Starsector is leading me down a path towards psychopathy, disingenuousness, and a general disregard for law and life
Thirty bright and promising lives, cut short in a hail of autocannon fire and spite. Well, “bright and promising” might be an overstatement: after all, they took a gig on my rust bucket). Still, while I never actually met any of them — having made a point of never leaving my command cabin unless absolutely necessary — I’m confident at least some of them were, you know, not complete garbage fires of humanity… maybe.
Hey, don’t look at me like that! Just because my only contact with them was as numbers on a screen doesn’t mean I didn’t care about their well-being. Sure, I only opened up the roster because I needed so many crewmen and the station had warm bodies to spare, but I cared about those numbers, damn it! I mean, my ships don’t run if they’re too low, so...
So I think I’ll blame Fractal Softworks. Yeah, it’s Starsector that’s ultimately leading me down a path towards psychopathy, disingenuousness, and a general disregard for law and life. Also drugs. Just, selling so many drugs that, like, I can’t drive home hard enough how unconscionable is the sheer volume of drugs I have. In fact, I sold so many drugs that I may have kind-of-sort-of reduced the stability of the local government. I’m sure it won’t be an issue. My slide into degeneracy does showcase one of the more interesting features of commerce in Starsector, though. Essentially, there are two options when you go to market on a planet: trade within the confines of the legal, regulated free markets, or ever-so-casually click over to the “Black Market” tab and maybe pick up an unconscionable amount of drugs and other goods, free of those pesky tariffs.
You know, just maybe.
THE STYGIAN, CEREBRAL CALL OF SCI-FI MERCANTILE EXPLOITS
But that “maybe” affects the overall stability of the worlds in which you trade, which makes trading — a process which can easily devolve into something as stimulating as watching paint dry — both an effort in managing suspicion and appealing to the more mischievous side of the psyche. Now, many titles do have some sort of ‘black market’ mechanic, true, but, in my experience, they rarely ever deal with the impact that black market trading has on a population, so seeing that addressed in a mechanically impactful way is very welcome. In other words: for those who are drawn like lemmings to the Stygian, cerebral call of sci-fi mercantile exploits, there’s some new depth to consider.
There’s also intricacy to the combat, although I wouldn’t call it new. Fast, punchy, lethal; maybe, but not new, with the exception of one system. You have multiple weapon-groups composed of varying weapon types that perform in a kind of rock-paper-scissors against shields, hull, and armor and must be maneuvered into their firing arcs. Heard it before, loved it, still love it, and — on its own — it’s simple, but it’s combined with a kind of ‘overheating’ system, whereby most combat actions accrue an energy remnant called ‘flux.’
The tutorial does a good job of explaining flux, but if you jumped right in expecting this to be another top-down space shooter, you could be forgiven for thinking at first that the flux seemed superfluous. Flux actually dissipates fairly quickly when just firing, and engaging your shields doesn’t add to your flux level at all, but the illusion is short-lived. As soon as you try to fire while your shields are up, or start getting shot yourself, you begin to understand the economy of flux: bringing your shields up and absorbing any damage with them or firing any of your weapons while they’re up stops the flux from dissipating. This forces you to choose selectively when to engage shields and when to take the hit, as leaving your shields on while you fight and get hit quickly overloads your flux capacitor, instantly dropping your shields and stalling your guns, and while you can still move, you’re rarely fast enough to not be a sitting duck (to say nothing of homing missiles). It can all be a bit much to juggle, really, and you quickly learn that no one ship is suitably equipped to be a one-ship-navy.
And so enters fleet management, the grander aspect of the game, and the meat of a campaign playthrough. The tutorial gives you the basics, but to give you a rundown, Starsector’s fleet management executes like an RTS with highly customizable units, so outfitting your ships out of combat to fit certain roles is critical. Once you actually do get into the thick of things, you can give all the basic commands you would expect of an RTS, along with a few specialized ones. This allows a certain level of fine control, but you won’t exactly be bringing out your Starcraft APM, and you can’t directly control more than your flagship outside the fleet command map — though you can change your flagship on the fly (complete with a neat sequence depicting a little shuttle departing one ship and going to another in real time).
A DEEP, BUT NARROW APPROACH
There can be some benefit to jumping into another ship mid-combat too, since your avatar can be leveled up into a flagship combat specialist, with passives that grant strong bonuses to whatever vessel you’re piloting; though that’s merely one of a few options. In fact, upon level up, you can spend skill points in one of a few skills that focus on improving your own combat effectiveness, your fleet capability, your economic potential, or your survivability, among other miscellaneous stats. Starsector takes a deep but narrow approach, offering a select number of high impact passives. For me, this gave leveling-up an instant meaningfulness that is otherwise lacking when the bonuses are too small or obscure. What’s more, these perks don’t detract from the skill requirement, but still offer some pretty significant tailoring options for your ship and your fleet, allowing you to maximize your effectiveness based on your preferred style of combat or trade.
Mechanically, Starsector is a solid release; visually, it’s no slouch either. While the title foregoes a more demanding 3D implementation in favor of the cheaper, more GPU-friendly 2D option, it doesn’t do so at the expense of aesthetic attention. Using drawn assets instead of retro sprite work, you get crisp, easy-on-the-eyes visuals that show off some nice effect work and solid ship designs. My only two complaints with the visuals are that, at times, lingering hull damage effects can make your ship look like a muddy space blob, and weapon effects, while good looking, are not always the easiest to differentiate at a glance, making it occasionally difficult to tell what gun you’re firing or being hit by in the heat of combat, if you’ve somehow lost track. (It’s fairly easy to do, at first.)
It isn’t easy to create a solid 2D space-shooter, especially one that stands out in what seems to become more and more a saturated market, but that’s exactly what Fractal Softworks has done. While longtime space-shooter fans will find much that rings familiar, Starsector’s unique and polished take on sci-fi space-shooter economics, combined with frantic battles, strong fleet command options, and an effective character progression, set this title apart. For gamers seeking an experience that’s just a little more amid the starry sea of space shooters, Starsector is worth a look.