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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Microsoft

Ups: Great graphics, Engaging story, Highly polished.

Control problems, Poor enemy AI, Somewhat redundant.

System Reqs: PII 200, 32MB RAM, 300MB HD space

Starlancer is a direct descendent in a proud lineage stretching back to some of the most respected games in computer gaming’s short, though action-packed, history. The developers, Digital Anvil, have a membership that reads like a who’s who in the gaming world; Wing Commander and Privateer 2: The Darkening should ring some bells. So with all this talent and clout you wouldn’t be amiss in expecting their next space combat-sim installment to be another classic. Unfortunately, a good pedigree doesn’t necessarily make a great game. Starlancer is riddled with nagging problems, most of which can be individually ignored, but cumulatively they hamper your overall gaming experience. I’m not saying don’t play it, I’m just giving you a warning not to let history set your expectations too high. 

Starlancer is very story-driven, almost to a fault. There seems to have been some sacrifice in gameplay in order to accommodate the development of the game’s complex plot-work. The story goes that one-hundred and sixty years into the future our old Eastern-bloc foes have once again taken up arms against the imperial dogs of the Western world. This familiarity is key to the player’s alliance-setting tendencies, at least for those of us that lived through and remember the heated last years of the Cold War. Your view into the Starlancer universe is through the gradual development of the various key players, from the conflict’s leaders to your fellow comrades in arms. This makes for an effective if subtle immersion into the game, and the evolution of your own ideas of the conflict are fueled by the story and in-game dialog. In a space combat-sim this is not always the case. Often the story is either left out or so threadbare that you hardly care. Essentially Starlancer’s narrative features both make the game more engaging and limit your influence in the proceedings, hence the sacrifice.

Starlancer has a number of control issues that may get on the player's nerves. For example, one of my biggest pet-peeves in sim games is the inability to swap what essentially amounts to aileron and rudder controls. In order to provide the most realistic sensation of flight, be it atmospheric or futuristic space flight, controls should mimic how things are in reality and are likely to remain. Moving the stick right or left should not turn the ship but roll it, and rudder controls should not roll it but turn it. In Starlancer you are stuck with the illogical controls. This game also has an over-abundance of keyboard controls, most of which you will never need to use to get through the game. As well, your ship’s heads up display is all flash and no fight, it constantly causes problems when tracking friends or foes and the radar is nearly incomprehensible. On top of it all, three-dimensional movement is not as effective as that of other recent games, and barely relays the sensations that such flight should entail.

Another big problem is your inability to save the game from within the missions. This is an area where I think most all space combat-sim’s could make some improvement; after all other types of action-oriented games feature saves-on-the-fly, why not here?  Not that you necessarily need to save often, the enemy AI is exceedingly poor, dogfights are little challenge, and your ship’s armor and weapons are considerably more effective than your enemy’s. Some missions, though, are exceedingly difficult because of the enemy’s numerical advantages.

On the bright side, the missions are pleasingly complex, and don’t rely on the run-and-gun method of advancement. The story is often developed throughout the missions, giving you a front row seat to the events affecting your game’s world. Henceforth, the missions tend to be on the long side, which makes up for their relative scarcity. This is where the game really shines, the combination of plot and piloting is worthy of its Wing Commander lineage. Aside from the movement sensation the graphics are great. Backdrops and ships are very nice looking, and are some of the best so far in the genre.

This game is basically a one-shot deal—there is little replay value and no stand-alone missions. One cool thing is the ability to advance through the missions in a multiplayer cooperative mode. If you could manage to find someone who has picked up the game and willing to spend the many hours of play it requires, it may be a fun option, though necessarily logistically difficult.

Starlancer wears it’s influences on its sleeves. That isn’t a bad thing, all computer games do it to some extent. But tradition needs to be broken and remade in order for innovation to take place. Unfortunately, the folks at Digital Anvil stuck to the formula and made a good game instead of a great game.

--Thomas Hoff