For the last few days, I've been playing Star Command, a mobile game that's had people excited for a very long time now. Beginning life as a Kickstarter project, it's gone through several major delays, and arrives this week on the App Store an example not just of excellent portable strategy, but of the realities of Kickstarter funding as well.
I'm not saying it's a bad game. Far from it. The Star Command that is here, now, is fantastic. Putting you in the shoes of a starship captain, ala Captain Kirk, you're in charge of the running of said starship, from the (albeit basic) tasks of building facilities and hiring crew to the management of that crew and right down to the firing of the ship's weapons.
You travel the galaxy completing story missions, can stop off for some grinding to level up your crew, and all the while, the game is surprisingly funny.
Because your crew can be named and then killed, ala XCOM, you develop a strange attachment to each of the little guys. Seeing them sucked out an airlock or burned to ashes because you couldn't get an engineer to their damaged work station in time hurts.
The real fun comes from the game's centrepiece, a series of 1v1 battles against rival starships. These rapidly degenerate into frantic scrambles for your time and attention, as you have to deal with aliens on your ship shooting the place up, damage to your hull, wounds to your crew and the actual attack against the enemy ship. The first three things are tactical considerations, as you move your crew around the ship assigning them tasks.
The actual combat, though, is different. It's Guitar Hero. Or Wario Ware. The firing of your weapons is handled via minigames, most involving quick timing, and while this isn't exactly hardcore strategy gameplay, I liked it; it added an element of risk and chance to the combat instead of making it simply a matter of "bigger ship wins".
At times it can all get a bit too much, but that's when the game is at its best, because that's when it's doing what it sets out to be. This isn't a game simulating Bill Adama's model sailboat moments. It's simulating the moments when everything was going to hell and one man had to make the hard decisions. For the most part, the isometric touchscreen controls let you stay on top of this.
Sometimes, though, Star Command's ambition is curtailed by the platform, and the platform limits your ability to get the most out of it. Perhaps the most crucial tasks in the game - commanding your crew to repel alien invaders and repair critical damage - can be very frustrating, as when things get busy the screen gets a bit too cluttered, and those same touchscreen controls sometimes can't handle the speed and precision needed to order them around accurately.
AI potholes are also a problem. Crew will stand burning to death unless you specifically order them to move, and on many occasions I saw armed crew simply stand with their backs turned while aliens they were supposed to be firing upon closed in for the kill.
Star Command is also pretty vague when it comes to telling you what to do. Some things are explained in detail during early missions. Other, sometimes equally important matters are left to the player to fumble through themselves.
But hey, this isn't - despite some people's protestations otherwise - FTL. It's an iOS game, one that manages to squeeze a lot of fun (and an amazing soundtrack) into a simple package. What's there, as rudimentary as it might be - all you can really do is fight other ships - is a blast.
It's what's not there that's perhaps just as interesting, though. Long before Double Fine's adventure game windfall, Star Command was one of the very first Kickstarter success stories, its scope and gorgeous visuals pulling in twice what the developers had originally asked for.
The game that was promised back in 2011, however, isn't the game we're playing here. Star Command's original Kickstarter pitch says quite clearly that, in addition to combat, you can do this:
Once you build a ship and hire your crew, you can travel deeper into new sectors to explore the mysteries of the universe. Players can discover strange planets, conduct away missions, explore derelict ships and conduct diplomacy with strange civilizations.
Nope. That's not in the product available today. What was billed initially as a sweeping space epic is now "just" a space combat simulator, albeit a pretty damn good one. The development team have obviously had issues with the game, including some fairly substantial financial woes, but if you're one of the thousands of people who threw down cash based on the Kickstarter pitch, you're not getting what you were promised. At least in this version.
The developers say that work will continue on the game, with a planned PC edition to serve as a testbed for future additions that can be added to all versions.
Other things mentioned in the pitch, like power-ups and companions, aren't in the shipped game either, though there are several instances where menu buttons in Star Command will tell you some features are still coming, they're just "coming soon".
I really like this game. I like it a lot. I like the art style, I like the frantic combat, I like the feeling of ownership I have over my ship and crew. Star Command, even in its more limited state, sets out to make you feel like a starship captain, and this game succeeds in doing just that. It's superficial, yes, but when I'm sitting down for ten minutes I don't want to play FTL or a serious PC simulator. I want to give some orders and see cute little things burst into flames.
It's just a shame, then, that there's not more to do with those tools. Hopefully the planned PC version can fix this, because if Star Command can get some decent exploration and diplomacy to go with all the action, it'll be one of the best space games around.