Starscape, by Moonpod Games
Review by James McGovern
Sinistar meets Starcraft at the Robotech Café
Grab your gear and tell your Momma you won’t be home for dinner, Space Cadet. A high-level test mission on the deep space vessel the Aegis is about to go horribly wrong and you probably won’t live to tell about it.
As the crew slumbers in cryogenic stasis, the Aegis and its support craft travel for 5 years into deep space to test the awesome power of the ship's radical new dimension drive. As the first experiment begins, an outside force overpowers the dimension drive and the Aegis hurtles into an alien dimension. Many are lost, you and a few crew members aboard the Aegis are all that is left to rebuild the drive and find your way home.
One Small Step for Moonpod…
Starscape is the first software offering of the newly formed indie game company, Moonpod Ltd. Moonpod is the brainchild of three partners who met while working at another game studio and decided to go it alone in the game industry.
It is obvious that the folks at Moonpod are old-school gamers as Starscape contains gameplay elements from many arcade classics including Asteroids, Sinistar, and Time Pilot. The interesting thing about Starscape is that it incorporates much more than the arcade space shooters and is the combination a few different game genres in one package.
Further evidence of the partner’s credentials as “OGs” or “Original Gamers,” the default name of your character in Starscape is “Jameson.” This is a reference to the avatar’s default name in a game called “Elite” released for the Commodore 64 in the early 80’s. To be sure, these folks are not newbies.
Crawl, Walk, Spacewalk
At the start of the game, a tutorial will lead you through various tasks and explain the basics of gameplay as described by other characters in the game, the surviving crew of the Aegis. Relayed via pop-up text bubbles next to the various characters, the instructions are well done and fairly easy to follow, but the text boxes become a bit laborious after a while. Luckily you can hit enter to display the entire message so you do not have to wait as it is typed out on the screen.
The tutorial will also take you through the basics of upgrading your shuttle, building more powerful support craft, upgrading the Aegis, and the navigation of the alien dimension. You must complete the tutorial to save a game and you should resist the temptation to skip the campaign mode for the “Instant Action” option on the main menu. The tutorial takes about ten minutes and at times feels like you may have purchased educational software (eek!) as it can get a bit confusing.
Into the Void
In the real-time gameplay mode, you are the pilot of the only surviving support craft. Your small and lightly armed cargo shuttle is all that stands between the Aegis and the inevitable alien hordes. Your mission is to mine asteroids for precious minerals needed to upgrade your ship as well as the Aegis in order to rebuild the dimension drive and return home. It is this portion of Starscape that belies the creator’s homage to Sinistar and other classics of its ilk. You find your labors constantly interrupted by alien craft of varying size and strength that attack you and the Aegis as you try to collect the raw materials needed to find your way back to earth.
In this mode, the well-rendered graphics of the ships and backgrounds show excellent attention to detail. As you progress throughout this alien realm, the visuals become quite stunning as you encounter strange “allies” and larger enemy craft such as mining ships and other space stations. While the “pew-pew” sound effects of your blasters seem a bit wimpy you will not wait long to hear some real firepower. As the game progresses, you can outfit the Aegis with new defensive weapons that would give any space admiral bragging rights at the local creature cantina. Let’s just hope you hear them from the Aegis first.
The alien ships become more and more deadly from tiny swarming craft that look a bit like the flagships from Galaxian to the “zone bosses” the first of which spews molten asteroids and dwarfs the precious Aegis. The larger enemy craft possess frighteningly devastating and unpredictable weapons that blast, spray, and discharge vile death at every turn. The crackle and flash of lightning and fire erupt from your adversary’s space stations and mining vessels with a roar of thunder sure to make you jump. As with the rest of the visuals in this mode, the attention to detail on the alien ships and firepower is excellent and serves to draw you further into this strange and foreboding universe.
Who Let Space Ghost In?
While the real-time mode is depicted in raster graphics with sprite based action items, the turn-based menu mode you find when navigating the various zones and upgrading your assets is depicted with flash-like anime visuals. It is this portion of Starscape that harkens back to Robotech and other Japanese animated classics like G-Force. The limited movement of the characters in this mode is no more animated than a Space Ghost cartoon, but to good effect as the contrast between the real-time mode raster graphics and the turn-based comic book style really works in this game.
It is in this mode that you will maintain and upgrade your ships as well as plot your navigational course to various nodes within the current zone. In order to proceed to the next zones, you must first defeat the zone boss. During real-time gameplay, you will discover clues regarding the boss’s whereabouts and suggestions for defeating these bristling mother ships. There are portions of the menu system that I found a bit counterintuitive to use, but once you get the hang of it, gameplay is a breeze.
Much like Starcraft and other strategy games, you initiate research and development while in the turn-based portion of the game that continues while you collect more resources and ward off enemy combatants. You must think ahead about your needs and keep the crew busy in order to maintain your competitive edge on the persistent foe. Various options are available such as creating new escort ships of increasing strength and capacity as well as the ability to upgrade the defenses and functions of the Aegis.
Work Coward! WORK!
One aspect of the game I found to be a bit tedious is the mining of resources. Frankly, I would rather be fighting off the alien horde than chipping away in the salt mines. One feature not harvested from Starcraft and its type that might be in order is the ability to set drones to work mining resources leaving you to defend them and the Aegis against the extraterrestrial thugs.
Thankfully, one upgrade path for the Aegis includes a drill and a mineral scoop that allows the behemoth to assist in your mineral mining duties. Once you outfit the space station with this ability, simply double tap the “R” key in order to have the Aegis follow you to different areas of the node. The Aegis will then drill and scoop materials in its path making this task less laborious.
Are We There Yet?
Moonpod Ltd. was solicited for a review copy of Starscape based on its graphic resemblance to the aforementioned arcade classics such as Sinistar and Asteroids. That said, I was not expecting to review a game of this depth and length. While Starscape has obvious roots in its quarter-munching predecessors, it does tend to fall out of the realm of a pure arcade title. I simply must mention that this is not the game you want on your arcade cabinet unless you have a very comfy stool on which to sit. This is a “hunker down in your lazy-boy with your laptop and prepare to be sucked in type of game.” Much like Starcraft, this game will make hours pass, beards grow, and children to go unfed.
Does this mean it earns a poor review? Absolutely not. In fact, my beard has grown; hours have passed, and well…let’s just be thankful the wife is around. Starscape may not be a fast-paced arcade space shooter ready for prime time on your cabinet, but it is a wonderfully engrossing game in its own right. I tip my hat to the folks at Moonpod, for not only taking the plunge into entrepreneurship, which is very admirable, but also for producing Starscape as a first title under the new Moonpod banner. Starscape is a tremendous achievement that truly serves to illustrate the awesome combined talent and experience of the folks at Moonpod. From recent news on their website, a second title called “Battlescape” is on the way and though it too may fall outside the realm of the arcade, this reviewer plans to be one of the first in line to scoop it up.
Product Name: Starscape
Product Web: http://www.moonpod.com/English/about_ss.php
Developer: Moonpod Ltd.
Genre(s): Space Shooter, Arcade, RPG, Strategy
Price: Download version is $24.95.
CD version is $34.95.
Controller Notes: 4 button (weapon 1, weapon 2, gravity beam, station call and 4 way direction via joystick or keyboard.
Operating System: Windows 95 (with OpenGL update) / 98 / 2000 / XP / ME
Processor: Intel Pentium II - 300MHz or equivalent
Memory: 64Mb minimum memory
HD: 110Mb hard disk space
Video Card / Memory: Hardware accelerator with 16 meg of onboard memory or better required. Game tested with nVidia TNT2, 3Dfx voodoo 3 and above, Kyro series, ATI Radeon series, nVidia GeForce series, SiS305 and above, Trident Blade XP or above.
Drivers: Needs latest OpenGL drivers
Video Resolution: 640x480 or 800x600