Anyone who says they don’t like games about tactical space combat is lying to you and themselves. Commanding vessels in a full 3-dimensional battlefield is the pinnacle of strategy, demanding clever positioning and forward thinking to successfully pull off an attack. It is, unequivocally, one of the most enjoyable genres ever created, but it’s rare to come across a game that does it well. Enter Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy, a space tactics game that takes the genre and dilutes it into an enjoyable game for newcomers and veterans to the genre. While it’s far from a masterpiece, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable game for a genre almost solely defined by 4X games, but you might be left wishing there was more to it.
If you want to be tested on multiple fronts or spend resources to upgrade and customise your ships, Star Hammer isn’t for you. This game is about space combat and only space combat, which is great if that’s all you want, but it lacks the level of customisation you’d expect from games with broader scopes. You can select which ships to take on a given mission, but what weapons and equipment those ships have is set, so choosing ships feels too simple despite the trade-offs each ship presents. The only real customisation you have is crew selection, but this only buffs up your fleet by a tiny amount, so you’ll barely notice a change. These simplifications don’t detract too heavily from the core game though, which is simple but satisfying.
What Star Hammer lacks in customisation, it makes up for in solid mechanics. The game is turn-based, but commands are given and executed simultaneously for both sides. Ships can move and fire within certain arcs on each turn, and they can redistribute power to engines, shields or engines to boost their efficiency. It’s simple enough to grasp, but there’s enough nuance within the system for a surprising amount of depth, a lot like Frozen Synapse. All your actions are done through a UI that helps to facilitate your actions rather than get in the way.
One of the problems with games that have more complexity than opening a packet of Doritos is that the UI can be impossible to comprehend. Star Hammer does away with superfluous complications and presents you with a UI that has everything you’d need in a layout that makes sense. Nothing hogs up more space than it needs, and there are buttons that allow you to change the view and what information is seen available at your fingertip. It goes a long way in de-cluttering what would otherwise be a mess of ships and firing arcs on the screen, but when confronted with brain-dead AI, the UI’s clean design can be underwhelming.
If you’re thinking of buying this game, make sure you get some friends to do the same because there is no way the AI will challenge you after a couple hours with the game. The AI is dumb, so much so that they’ll ignore terrain and fly straight into it to die amongst the stars. It’s not that the single player missions aren’t challenging, but that’s more because there are millions of aliens hoarding you rather than being subjugated to intelligent strategies. This stupidity applies to your ships too since you can’t explicitly designate who to target, so focusing fire on an enemy vessel involves silently praying that your men grow a few synapses this turn. The same cannot be said of the narrative as it takes you on a journey through political intrigue and swathes of text.
Dissecting the plot of Star Hammer was an exercise in tedium, but it wasn’t all bad. The story is presented through dialogue and pre-mission briefings. While the dialogue was easy to digest, the mission briefings were just walls of text that were laborious to get through. The characterisation is good, and the Finnigan quips are charming enough, but the plot itself is nothing special and hardly worth the trouble of reading swathes of text. Once you get through looking at text though, everything else looks pretty good.
One thing that I was surprised with was how good this game looks. It’s not Battlefront levels of gorgeous, but for an indie game, it doesn’t look too shabby. Everything has a nice shiny glean to it, and the aliens all glow an ominous green in the distance. While ships don’t have a lot of personality, they are easy to distinguish from one another due to their vastly different designs, and the same goes for the aliens too. It’s certainly not the most detailed game in terms of graphics, but nothing looks like vomit either.
While it’s far from perfect, Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy is a solid game with plenty to like. The game is built on solid mechanics but lacks the customisation and smaller details needed to make it shine. While the plot’s there, it’s hard to internalise without gaining a uni degree in the process, and it’s a shame that the story’s presentation is so brutish when everything else is so sleek. Still, if you like space combat, you’ll like Star Hammer, and if you don’t like space combat, then you’re wrong.
DISCLAIMER: this game was supplied to us by the developer, and reviewed on PS4 across 8 hours of gameplay.