Thursday, 20 March 2014

Star Control - Part 7

Star Control II a.k.a. The Ur-Quan Masters (1994)
By: Toys For Bob / Accolade Genre: RPG / Strategy Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: 3DO
Also Available For: PC, Apple Mac


I have now been posting my highly inane burblings here for almost four years, believe it or not. In all that time I've written about a great many games and related subjects but the ones that I've talked about the most are probably the spiffing Star Control and its even more stonking sequel. The latter was in fact the very first game I ever talked about here and I've done so several times since as well. Rather bizarrely, however, despite being my favourite video game of all time since its release, and despite all the stuff I've posted about it, it's a game that still hasn't actually been reviewed here. As I'm sure many who know me may would agree, I'm a pretty weird guy sometimes, but this is still an entirely unacceptable state of affairs. Luckily it's also one that can be easily rectified. Behold:

Approaching the guarded Supox homeworld...
The first Star Control was released for numerous formats but the best version could be found on Sega's MegaDrive and it was here that I discovered it. The main game was a simple, single screen, turn-based strategy game which took place on one of 15 rotating 3D starfields. It was an acquired taste with many finding it a bit boring, but it laid the foundations for what would become Star Control 2, mainly in terms of introducing some of the many alien races involved and establishing the basic back-story - a story that was greatly expanded upon in the sequel. I've talked in more detail about the story to both games in the previous post for this feature but in brief: the main antagonists were the predatory Ur-Quan with whom the Alliance of Free Stars had been at war in the first game. The intro to the second game revealed that the Alliance had lost that war and the people of Earth were now enslaved.

A Rainbow World which so fascinate the Melnorme...
Unknown to the beastly Ur-Quan, however, was a secret scientific research team based in the Vela system who were investigating an installation believed to have been built by the Precursors, an "ancient and powerful race who vanished a thousand centuries ago". Luckily, the installation turned out to be a starship factory! It only had enough materials to build one ship but it's using this that you, as captain of the ship (which you can name whatever you want - mine is called the Hoppletop!), must find out what's going down in the local galactic neighbourhood. The game starts just as your mighty ship arrives at the edge of our own solar system where it soon becomes apparent that Earth was not only defeated by the Ur-Quan and their Hierarchy of Battle Thralls but has been encased in an impenetrable 'slave shield' too.

Trying to take on my own fleet as the bad guys...
However, in orbit around the now-imprisoned planet is a Starbase. You can dock here and talk with Commander Hayes - after helping him patch up the neglected station he will answer any questions you may have about what has been happening in the years since the war. The shocking news of the Ur-Quan's conquests motivates our brave young captain to form a new alliance with the aim of smashing the chains of their aggressive dominance. It will be a long and arduous road though, even with an advanced Precursor vessel at hand, and means venturing into the vastness of space. And vast it is too - there are, if I counted correctly, 132 constellations in total which each consist of anywhere from one to over ten star systems. Each of these is home to between zero and ten or so planets, and many of these have up to four moons. This means there could be a thousand planetary bodies in total!

The Umgah are weird and not to be trusted...
All of them except the gas giants (and the stars themselves, as you might expect) can be explored too. Your ship is viewed from overhead and can be moved in any direction as you please. Flying into a planet brings up its basic properties (see the Rainbow World screenshot) from where you can perform some scans - mineral, biological, and energy - and then send down a planet lander if so desired. Care must be taken here though - high surface temperature, seismic activity, extreme weather, and even native lifeforms can all prove deadly to your poor little lander. Once on the surface you can trundle around the small area (it only takes around ten seconds to drive right across the looping landscape) collecting any minerals or artefacts that may be present, and you can also stun any lifeforms and take them with you. When you've had your fill of any particular solar system, heading toward the edge of the screen will take you from 'true' space to hyperspace.

The lighter-coloured circle indicates your ship's range...
This is your main way of travelling between star systems. You can visit any you want but these vast distances use up a lot of fuel, and believe me - the last thing you want is to get stranded in the void of deep space! That's where the basic resource management the game employs comes in. Fuel and crew members are both finite. The former is obviously depleted by travelling (not just in hyperspace, although that takes up the bulk of it) while crew members are mainly lost as a result of combat or harsh planetary conditions (or from slave trading which, believe it or not, you can engage in if you want!). Both can be replenished at the Starbase, however, which serves a number of essential purposes. Upon returning there, assuming you've managed to convince Commander Hayes to join your little rebellion, you have four options: Starbase Commander, Outfit Starship, Shipyard, and Depart Starbase.

Kzer-Za vs Kohr-Ah - my money's on the Dreadnought...
The latter is fairly self-explanatory but the first allows you to talk with the Commander. He will answer any historical questions you might have, keep you up to date with recent events, provide an analysis of any items or artefacts you may have returned with, and you can also unload any minerals you've gathered. The Shipyard is where you can build new ships for your fleet. Your big Precursor vessel can house up to 12 ships in total, although those available depends on the alliances you've forged (if any), and you can also recruit new crew here. Probably the most interesting option, however, is Outfit Starship. This is where you can manage the actual configuration of your ship. It is, you see, made up of 14 'slots' which you can 'fill' (giggity) with various modules. These include crew compartments, storage bays, fuel tanks, a few types of weapon including accessories such as guidance systems and dynamos to recharge them, and even some super special stuff later on in the game!

Fleet management in the Starbase's Shipyard...
The events of the game begin on February 17th, 2155, and you have a limited amount of time to defeat the pesky Ur-Quan and liberate the galaxy and all that jazz. After four to five years (depending on your actions during the game) on the in-game calendar, events extend beyond your control and the game is lost. It might sound like a long time but the clock is constantly ticking, and time passes quite a bit faster in hyperspace too, so you'd better get cracking! A good place to start is to collect minerals from a few systems, sell them at the Starbase, and beef up your Precursor ship a bit since it starts out much like most video game spaceships, i.e. weedy, slow, and underpowered! There are numerous challenges even this early though, mainly due to this weediness, as your ship isn't really equipped for fighting anyone to start with. If you do get caught up in a conflict (you don't get a choice in encounters with some races), you can perform an emergency warp-out and run away, but even this takes a few seconds during which your ship is vulnerable to attack.

Impersonating a deity can be good fun...
If you choose to stand and fight you can select any of the ships docked in your mothership which, at the very start, is just a rusty old Earthling Cruiser. You can use the Precursor ship itself but this is very risky - if it gets destroyed, it's an instant game over! These early stages of the game are all about building, though - building up your money, fleet, and allies - the aggressive stuff comes later. Such early forays obviously involve a lot of trial and error (on your first time through the game, at least) and it's a big galaxy so it's easy to find yourself in hostile territory. Clues on where to go and what to do are drip-fed as you play but there are tonnes of mini-missions and side-quests to get distracted by, some of which will benefit the main mission, others not. Either way, it's always interesting investigating a mystery, helping a vulnerable race, tricking or beating a malevolent race, or even having (virtual) sex with a blue-skinned hottie! No, I'm not joking - you can actually do that.

Supergiant and dwarf systems as seen in Hyperspace...
In a darkened room, obviously, but it gives you an idea of just how much there is to this game. Even now, after having played through the game numerous times over, I still keep finding the odd thing here and there I hadn't known about before. Sadly, however, despite the fact that its release was met with universal acclaim from critics, it wasn't nearly so successful commercially, and almost certainly a big part of the reason for that is the graphics. The style is one I like a lot - most ships are detailed, truespace and hyperspace are well represented, presentation is decent, there are lots of different planets types and lifeforms, and the alien races are all imaginatively designed and portrayed - but even in its day SCII was hardly a looker and could've quite comfortably be hosted by the MegaDrive, Amiga, or anything else of a similar age. This was all well and good with the earlier (though little-known) PC version but 3DO customers demanded much more.

A mighty Chmmr Avatar pummels a helpless Broodhome...
The arrival of CD-based consoles, not to mention fancy 3D polygonal graphics, brought with it a lot of expectation and, frankly, SCII looked antiquated next to some of the much flashier titles doing the rounds at the time. One area the 3DO's abilities were put to use, however, was with the audio. The sampled weapon effects from the first game return along with the catchy 'victory ditties' (including some splendid new ones) and the varied music is fantastic. There are different tunes for truespace, hyperspace, planet exploration, and battle, and each race has its own theme tune which plays during conversation with them. Most impressive of all, though, is the speech - there's literally hours of it. Every piece of dialogue is spoken rather than appearing as text on the screen and each race has its own distinctive voice too.

Eeek! Don't land on this planet without fireproofing!
Some sound funny (like the Pkunk and Utwig), some sound friendly (like the Syreen and Zoq-Fot-Pik), some sound mysterious (like the Orz and Mycon), some sound more sinister (like the Druuge and Illwrath), while the Ur-Quan just sound scary as you might expect, but they are all superb and add so much to the game. It really can't be emphasised enough how much character and atmosphere the audio brings to SCII and it's a significant factor in my love of the game. The speech in particular blew me away the first time I played it! That's not to take anything away from the game itself though, obviously. There's no turn-based tomfoolery this time, all the action takes place in real-time and it's perfectly paced. The depth and scope is regularly impressive and the engrossing story, revealed a bit at a time as you play, is sure to keep you playing until its conclusion.

Look! There's Earth - the little blue dot!
With such a wonderful main game it's also easy to forget about the 'Super Melee' mode - an improved version of the ship vs ship battle game that was the most popular part of the original game! Check the review of that game for the specifics of this mode but this incarnation allows you to create a group of up to 14 ships and battle against another, either computer or human controlled, via a series of one-on-one confrontations, and it's as much fun as it ever was; even more so in fact, thanks to the new ships. However, rather than being the main course for most gamers as it was with the first game, here it's a mere appetiser that often gets forgotten next to the enormity and awesomeness of the main game. I'd never played anything like it at the time and it's still unsurpassed for me so it comes with the highest possible recommendation. If you've always wanted to explore the cosmos or take part in your own epic space adventure to rival anything Star Trek or Babylon 5 could conjure up, you really need to give Star Control II a try. The finest video game I've ever played.

RKS Score: 10/10
 

3 comments:

  1. Granted, I should have played this 20 years ago :( However, so great is it's significance & my forgetfulness that SC2 icon is now on my desktop and even incorporated into OS restore image! I'd love to play Star Flight again......

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  2. Blimey, does that mean you're actually going to play it? (>.<) I hope you do some day, I'd have thought it would be right up your alley! Star Flight is also a top game with much larger planets to drive around on than SCII but isn't as good in most other ways. Still fantastic game though :)

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