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Star Control II (DOS)

83
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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.0
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5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168607)
Written on  :  Sep 09, 2013
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars

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Summary

Greetings, puny humans! We are Toys for Bob, and we know how to make you addicted!

The Good

Once upon a time, a group of five guys known as Binary Systems gathered together to create an outstanding game called Starflight. Other people contributed to the development, including one named Paul Reiche III. Evidently he was impressed by their achievement, since a few years later, together with Fred Ford, he created Star Control II, which is essentially a spiritual successor to Starflight.

Star Control II is, in fact, more similar to the older classic than to its own nominal predecessor. While the first Star Control was essentially an action-oriented wargame with abstract scenarios, the sequel is one of those titanic hybrids that defies classification: it retains action elements in form of prominent combat, but its focus is on something else - exploration, player-controlled growth, plot-driven development, and interaction with aliens. These core elements are the same as in Starflight, making Star Control II a special kind of an RPG-like game masquerading as strategy, with heavier action and adventure elements than in its spiritual father.

Just like Starflight, Star Control II is great in evoking a sense of wonder and excitement as it lays its huge galaxy at our feet, inviting us to sink our greedy gaming teeth into it. It's generous, it's enormous, it's open for exploration. It's a space odyssey controlled by the player, a sci-fi universe presented as a video game. In this way, Star Control II works the same magic as Starflight, potentially causing sleepless nights with its sheer scope and grandeur. It also contains an intriguing sci-fi tale, not as cryptic and perhaps ultimately not as deep as that of Starflight, but certainly more intense and colorful.

This is what makes Star Control II more appealing to many players: it is much more dynamic than Starflight. It has the same open-ended gameplay, but its plot is significantly tighter, more focused. You'll have to explore and collect clues just like before, but instead of a comparatively bleak universe with enigmatic encounters you'll be treated to incredible amounts of text that bring this world to life like never before.

Seriously: forget Star Trek and all those other famous sci-fi universes where aliens are just copies of humans with additional features. The universe of Star Control II is much more interesting! Starflight was great in introducing unique alien races with their own personality and attitude, but Star Control II beats it fair and square: there are many more races, and each and every one of them is presented through very detailed, extremely well-written dialogues that are an absolute joy to read.

Star Control II has some of the best writing ever to grace a video game: those who are particularly attracted to that aspect of game design have no excuse not to check this game out. It is on par with the best adventure offerings of the era, perhaps even surpassing them in variety, especially considering the fact that all the dialogue must follow the same format - a conversation with an alien spaceship captain. The sheer quality of the written text is astounding: from entertaining chit-chat to deep philosophical discussion, you'll enjoy this more than reading many sci-fi novels. The dialogue is also generously sparkled with humor: I found myself quoting its cleverly constructed, amusing lines after a few hours of playing. It is brilliant and memorable, secure in its impeccable, virtuoso presentation, witty and thought-provoking at the same time.

The writing is tied to a main plot that features all sorts of quests for different aliens, mysteries, background information, and so on. In short, Star Control II is worth playing just for this experience: play to anticipate another encounter, venture to faraway planets just to discover another alien race. You'll never get bored doing that, because the game masterfully gives you new content all the time - not necessarily from the point of view of gameplay, but simply functioning as an exciting tale of exploration. This makes Star Control II, above all, superbly entertaining sci-fi: exotic without being weirdly unattractive, intellectual without dwelling on boring scientific detail, and imaginative without ruining the game's overall tone and style.

Gameplay-wise, Star Control II also boasts several improvements over Starflight. Ship customization has been altered, and while not all changes are necessarily good (I miss individual crew members), the possibility of bringing other ships to your fleet is a great addition. In this way, Star Control II is to Starflight what a party-based RPG is to one where you control a lone character all the time. Indeed, the ships function pretty much like player-controlled characters. Only the main ship can be upgraded with weapons and other useful devices, but other ships have their own crew (which works exactly like HP in RPGs) and can be used in combat. Any amount of generic (but certainly not useless) ships can be purchased at the starbase, but the more interesting ones are given to you as you complete alien quests - which is, naturally, much more rewarding.

Combat is another aspect of the game that is clearly superior. It is much more polished and varied thanks to the diverse ships both you and your enemies use. The arcade-style battles are close to the Genesis version of Starflight, but are much more satisfying to play through. While in Starflight I did all I could to avoid combat, in Star Control II there is no end to experimentation, testing different ships against those sent by the enemies and sometimes even provoking aliens just to enjoy blasting them to pieces in different ways. The game even comes with a separate "Super Melee" mode, acknowledging its ties to its predecessor in the series.

The Bad

Now, I can understand how blindingly exciting this game can be, well to the point of making us overlook all its flaws in ecstasy. However, calling Star Control II perfect would be an overstatement. Come to think of it, can the word "perfection" really apply to a video game? Or to anything else, for that matter?..

Back to topic: first of all, one must not forget how much this game owes to Starflight. All those things it does better notwithstanding, there are some things it does less well. For example, there is no character training, and hence alien communication loses its RPG edge and pretty much evolves according to adventure-like dialogue template. Same applies to any science-related incidents or navigation. Another notable weakness is the size of the planets: they are tiny and cannot be compared to the reasonably vast landscapes of Starflight. There are also no ancient ruins, unique artifacts, or comparable things on the surfaces: it's all about mining.

Speaking of mining, it has been greatly simplified, particularly compared to the Genesis version of Starflight with its weather conditions and digging. The minerals just lie there and you drive over them to collect. A bigger problem is the scarcity of those minerals. In Starflight you could go back and forth between the starbase and the same planet to get wealthy, because some planets were veritable treasure groves. Good luck doing the same in Star Control II: the results of my perilous expedition to a coveted ruby-rich planet hardly justified the expenses. This means that you'll have to mine a lot, and sadly there is hardly anything else to increase your funds - forget about recommending planets for colonization or anything like that.

In general, however, Star Control II is similar to Starflight in being a great game without a concrete core gameplay concept that can be described as great. You'll spend most of your time in the game driving a tiny vehicle over repetitive, barren top-down surfaces, and occasionally engage in scripted alien dialogues or simple dogfights. It's pretty amazing how fun this game can be despite having such a seemingly depressing essence.

The Bottom Line

Some games achieve excellence not because of their original ideas, and not even because of the strength of their gameplay. Sometimes, the amount of love and creativity poured into development is so high that the game ends up bursting of quality, sweeping players with its charisma. Star Control II is such a game: it's hard to describe why it's so good, it just is. Play it and see for yourself; don't try to analyze it, just enjoy it. It may not be flawlessly crafted, influential, or even particularly important, but it is an immortal classic of video games.