Star Control: Origins

Space games used to be about something, man. They were deep, rich systems with multiple factions, alliances and storylines that made you think about where our space-faring could take us. These were games for men with balls the size of asteroids, and I have fond memories from playing Escape Velocity Nova for weeks and barely scratching the surface of what it offered. Star Control, however, was one of the games I never got to play, which is a damn shame considering its strong legacy. Thankfully, we live in a time where reboots are the new classics, and Stardock has presented me with a golden opportunity to catch up on old times. So, is Star Control: Origins any good? No, it’s atrocious, but it’s certainly faithful to the old games.

Much like its predecessors, SC:O puts you in the captain’s chair of the first human vessel to explore beyond the solar system. After a bunch of post-human sycophants left Earth without any warning, the planet unifies to create Star Control, a cool organisation for cool space-lovin’ folk. Within your first 10 minutes of command, though, you find out there’s a brutal alien race enslaving everyone. So, in true human fashion, you decide to usurp them in the name of human freedom. This leads you to start exploring the galaxy for clues on how to beat these chumps, teaming up with other alien races and hoping you never run out of fuel. All of this sounds like an excellent setup for a game with plenty of fun banter with cool aliens, which is the biggest problem of the game.

In a game driven so heavily on conversations with alien species, the game’s writing leaves much to be desired. For a few hours, the dialogue starts off being lighthearted and funny, but the constant puns and jokes quickly grow tiring. The point I lost faith in the writers was when a Tywom (big sweaty, slimy slug dudes who talk with a lisp) made a joke about how many lads from their race “get in lots of arguments about comics”. I get it because the Tywom are big fat slug dudes who are like stereotypical ‘80s nerds. You might get a mild chuckle out of these lines, and each race is dripping with a unique personality, but their charm wears off after the thousandth pun you’re subjected to. I understand the appeal of writing in gags, but it’s far better suited to the small-scale stuff in the game.

While the main storyline is plagued by mediocre jokes and mild punishment (oh, 100% intended), the writing excels in small-scale encounters. As you delve into random star systems, you’ll encounter aliens races that don’t play a significant role but still have missions to engage in. These microcosmic quests are a lot more enjoyable than the rest of the game at large, and the gags pay off far more than their grand-scale counterparts. Having to sit through the same nerd jokes that the Tywom keep bringing up is not hilarious because it’s drawn out. Helping an alien colony ship out because their fuel regulator stopped working only to discover their race has notoriously terrible fuel regulators and always make spares at other colonies is hilarious because it’s quick. There’s no downtime in the jokes, so you can get the payoff and then get back to the main game, though you’ll probably decide against it because the game is a shallow mess.

While the gameplay of SC:O is faithful to the originals, it’s distressingly shallow on almost every front. Any time you find a planet with a land-able surface, you can send down a lander to roam around and pick up whatever’s lying on the ground, be it silver or uranium. In SCII, you would scan the planet, pick your landing spot, fill up your rover and then bring it back to the ship. It was simple but robust, and it involved thinking about where you were going to land to avoid trouble and stay efficient. In SC:O, there is one landing spot on any given planet, and the landing mini-game is more tedious than it is enjoyable. Instead of being efficient, you now have to scour the planet, return when your pods are full and retrace your steps because you can’t land anywhere else. Moreover, controlling your rover is like herding toddlers into a dentist, and if I could strangle the man who coded this floppy hovercraft’s physics, I would. It feels like a tech demo at best, and even with procedurally generated planets, their landscapes seem to be picked from a handful of five or six templates. Why do you bother suffering through this process hundreds of times? To upgrade your ship, of course! Unfortunately, there’s no depth there either.

Upgrading your vessel is as satisfying as eating a burger made entirely of air, and boy, I’ve had some flaky air burgers in my day. There’s some variety in what weapons you can equip and upgrades you can select, but nothing has a downside. Weapons do straight damage (more on that later), engines upgrade to be faster and more maneuverable, and landers just become hardier. It’s not like you have to sacrifice speed for mobility, you just upgrade to be better. There’s no trade-offs or choices to be made because everything is a flat upgrade, and you can’t spec into a build because there’s not enough depth for that level of meta. You’ll be drowning in money too, so it’s not like you can’t afford these upgrades, it’s just such a shallow system that it’s almost pointless to engage with. Shallow and pointless also describes the combat.

While far from being unbearable, the combat in SC:O is a meandering trial of patience and boredom. You fight on a 2D plane, flying around in circles occasionally shooting. I wish there were anything more to it, but that’s it. There’s no distinction between shields and hull, no elements to weapons and seemingly little thought given to balance. Even SCII’s combat had an interesting gimmick in that the maps were toroidal (i.e., played like Asteroid), so you could sneak up behind the enemy because they couldn’t slow down in time. Worst of all, it’s really, really, really easy, which doesn’t help it on the engagement front. Combat feels like a first-year student project that’s trying to scrape a pass in the unit. There’s a tiny bit of strategy in controlling your ship and managing inertia, but that’s it, and none of it looks particularly pleasant either.

Something that surprised me about the reboot was how bad it looks at times. For the most part, it’s got a pleasing aesthetic that’s the right amount of goofy and fun without being too off-putting. There’s also some staggeringly beautiful art that appears in the background when discovering anomalies or abandoned installations. Then when you look out upon the planet’s landscape, you remember that God didn’t sculpt these balls of rock, they were his kidney stones. Worlds are horrifying to look at close up, and combat encounters leave much to be desired, generally because they’re so sparse and lifeless. It was so bad at times that I thought I was looking at an unfinished project.

Speaking of unfinished, the sheer number of technical issues present in SC:O would make you question the game’s “release” status. I’ve had times where the screen has frozen on me, but the game has kept playing. I’ve had my framerate drop from a solid 60 to 2 then back up to 60 for no reason. I’ve had my manual save files disappear from one day to the next. It’s a mess of an engine, and I wouldn’t trust it as far as I could fling it into a space elevator. I’m tempted not to recommend the game solely on how shoddy the engine is, but there are also patches released daily, so it could get better. With that said, I’m hoping I’ve convinced you that there are more reasons to avoid the game than just bugs.

Star Control: Origins fails to capture the magic from its source material. The gameplay is dull, shallow and technically flawed, and it’s not like the story is super engaging either. There’s the occasional small-scale encounter that works well, but these alone aren’t enough to warrant a recommendation. I told one of my friends this afternoon to avoid buying the game, so “not recommended” seems about right. Hell, the fact I stopped playing after only 6 hours should give you an idea of how quickly this game loses its appeal. It’s a shame because I know how good space games can be, it’s just that this one didn’t quite cut it. One day, man, we’ll have a No Man’s Sky that doesn’t suck…

Nick Ballantyne

Nick Ballantyne

Managing Editor at GameCloud
Nick lives in that part of Perth where there's nothing to do. You know, that barren hilly area with no identifying features and no internet? Yeah, that part. To compensate, he plays games, writes chiptunes, makes videos, and pokes fun at hentai because he can't take anything seriously.