Star Command, where no mobile game has gone before.
Two years and as many Kickstarters later, Star Command has finally released for iOS. For those who don't immediately recognize the name, Star Command is easily one of the most hyped mobile video games to date and, thanks to its multiple Kickstarter
promotions campaigns and promise of Star Trek style bridge simulation on the go, has already climbed the app store charts and made its way into the coveted Editor's Choice slot. But with all the hype and countless sales in its first few days of life the real question people want to know is, is it any good?
Star Command's release has quickly proven itself to be polarizing to say the least, and unfortunately the reviews and comments show that this doesn't have much to do with what the game is, but what it isn't; and that's all due to the one thing that made this game possible in the first place, Kickstarter. Since the advent of Kickstarter, there has been one major and, as proven in this and many other cases, valid concern of will the final product actually be what you paid for. Now don't get me wrong, I think Kickstarter is a very interesting and potentially wonderful system for allowing products to get funded that would otherwise be incapable of gathering the capital. The problem, unfortunately, comes from the very nature of how Kickstarter works; consumers are not good investors.
Consumer-investors and the negative impact of transparent development
Let's take a look at traditional video game development. Now, there are many ways a game gets created, but in this case I want to compare to the closest traditional analogue to a Kickstarter game. So let's say a developer has a fantastic idea for a game but doesn't have the money to develop/publish it on their own. Traditionally that developer would shop the game out to investors or publishers in the field to get the capital they need to create their game. These investors have no real interest in the game itself, they likely will never even touch it and in many cases have never played a videogame in their life, they just have money and want to invest it in something that will make them more money. As long as the game releases, and delivers on the promise of making money, the investors are happy. The game could go from being a tactical RPG to being an FPS and the world would never know. The investors don't care, and the consumer, having never seen the game in its original pitch form, is none the wiser.
With Kickstarter however, this whole system gets turned on its head. Like I mentioned before, consumers are terrible investors, and this comes down to the one huge difference between a consumer and a traditional investor, expectation. Consumers are a cruel, demanding bunch and for good reason, when they pay for a product they expect to get what was advertised; even if said product isn't even a product yet but a set of concepts and ideas. That's all Kickstarter is really, a set of concepts and ideas that people want to bring to life and like all plans, the original intention and final result aren't always the exact same thing. And that brings us to Star Command, a game that after 2 Kickstarters is in my opinion a delivery on the conceptual promises made by the developer in their unforgivingly transparent fundraising process, while not quite delivering on the grandiose feature set many backers felt they had been promised. Because of this the game in many cases has been judged not on the merits of the game as released, but on comparison to the concept that was pitched. Something that in this reviewer's opinion comes from a false sense of promise, entitlement, and an overall misunderstanding of the difference between purchasing a product and funding a concept. Something that Kickstarter and systems like it will continue to struggle with thanks to the nature of dealing with the general public.
Boldly going from Casual to Core
Now that all that nonsense is out of the way, let's move on to the game. I want to start with this, I cannot stand mobile games; I have found every one I've played to be worth a handful of minutes of entertainment followed by boring, dumbed-down, "almost-gameplay", stupid micro-transactions, time-restrictions, or the worst offender of all, on screen buttons and joysticks. With that said, I have now logged 10+ hours into Star Command and feel my time with this game is just getting started. This is the first time I have played a game on my iPhone that is not only worth the price of admission, but deserves the title "Video Game" and not the substandard "Mobile Game" moniker reserved for the likes of Rovio and Gameloft.
Star Command puts you in the role of Captain on a newly commissioned starship and sends you off to explore the galaxy and defend humanity from space's greatest threats. You will be given complete control over your ship from the get go, including the hiring and training of crew members, system upgrades, and room additions on your ship. On your first play through you are limited to the small ship with only a few rooms. Upon completing that first run however, a variety of other ships of varying sizes and layouts are unlocked including brand new room types for the larger ships that add new tactical advantages and grant even more control over the customization of your ship to compliment your play style.
Crew members are separated into three different departments: tactical, engineering, and science; and in classic Star Trek fashion they are represented by Red, Yellow, and Blue outfits respectively. These specializations are used for the operation of different stations throughout the ship as well as to assign abilities to your crew members. Tactical units charge and fire weapon systems and are the only units that are equipped with weapons (phasers?) for repelling enemy boarders (of which there will be a lot, make sure you have a majority of red shirts). Engineering units are your repairmen, necessary for fixing hull breaches and putting out fires, and are also used for the charging and operation of the dodge room. And lastly the science officers offer much needed healing as well as operation of your shield boost room. Each crew member will gain levels in the role they perform, unlocking abilities such as longer range firing for tactical officers and an instant AOE heal for science officers just to name a few. Crewmember roles can also be switched on the fly, allowing you much needed adaptability when a situation turns for the worst and you suddenly find yourself needing to turn some engineers into redshirts to hoard off an angry mob of Russian Space Zombies (my personal favorite mission) or quickly change your Captain into an engineer to put out the massive fire now consuming your bridge because you couldn't get your dodge generator charged in time for the last barrage of enemy missiles. On the fly role re-assignment is a skill that you will quickly learn is essential to survival in deep space.
Despite all the analogues to Star Trek, do note that this is not Kirk's Federation and Star Command exists in much more consistently hostile space than that of our beloved sci-fi franchise. While shreds of diplomacy pop up in some conversations and have been mentioned for possible future content updates, in its current iteration Star Command is all about space battles, and boy does it do space battles well. Much like FTL before it, Star Command tasks you with fighting your way through the galaxy, one spaceship at a time, through increasing levels of challenge and varying enemy tactics that force you to adapt to every situation.
That said, comparisons to FTL should stop there. Star Command and FTL may exist in the same "Bridge Simulator" space however the approach to gameplay and challenge are quite different. The primary differentiator between the two is that where FTL is about pausing and taking your time to make just the right tactical decisions, Star Command is more about controlling chaos as best you can to survive. Where FTL's challenge comes from its roguelike, "permadeath" nature; Star Command is all about insane real-time command of your crew, trying to keep them alive while simultaneously firing on the enemy ship, dodging incoming assaults, recharging your systems, and battling enemy boarders all without the ability to pause and think your decisions through. I think the developers put it best when they term the game a "chaos management system", it's about controlling what you can and keeping your cool while adapting when hit with something you can't. This has caused much outcry from those who were hoping for a more FTL like system, but this is a very different game, with a very different style of gameplay. It's that fresh, exciting, chaotic gameplay that makes this game stand out for me and resonates with everything I want from a "mobile" game. It's challenging, it's frustrating, and it demands a level of attention and adaption that's built for the "core", not the "casual".
One of the game's greatest achievement from my perspective is its sound design. From the stellar space music to the wonderful blips and beeps of your instrument panels, developer Warballon has pulled out all the stops to create a fantastic sense of atmosphere and adventure with its soundtrack. Be sure to bring your headphones, because Star Command's sound demands your attention.
Space Bugs and promises for the future
Star Command isn't without its faults. While stability hasn't been an issue on my iPhone 5, there have been a number of complaints about crashes and other bugs on pretty much every other iOS devices out there, particularly the iPad mini. That said, as of this review the developer has announced that they have submitted version 1.01 for app store approval which is expected to resolve a number of the issues plaguing users (full list of fixes here http://forum.starcommandgame.com/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=397 ). On top of the numerous bugs, there are many features that didn't make it into the release build. Upon opening up the app there is a nice big "Coming Soon" button that brings you to nothing but an ominous image of a man and a dog, as well as a "contraband" button on your crew member's info sheets which, when tapped, leads to yet another "Coming Soon" page. While it's nice to know the developers are adding more features, displaying them in such a way can easily have the opposite effect of leaving the consumer feeling that they have just purchased an incomplete product. I personally am not of that opinion, but it's pretty easy to see how one might come to such a conclusion and I feel is at least worth noting.
Another current issue of note in the game is the tutorial. While Warbaloon has stated that 1.01 will include a much more comprehensive tutorial mission, the current iteration is lackluster at best. It gets some of the simple mechanics across but fails to explain some of the more important combat mechanics which results in a steep learning curve and likely a few restarts before you really get the mechanics down. Again, once the posted update makes it through certification, this should no longer be a point of concern.
Being a mobile game made for touch based devices, control is another potential point of concern especially on smaller devices like the iPhone or iPod touch. In a game where speed and precision is so paramount to survival, a misplaced tap can easily result in death as you struggle to correct your mistakes. iPhone users will have to develop their own best practices for holding the device and controlling their units. For me, this meant a two thumbs approach, with each thumb on its own respective side of the screen, working in tandem to pinch, zoom, tap, and scroll around the ship without obstructing too much of my overall view of the onscreen action. It was difficult at first, but now feels like second nature. That said, I still have my fair share of struggles trying to move my groups of redcoats and healers around the ship to repel enemy boarders. And the fact that you can only select and move one unit at a time can make that even more difficult, though this adds to the intensity in my opinion. These issues are likely a little less prevalent on a larger screened device like the iPad, and will surely be non-existent when released on PC with keyboard and mouse control (date TBA).
Star Command is not without its faults. The level of difficulty and lack of transparency in its mechanics can be off putting for some, so if that's a concern I would hold off until 1.01 releases. As for the question of if it's what was promised in the Kickstarter, I would say that conceptually it's a definitive yes. Star Command is a fantastic bridge command simulator that gives you the power to live out some of your favorite Star Trek fantasies. That said, if you are expecting every feature the developer was hoping to include at the get go, you will likely be disappointed. Diplomacy missions, player choice in story elements, and more than one friendly alien race are sadly missed and will feel like a broken promise to some backers. That said this process of having to remove or delay elements of a game in the lead up to release is extremely common in the gaming industry, Warballoon simply finds itself in the unfortunate situation of that reality being transparent to its customers, where a tradition developer would have the luxury keeping those intended features under wraps so when they get pulled the consumer is none the wiser.
Kickstarter issues and a much needed patch aside, Star Command is an absolutely fantastic game. Delivering a level of gameplay previously only seen on major consoles and PCs, it takes mobile gaming out of the confines of "casual" and raises is to a level that makes people like me second guess their dismissal of mobile as a valid gaming medium. This is easily the most promising example of a videogame I have seen on my iPhone and I can't wait to see what kinds of features Warbaloon will have to offer in future updates. I've had an absolute blast with this game so far, and plan to spend many more hours aboard the U.S.S America battling waves of ant-people and Russian space zombies. At least, of course, until my personal game of 2012, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, releases for iOS later this summer.