I’m floating a hundred or so astronomical units outside a solar system backlit by a glowing orange nebula, at the helm of a nimble House Nuall interceptor. The only sounds filling my ears are my pilot’s slow rhythmic breathing and the comms chatter of a trainer walking me through the basic controls. From my vantage point, my HUD displays various blue and orange icons spread out among the system, representing the presence of enemy forces in the system which are in dire need of blowing up. I pick a starting point, hold down my warp button and, with a loud rumble, I’m thrown at high speed towards my first target. Once I arrive, I get a clear view of the situation; there’s nothing more than a trio of lightly armored Federation corvettes standing guard over a green-hued planet. With my fighter’s formidable weaponry, I’m confident they will be easy pickings, so I hit the accelerator and prepare to engage.
Cut to about thirty seconds later where, after an intense and unexpected burst of enemy fire, my fighter is spiraling out of control and the screen cuts sharply to black as my ship explodes around me. Nothing’s ever easy.
This was my first experience with Enemy Starfighter, an upcoming space sim by Marauder Interactive, a one-man game company founded by Mike Tipul, whose credentials include work on The Saboteur and Halo Reach. With a visual aesthetic that seems to be inspired by the classic strategy title Homeworld, Enemy Starfighter almost plays like a first-person version of the same game, letting you get right into the action behind the controls of your own starfighter while issuing orders to other ships within your small fleet. Despite playing a “pre-alpha” build, with many features still under construction or yet to be implemented, the flight hours I logged with Starfighter were both gratifying and punishing to say the least, and left me eager to see what Tipul has planned next.
There’s not much story behind Enemy Starfighter other than it’s setting: You’re a pilot waging a guerrilla war against the enemies of the Empire; jumping from solar system to solar system and blasting as many hostile ships out of the sky as you can. Despite the simplistic setting of the game, you can hardly say the same about the nuances of Starfighter‘s gameplay. Your ship controls are straightforward and switching between targets or weapons in your arsenal is a smooth enough process, but once you get into your first sortie, it’s easy to forget that you’re piloting one of the smallest ships in the Imperial fleet. One of the two classes of fighters available in the preview build is literally nothing more than a bunch of high-powered guns strapped to an equally high-powered engine, with a few thin sheets of armor bolted to the fuselage, while the other is a more general purpose ship that may be tougher, but doesn’t quite have as much devastating firepower. Regardless of the limited ship configurations in the pre-alpha, it can be thrilling to dart around during a dogfight with opposing fighters, or line up bombing runs on a capital ship. Some of the more teeth-gritting engagements I played were filled with a dozen ships all trying to murder each other with lasers, cannons and missiles. I really felt the pull to keep taking on just one more mission, even if they all too often ended with me accidentally ramming my interceptor head-on into an enemy frigate. Luckily, if you meet an unfortunate end -which you certainly will – the game pauses and gives you the chance to jump directly into the cockpit of a nearby friendly fighter, which acts as a quasi-respawn system. Once you run out of fighters, however, it’s game over.
The only mode currently available to play in Starfighter, dubbed “Last Stand”, provided an excellent slice of what gameplay may be like in the final version of the game. Players battle through missions that gradually increase in difficulty, trying to complete bounties that’ll let you add more Imperial ships into your fleet. There’s also a layer of strategic thinking in the game, as you’ll often have to decide if completing a bounty that will add a hulking battleship to your strike force is worth risking a handful of fighters (or any other capital ships you might have earned). You’ll begin each mission on the outskirts of a single solar system that contains several landmarks (planets, jump points, asteroids, etc) with icons representing hostile forces residing within them. From that vantage point, it’s easy to pick your first destination, warp in, and start riddling the opposition with high-velocity rounds and missiles. But what makes things interesting is how the system and its inhabitants aren’t static, as enemy ships will move around on their own and react to the flow of combat. You may think that a single carrier floating alone around a cluster of asteroids may seem vulnerable, but if you don’t deal with its escorts hanging out at a nearby planet a short jump away first, you may find yourself quickly outnumbered and outgunned. The reverse can occur as well; ambushing a smaller group of weaker enemies can result in tougher enemies warping in from nearby to try and balance the odds. Enemies will even attempt to retreat if they take too many losses, forcing you to engage in a brief cat-and-mouse game to try and hunt them down before they escape the system permanently. While it’s far from being fully fleshed out at the moment, it’s fascinating how dynamic each mission can be, and how players need to think tactically in deciding how best to proceed through each one.
If anything, Enemy Starfighter‘s sound design does an excellent job of helping you feel like you’re strapped into the pilot seat of a star-faring interceptor. With each pull of the trigger, the cockpit reverberates with the muffled ‘thump-thump-thumps’ of your fighter’s autocannons and dull roars of launched anti-ship torpedoes. Warning tones pierce your ears when your shields are down, or if you’ve lined up a target into just the right spot of your crosshairs. As your fleet grows larger, you’ll pick up the battle chatter of your squad mates as they score kills of their own or meet untimely ends at the wrong end of a railgun. While there isn’t much in the way of background music (the game is in pre-alpha, after all), the few tracks included evoked some fond memories of my favorite arrangements from Battlestar Galactica and Homeworld.
There’s no release date set for Enemy Starfighter, but aspiring star pilots can (and should) check out Tipul’s blog for more info and updates.