Games currently playing:
Global Agenda
Homeworld 2 Demo
Ur-Quan Masters  (Star Control 2)
Tribes: Vengeance

Beyond the Farthest Star

Playing an odd mix of games at this point, mostly looking back at some older titles. I’m still looking at space games of several types in preparation for my next project. Also, I am hoping to be selected to help test Tribes Universe at HiRez studios, so I’ve gone back to log some time in with Tribes: Vengeance. The older, more fondly remembered Tribes games are available free online but they’re exclusively multiplayer and I’m unsure if you can still find servers for them. Might be something worth investigating over break. Another series I somehow managed to miss when it was “hot” is the Homeworld pair. Considering the space setting, critical acclaim, and the fact that developer Relic also went on to create Dawn of War, my favorite RTS, its unfathomable how I skipped out on those. At any rate I’ve played the Homeworld 2 Demo and was pretty much blown away. The graphics have aged better than I’d have thought and I’ll definitely have to track down the full game. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be available as a digital download from Steam, Impulse, Direct to Drive, Gog, etc. so I’ll have to buy it the old fashioned way; in a box. The demo was too short for a proper game analysis however so I’ll be analyzing another game this week: The Ur-Quan Masters.

The Ur-Quan Masters

More than any other game I’ve ever played, I credit a relatively obscure little game published by EA in 1986 for setting me on my current path of trying to become a game designer myself. That game is called Starflight. Visually, it’s shockingly primitive by today’s standards, it nonetheless manages to pack 800+ fractally  generated worlds into a single low density 3.5 diskette. Starflight did well enough back then to merit a sequel, and even a port to the Sega Genesis. The official sequel, Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, is almost as good as the original; better, in fact, in many ways. The third game, however, was never made. Legal issues with EA prevented the development team from releasing it as a Starflight game, so it became a game called Protostar instead. I have not played Protostar, though I’ve heard it’s an excellent game that nonetheless feels like it was rushed to market. It’s definitely on my list of titles to track down. Most people consider, however, that the true spiritual successor to Starflight is a game called Star Control 2; I was completely unaware of it when it was originally released (I was much younger then, and the in-home internet was still a thing of the future) but have been aware of it since my interest in Starflight was renewed a few years ago. It turns out that the game’s source code was released by the developers, and a group of loyal fans have created an updated version, combining “updated” visuals and sound from the game’s 3DO port. Again because of legal issues with the original publisher, its has been released as “The Ur-Quan Masters”, the subtitle to the original Star Control 2.

I have to admit that  up until now I have always been very conscious of how much time I spent with a game for my analysis, making sure I played enough to fulfill the requirements but not so much that I neglected other responsibilities. Not this time. I completely lost track of time while playing it, and I really did not want to stop when I did. It turns out that SC2 is most definitely indeed a direct descendant of my beloved Starflight, which makes it a very hard game to analyze objectively.

What these games create, and I am interested in replicating, is an incredible feeling of open exploration. At the beginning of the game the player is presented with a task but given only a vague idea about how to solve it, and is then unleashed with very limited resources upon a very large and very dangerous universe. It is then up to the player to slowly accumulate resources, and follow vague clues gained via exploration and conversation with the ships of various alien races. This process is mostly non-linear, though lack of resources such as fuel and combat capabilities in practice restrict certain areas until later in the game. There is remarkably little hand-holding in these games, and that is something I appreciate. The player will likely need to take notes of the various conversations. A not uncommon session of play would involve limping home after a long journey to repair damage and sell recently mined resources, then refuel and check through your notes to see what region of space is most deserving (and close enough, given fuel and combat ability constraints) of the next journey. This feeling of planning dangerous expeditions into the unknown chasing rumors of ancient ruins and strange new races is a remarkable experience I have not experienced outside of this type of game. Slowly piecing together plots and subplots worthy of a AAA science fiction novel from clues scattered throughout the universe is really fantastic.

No game is perfect, of course. There is a certain tedium inherent with these games as one accumulated resources early on in ones exploratory career. The recent Mass Effect games clearly take some inspiration from Starflight and Star Control 2 and even now all these years later they stumble upon some of the same problems. An early grind consisting of repetitive mining missions seems to be a requirement of space exploration games; although perhaps with good reason. It can serve as something of a rite of passage; through hard work one is able to upgrade enough so that one can venture out farther and slowly begin to conquer the imposing game “universe”.  Still, there is no denying that safe, repetitive mining quickly becomes a nuisance. Star Control 2, as opposed to Starflight, has much smaller planets that are much more quickly mined; possibly a reaction to the problem as found in Starflight. Yet I have already noticed   that this makes the worlds seems less like places to explore. I have not yet decided whether this is an overall net positive or negative for SC2 as compared to its predecessor. Combat is another point where the games differ greatly. Where in Starflight the battles were relatively slow and usually consisted of the player battling numerous enemy vessels, SC2 presents one on one duels basically following the pattern created by Spacewar!. Overall this is likely the better system; ships sport widely varying weapons in an inertial based battlefield.

I’m very happy to have found Ur-Quan Masters and can’t wait to unravel all of its secrets. However I hope also to continue analyzing it critically; the space exploration genre is certainly past due for an update, but if it is to be reborn it will have to find its place amongst other modern games.

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