Star Control II

aka: Free Stars: The Ur-Quan Masters, Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters, The Ur-Quan Masters
Moby ID: 179

DOS version

A very disappointing masterpiece

The Good
Star Control 2 came out at a time when presentation was still a big thing in computer games; today, graphics in most major-name games are pretty much photorealistic, and sound is movie-quality, so nobody thinks too much about it anymore. However, Star Control 2 did a lot in its time with both audio and graphics. The graphics in the game were top-notch for its time, and the much-loved soundtrack, consisting mostly of electronica/techno music, sounds great.

Star Control 2 is one of the most open-ended games I can remember playing. In many ways, it invites comparisons to the more recent Deus Ex, and for me, that's high praise indeed. Both games provide you with several ways to deal with situations: You can try and talk your way through various conversation trees, or you can simply blast your way through. In many cases, you can sneak your way through and hope you don't get caught. Also like Deus Ex, SC2 doesn't try to moralize your decisions too much... The point here is that this is a game you can play your way, and if you want to proceed by blasting an entire race of aliens into extinction instead of bartering with them, that's your choice. The game won't stand in your way, and mostly won't make you feel bad for choosing one approach over another.

In fact, in many ways, SC2 is actually more open-ended than Deus Ex, because DX required you to follow a fairly linear plot line; you could take some minor side deviations from that path, but ultimately, the game followed a set series of events. SC2, for the most part, doesn't require you to do things in any particular order, so again, you can do things however you see fit.

The universe of SC2 is HUGE. There are dozens and dozens of star systems outlined on the map that comes with the game. Each star system contains several stars, and each star is at the center of its own solar system, most of which have several orbiting planets that you can go to. The game also includes a lot of dialog; a small text file update that installs with the game mentions "enough player-alien dialog to fill a novel", and I don't think that's too much of an exaggeration. In fact, the story behind Star Control 2 is so well-developed that I'm a little surprised we haven't seen movie conversions of it. This game is worth it, and if properly done, it has enough depth to hold its own against the Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings franchises. This is an epic story of a galaxy-wide war between several alien races, each of which has its own motivations and culture.

The Bad
I'm amazed by the number of reviews here on MobyGames that claim they can't come up with anything negative to say about this game. For all of you fans: I'm about to list several things that I think ruin this game, so if you think criticism of SC2 is blasphemy, I'm sorry, but this game is far from perfect.

The main problem with SC2 is that the gameplay isn't very well balanced. Near the very beginning of the game, you're asked by a starbase commander to go and collect some minerals from a nearby planet so that the starbase can convert them into energy to power the station. The process of collecting these minerals involves a little mini-game in which you control a planetary lander that simply drives around the surface of the planet, picking up dots which represent caches of valuable elements. "What a cute little mini-game," I thought when I first saw this procedure; "I wonder what other mini-games I'll see as I continue playing." Upon bringing the minerals back to the starbase commander, however, you soon learn that he expects you to get much more. The first delivery of minerals was just an emergency supply, to help bring the station's life-support systems back online. After that first mining expedition, the commander explains that you'll need to get more raw materials in order to get anything from the station. And most of what you'll need in this game, you get from that station: You can buy additional ships, extra crew to populate your ships, and fuel to propel your ships to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Here comes the game's first problem: The focus on collecting these raw materials.

The process of getting minerals, as I've already mentioned, is a mini-game of driving a lander around. This process is somewhat amusing the first time you do it, but you'll discover that you're expected to do it again. And again. And again. Over and over and over, you'll need to go to some planet that you haven't already stripped bare, send down a planetary lander, and steer the lander around until you've finished picking up all the minerals. Then you go to another planet and do it again.

All of this might not be so bad if the game introduced new and interesting ways of making the mining process different; perhaps little puzzles or something that you had to solve. I usually discourage puzzles just for puzzles' sake (i.e. puzzles which are clearly shoehorned into a game and don't have any real relevance to the plot), but even those kinds of puzzles would be preferable to the complete lack of variety in the mining process. The only thing that counts for "variety" in the mining is the lightning strikes and earthquakes on the planetary surfaces; however, these phenomena happen too quickly for you to be able to react to them most of the time, so they end up creating more of a "random death" factor than any kind of additional gameplay element. On every planet, the procedure is the same. This very quickly starts to feel like work. But you have to do it, because your starship needs fuel, and you can't get fuel without raw materials.

Consider the example of another much more recent game: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Now, when GTA:SA was being developed, people worried about the food and exercise aspect of the game. Unlike previous GTA games, you have to make your character eat and exercise every now and then so he doesn't get out of shape. This sounds like a dumb little distraction from the real focus of the game, but in actuality, you don't have to do it very often, so it doesn't get in the way too much. Annoying, perhaps, but it's such a small part of the game that it doesn't ruin the whole game.

Star Control 2 should have taken a similar approach. If the designers wanted to make a game in which you had to go mining, okay, maybe that could have been a little side chore. But as it is, it's actually the main focus of the game.

The other big problem with SC2 is its gameworld. People praise this game for having such a huge space to explore, with so many solar systems and planets. You could spend a long, long time exploring every nook and cranny of the Star Control 2 universe. But if you try to do so, you'll quickly discover that most of those planets don't have anything interesting on them. Yes, there are a lot of planets, but when you visit each one, you won't find much there. Nobody to talk to, no places to explore, no puzzles to solve; about the only thing that most planets have is minerals, and so the only thing you can do with them is send down your lander and play the stupid little mining game. I initially exulted at SC2's big world, thinking of all the places I would see and explore. But exploration gets old really fast, because all the planets look the same after a while, and there's nothing on most of them.

In fact, sadly, the gameplay mechanics actually discourage exploration, because going anywhere in the galaxy requires fuel, and again, the only way to get fuel is through mining. So you end up with a catch-22 situation: To go to other planets requires fuel, and once you get to those planets, there's nothing to do but mine more raw materials, which you use to fly back to base so you can buy more fuel. Seriously, what's the point of that?

Of course, if you play the game well and use your fuel efficiently, you can do more than break even; you can come up with a net surplus of raw materials, but the other things you can buy with raw materials don't make the game much better. You can buy additional fuel tanks to store more fuel (which becomes necessary to reach planets farther away from your starbase), extra jets to make your ship fly and turn faster (which is useful in combat, and also helps make interstellar travel less boring by making your ship go faster), and you can buy additional ships (which serve no purpose except in combat). These things are useful, but they still don't make the mining process any more interesting.

Now, to be fair, there is another way you can get raw materials: Combat. When you defeat an enemy ship, you scavenge raw materials off that ship when the battle is over. If you prefer fighting to trolling the ground for minerals, you may prefer to go this way, but you'll need to do an awful lot of fighting to get enough raw materials to buy the fuel you need. Yes, it's an alternative, but constantly fighting for your livelihood still feels more like work than a game. Also, whenever your ship gets hit in combat, crew members on board die, and crew members, like fuel, are expensive. (Oddly, you can "buy" crew at the starbase in exchange for raw materials too; apparently the engineers on the base have figured out how to manufacture humans from their component elements.)

All of these factors combine to make Star Control 2 less of a game. I've come back to this game time and time again, feeling like I'm missing something, and every time, the negatives I've cited here keep me from having much fun.

To be sure, Star Control 2 is a masterpiece. Clearly a lot of work has lovingly been put into the story and atmosphere; what a shame, then, that the actual gameplay mechanics seem to have been glanced over. Indeed, this game probably would be better as a movie, because if you remove the monotony and keep the plot, you'd have a winner. Sadly, as it is, if you want a game in which you drive a little vehicle around picking up minerals for an hour, then go to another place and do it all over again, this is the game for you.

The Bottom Line
A brilliant story in a vast universe... But not much of a game.

by Adam Luoranen (92) on June 20, 2005

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