Review: Starpoint Gemini Warlords24 May 2017 9
Review: Starpoint Gemini Warlords
Released 23 May 2017
Starpoint Gemini Warlords is a conflicted game. On one hand, it is built with all the hallmarks of a strategy game -- fleet orders, context menus, and resource management. On the other, it forces you to fly a single ship while presenting very little actual control over other crafts, rendering your whole fleet little more than mindless pawns in the not-so grand galactic scheme. In trying to connect two separate genres, Warlords instead slips between the crack.
Opening up with a sudden rebel attack that destroys a prototype battleship, the game tasks the player with reinforcing and expanding sectors until this whole portion of the Gemini galaxy is under control. The main campaign revolves around an uninspired storyline made up of missions that basically involve flying from point A to B, pressing a few buttons, then flying somewhere else. The first hour of the campaign alone involves three missions in a row where your objective is to fly to a waypoint, deploy troops on a ship, then fly away. It would be bad if it was just a basic concept so blatantly reused, but it is made worse by the fact the boarding gameplay is utterly boring -- it basically involves ordering the attack via a contextual menu, waiting for a bar to fill, then pressing a button on the corner of the screen. The bar starts to fill again, you press another button afterwards, and after repeating that chore half a dozen times, the ship is "boarded". It is not the most exciting mechanic, and like everything else in the game, it sounds cool in concept, but the execution is utterly lacking.
The free roam mode is significantly better than the main campaign, in part because you are not subjected to the atrociously bad storyline. Without being constantly dragged down by substandard writing and dialogue, the game manages to be actually fun. Starting with an upgradeable HQ base, ships, and resources, you are set loose in the galaxy to do your bidding. There are multiple free roam scenarios to choose from, ranging from mercenary or trader all the way to baron or warlord. Each one has a different starting position, ranging from a unupgraded space station and gunship all the way to self-sustainable starbase and a mighty battleship. It is a much more interesting premise than the mediocre writing that plagues the game's campaign.
Technically, the game is quite disappointing. The graphics are miles below what promotional shots would have you believe. While they are not ugly, they certainly lack the overall gloss and texture quality the game advertises itself with. Unacceptably, the game has a ridiculously small drawing distance -- huge space stations pop out of thin vacuum right in front of you, with nary any change of LOD stages. Astronomical features like asteroid fields and nebulae randomly appear as you get close, making the whole game feel groundless -- it is impossible to navigate the world by distant landmarks, as every single object in the game dissolves into the ether once you move a couple of kilometres away from it.
The performance is also lacking, and I experienced several FPS drops and loading screens where previously in the beta there had been none. Sound effects were repetitive and pathetic, with space battles sounding like a bugged Super Nintendo game as dozens of exactly similar laser weapons shot at each other, creating a crowded atmosphere that made me want to turn my headphones off. Weirdly, some actions like engaging the needlessly restricted TDrives -- the game's version of warp travel -- lacked sound effects at all, instead presenting you with a blue wavering corridor and disjointed silence. It cements the notion that the developers clearly let a few things slide.
Gameplay-wise, the most novel aspect is the strategy layer, which mainly revolves around fleet ordering, resource gathering, and a not-so careful management of the main base. Said space station is the anchor of your faction’s power in the sector, and the place from where you acquire upgrades and build new ships for your fleet with the resources accrued during the course of the game. The station itself can also be upgraded with different modules, which in turn unlock further activities such as mining operations and debris salvaging. Those are basically locations where you spend resources to build an outpost on, increasing your monthly income and feeding into the cycle of spending money to make more money. It is quite straightforward and shallow.
Unfortunately, the whole title similarly lacks any meaningful depth, creating a very average and ever-so-slightly unsatisfactory experience during your time with Starpoint Gemini Warlords. The brunt of your time will be spent in control of a single ship -- from which you can never relinquish control of -- and the controls are utterly unwieldy. Regardless of a nimble gunship or a massive carrier, the spacecrafts all handle like a bag of flying bricks -- the controls are remarkably bad for a game built mainly around that concept. This would have a much lesser impact on a player’s experience if a certain degree of AI control was allowed, but the only automation allowed is in the form of “firing at will” the ship’s main weapons -- the player is *forced* to fly and use the special abilities himself, at all times. As a result, engagements in Warlords are often quite dull, lacking any punch and severely dragged down by the awful controls.
Luckily, the strategic side is significantly better, which is almost a shame given you can’t choose to spend all your time in it. As you expand your base and build more spacecraft, you can directly assign orders to ships via the map. Those fleets can be sent on missions or positioned to conquer and secure sectors. They can even be ordered to follow you around as escorts, which make space battles infinitely more tolerable. Like the flying, this gameplay style isn’t entirely optimal either -- context actions are shallow, the AI is limited, and you simply lack any meaningful control over other ships to really make it engaging. Your fleets are unable to scan anomalies, pick-up cargo, or even dock with something, making them little more than big flying drones.
The saving aspect of Starpoint Gemini Warlords is that as a game, it works. No part of it is stellar or even noteworthy, but it provides you with enough activities, options, and gameplay to easily eat a sizeable chunk of your time. The standard grinding process of acquiring resources to build resource gathering stations that gather even more resources is as effective here as ever, and the overall goal of securing the whole sector gives you an end goal to strive for. Aside from “monthly” drops (that I have no idea how to account for as I couldn’t find one single clock anywhere in-game), players can acquire resources via battles, anomalies, or mining stations, but the grind to get the large amounts necessary to do anything is quite substantial. Weirdly, the game time seems to move faster when the player’s ship is not stationary, so I constantly flew around blindly to speed up monthly drops. I’m not sure that’s what the developers intended, but it is a result of their game design.
Aside from waiting or the time-consuming cliches of trading and mining, the game also provides the classic trope of “freelancer” contracts as means to acquire money. Anything from hunting hostiles to escorting friendlies to repairing satellites is in the game, but they are utterly unexciting, amounting to variations of “fly from point A to point B”. It is a bit aimless and largely unenjoyable. They are not precisely bad, they are just so mediocrely average that borders on the insulting.
This uninspired approach to game design unfortunately extends to the largely forgettable campaign, as well. Plot is not really important, and what little story there is is awfully generic, opening with the standard “unseen ambush destroys something important” trope -- complete with cookie-cutter dialogue that serves as nothing but expositional chatter to get the story going. Once the prologue is done and you can go around hailing ships and talking to a few people, the RPG style dialogue proves deplorable: people answer deep personal background questions with nary a degree of rapport established beforehand, and all characters come off as NPCs instead of real, layered individuals. It is nigh-offensive, if it wasn’t unfortunately so common.
The technical aspects of Warlords, unfortunately, leave much to be desired. The game looks awful in full settings, with a graphical fidelity reminiscent of Freelancer back in 2005 -- it is perfectly serviceable, yet it looks nothing like the polished a crisp images presented in the screenshots. The music and sound design are completely forgettable, as every single sound effect is either ordinary or downright annoying, and the music completely escapes the mind once the game is turned off. The voice acting is atrocious, with all the quality performance of fifth grade theatre production and dialogue to match. Creatively, Warlords is a very bad game.
But as a game, Starpoint Gemini Warlords can be fun. It has good ideas, but a somewhat lackluster execution as it attempts to smoothly combine arcade ship gameplay with a meaningful strategic mechanic -- and it ends up doing neither. The decision to restrict the player to one single ship, especially, feels a particularly unfortunate decision -- I can’t help but think this game would be much better served by a strategy focus with the ability to assume direct controls of any units at any time, similar to Battlestations: Midway years ago. However, Warlords went a different route and struggles to integrate a terrible flying model into a shallow strategy overlay, creating an average experience that always feels lacking. It is an enjoyable game, but it does literally nothing well enough to stand out from its brethren: in the end, Starpoint Gemini Warlords is utterly average.