This Best Game Ever is brought to you by developers making their old games open source, which is a wonderful thing. Toys for Bob, the developer of Star Control I and II, released the game as open source in 2002 under the “Ur Quan Masters” title, since the name Star Control remains a copyright of Atari. The game is now up to version 0.6.2, giving an incredibly robust, bug free experience that surpasses the original 3DO version. I played the 3DO version back in the early 90’s, and I was overjoyed to find the Ur Quan Masters project and replay Star Control II. It’s free and fun – who could ask for more?
Star Control I set the stage for the franchise. The concept was fairly simple: a galactic strategy game with ship vs. ship combat. The game was fairly simple: green planets for crew, red planets for minerals, build up your fleet and kill the enemy. Because all fighting was done 1v1, it created a rock/paper/scissors strategy of different shiptypes that put emphasis on the player’s battle skill; fights could not be won through sheer numbers. The first Star Control set up a variety of ships that would become a staple of Star Control II.
Star Control II, however, was not a strategy game, but rather a space based RPG. Following a massive throw down between the Ur-Quan (giant space spiders who conquer other races for a living) and the Alliance of Free Stars (led by the Chenjesu, giant telepathic rocks who are apparently more competent than humans) the Ur-Quan have won and enslaved most of the galaxy. You play as the Captain, who was born on a planet that was a last-ditch expedition at the end of the war found to be housing a Precursor (standard ancient super power race gone mysteriously missing) factory. The factory flipped on, built a powerful ship, and you are now setting out to see what the hell happened to the galaxy.
Without getting into too many plot spoilers, what follows is an adventure through the universe, reuniting the fallen alliance and kicking space-spider ass. The universe itself is wonderfully detailed, with a lot of flavor, some optional side-quests, and occasionally more than one way to solve a problem. There is a tremendous amount of backstory to be discovered, clearly setting the stage for future (and sadly nonexistent, except for the bastardized Star Control III) games. The amount of effort spent developing this universe is significant and highly enjoyable for superdorks, and if you’re playing a space game with talking rocks and evil space spiders, you’re a superdork.
Gameplay is threefold. The first is roaming about the galaxy in your spaceship (it’s a Dodge!), looking for alien races to befriend and enemy races to butcher. The second aspect is building your warfleet: both by outfitting your Precursor ship with various tools of destruction, and also assembling a fleet based on the races that love you and let you build their ships. In order to acquire resources, you land on planets in the galaxy (and there are a crapton) and mine them for resources while dodging earthquakes, fires, lightning and native lifeforms. The third aspect of the game is advancing the plot before very bad things happen – there is a time limit in this game, and when time runs out, you do, in fact, lose. This time limit is not known to the player, however, until you figure out what’s going on by talking to the various inhabitants in the universe.
Battles are resolved exactly as they were in the earlier Star Control: 1v1 fights between you and the enemy. Unfortunately, because the game is a non-linear RPG, you often don’t have the ships needed to properly rock/paper/scissors the enemy. Instead you end up going one of two routes; you either pimp out your precursor ship until it can annihilate anything, or you use one of a limited selection of races to wear down nearly any enemy. This is because you can only build ships of races with whom you are allied, or with races who give you their ships, so there are only a few useful ships that can be gotten easily. This is unfortunate, as much of Star Control is about the space combat. Although the limited ship selection is a shame for those of us who like the space combat mechanics, it is a forgivable sin because the game is so free-form.
The game also features a free-for-all melee mode separate from the story mode, which includes ships from the first and second Star Controls, and under the open source project, you can play over the internet against your friends. This is particularly valuable because a variety of races from Star Control I are missing for plot reasons from Star Control II.
One of my critiques of the plot is that it can be, at times, tough to figure out where to go next. You start out with plenty to do, but it takes a little while for the plot to progress to the point where you know what the problem is, and then how to solve it. To ease this, there is a function where a race of traders will sell you information that reveals just about everything in the game, but gaining the currency they trade in (non-sentient alien life) can be time consuming. Since the game has a time limit, you have to balance wandering the universe with getting things done.
That said, the vastness of space is impressive, as are the quests you’re sent about to do. Although they tend to be of the “fly here, kill this, bring me that” variety, the plot reasoning behind them is compelling. In some cases there is more than one way to solve a problem, and many aspects of the game are completely optional.
On the whole, Star Control II is a very cool RPG. Typically we think of RPG games as adventuring across a planet, wielding gun-blades and finding out that we’re either the dream of a dying civilization nightmare, or roaming about a nuclear wasteland looting WalMarts. Star Control II was unique in that it had a galaxy of things to do and a deep, compelling backstory. Although a legitimate sequel seems extremely unlikely, due to a number of rights issues, anyone who plays Star Control II will be hoping for more.