Accolade published Star Control II: The Ur Quan Masters in 1992. PC gaming was – if not in its infancy – a drooling, stumbling toddler. The original Civilization had only just released the previous year. It was an early time in game design and most of the tropes, conventions, and even the genres we’re so accustomed to today were still being defined. Suffice to say that no one had seen anything quite like Star Control II and it was rightfully beloved by gamers of a certain age.
What set the title apart wasn’t just the ship/alien design (which was unique) or the writing (which was clever and funny) but the open-ended nature of the narrative. It was up to the player to decide how to go about solving the many mysteries presented to them throughout the galaxy.
Well, duh, you might say. Every game is an open world nowadays! And that’s true. But it sure as heck wasn’t the case in the early 90s. Further, I’d venture that today’s games offer only “open” worlds, that is, they have the appearance of allowing you to go anywhere at anytime and progress the story as you choose, but very few actually allow you to do it.
But back to Star Control II. You started with one scrappy Earth ship in a galaxy that had been taken over by an evil empire. Your goal was to form an alliance (a Federation, some might say) of like-minded aliens and, somehow, overcome impossible odds to overthrow the big baddies and liberate the galaxy. It was an adventure game, mostly, with mano-a-mano spaceship fights to break up the dialogue.
Star Control: Origins (SC:O) from Stardock games is intended to be the rebirth of that long revered, oft-forgotten franchise. In SC:O, you start the game with one scrappy Earth ship, in a galaxy that has been taken over by an evil empire. Your goal is to form an alliance of… Yeah yeah yeah. You get the point.
SC:O is set up as a prequel to the Star Control series (thus the Origins), but there’s very little to tie the franchises together narratively (for example, there’s only one litigiously similar race that appears briefly early on). So it’s more like Star Control: Mirror Universe – everything is the same, but different. Kind of like The Force Awakens.
So, does SC:O recapture the magic of the original recipe? Or is it simply an inferior dish with the same basic ingredients but none of the spice?
How to take over the universe in four easy steps
There are basically four main elements to SC:O: flying around the galaxy at large, collecting resources on planets, talking to aliens, and blowing up said aliens when the words run out. There are some other small gameplay elements (ship customization, for example), but the majority of your time in SC:O will be spent on those four activities.
You interact with the entire game using your one Earth ship as your avatar. You will acquire other, smaller craft, but the only thing you’ll always see on screen (unless you’re in battle) is the Earth ship. Flying around the galaxy is accomplished using the WASD keys (or a joystick/gamepad, if you have such gauche things lying around).
The only limit on how far you can travel is fuel since your ship can hold only a limited amount. Fuel costs money, which you won’t have a ton of in the early going. This acts as a nice gating system to keep you exploring in a natural way, hitting close systems before going off to the farthest reaches. By the time you’re really looking to get out there and see the galaxy, fuel will be less of an issue.
Players can travel within solar systems and visit every planet and moon. You can also enter hyperspace to journey between systems. There is a form of fast travel, as well, using mysterious starbases to “jump” between sections of the map.
There’s no way around this – your Earth ship moves like a cement truck with three flat tires (I mentioned this in the preview). You can load it up with tons of upgrades to improve speed, turning radius, etc. You will also get way better at flying as the game goes on. It doesn’t matter. The ship is impossible to control with any precision.
Some of this has to do with the dodgy collision detection, as well. But regardless, you will be falling out of hyperspace, accidentally orbiting planets, and bouncing off other ships all the time. Playing SC:O feels like driving a miniature 18-wheeler through a pinball machine. As you can imagine, since your ship is the primary way you interact with the game world, this is beyond annoying.
Complicating matters is the way the game tracks where you’ve been/haven’t been. That is to say, it simply doesn’t. The game, by itself, keeps no record of where you go or what you find there. There are multicolored “pins” that you can put in the map and attach very short notes to. But that’s all the player can do and only on a star-by-star basis. There’s no way to mark individual planets.
All of this means that even the most meticulous cartographer will eventually lose track, leading to repeat visits to some systems and completely missing others. The sinking sensation of “Wait, I’m almost positive I’ve already been here,” will become quite familiar even just 10 hours into the game.
These problems sap a lot of the fun out of the game – the simple act of exploring the map becoming more of a chore than a rollicking space adventure.
Acquisitions and sales
Your primary goal in the early going, beyond meeting aliens (we’ll get there), is collecting resources to sell for fuel and ship improvements (mostly more storage for the fuel). The way to do that is by visiting planets. Your ship comes equipped with landers and you can drop down on most planets, excepting gas giants, and drive around to pick up those useful elements.
Elements range from everyday stuff like iron and oxygen, to the more rare (Holmium), and the fantastical (Magnetic Monopoles). They all sell for different amounts and some are specifically needed for quests. So you’ll want to suck up as much as you can fit onto your lander to bring back to Earth for space bucks. Except for the ones that you need for the quests.
And therein lies a problem. How do you know what you need to keep and what’s safe to monetize? The answer is, you don’t. Stardock has changed the way the selling interface works a few times since launch and they still haven’t gotten it right. The game will now at least mark the resources that you need for quests, but only after you’ve gotten that requirement. So, if you collected and sold a ton of argon and then it turns out you need that for a quest, you’re out of luck. Worse, there’s no way to purchase anything back. Once you sell a resource it is gone forever.
I’m not sure what the solution is, since telling you what you need in advance is kind of stupid from a storytelling perspective. But selling off a ton of something rare only to discover that you need all that to move the story forward is really annoying. This means that the best way to play is just to hoard anything that might possibly be useful (all exotics, basically). That’s fine, at least you won’t be caught without something important, but it cripples your economy in the early going and artificially limits your fuel and ship upgrades – i.e., your ability to progress in the game.
The resource collection, itself, has its own problems. Driving around on planets looks nice. The environments are gorgeous. And the big ship/little sphere aspect is very Mario Galaxy-esque. It’s also a massive grind that does not feel fun in small doses and is downright painful in the amounts that the game requires.
When SC:O first launched, the economic balance was way off, and it seemed like the entire game was about farming elements. Stardock stepped in and fixed a lot of that so more of your money comes from battles and quests. But you’re still going to have to stop off at planets to collect stuff fairly regularly. So the system is better, but not best.
This is another intractable problem because removing that part of the game entirely might very well destroy it. Driving around on the planets is tremendous busy-work, yes. But a lot of what makes SC:O work is the exploration. Some planets have crashed spaceships on them, parts for your ship, rare items, story beats (mysterious buildings, for example), and more. If you don’t have any reason to travel around you don’t have any reason to play SC:O.
So it’s a conundrum and not one I can easily solve. Perhaps if planet exploration had more of a minigame aspect to it. Or if I felt that it was more skill-based? Right now the system is both completely necessary and a total waste of time. I don’t know how to reconcile that.
Other than finding resource-rich planets, exploring the galaxy means running into alien races. Unlike what we’ve found in the actual universe, the SC:O space-neighborhood is teeming with alien life. Just about every system you visit will have ships from multiple species and you can interact with almost all of them. Some will have quick conversations on the map, but most will take place one-on-one in larger conversations. Picture Kirk/Picard talking it out with their rivals on the big screen.
The aliens you meet in SC:O are suitably diverse with tons of personality. The original Star Control games were renowned for their humor and SC:O continues that tradition. Character dialogue is legitimately funny, and the voice acting is usually memorable and evocative (though not always – a few aliens sound more like bored baristas than intergalactic space captains).
Conversations with the alien races are sadly static. You’re given dialogue options but they don’t affect the flow of content in any meaningful way. No matter how you choose to speak to the big talking head on screen, it will respond more or less the same way. Aliens will continue to work with you if you’re rude and will be no more cooperative if you’re kind. Even the best dialogue eventually becomes a click-through, hoping these weirdos will get to the point so you can move on in the game.
The other thing your conversational companions won’t do is take anything very seriously. In the spirit of Star Control II, everything is silly. Even things that the characters, themselves, seem to take seriously, is played for laughs. This is not subtle humor, either. It’s over the top, generally broad, and almost always flat out dumb. That’s OK, it really works for the most part, but I understand some people just cannot abide dopey humor and this game has it in droves.
Sifting through the jokes will lead to story beats, revealing more mysteries about the galaxy and providing quests to move the plot along. Fortunately, the game does a better job of tracking story than it does things on the map. Everything you hear will be logged and you can always search through the notes if you can’t tell your Epsilon Eridanis from your Epsilon Wendigos. The quest text is not searchable, however, so it can take a lot of scrolling. As befits something so old school, SC:O is still best played with a notebook and pen in front of you at all times, jotting down key points as the game lays them out to you.
The quests you get from your alien compatriots are mostly well done and help give you a good reason to ping pong across the galaxy. Uncovering the plot – illuminating a previously unseen connection – is immensely satisfying. While I haven’t run into many ‘twists’ in the storyline per se, I’ve still enjoyed the progression of the narrative. I’ve kept pushing forward because I want to see what happens next. That isn’t always easy to accomplish in a game like this.
Some aliens don’t want to talk, however. Or they do, but they don’t like ending conversations with a simple “buh-bye.” Instead, these interstellar aggressors are only interested in one thing: combat.
The conversation screen will fall away, and you will be given the choice of which ship you’d like to send into battle. The alien designs are solid. They all feel different to fly and each has a unique learning curve which I really enjoy.
Again, as with the source games, ship health is measured by the size of the crew complement. In other words, the number of people on the ship doubles as its hit points. The bigger the ship, the hardier it is. This leads to some strange situations where a transport ship can be a pain to take down, but a vessel bristling with weapons can get one-shotted, however it works for the most part.
Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough information provided to gain an understanding of the ships and how to use them. Yes, you can see “hit points” by looking at the crew size. And all the ships are rated based on speed, turning radius, etc. But primary and secondary weapons are just “there,” and never explained nor quantified.
Sometimes that’s just annoying. Do the Tywom’s laser beams do more damage than the nukes on my Earth ship? I legitimately don’t know. Worse, however, there are entire weapons systems that I do not understand. What exactly does the Mukay primary weapon do? I can look at the graphics and sort of guess, but after playing for 20+ hours, I honestly still don’t feel confident that I’ve figured it out. There are a lot of ships like this, that do cool graphical things yet remain total mysteries to me as far as utility. It shouldn’t be that way.
Once you choose a ship, you’re dropped into the battle arena. Like the original SC, combat takes you to a screen that vaguely approximates the geography of where you met the enemy in question. If it was near a planet, that planet will appear on the battle map. But all battles also have other features regardless of where thing started including stat boosts that can be collected, asteroid fields, and hyperspace jumps that bounce you halfway across the arena.
Like the main map, you control your ship with the WASD keys (or the aforementioned joystick). Ships all have primary and secondary weapons that are fired using the mouse/stick buttons. It makes SC:O into a simplified fighting game. There are no combos or special moves, but you have to dance across the screen, punching and counterpunching, desperate to stay alive and knock the other guy dead.
The enemy AI is serviceable. The ships do a decent job of playing to their strengths and tucking back their weaknesses. They will, however, make some dumb choices. Bouncing into a planet or an asteroid costs health, and the enemy too often gets trapped in an area where it crashes itself to death. If you’re in a battle where you’re mismatched, simply sitting back and letting the enemy take itself out is a legitimate option.
Outside the main campaign, SC:O also offers a mode that is just ship-to-ship battles. While this is useful for practicing your fighting skills, it’s also the only multiplayer offered by the game. The game mode is neat, and if SC:O really takes off I could see a fun fighting community grow out of this – I’d love to watch it streamed on Twitch. The mode is just empty calories, however, and they aren’t helped by one other problem: The battles just aren’t all that fun.
I realize that calling to such an ineffable quality as “having a good time,” which can’t be quantified, is unfair in a game review. But that’s what I have to fall back on. The battles feel more like a chore than an exciting action scene. They’re more like something to push through in order to get to the exciting parts and I’ve never felt myself get excited when I realize someone’s spoiling for a fight. Quite the opposite actually. Something about the design and pacing feels off. Compared to other space battlers (the original Space Pirates and Zombies, for example) SC:O feels unpolished and even a bit sloppy.
These are the voyages…
So, I was playing through SC:O. Listening to a three-eared alien talk about his people’s glorious history of violence. Saving up fuel for a long journey to find ice planets for the MuKay. Sorting through upgrades for my nuclear missiles. Bouncing around on planets chasing down Francium. And one game kept popping up into my head. Only it wasn’t Star Control II as the designers, no doubt, intended. It was Mass Effect.
While it takes itself far more seriously, the original Mass Effect really owes a lot to that antediluvian Star Control II design. You are the human captain of a lone starship, visiting distant solar systems and jockeying with strange aliens. Just replace the space battles with first-person shooter sections and you’ve basically got it. Even the driving-around-the-planet sections are eerily similar to SC:O.
Except Mass Effect feels so much more modern than SC:O. That’s a problem considering that Mass Effect came out eleven years ago. In Mass Effect, characters responded to how you spoke to them. Dialogue choices mattered – they could open up one possibility for the story or close another. Actions and choices changed the story and the universe seemed so much more alive because of it.
SC:O lacks that feeling – the universe will save itself no matter who’s in the captain’s chair because it’s all written in that one way only. That isn’t a game, it’s a novel with fight sequences. And, ugh, those driving on-the-planet missions. The fact that we’re still doing them in 2018… It’s like the developers stepped out of cryogenic suspension having taken nothing from the previous decade in game design.
Even when it is compared to the original Star Control II, as was intended, SC:O often feels less like a tribute and more like a shadow. The story, the setting – it’s all so derivative. None of the character designs feels as memorable or unique as the Pkunk, the Orz, or the Spathi. Even the music is at its best when it remixes original tunes from the series.
It’s just… Sigh. There’s a delicate balance between tribute and inspiration and Stardock just tipped the whole thing over.
And yet and yet and yet…
Here’s a spoiler. It’s not a big spoiler, there’s nothing intrinsic to the plot here, but it’s still a piece of gameplay that will be way more fun for you if you discover it in the game for yourself so whatever. So, just to be clear: SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. SPOILERS BE HERE.
Alright. It’s just us now. Let’s do this.
You can run out of fuel in the game, stranding yourself amongst the stars. When you do, however, it’s not a big deal. Your lieutenant simply calls up your closest allies, the Tywom, and they come and rescue you, regardless of where you’re currently drifting.
The Tywom are the first aliens you meet in SC:O. They are strange, slimy fellows who, more than anything, just want to have friends. They’re dorks, basically. Lonely, needy nerds. They should be off-putting and annoying, but the character design, writing, and voice work made them very endearing to me.
Or maybe I’m just a sucker for one of my own.
Anyway, the Tywom will show up after a few minutes and give you enough fuel to get back to Earth. However, that process is a little involved. And so, to pass the time, the Tywom Captain will begin reading to you from his own personal Star Trek fanfiction.
And it is SO bad. It is so painfully, awfully, perfectly terrible. Line after line – I mean, it goes on for a while. I sat there and cringed, and laughed, and then cringed all over again.
The scene is just wonderful. It’s exactly on point for the characters, is just enough punishment for the player (to discourage running out of fuel), but is also kind of rewarding in a strange way? It was one of my most memorable gaming moments from the past year. SC:O is full of small moments like that. Moments that make the game somehow exceed its larger self.
Let’s look at that galaxy map again.
Every single one of those little colored dots is a place you can visit with your ship. Every. Single. One. Just about all of them have planets around them, alien starships, little stories and adventures. Not one of those dots was procedurally generated. Someone went in and created every last bit of that map. And it is MASSIVE.
There’s been a lot of talk about the amount of polished content that exists in Red Dead Redemption 2, the amount of work it must have taken, and rightfully so. Yet I cannot help but look at that SC:O map and feel the same sense of awe and wonder at what was accomplished. Someone, a lot of someones obviously, put a ton of work into this game. A lot of care and effort. And it shows.
Look at the battle screen – they animated each of the little pilot characters as they fly. And their animations change depending on how much damage they’ve taken. Every planet you visit, if you look up, you’ll see your very own spaceship in orbit. These aren’t necessary pieces of a game – just little details that make it amazing. I am constantly in awe of the amount of work that was done here. SC:O is so clearly, affectionately handcrafted – so it has strange edges, not every piece fits flush. And yet, in many ways, those “errors” make it even more lovable.
Going back to Mass Effect for a moment, the galaxy in that game always felt oddly small to me. More of a neighborhood than anything truly open. SC:O feels like a universe – sprawling and impossible to ever truly behold in total. Overwhelming in the way that space ought to be. For all it’s narrative wonder, Mass Effect always felt on rails. You completed the story in the way the game set out for you, with only minor branch points that always, insistently, pushed you back onto the main road.
SC:O is open. It gives you a spaceship, a map, and lets you go out there however you wish. The plot will encroach, as it should, but it is up to the player how they want to approach it. Going into a game of SC:O is very much like stepping out of my house on a Saturday morning, with a very fun to-do list that only I can determine how to finish.
There’s a certain point, and admittedly it’s probably about 10 hours into the experience, that SC:O stops feeling janky and just comes into its own. The problems I’ve mentioned above don’t go away, but they fade to the background. What’s left behind is something worthy and valuable, special in its own right.
It makes me wonder (and this is ironic, I know) if Stardock would have been better off leaving the Star Control moniker behind and simply making this game as an homage. Because when you stop looking for what the game isn’t it’s very easy to fall in love with what it is. No, the Scryve aren’t as cool or imposing as the Ur-Quan. There are no incredible story moments like the merging of the Chmmr.
But do I really need to see more of those same characters? Haven’t their stories already been told? When removed from having to live up to the high standards of my memories, unique characters like the Greegrox, Measured, and Mowlings are actually pretty special, themselves.
Up to this point, I’ve made a conscious effort to be vague about story details because, honestly, it’s all really good and so much of the experience is wrapped around the act of discovering it all for yourself. If there’s any advice I can give the prospective SC:O player, it’s to not read anything about the game if you can (I know, too late). Don’t look up how to solve quests online. Don’t search for how to find the Trandal homeworld. Don’t cheat yourself of the experience by marching directly from A to B to C.
Also, it’s worth noting that Stardock did not simply launch SC:O and leave it to drift in the abyss. They have released several major updates in the time I played, reworking systems and polishing the game. Many of my initial complaints about balance and pacing have been greatly improved. By the time you’re reading this, the first of four large DLCs will be out – adding more races, systems, and story beats. Stardock is committed to SC:O and it shows. They deserve to be commended for their extraordinary efforts.
SC:O is a game that demands to be sipped slowly. To be savored. It is not a modern game with all the promises and pitfalls that accompany that statement. It will frustrate you, needle you. You will spend hours, playing, wishing it was just a little better thought out. But you will spend hours there – and that may be more than enough.
TL;DR: Star Control: Origins is an old school space adventure game in all the best and worst ways. The exploration can be a drag, the resource mining is a grind, and battles are often more of a fight against your own controls than the enemy. Yet somehow it is also an immersive, exceptional experience with memorable characters, and fantastic writing set in an impossibly vast universe just waiting for you to explore it. Star Control fans may be underwhelmed and outsiders will be perplexed, but no one can deny that this was a labor of love and it is absolutely worth your investment.
You might like this game if:
- You’re a die hard, old time Star Control fan
- You want to feel like a starship captain, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life, boldly going… You get the idea
- You play games for the stories they tell
- You enjoy quirky characters
You might NOT like this game if:
- You’re looking for something more like Mass Effect where your choices can change the universe
- You cannot stand a game that doesn’t take itself seriously
- You expect absolute perfect polish in a game
- You have zero patience
Joshua has played for 30+ hours on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070. He was provided with a copy of the game for the purposes of this review.