eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: Starpoint Gemini Warlords

Welcome one, welcome all. Starpoint Gemini: Warlords is here to satisfy your space pilot simulator needs. Or maybe space captain simulator needs. No, that’s not right, you are actually a captain of a ship, or maybe an admiral of a fleet. Nope, that’s not it either. A CEO of a space corporation, or a sector governor? No, an emperor of a galactic empire! Maybe, but this quandary certainly demands a closer examination. Regardless… Welcome aboard!

SPGWTitle Screen

Chris Roberts – Bringing Back Space

Once there was a game called Star Citizen. It was a spiritual successor to the Wing Commander series. Both were created by Chris Roberts. Star Citizen was big and beautiful and full of cutting edge technology and it made a lot of money. A LOT of money, starting with a very successful Kickstarter and a still-not-ending-fundraiser-sum of a reported $155 million. It was hailed as the game to bring back the space simulations of old, a genre that had mostly disappeared, along with other past greats like flight sims and arcade shooters. (The latter has made a bit of a comeback, I’m happy to say, thanks to the new DOOM, Wolfenstein and incoming versions of Unreal Tournament and Quake.)

Anyway, I was one of those guys who was ready for the space combat simulator genre to make a comeback. However, the comeback came without Star Citizen. Five years later, Star Citizen is still in alpha. The recent Gamescom trailer was arguably clunky and well, it’s the fifth Gamescom at which the game has showed and still… No full release.

SPGW9

You better watch out for my friends and I.

No matter your opinion on Star Citizen, it’s undeniable that the genre has been growing in popularity. There are many space combat simulators on Steam, like the X series, Elite: Dangerous, EVERSPACE and No Man’s Sky. They’ve all been successful to varying degrees. Unfortunately, since Star Citizen was announced, my interest has waned a great deal. I picked up a joystick a few years back, had some fun with these other games, and moved on (although I am still saving that HOTAS joystick setup for Star Citizen – call me an optimist!)

Enter Starpoint Gemini. It’s a series from LGM Games (Little Green Men, in case you’re wondering). The original was released in 2010. It was less of a straight-up space simulation and more of an RPG tactical sim… Set in space. A few years later LGM released Starpoint Gemini 2. It was received more warmly than the first and LGM went on to create lots of free and paid content for it, including an update of the campaign from the original Starpoint Gemini. Then, after a long stint in Steam’s Early Access, Starpoint Gemini Warlords was released in May of 2017.

Story vs. Sandbox

Starpoint Gemini Warlords (SPGW) comes bundled with a couple flavors of gameplay. There’s the regular campaign, which features the main storyline, and then there are freeroam scenarios which eschew the campaign in favor of a big space sandbox. The main campaign starts you out with a tiny ship and asks you to follow a path through story missions. Scenarios start you out with different equipment loadouts, skills, and player levels, letting you jump into the new boots of a level one recruit or the shiny loafers of a level twenty commander.

I chose the story campaign as my first playthrough. I wanted to get a feel for the universe and meet some of the characters and factions. You start off as a shard of the Human Empire, previously defeated and nearly eradicated in the Sol system. You’re now hiding in Gemini, after fleeing through the Starpoint (see what they did there?). At the beginning of the campaign you’re taking a new ship out for trials and, what do you know, everything goes wrong. You end up back at headquarters without a ship, starting from scratch. Your new mission: find out what the hell is going on.

SPGW1

Returning to HQ.

I’ve not finished the campaign but, to this point, it’s exactly average. The characters are mostly uninteresting and often badly voiced, but the story missions are fun and varied – leaving you with lots to do in-between. Moving from one campaign mission to the next can be tough, though. You can’t just string them along in a linear fashion and blow through the storyline. Between missions you’re left to your own devices to explore the “local” environs, level your character, buy and upgrade your ships, and generally make yourself powerful enough to take on the next story mission.

Learning the setting has been fun, and there’s a lot to learn. Fortunately, a massive Geminipedia features information on the history of the SPWG universe (and by extension the previous games), the many factions, structures, ship types, anomalies and more. Of course, you can disregard all of this entirely and just dive in and do your thing, but the added background brought depth and understanding to my own place in SPGW. There are also 30+ tutorial videos in the Geminipedia covering every aspect of the game and they were very useful.

Jumping Into the Cockpit

Even if the story was groundbreaking and original, SPGW would fall apart if the space simulation itself was not fun. You dock at your headquarters and other places but, mostly, you spend the majority of your time in your cockpit flying around in the cold vacuum of space.

Of course, you don’t really jump into the cockpit. You assume the role of the captain of your ship, not the pilot specifically. There are several different camera angles but a full cockpit view is not one of them. For some players this might be a dealbreaker. Personally I dig a big, engaging, complex cockpit with lots of immersion and – you know – important fiddly bits. You won’t find that here.

SPGW2

Yep, I frown a lot.

What you will find is a less complex tactical simulation of space combat. The views are limited to a 3rd-person ship view, turret view and a couple others. Overall, I found the angles lacking. Often I had a hard time getting a feel for the tactical situation, particularly in larger battles. It’s also not quite as visceral as a dog fight in Elite: Dangerous, but can be fun even if the camera often detracts from the tactics needed to succeed.

Combat itself is fairly straightforward and will feel familiar to anyone who has played X-Wing or any of its offspring over the years. You lock onto targets and fly around (hopefully with some skill) until you take them out. All the while you (hopefully with some skill) juggle shield/engine/weapon power levels during the engagement in order to get the job done quickly and (hopefully) safely.

That is, without blowing up.

SPGW3

No explanation needed.

For instance, let’s say you sublight travel your tiny ship into a warren of baddies. Oops. Well, skip the weapon power level, ramp up your shields and engines and get the hell out of there. Also, it’s important to remember that shields have separate strengths in four quadrants: forward, port, starboard and aft. So, if they blasted you on the port side when you warped in like a fool, be sure to keep your starboard side toward them as you make your escape.

Initially I didn’t care much for the combat. I was mostly confused and made it through on the superiority of my ship and equipment rather than my own skill. However, as I discovered skills like ramming other poor ships or toasting them with shotgun blasts (each skill is on a separate cooldown), I began to enjoy it a bit more. Even then, I still felt constrained by the limited camera. Mostly I’d set my main weapons to fire-at-will and chase target indicators at the edge of the screen while keeping my weak shields away from the same target indicators.

Unfortunately, some of the control conventions are awkward and burdensome. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by my time spent with Eve Online, but I never really took to the controls in SPGW. You can change the key bindings but the default keys felt foreign to me and I really, really wish I could find the hotkey for “Go To.” Also, there’s a control wheel you bring up by pressing the middle mouse button that was clunky and seemed like it’d be more at home in a console game. I’ve not tried a controller with SPGW but I hear it actually controls pretty well with one.

SPGW4

This is what blowing up looks like.

I had another problem throughout my time with SPGW: the mouse pointer. In the menus – either in port or while floating around in space – it had some serious, very annoying lag. I tried everything from Fullscreen to Borderless Window to turning VSync off to lowering my graphic settings and more, but nothing helped alleviate it entirely. It wasn’t a game killer but SPGW could certainly use a hardware mouse option or something to clear it up.

Into the Great Wide Open

Criticisms – and Tom Petty references – aside, I did enjoy exploring the SPGW universe. Exploration is a big part of the early game (duh). The small corner of the universe that LGM have created is full of interesting stuff to discover, not limited to anomalies, new stations, planets, asteroid belts, aliens and more. Getting around is easy with the help of autopilot and sublight drives, not to mention a useful teleport option called T-light for instant travel.

You’ll make many discoveries while out on missions. Missions are picked up one at a time from the job board at your Headquarters. They come in a variety of flavors – salvage, prospecting, search and destroy and more – but they quickly devolve into a lot of grinding. After an hour of mining I was pretty much spent, and mining was how I chose to make my early money. Bounties can be fun, too. The first DLC, Deadly Dozen, offers – you guessed it – twelve new pilots to hunt down, in addition to a few new ships and a carrier class. Anyway, breaking up the monotony by mixing up the mission types can be helpful but it’s not long before the grinding takes a toll.

A big part of climbing the power ladder is purchasing new ships and fitting them out with sick gear. There are several varieties of ship, from the wee pew pew Gunship – basically a metal shard with room enough for you, your crew and a gun or two – up to the enormous and terrifying Titan class. After all of the grinding it feels really good to finally purchase a new ship and see your garage full of different rides slowly grow to meet any need, be it combat, exploration, mining or hauling freight.

Outfitting your ships is also a joy. Depending on the size of your ship chassis there might be just a few options or a crazy ton of options for choosing your weapons (light and heavy), shields, sensors, enhancements and more. Even after picking up a new ship there was often new equipment I couldn’t afford which provided a small carrot at the end of the grindy stick. Also, customizing the surface of your ship is robust and fun with many options for decals, designs and more.

SPGW5

Fumbling about the map.

Along the way you’ll also upgrade… Yourself. There are a ton of RPG options to tailor your captain. Upgrades come in the form of both skills and perks. Skills are ship-based abilities that enhance your combat capabilities, like firing a shotgun blast, pulling nearby ships closer to you (perfect starter for that shotgun blast combo) or tacking on an overload for something truly devastating. Perks are broken down into several categories including ship, governing, personal and more. There is a broad range of perks in every category, from upgrading your skill with certain types of ships to bigger mining yields or more diplomatic options. I really enjoyed the depth of the perk system. It enabled me to grow my captain into exactly who I wanted him to be.

SPGW6

More mining…

Eventually SPGW begins to cross over into a strategy game, almost into 4x territory. There’s a strategic layer that slowly unfolds as you upgrade your headquarters. There are a slew of HQ modules that, when built, open up ever increasing degrees of control over your empire. For instance, the Hub module adds decks to your HQ, making more room for additional modules. The Hangar allows you to build a fleet so you don’t have to fly around alone. You can even send them out without you to complete missions. Building the Mining Ops module allows remote ore mining and gas extraction.

Which brings me to new resources. Credits are important early on but once you start growing your empire you’ll find yourself needing gas, ore and materials in order to expand. It’s tough for a single captain to run an empire from his own operations so you’ll have to make use of your growing fleet. The Starchart offers tasks for your fleet to undertake like mining, salvaging, science surveys, gas runs and more. You can also construct and upgrade a bevy of structures like a junk reclaimer or forward outpost.

I can’t say that I’ve personally experienced a ton of the late game. I’ve mostly concentrated on my story campaign but I did take a higher level scenario for a spin to get a feel for what appears to be the early late-game. It was intriguing to catch a glimpse of all that’s possible. There’s diplomacy (although one pirate certainly didn’t want any of the peace I was offering), capturing other sectors, wars with diverse factions and more. It’s truly a game within a game and mixes well with the hybrid spirit of SPGW.

SPGW7

Level 6 Vanguard at your service.

In addition to the Deadly Dozen DLC already mentioned, there have been two other DLC added since release. The second DLC was Titans Return, adding three new Titan ships as well as new passive Titan abilities, a Titans trophy system and new conquest mechanics. The third and probably most game-altering DLC was Cycle of Warfare. It adds a ton of replayability to SPGW, adding five new playable factions, a new alien shipline, and some kind of awesome mothership weapon with seemingly unimaginable power. (Seriously, check out the video for Cycle of Warfare on the Steam page, it’s amazing.) If the number of DLC produced for SPG2 is any indication, SPGW will have an interesting and extended life, and the prices are fair too!

Overall

Overall, I really enjoy Starpoint Gemini Warlords. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the game offers. It would take hundreds of hours to truly experience everything. I enjoy flying around space and many of the locations can be gorgeous. The music hits a good balance between wonder and badassery. The RPG elements are addictive, whether chasing that endless ship upgrade carrot or yearning for that next personal skill or perk. Story mode is interesting, particularly if you want a feel for the universe, but ultimately the legs of SPGW are all in the sandbox scenarios. They offer nearly infinite value, especially if you choose to grow your own empire as the game proceeds. On the downside, it’s a clunky game at times, the combat gets tiresome, you can’t play with your friends and it’s all about the grind. Lots of grind. Still, at the price, it’s worth a look.

TL;DR: SPGW is an interesting mix of space simulator, RPG and 4x game that, ultimately, works. Combat can feel lackluster but it’s only a small part of the experience. Your enjoyment of Starpoint Gemini Warlords will be directly proportionate to both your expectations and how much time you dedicate to them. If you just want to tool around space a bit and play through the storyline, you can finish up in a decent amount of time. However, if you really want to explore your corner of the universe and become the Ultimate Space Ruler™, you’re going to have to put in some hours.

You might like the game if:

  • You’re still waiting for Star Citizen
  • You enjoyed the first two games – it’s more and better
  • Carving out your own corner of space is your thing
  • You want a glimpse of something different

You might NOT like the game if:

  • You’re still neck deep in Elite: Dangerous
  • You don’t want to contend with clunky controls
  • Grinding is not your thing
  • You’re looking for multiplayer

Chris reviewed Starpoint Gemini Warlords on a gifted copy and has played 15+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.

4 replies »

  1. Nice job on the article! These eXcursions inject some helpful variety into the eXplorminate universe.

    I liked this game a lot at first but it got sort of redundant over time. The ship combat ultimately became not that interesting, more like show up at the waypoint and shoot everything. Hard to say if it will survive the test of time but it is fun for a while.

    Like

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