Reviewed on: PC
Reviewer: Maiyannah Bishop
Review Play-Time: 159h
Developer: Fractal Softworks
Publisher: Fractal Softworks
Review Published: 2022-05-23
+ Simple-to-learn combat has a lot of depth
+ Fleet management fun and engaging without ever
+ Powerful ship customisation with a lot of
+ Colonization empire management surprisingly
- Tutorial a bit overly-linear
- Catching enemy fleets very frustrating
Editor's Note: As this is a standalone game, the playtime may not be entirely accurate. It was recorded 'the old fashioned way'. This is a review of the build of the game available as of May 24, 2022 - if you're reading this after that time, the game may have changed.
Starsector is a top-down science fiction shooter and strategy game hybrid developed and published by Fractal Softworks in their own brand of Early Access release. Have you ever played Mount & Blade and thought to yourself that the situation with the Rhodoks would be significantly improved if you could just defeat them with aggressive orbital bombardment? Well, apparently Fractal Softworks thought that too; because while I am sure I'm not the first person to make the comparison, this is probably the game which isn't Darklands which most resembles Mount & Blade, Warband specifically. You begin with a ragtag gang of mostly scuffed, useless units, but through good play, careful exploration, and the occasional clash with genocidal murderbots, build up to being a power in the galaxy you find yourself in. If that doesn't already have you going to try the game, well, you should be. This is the first game in a long time for which I can say without any real qualification, beyond you liking the genre altogether, that this is worth getting. So if I have yet to convince you, then dear reader, let me take you through a few more paragraphs in a mediocre attempt to do so.
A Fistful of Ident Chips
While recent additions to the game have seen a variety of missions added which are one-off historical scenarios, the meat-and-pototoes of Starsector comes in the main game - the “campaign” mode, as it were. You begin by selecting a portrait and name for your fledgling captain, the age of the system you're in (determining in essence the amount of harsh, mineral-rich worlds versus less harsh, more habitable, but less resource-laden planets), and the size of the sector: either small or large, either of which do exactly what they say on the tin. As a nice side note I wish we saw more of, the seed for the sector is included as well, allowing you to restart in the same generated sector if your existing save crashes and burns - as long as you took care to write it down when you started. The thought occurs to me: we could do one better on this and simply save the seed with the file and offer some sort of “start this sector over” button on the save, or at the failure state, but it's surprising to me at least how few games in this sort of vein of rogue-like offer anything at all to retry the same sandbox.
Having created your captain and the sector she or he is going to be rambling about in, your next choice is your characters “career” up to the start of the game, which essentially is a choice between whether you want a combat ship or merchant/exploration ship, and two “fast start” versions of that; or of course, you can choose an entirely-random start as well, though that is pretty much random, beyond it being serviceable as a starting point, so you can end up with some big deviation across starts with it. Regardless, choose your preferred poison, whether to play on Easy or Normal difficulty, and off you get plonked into the vast cosmos. Or the small cosmos, if that is what you chose.
For those wondering the difference between easy and normal: normal is the baseline, while easy you take less damage, get more salvage, and your sensors detect out to a longer range. That's it - and I find the easy mode is perfectly-fine if you prefer a power fantasy going through the stars rather than a challenge - but even then, the more threatening enemies can still stomp you if you are overconfident, so it's not just a “always win” button either. For my review, I played entirely on the normal mode, but I have since dabbled a bit in the easy mode for kinda brainless whiling away the hours, and it definitely still surprises you if you try to rock up on proper battlefleets, or large enough ships on their own.
For a Few Scrap More
Character creation thus completed, you'll be dropped in the campaign tutorial system and walked through a handful of the basic mechanics. Thus it's in this starting system, Galatia in my play-through though I didn't notice if it changed in subsequent ones or not, that you cut your teeth: going through the motions of the basics so far as the fleet management, logistics, and engagements go. It serves as a good and unchallenging area to get started: a microcosm of the game as a whole presented in an easily-digestable starting zone.
The first order of business the game presents you with when you get into that game proper is the matter of scavenging supplies. Moving around on the map is simple enough, the display is essentially a (detailed) overworld, so you simply click where you want to go. So, you float over to said asteroids and use the skill to Scavenge. It is in doing the Scavenging as it were, that you are presented with the DNA of the tri-mode gameplay that characterises Starsector so well, and draws the comparison to the venerated and venerable Warband: much of the gameplay not done on the overworld, or in conflict, comes with multiple-choice style text prompts, visual-novel style. In the case of Salvage here, it comes in the choice to assess the situation, where it tells you the risks - essentially the numbers affecting the dice roll that follows - and lets you proceed or not. Later on in the game you may have tools to help you can choose to use, or special scenarios in certain wrecks, derelicts, or asteroids. There remains no way to progress the tutorial than to salvage and continue, so on we go.
A Bullet for Galatia
After a quicksave, so the game knows you know how to save and so that if you get your arse handed to you on a silver platter in the next encounter - you get a pirate fleet sent after you. After all, what better a method to see if you know how to fight than to throw you right in that proverbial deep end and see if you sink or swim? It spawns reasonably close to you, so the engagement is inevitable. When it does catch up with you, you get another of those text interactions, and more choices: you stand and fight, you try to talk to them, you try to run, and sometimes you have other, more situational choices, though those are not presented in our simple tutorial encounter.
For the tutorial encounter, you can talk to the rogue miner, but it goes nowhere, so you engage or you run, to have to engage them later to proceed the tutorial. As thus, you're given to the choices that follow engagement: either you delegate command (basically the auto-calculate option), or you assume command of the actual battle.
Auto-calculation follows the usual sort of dynamic with these kinds of things, but it seems fairer than most: it will tend to calculate in your favour if you have a power advantage, and very strongly against you otherwise, even if you possess some technology that would provide a strong tactical advantage when you fight it out. As such, the auto-calc serves the purpose for which it is meant, honestly: to avoid the nuisance fights. Nothing too standout or extraordinary in either directions there.
Should you take control of the battle directly, you are first given a text-box explanation of the logistical costs of fighting: deploying ships in combat reduces their “combat effectiveness” rating, which is functioning to compile the damage, ammo, and other factors of the ship, into a single bar for brevity's sake. As such the tactical battle becomes a question of how many resources you want to commit, since they will all have to resupply, which takes supplies and time. The first element of good tactics becomes committing the ships to the field that will achieve victory, but not so many you deplete your supplies.
The actual tactical combat is essentially an overhead arcade space game, the pace of which will vary depending on the ship your own player captain is piloting. In general, it gets quite hectic, but in a good sense: things are communicated cleanly, there's never an instance I felt the game was unfair with me or I got struck out of nowhere with no warning. While Victory At Sea had essentially simple broadside mechanics with turret arcs to add on to its depth, much like how Warband didn't have simple melee but iterated on that simple mechanical surface with intricacies like the clinch, couched lances and such, Starsector iterates on this with different weapons with varying arcs and ranges, some that are rays, some that are ballistic, some that are guided, and suchforth. While Victory at Sea was criticised by some as shallow, here we have designed out a system with a fair bit of depth that encourages multiple ranges and speeds of engagements, with variety in ship designs, design approaches, and fleet tactics.
Of course, the tutorial fight is a fairly simple affair, and while the AI in a small frigate can be quite aggressive, it isn't likely to prevail. Indeed, it quickly withered and exploded under a hail of (space-)mortar fire. This leads to another salvage opprotunity in the post-combat screen: picking through the wreckage to see if there's anything valuable. And then, another prompt about how supply use will increase, as the fleet repairs and rearms.
Having become the proud veteran of one (1) single engagement, the game advances you a level, mostly to continue the tutorialising through to the player progression. Every time you gain a level you gain a skill point and a story point with which to improve your player captain.
The skill point is used to advance one of four aptitudes: Combat, Leadership, Technology, and Industry. Each aptitudes offer a few special abilities, and could generally be described as: combat is the tactical combat skill, leadership is the strategic combat and fleet logistics skill, technology covers available upgrades and your ability to navigate, and finally industry largely benefits the logistics aspect: you can repair more, salvage more, more easily recover your damaged ships, and so on.
Story points are a little more interesting and unusual an affair: they are in their elemental form what we would call a “plot coupon” - there are a variety of chances you get to do something particularly amazing, cool, or challenging, and they will require a Story Point to undertake. Some will automatically succeed, and are somewhat like the “blue” options in FTL - decidedly better options only available if you have that currency.
3:10 to Ancyra
Since we've now gone over the game elements in isolated and simple forms such that we should have a basic understanding of the game's individual components, it now becomes time to demonstrate the core game loop, so we are presented the first of many missions, or quests if you prefer. We get an urgent hail ushering us to the station of the one inhabited station in the system, telling us to come in person. And so, for lack of any other direction, thusly do we go.
It this moment where the game also starts explaining some of the advanced concepts: starting with Sustained Burns and Interdiction Pulses. These are essentially a measure and countermeasure: Sustained Burns allow you to more quickly traverse space, at the cost of an increase of fuel. In contrast, an Interdiction Pulse is an area of affect ability that disables the engines of ships it hits, so when someone is speeding away from you to try to escape, it would be an Interdiction Pulse one would use to try to catch them.
Either have advantages and disadvantages - at high speed with Sustained Burn, you have the risk of damage, or being knocked of course at least, when you go through debris fields or asteroid belts. Going at speed and then helpfully careening off of Jebediah Kerman's aborted Mun capsule to be catapaulted into deep space and need to take days of travel to get back is not a fun time, so you have to be discerning in when you engage the Sustained Burn ability or otherwise cruise at high speed (some ships later on are quite fast even without it). Likewise, the Interdiction Pulse you have to disable engines for a brief moment to do, so if you do it too early, you only hamstring your own pursuit, for no gain, as they happily blaze away to safety.
So happily you jet along to the inhabited station, trying to avoid bounding off the asteroid belt along your path which it uses to demonstrate that concept, you soon get the third advanced concept dropped on you: having your Fleet Transponder on or off. This is basically making it easy for other fleets to ID you, whereas having it off means they have to come very close to do so. Most of the major factions will expect you to have it on, and will get quite angry with you if they catch up to you with it off, however, docking with it off is the only method to access the Black Market, for much better buying and selling prices, and it makes it much easier to evade others, whether for innocent purposes or not.
Once you make your way to the planetary station, any potential run-ins with system security over not turning on that transponder may have gotten, you connect with the station commander, whom has the option to give you a bunch of background history dump, but more importantly, that first mission we were so tantalisingly teased with before the game yanked on the packing to tutorialize more: infiltrating a pirate station to meet an informant, testing your ability to dock with the transponder off. Just in case you thought you were getting off without any more tutorializing however, the contact briefing you spends a wordy paragraph on an emergency burn: spending a ton of fuel to get away, if need be, to max out speed.
~ Intermission ~
If you have not yet detected it in my language, humble reader, then let me take a moment to make it clear to you: the tutorial is one of my key negative points about the game experience. “How can that be?” one reasonably asks; since, after all, this is a game that is expounding its tutorial in a logical and very orderly fashion. Well, that is the problem: in its native form outside of the tutorial, Starsector is at its best when it is a big sandbox, with a bunch of toys to play with and a sector full of opprotunities, challenges, and things to find.
The tutorial's problem isn't really pacing, as while I personally strained under the constant yanking at the choke chain it presents things at a decent-enough clip. Rather my problem is more in how linear it was. From very early on in the game you can see the options you have stretching ahead of you, but you can't use them during the tutorial. Let's consider an example: my readers who follow SpiffingBrit, and those that did until he got entirely too heavy into the midroll ads, have likely seen the video he did on Starsector after SsethTzentach covered it, wherein he explained how you could use the Transverse Jump ability, which allows you to warp between systems without using a jump point. Getting the ability early allows one to exploit the tutorial. The idea here is you are not intended to leave that system until you have completed the beginning quest, but if you have that capability, you could hop out and essentially take advantage of the stranded system with a broken gate to sell stuff from elsewhere for amazing prices.
With the current tutorial, you cannot do that. You are on a very narrow, very specific rail, and any attempt to deviate from that course is stymied. Abilities like Transverse Jump get disabled, for no other reason than, you're in the tutorial now and we don't want you doing that. Not only is this limitation frustrating, it ends up in a tutorial whose gameplay is in marked contrast to the actual game - and the further away from the expected actual gameplay a tutorial is, the less useful it actually is going to be as a tutorial.
This is exactly the kind of experience that makes many players skip tutorials, even good, helpful, well-laid out tutorials such as this one: they know this is not the proper “good” gameplay, and they want to get to it. When things become obstructive, slow them down, and feel artifical to the actual gameplay design, especially when they feel as if they are holding the player's hand, many players will balk. Both from a tutorial design point of view and from a gameplay flow point of view, it is best to keep the tutorial as close as possible to what one can expect out of the actual game.
There's other things locked off too - colonization for example - but what burns me so much is that it wasn't always like this. The tutorial itself hasn't changed much, it is the additional restrictions that are extra. Frankly, it feels like the reaction to the exploit that SpiffingBrit pointed out was to fold their arms and decide that the Tutorial Area is a No Fun Allowed zone. And what I and others will no doubt pick up on, is that such an approach represents a largely advesarial approach towards their players. Something to keep a weather eye on as development progresses. Such a change in the tutorial comes in stark contrast to something like Bannerlord, the newest contemporary to Warband, where yeah, there's a very guided tutorial as well, but if you ever lose interest in that, you can entirely sod off somewheres else and do something entirely different that is to your interest. No such option exists in Starsector, as all the additional options get blocked off. This kind of approach to me speaks of a lack of faith in the player, which is somewhat endemic to modern game design: it isn't enough to have these options, the players have to know about them, and they have to interact with them in the method the designer wants. This is, gratefully, the only time it comes up and once you get past the tutorial, you're free. It wasn't always here though, so I would be wary of this approach creeping more and more into the gameplay in the future.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Having now whinged myself inside-out about the tutorial's linearity, let us get on with the mechanics it is walking us through: the mission involves using an Active Sensor Burst to find an object without its transponder on, to retrieve a rudimentary AI core from a stranded probe. So on we bound to find it near one of the planets. Much like the rest of the tutorial, it remains a fairly-elementary task.
The game starts actually opening up now, but a little: if you stop at the Galatia Academy Station on the way, it gives you a short bit of exposition which fills in the background of the tutorial mission arc's scenario. A Hegemony officer gives you the low-down, explaining that a scientist decided they could go Lex Luthor and “improve” the system's jump-travel gate and caused damage to it to the extent that it was rendered inoperable, stranding the system from the universe-at-large. It's a little bit of flavour, and you could be forgiven for passing over it, but these little bits of exposition help explain the how and why of how certain game dynamics are as they are, so it becomes a reward in and of itself to the canny player.
Irrespective of whether you take that little stopover on the way or not, it isn't terribly difficult to find the target probe, but when you do, you're going to have to fight off some automated defenses. It's a fairly trivial engagement: a few small ships versus what is likely to be a proper, but small battlefleet, or a single beefy ship if you didn't get the fast start, but this broadens the horizon a little bit with increasing the numbers. It's also the first time you're likely to salvage weapons. Battle salvage complete, you move on to the normal salvage of the probe those defenses were defending, gaining from it some supplies, fuels, and a Gamma Core AI. The AI in tow, you return to the base, and after some more exposition about how the game regards AI as an evil - merely sometimes a neccesary one - you're set on your penultimate task: assembling a fleet to break past rioting miners whom are blockading the damaged gate.
Assembling this fleet involves going through a bunch of derelicts in a ship graveyard in the outer bounds of the system, and is, essentially, a crash-course in actual, honest-to-Gods salvaging, with the limitations removed, excepting that it has removed most of the randomness - you are going to get certain ships, with perhaps one little exception: there's a frigate that, if you complete normal salvage on, is otherwise going to end up stripped and scrapped, but if you use the Story Points option (in green), you can recover the frigate for your fleet. Definitely a worthwhile investment, if you're not stingy with story points, though the game lacks good signposting as to how often those kinds of options are going to come up at this moment, and as such, I can certainly see people treating them with the "too good to use" syndrome, and ending up with a surplus of them because they end up hoarding. The other ships which are essentially flagged as unsalvageable can also be recovered like this; whether you choose to do so or not, I leave as an exercise to the reader.
Assuming that you managed to cobble together a good fleet to your desire, your next order of business is to gear up, refit your ships, and rearm them as neccesary. The station commander at Ancyra will explain refit in very brief when you do - mostly explaining how to use the auto-fit function for now - and open up the stores of weapons so you have some basic selection. With some parting advice not to engage both rebel fleets at once, he leaves you to it.
Starship building in Starsector is deep, like, bring a canary and a lantern levels of deep. Along with things like the difference between energy, projectile, and missile weapons, you have varying hardpoint sizes and ranges, as well as some weapons with spread and others that don't have it, and the list goes on.
I rather lack the space to get into the intricacies of each and every weapon, as going through all of that would be tantamount to doubling the size of and already-lengthy review, but broadly-speaking you have short, medium, and long ranged ballistic weapons, the same for energy weapons, and then some weapons have spread whereas others are focussed. On top of that you have missiles and torpedos, largely differentiated by speed and range, but also by varying guidance methods as well. And then adding to that pile are a variety of modules you can add to the ship, granting things like cargo space, fighter bays, ability to better control damage, and those are merely the most obvious ones which come to mind. Varying ship layouts further complicate this, with all manner of arrangements of hardpoint sizes and abilities, which further broadens the depth of designs you can come up with, so by the by, even before you start looking at mods - of which there are plenty - you have a frankly-excellent variety of things you can come up with.
The depth of customisation available for ship designs in Starsector is one of the things it does right: you can get by perfectly well with stock ships, even get through some particularly-gnarly encounters with them, but if you want to truly push the envelope, than that customisation offers all manner of possibilities, and I'd say when you get down to the brass tacks of the game, being good at ship customisation and fighting in those ships are what are going to seperate the boys from the men and the girls from the women when it comes to who truly excels at that game. Yet, even more importantly, given a simulator to try out your designs without consequence, the game makes it plain fun to exercise your design creativity and see how things go.
This is, more or less, why the game suggests to you that you should rely on using auto-fit for now, and to its credit, it allows you to do this or your own design without restriction, unlike most of the tutorial. The auto-fit function is fairly robust: allowing you to fit the design to a certain standard, of which most but not all ships have many that come pre-built, and you can save your own as you make them as well. Additionally, you can set some parameters, such as whether to strip existing weapons and modules from the ship or only fill in empty ones, whether to use only ordinance on hand or buy it from the market at the planet you're docked at, whether to try purchasing from the black market to source items (and assuming the consequences and thereof), and adding certain usually-beneficial modules automatically. For this first proper scrap, the auto-fit is sufficient, but it is easy, especially with the Simulator safety net, to get lost in creating one's own designs.
The inevitable conflict happens at the site of the new jump-point, or the aspiring new jump-point anyways, with two rogue miner fleets circling it, hoping to blockade it to force their demands through. The system authority meanwhile, hopes to force their position: by means of sending you, as heavily-armed as you both can muster, to communicate with them in the 20-inch, 50-inch, and beyond calibres.
This represents the first proper melee and it sets the tone for the rest of the battles ahead, especially if you meet both fleets in an even keel. It becomes a frenzied, violent affair very quickly, with the game striking a good balance between easily-readible graphics, so you can tell what's going on, and busy enough that it still communicates a frenetic-paced, pitched space battle. The sound design lends well to this too, especially with the ballistic weapons, which have a variety of very oomph-sounding hits on the enemy - or yourself, if you're misfortunate enough.
I must confess, this isn't a brand of spaceship fighting game which usually appeals to me. The last overhead-combat style ship in that vein that really appealed to me were the Solar Winds, Masters of Orion 2, and Star Control days. I find such games, or games that have a mode implementing it, are usually fairly arcadey, and I generally I don't find it enjoyable because it's a test of reflexes more than a test of skill, and well with these hands of mine, reflexes aren't something I have in spades. Or even in clubs. The depth of customisation, the ability to properly command ships at a moment's notice, and the fact that everything is properly ballistic - ie a simulation rather than just hitscan nonsense, really help sell it.
Amidst all the ping and bangs of the punchy ballistic weapons, you have a very responsibe control system, and some well-balanced mechanics that help prevent it from getting too broken. One omni-present thing is flux, which basically can be thought of as heat, because that's frankly what it is treated as. You accumulate a little taking damage on shields, shooting yourself, having the shields up passively adds some. So you have to pace yourself in both taking damage and in dealing it, so theres a lot of duck, dodge, and weave to the starship slugging if you're doing it right. The skill floor is relatively low here, but the skill ceiling is pretty high, since you have customisation of ships, the command aspect, commanding your own ship well, and getting through everything while minimizing supply and fuel use.
A source of consternation in later engagements, which, while it's unlikely to come up during the tutorial, it likely will later, is that catching enemy fleets of similar flight capability is grueling - especially since the game's AI, both for allies and enemies, in both the tactical and strategic sense, is pretty competent. Catching a specific fleet can become a very long affair of chasing them across the sector and catching them at a bad angle some time later, so you always have to weigh if it's really worth it to do so or not.
The final aspect of the game to really comment on is the colonization aspect. Find a planet you particularly fancy, which isn't already held by a major power, and you can claim it as your own for the low low cost of a shitload of people, machinery, and other resources. Congratulation, you have claimed your not-very-free real estate. You are now a minor power, and can develop your colony as you wish.
Once established on a planet, you can direct the development of a series of addons, and for a system that most people might never interact with, I found it surprisingly-deep. There's all manner of structures you can construct into a limited amount of slots, so you combine the kind of development of the previously-mentioned Masters of Orion, with having to be canny and thoughtful about which improvements you want, rather than just plonking everything down. You also have the ability to appoint a governor to help improve efficiency of the colony - or place an AI core in charge, for great increases, but also risks if you ever try to remove it, to say nothing of how other major powers will harass you if they suspect, let alone discover, that you have an AI core at a colony.
You aren't limited to only one planet of course, you can expand as greatly as your resources allow, and this progression is the cherry on top of the positive Warband comparison to me - you truly do start off as the star captain equivalent of an unwashed peasant, and can push your borders all the way up to having a star empire or whatever that threatens the other established major powers. It actually realizes that often is promised but rarely realized.