On the face of it you wouldn’t think Star Tactics and the focus of my previous review – the WWII real-time tactical game Firefight – had much in common, but they do. Aside from the obvious differences in height setting, both have been ported somewhat lazily from their parent touchscreen editions (in this case one still to be released) and both are derivative of more extensive and better established games, namely Spry Fox’s 2009 Flash sensation Steambirds.
In case you were taking cover under a rock at the time, Steambirds was a turn-based tactical air combat game in which players took turns in moving their aircraft, firing weapons and attempting to wrestle control of the skies. The most compelling aspect of play was that as well as being fast-paced, instead of battling across a tiled play area (such as in Sid Meier’s underwhelming Ace Patrol series), the knights of Steambird’s sky enjoyed arcs of more precise movement that had a measure of momentum neatly factored in, not too dissimilar in essence to the X-Wing Miniatures Game.
As well as a number of litigious and unflattering clones, Steambirds (which just so happens to draw inspiration from 1995’s Critical Mass, which is incidentally from the same guy behind Firefight) has inspired a number of titles to take turn-based aerial combat into all sorts of directions, into Homeworld-style 3D space via Blendo Games’ excellent Flotilla, and more recently deep into Star Control-inspired 4X territory in Arcen’s The Last Federation.
With this smallest of subgenres thus evolved, it’s initially hard to see a place for Star Tactics given that it’s a fairly unadventurous game with only it’s neon vector graphics able to provide much distinction. However, much as with Firefight, Star Tactics’ superficial lack of ambition obscures the game’s compelling tactical qualities.
Despite boasting a 30-mission campaign, a string of fighter-focused “Dogfight” battles and a Skirmish mode that progressively unlocks bigger ships, each engagement plays out in much the same way, with green and red enemy vessels warping onto the top-down battlefield, usually just out of firing range, with the aim to command the last vessel standing. This requires mastering ship movement, to which you simply adjust the movement counter to select where you want your ship to end the turn, taking account of your own firing arcs and your best guess of the enemy’s, as well as likely enemy trajectory and speed.
Its pretty simple stuff when it comes to the controls, but of course positioning is key, and with movement defined by ship type, heading, speed and manoeuvrability, coordinating attacks in order to angle optimum firepower is where the challenge lies. Fighters, while nimble, can easily overrun their targets and become too detached from the larger vessels, which of course can be then be picked at, while heavy ships might need to present their broadsides, which means escorts can hare off at a tangent. The battlefields and weapon ranges are small enough to ensure fleets rarely become dispersed, but understanding movement – which isn’t explained at all, it should be stressed – and thinking a few moves ahead is crucial.
The starting arrangement for ships is randomised, with the first turns devoted to getting endangered towards the relative safety of an asteroids, while rallying other ships for the first in a series of coordinated strikes to hopefully pick off the enemy one by one. Weapons fire is automatic whenever a ship enters a opponent’s firing cone, but spice is added in the form of special abilities that can be activated every other turn. These range from speed boosts and 180-degree turns in the case of fighters to missile and mine launchers on mid-sized vessels, all the way up to space WMDs on dreadnoughts and battlecruisers.
It’s perhaps unfortunate that special abilities can’t be reassigned or fleets set up prior to any of the engagements, if nothing else to lift the tactical scope of the game beyond what is quite a limited mission structure. That said, it’s a good thing the battles are suitably challenging, thanks to an ever-widening arsenal of ship classes and weapon systems, enough at least that we can overlook the dreary narrative and backstory of the campaign.
The screen can get pretty hectic when missiles and torpedos are unleashed, with each item of guided ordinance receiving it’s own movement icon as soon as it’s launched. With upwards of 20 ships and missiles arcing about in the same few sectors, all with the same icons regardless of whether a move order has been assigned, it often becomes hard to distinguish between the planned trajectories of all the vessels under your command.
That vessels can often be lost to the vagaries of the control system is unfortunate, but perhaps the worst sin in the game is an AI that seems able to react to your movements a little too quickly. Reduce speed to tempt a chasing ship into your rear guns, for example, and more often than not the enemy will slow down immediately, not in the following turn as a human opponent might. In spite of this it becomes quite an easy strategy to lead a superior enemy force around the map, spamming staccato missiles into its path until your vessel is the last ship standing.
With a selection of ship set-up options, more than one damage type or some ammo limitations to offset the missile spamming, as well as some attention given to further honing the chunky and overbearing UI to suit PC sensibilities, Star Tactics could yet develop into a deeply satisfying game of cunning space combat rather than one that’s merely agreeable. That said the developers have done well not to get carried away in over-complicating what is already an engaging game of bite-sized battles that reminds us of simple pleasures.