Starfarer's campaign is setup in a sandbox RPG style. The player is given their own fleet that they have to maintain with new ships, supplies, fuel, and crew. Every ship larger than fighters have weapon hardpoints that can be outfitted with whatever applicable weapons the player loots or purchases.
In many ways, Starfarer's sandbox campaign setup is similar to the Mount and Blade series.
Starfarer's combat is set on a top-down 2D plane. Players can directly control their flagship through WASD controls, or start strafing a target by holding the shift key. The game's custom weapon group systems allow the player to choose which weapons to fire at a given moment.
Players are only able to directly control one ship at a time, with all other ships in the fleet being AI controlled. By pressing Tab, a tactical overlay can be accessed through which the player can give the AI orders. The orders available range from capturing or assaulting control points, directly attacking a specific enemy ship, escorting one of your ships, rallying at and defending a selected point, etc. Players are limited in the number of orders they can give out by the number of command points their character has. Once you run out, you have to leave the AI to its own devices- unless you order a full retreat.
By default, players are put in control of the fleet's assigned flagship. However, player's can use the transfer command option to autopilot their in-game command pod to another ship they want to directly control. Doing so automatically puts the flagship under AI control. Players who don't feel comfortable with the combat controls can also activate their controlled ship's autopilot to let the AI control it as well.
Larger scale engagements in Starfarer have control points that can be captured for a variety of fleet-wide benefits and buffs. The exact buffs provided vary, but the universal benefit is that captured control points provide more deployment points for their controller- allowing them to deploy more ships. If one side controls all of the control points on a map, the opposing side is rendered incapable of summoning reinforcements at all.
Smaller engagements in Starfarer do not feature these control points- as each side is able to bring their entire fleets in at once.
Fighters: The smallest ship type available in the game. Fighters and Bombers come in squadrons of 2-6 craft, each generally equipped with no more than 1-2 weapons. Fighters cannot be directly controlled by the player, but can be repaired by any ship with a flight deck during combat. In the campaign, in-battle repairs do cost the player supplies. Some fighter types in the game include:
- Talon Fighters: The most basic and cheapest fighters available in the game. They come in squadrons of 4, and are equipped with a a mere single vulcan cannon. With such weak firepower, Talons cannot be expected to kill anything on their own- even enemy missiles. As such, they are best used in swarms to distract enemy ships.
- Piranha Bombers: One of the most basic bomber crafts available. They come in squadrons of three, and are equipped with both bombs and missiles.
- Dagger Torpedo Bombers: Although they have to reload after a single shot, Dagger bombers are one of the few fighter crafts in the game with an actual shield- greatly increasing their chances of survival.
Frigates: The smallest controllable craft type in the game. With their small size and generally respectable speed, Frigates are versatile ships that can be used for a variety of roles- ranging from support and fire support, to direct engagement support against larger ships. Some of the more common frigates in the game are:
- Hound: One of the fastest frigates available, Hounds are oustanding at harassment of un-shielded or distracted targets. However, this speed comes at several costs; limited firepower and no shields of any description. Their mobility is pretty much their only strength- which against a select few targets, is enough.
- Lasher: A relatively clumsy and unspectacular frigate. The number of weapon hardpoints it has is impressive- until you realize how limiting it is to have nothing but small hardpoints. It has its uses though- given that it can be equipped for a few different roles ranging from protecting larger ships from fighters and missiles, to lightly harassing enemy ships as a close-ranged brawler.
- Vigilance: Don't let the low number of weapon hardpoints fool you. The Vigilance is capable of supporting larger weapons than most frigates- as both of its weapon hardpoints are medium instead of small. As such, the Vigilance can be surprisingly helpful against larger ships, but tends to be helpless against fighters and missiles.
- Wolf: One of the more technologically advanced frigates in the game. The Wolf has light teleportation capabilities and a very impressive weapons load-out. The vast number of energy hardpoints it has access to makes it a very versatile and long-ranged craft.
Destroyers: Arguably the most versatile family of ship class available, simply because there's a destroyer for the vast majority of roles in the game. Whether your looking for main-line combat ships, long ranged support, defensive ships, or carriers, there's probably a Destroyer for the job.
- Hammerhead: A versatile and efficient destroyer that emphasizes heavy forward-facing ballistic weaponry. The Hammerhead is the ship players control in the tutorials.
- Condor: The most basic carrier available in the game. Along with efficiently repairing fighters that retreat from combat, the Condor is equipped with a medium missile hardpoint that allows it to double as light long-ranged fire support.
Cruisers: Cruisers are a middle ground of sorts between Destroyers and Capital Ships- they are much slower than the former, but aren't as unwieldy as the latter. Cruisers fully capable of serving as the complete backbone of any fleet. Some of them even qualify as some of the strongest ships in the game- capable of standing up to even Capital ships.
- Venture: A tough heavy carrier that is more than capable of standing against decent numbers of smaller ship types. Frigates and Destroyers alike may find the Venture to be a tough nut to crack- even if it is only lightly supported. That said- the Venture is unquestionably out-gunned by other combat-dedicated cruisers.
Capital: The largest ships in the game, these ships can fill the entire screen with their firepower. Their sheer armor, hull points, and shield power also render them very difficult to destroy. They tend to be slow though- so some will need more support from more mobile ship types than others- depending upon their weapon loadouts.
- Onslaught: The most basic and common combat-focused capital ship in the game. The Onslaught can bring its grand firepower to bear quickly through its engine burn ability- allowing it to move surprisingly quickly for a ship of its size. That said- its turn speed is quite low, and most of its firepower is forward-facing. As such, an unsupported Onslaught can be torn apart by clever and well-equipped frigates.