According to Douglas Adams, “space is big.” Compared to the vastness of the universe, humanity’s history, activities, and reach are microscopic. Many space-focused media products sidestep the issues of human scale with hypersleep, faster-than-light travel, or other science-fiction tropes, and while Starpoint Gemini Warlords leans on such ideas, the game never takes them to heart. Instead, this spin-off to Little Green Men Games’s real-time strategy RPG series is an often plodding affair, interspersed with moments of explosive, exhilarating action. The game is a tale of two halves, as political and diplomatic micromanagement collides with fast-paced dogfights in one of 2017’s most invigorating releases so far.
The Starpoint Gemini series is, perhaps, best known as one of the flagship success stories for the Early Access development model. After a poor first outing in 2010, the developers involved the community in production of a sequel, with an estimated 30% of Starpoint Gemini 2’s features stemming from player suggestions. However, not all of the community’s ideas could be implemented, which led to the creation of Starpoint Gemini Warlords, a spin-off that marries the series’s traditional trading and combat systems to 4X strategy mechanics that transform the experience. The importance of player feedback in development of games is a contentious issue, but Warlords is proof that the model can be revelatory.
While many 4X strategy titles take place from the perspective of the unseen overlord of a vast empire, Starpoint Gemini Warlords provides a human face to conflict and diplomacy, as players are given direct control over their faction’s leader. This design choice creates a duality within the game, as users simultaneously control imperial expansion and human-scale exploration across both the story campaign and free-roam galactic sandbox, with an overwhelming sense of immensity present in both situations. The Starchart is daunting; the player’s faction of the Solari Concord begins with a tiny plot of space surrounded by territory controlled by opposing factions and a fog of war extending far beyond familiar borders. From the cockpit of an interplanetary cruiser, the vastness of the universe is even more pronounced, and traversing the map without warp drive capabilities becomes tedious through repetition. Exploration is enlivened by the presence of myriad distractions and dynamic events, but the excitement provided by these incidental activities fades rapidly due to a general lack of worthwhile rewards. Nevertheless, the experience of dogfighting remains thrilling: tense when the player-character is facing a formation of enemies alone, and spectacular when accompanied by a war fleet. Learning to control the ship in combat situations requires an adjustment period, though the auto-fire function removes many frustrating foibles and leaves players free to execute special abilities or the ship-boarding minigame. These abilities and tactics can be improved through the RPG systems lifted from previous entries in the series, but their effects on this granular level of the experience often feel negligible. With the micro-scale gameplay being a mixed bag, the true treasures of Warlords lay in the overarching strategy mechanics.
Simultaneously complex and simple, the robustness of the empire-building elements is notable given their origin in the desires of the community rather than the developers. For the opening hours of the game, at least, the ability to grow the reach of the Solari Concord beyond its humble origins is almost contingent on story progress. Completing missions is, by far, the most efficient method of levelling up, which provides access to better ships and more profitable side-quests. However, research, headquarter constructions, and fleet building all require additional resources that can only be acquired through the aforementioned distractions or sending civilian crews on missions. In either case, a lack of resources is often an obstacle that players must overcome. The need to manage this array of variables bogs the experience into a painful grind for lengthy periods, which may turn impatient gamers away. Nevertheless, Warlords adopts a very different atmosphere when war fleets begin rolling off the production line, moving from an exploration-based curio to a conflict-focused minefield. Becoming the ultimate aggressor is as viable an option as forging alliances and trade deals, though diplomacy feels rather bare-bones as a result of limited options. While the number of moving parts could result in frustration, Little Green Men Games handles the strategy elements deftly, with communications, commands, and construction rarely requiring more than two mouse-clicks to execute. The simplicity belies considerable depth, however, with enough freedom and agency provided for the player to make what they will of the game. Unfortunately, the same sentiment of effortless grace is not applicable to the narrative.
Though the developers have tried to weave an urgent, emotive tale, their efforts fall flat. The story feels more like a set of disparate plot complications than a cohesive series of events. The history of the Solari Concord and some of the happenings that befall the fledgling empire’s leader draw from the previous Starpoint Gemini games, but familiarity with the series is not necessary as Warlords provides the required exposition to make sense of the references. While each new development is adequately explained and infused with a suitable sense of threat and immediacy, the sheer volume of different factions and squabbles becomes confusing, which compounds the sense of discontinuity. A strong group of central characters could provide a path through the disorder, but most of them are archetypal and, therefore, forgettable. The shortcomings of the story are not helped by dialogues taking place against static screens, and considerable amounts of information on the game’s universe being buried in data-logs. Simply, the production provides an overwhelming impression that the narrative is of little import to the overarching experience. Although the characters fail to buoy the story, their designs are impressive.
The design excellence evident in the characters is synecdochic for the entire visual make-up of Starpoint Gemini Warlords. Each of the characters is distinctive, with their images being drawn in a painterly style that deftly avoids the uncanny valley. In action, the game hews more closely to realism as each of the ships radiates the assuring solidity of metal. The lavish detail of the spacecraft is on clear display in the hangar, but is much more difficult to spot when travelling through the vast abysses of the universe. With the blackness speckled with stars, nebulae, planets, gas pockets, and the detritus of human colonisation, however, the spacescape is alluring and inviting. Contrastingly, the graphical interfaces initially seem cumbersome and difficult to read. This complexity causes some problems in the fast-paced combat scenarios, but players should adapt to the demands of the system quite readily as issues arise more from the unfamiliarity of free movement in 3D space than any design shortcomings. Notwithstanding the minor quibbles of readability, the game’s visuals are evocative, though they understandably fail to match up to the high standards found in the AAA sector.
Meanwhile, the audio presentation of Starpoint Gemini Warlords is much less interesting. The background sound effects of weapons fire and radar warnings help to overcome the issues of the visuals, while the calls and cries of Solari Concord personnel help to keep the player abreast of the various ongoing situations on both the micro and macro scale. Unfortunately, the flat delivery of many lines of dialogue leaves the voice acting feeling mediocre. Similarly, the music that accompanies exploration tends to fade into the background and fail to enhance the overall experience in any meaningful manner. Thankfully, the other elements of the production are able to overcome the middling nature of the soundscape.
Starpoint Gemini Warlords is rarely truly great, though the game is, by turns, frustrating, involving, and thrilling, creating an almost addictive quality that ensures players will revisit this vast star system time and again. Several areas of the production are lacking, but the excitement of the interstellar dogfights and the satisfaction of growing an empire to last the ages are invigorating. With potentially hundreds of hours required to reach the end-game, the investment required to make the most of Warlords is likely to turn some players away, but those that take the plunge will be rewarded.
Reviewed on PC