Original Release: 1992, Platform: DOS, Developer: Toys for Bob, Publisher: Accolade
Star Control 2 is a massive experience filled with exploration, action and some of the funniest aliens you’ll run into any video game. A must play for space loving gamers.
One of the problems that comes with reviewing old video games is figuring out where to start. I’m always curious to see how a series began and get a real taste for its roots. Surprisingly, a lot of retro franchises really hit their stride with their sequels, building on and refining the mechanical foundations laid down by their predecessors to craft a whole that’s ultimately more worthwhile and interesting. When it came to Star Control games, the choice wound up being unexpectedly easy. I gave both the original game and its sequel an hour and picked the one that I had the most fun with. Star Control 2 won hands down.
A direct follow-up to Star Control, Star Control 2 follows the efforts of humanity to rebuild a coalition of alien allies and defeat the tyrannical Ur-Quan who defeated and enslaved the human race following the end of the first game. What this amounts to in terms of gameplay, is gathering resources, building a war fleet, conversing/fighting with aliens and jetting around space and exploring the galaxy.
Out of all of these activities, the gathering of resources dominated the bulk of my time. That might make the game sound boring, but it smartly incorporates elements of strategy and danger to make resource gathering something you actually have to think about. While many of the planets you’ll ransack are perfectly safe, others are decked out with environmental hazards that can damage or even destroy your landing vehicle, something that can become lethal under the right circumstances. If you find yourself low on credits and without a landing vehicle to earn more, it’s pretty much game over. The landing vehicle also draws its health from the same pool as your flagship. Take too much damage on a planet and you can put yourself at a disadvantage if you stumble across a hostile ship on your way back to Earth. As a result, resource collection often comes packaged with difficult choices. Do I go for that gold deposit despite the impenetrable electrical storms or do I move on to safer, less profitable pastures? It all adds up to a mechanic that’s leagues more engaging than resource gathering in more modern titles like Mass Effect 2.
This still doesn’t stop it from becoming grindy from time to time, but even then it’s worth it because of the great experience it lives in service to. There’s a real sense of joy to the process of exploring the universe the game takes place in. When you first start Star Control 2, your ship barely has enough fuel to do more than a few laps around our own solar system. Building your ship and fleet up into something formidable, in turn, is an addictive and satisfying experience. The game does a great job of making each upgrade you invest in feel like a tangible step forward. Buying my first fuel expansion, for instance, doubled my overall travel range. Buying extra cargo pods made every mining expedition more profitable. There aren’t any barely noticeable behind-the-scene stats to invest in. Every upgrade you buy is tangibly useful.
Your progress through the stars is marked by hard-earned accomplishments and discoveries that make the hours spent surveying lifeless star systems feel well worth it. To be sure, the bulk of the game’s enormous starmap is dead space. However, the persistent lifelessness of the universe increases the quality of the experience when you finally do encounter a living, breathing, talking (and sometimes squawking) alien race. And let me say that the aliens ofStar Control 2 are some of the most uniquely designed and portrayed I’ve ever seen in a video game. This isn’t Star Trek where half the races you encounter are just humans with face ridges or a coat of green paint. Most of the aliens are impressively inhuman, right down to the way they act and speak. My personal favorite was a race of psychic bird-aliens who endeavor to be almost perfect as they’ve seen other species turn to evil as a result of attempts to attain perfection.
When you run into aliens, you’ll generally have the option to converse with them. The conversations are useful for avoiding (or starting) conflicts as well as learning information and secrets about the galaxy around you. For all the practical use it has though, I most appreciated the wonderful sense of humor that often permeates the dialogue. The writing in Star Control 2 is peppered with jokes and enough science fiction references to make any genre fan happy. What’s perhaps best about it is how organic and natural it feels. There are silly moments, yes, and a lot of the writing repeats itself, but overall it gives the game a friendly, almost personable tone that works well at (appropriately) lightening the mood of the story’s desperate struggle.
However, the fact that it’s funny shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the game is easy. Star Control 2 will kick the tar out of you and do it often. Some of this definitely does come from the game’s archaism. The aforementioned resource collection, for instance, is made exponentially difficult by the fact that you’re only given a single, insubstantial corner of the screen to control your landing vehicle with. Most of the game, is difficult on purpose and manages, for the most part, to feel balanced and fair. The majority of my defeats, for example, came early on when I was still learning and making stupid mistakes. I’d forget to keep track of my fuel and find myself stranded in hyperspace or behave like an aggressive jerk and get my butt handed to me by a superior enemy. Simply put, it rewards you for playing smart and punishes you for being stupid.
The major exception to that rule is its space combat which (unless you let the AI control your ships) actually requires a lot of practice and skill. Much of this has to do with the fact that the game, despite being 2D and heaped in space opera, does attempt to incorporate some elements of realism. Most centrally, when you’re piloting your starship, you’ll constantly have to deal with inertia. Outside of combat this adds up, at most, to a minor inconvenience. You might have to make a few extra turns or burn some extra fuel to get where you need to go.
In battle, however, it takes on a whole new degree of importance. Not being able to stop on a dime means you have to plan and execute your movements carefully. Jetting forward at full speed might get you into battle range faster, but it also means you’ll have to work that much harder to change direction, something that can leave you leave vulnerable to enemy attacks. Toss in things like the pulling gravity of nearby planets and other space hazards and piloting a ship can become downright complicated.
And while this complexity can add up to one heck of a learning curve (I sucked pretty badly when I started), it also makes for a really satisfying combat experience, once you get the hang of it. As you build up your fleet, you’ll get the opportunity to fly a lot of different ships each with their own pros, cons, and nuances. Mastering them, while challenging, can be a lot of fun and lead to some wonderful moments of success. For instance, at one point, my fleet of slow, lightly armored human cruisers was attacked by a vastly superior force of Ur’Quan warships. Almost immediately I lost two of my cruisers. Even as I was getting my butt kicked, however, I was able to figure out ways to use the longer range and homing properties of my ships’ missiles to compensate for some of my disadvantages. I still lost eventually, but I was able to bring the battle to a close on a more even level than I ever thought possible when I was first intercepted in hyperspace.
In the end though, what I think I like most about Star Control 2 is just how unique it is compared to a lot of modern games. While some titles like FTL have some elements of it, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with quite as much emphasis on actual space exploration. Granted, it’s rudimentary in some ways, but it still manages to create an experience where the prospect of heading off to explore a new cluster of stars can be more exciting than getting into an epic space battle. I could have easily invested dozens of more hours into Star Control 2 and I have no trouble saying that it’s worth the $5.99 GOG’s charging for it.
Come back next week so I can relate the tell of the year I (and the Nintendo 64) ruined Christmas. In the meant time, feel free to shoot us comments and suggestions for future reviews!