressive either, but it's solidly implemented. So the main part of the game, really, the "game" part of the game, delivers. It isn't mindblowing by any rate, but is decisively above average.
- the background elements. By this I mean the in-between-missions stuff. You get to walk from your bunk to the briefing room in a pre-rendered cutscene (one of several each time around). You can read up on the enemy and see debriefings of your missions. When you finish a mission, your performance can be seen by the reaction of the pilots in another cutscene. Sometimes they will cheer and high-five one another, or they can throw their helmets on the ground because of they despair and anger. You get TV reports on how the campaign is going which also give feedback on your actions. Most of these get old pretty quickly (especially the short "walking" and "running to fighters" cutscenes because they are only a few of those), but it's a very nice touch, making the game a little bit more than just fighting. Personally, I thought that if this was taken to a more RPGish level, this could be ever cooler. Sadly, 2000 was not a year for this idea to catch on, the trend came much later.
- the music. It's alright, nothing spectacular, but nice to listen to and sufficiently dramatic/combat like.
THE KINDA MEH:
- the story. What little there is, really. There's a conflict between the Alliance and the Coalition (talk about original names, huh?). The Alliance are the good guys, Americans, English, Japanese, Germans, Italians etc., while the Coalition are the evil Russians (is anyone suprised?), Middle-Easterners and Chinese. The Coalition attacked the Alliance in a treacherous blow, starting the conflict, and from a losing position you're slowly gaining ground. There are some stronger parts of the plot, and some weaker ones. One GREAT scene is really underplayed later on - you are informed that two enemy ships carry prisoners of war, but if they are allowed to get close, they will endanger a crucial operation. The hard decision is made, the 20-odd captured Alliance soldiers die with the crews of the ships. There is a short commentary on that... and you'd expect a shadow falling over the rest of the plot, but no, this incident is NEVER mentioned again. Seriously. Not one mention. It's not even in the god-damn debriefing...
- too many systems. Seriously. This game has virtually all the keyboard keys covered with different options. Out of these, you only every use 10 or so (at least on Easy). Some of them are possibly useful, but not very. Others are completely useless, the biggest offender being the Eject button. Get this - if you get badly damaged, you can eject, and in theory that's to allow a Nanny ship to pick you up and save you. I've done this a few times, three, maybe. EVERY SINGLE TIME a pre-defined cutscene had me killed. This option, therefore, is clearly a cheap trick. The same goes for asking you to give the order to engage your Jump Drive every time, as if the game couldn't do it itself in a cutscene - especially since jumping out is ALREADY a cutscene. And landing. Seriously, you've got a com-link which has four options - two are useless (connected to your mates), and out of the two other one is used every mission (Permission to Land... again, nice of you to have me immersed in the game, but it could have been done automatically...) and the other (call for reinforcements) is NEVER used, and I think for a good reason. I have a gut feeling it's like the Eject button - technically does something, in practice, does absolutely nothing.
- the difficulty. Not the difficulty level, mind you. I played on Easy, and as far as I wouldn't call it that (more like Medium, at least... though it did allow me for some maneauvers which should technically end with my death), I had a hard time doing some of the stuff. The difficulty system is pretty much unfair because you will often receive orders which you have no influence over whatsoever - this goes for all "Defend squad X" orders. Seriously, not once did I feel that I was doing well enough to actually influence what was happening. I did a crappy job - nobody got hurt. I did a very good job - I lost the mission because all of the guys got killed. I did a so-so job, I passed the mission but with major losses. No idea what comes into play here. Some objectives also appear so rapidly, there's no chance in hell you'll be able to complete them during the first playthrough of the mission. Like when a cruiser appears right at the back of torpedo bombers you need to finish the mission, and blows them to pieces.
- you have to do EVERYTHING alone. Well, ok, not everything, but where StarLancer promised to be more than most squad-based games where the player does everything by himself anyway (Republic Commando, Call of Duty, the list goes on), it ended up being exactly that. Rarely does it happen that a small objective is completed by your mates, or that you see them killing enemies like it's not a problem. With big objectives, such as destroying a ships shield generator or engines, or defending vulnerable units - you're on your own, and it ain't a breeze to be everywhere at once, trust me. The worst offender by far is when the enemies launch torpedos at your capital ships and you can't lose them. Often there is a LOT of torpedoes. And ALWAYS I found I was the only one dealing with this threat, which is the MOST SERIOUS THREAT THERE IS IN THIS GAME. How come am I the only one doing it? Everyone else has something better, more important on their mind right now? What the hell?
- no saving during the mission. You know me. I hate this in a game. Here, at some times, I thought it was kind of fitting, it added to the dramatic struggle. But the game also had some levels where a quicksave or something was basically a necessity, and IT WASN'T THERE! There were several missions which were obviously divided into segments, with clear objectives for each one. Why not throw a quicksave there? WHY? So that, if I make a mistake and die (or the game crashes, as also happened a few times, see below) three minutes before the end of a mission I have to do the difficult 10 previous minutes AGAIN? I don't get it. Never did, never will. Oh, and also, unskippable cutscenes. Yes, this games has them. And boy, some of them just drive you nuts.
As mentioned above, I had performance problems with StarLancer. No, not the joystick issue, though I had to basically learn to use it from scratch (the last time I used a joystick was god knows how long ago, I can't remember having a joystick in my hand in the last 10 years, at least), but there's really nothing else you can do here. The game isn't very stable on modern computers. I had to exit to Windows after every mission, because apparently the game couldn't bother running longer than 30 minutes without a crash. Given the lack of a proper saving mechanic, this was a potential game-breaker for me... fortunately, the missions are short (a majority is under 20 minutes), so I could afford to finish a mission, exit the game, and turn it on again. The campaign is 24 missions long, which gives around 10 hours of gameplay, or maybe more if you count a bigger number of replays of missions. I haven't gotten the perfect ending, but I couldn't be bothered. Some of the perfectly well done missions are just out-of-your-mind hard to do.
All in all, I enjoyed StarLancer immensily, and it deserves an easy 7/10. It would have been an 8/10 at least if not for its shortcomings, and if it was even better, it could hope for a 9/10 even, I certainly saw the potential in it. As it is, the game isn't perfect, but it's definitely enjoyable, especially if you're a fan of the genre (and I'm not, not in particular). If you can find it, get it, I guess. It's goint to be very hard to obtain (as a 10 year old game which wasn't all that popular in its time), but I think it's rather worth it.
SPOILER: the game ends with a major Alliance victory, but nothing ending the conflict. I'm not sure why they decided to finish the game like that, but it works, from a dramatic point of view. I'm saying this, because in Freelancer - the direct sequel to StarLancer (at least plot-wise), it is established that the Alliance lost in the end, and had to leave our galaxy to colonize new planets... that's a very nice tie-in and it makes sense, making the struggle of the Alliance fleet even more dramatic.