Review: Space Force Captains (PC)

Space Force Captains
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy/RPG
Developer: Dreamatrix
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Release Date: 02/12/08
Minimum System Requirements: OS: Windows 98SE/2000/XP/Vista, Processor: 2Ghz or better Pentium 4, Memory: 768MB or more, Disk Space: 3GB (though the actual installed game is about 1.52GB), Video Card: Direct X 9 compatible (Radeon 9500, GeForce 5800).

Space Force Captains (or, perhaps, Spaceforce Captains) is an odd game to define. It essentially feels like Masters of Orion, Starcraft, and Pac-Man got together and knocked up Heroes of Might and Magic, and the resulting progeny was born premature. It’s a strategy game that doesn’t seem to require very much strategy, with RPG elements that don’t seem to actually mean anything. The core idea is neat, but the execution is flawed and buggy in many cases. It does things in such a fashion as to be functional, so it’s not exactly bad, but it does a lot of things that are either questionable or just flat-out don’t work, so it’s not exactly good.

The experience begins simply enough: after the various splash videos introducing all of the associated parties, you’re treated to a CGI introduction that is… tolerable enough (even though various parts quite obviously repeat) that seems to introduce the story reasonably well… except for the part that what’s happening in the intro doesn’t really seem to have any sort of actual bearing on the GAME; the opening cinematic is about a guy buying a ship, and even if we assume that this is the main character, Bruce Terren, from the Human campaign, the actual game only vaguely has little to do with that going forward. The ACTUAL plot, by all indications, revolves around three races: the balanced Human race, the combat-oriented Ord, and the subterfuge-oriented Alreani, and their galaxy-spanning war. There ARE other races in the universe, of course, but they are not the primary focus of the story. As far as the story goes, it’s essentially only there to explain the reason for you doing the various things you’re expected to do; a few cutscenes pop up here and there to get the gist of things across, but otherwise, a story blurb pops up at the beginning of each mission, then fades into the background to allow you to get your strategy on. The writing is the teensiest bit ham-fisted at times, and it seems to aim to be taken seriously when the opening cinematic seems a bit more willing to poke fun at itself, but it does the job and it’s not offensive by its badness, so one can deal well enough.

The introductory cinematic also prepares you well for the experience in other ways, because as noted, it’s okay looking and decent sounding… much like the rest of the game. The game generally gets the core “futuristic outer space” theme across well enough; the backdrop is starry skies and shooting stars and such, the races are appropriately alien and the various environments are futuristic space stations and asteroid fields and such that would feel familiar to Star Trek or Star Wars fans. The graphics aren’t pushing the processing power of the system to any significant degree, mind you; the various departments of your space station feature primitive-looking character models and the when actually flying about in space the character pictures and spaceships are generally static, but it’s decent looking enough, even if it lacks the certain personality one might expect. The music ranges between ambient sci-fi tracks that feel wholly appropriate and heavy rock tracks that, while acceptable, feel out of place in context. The voice acting is back and forth; the actors and actresses deliver their lines as if they’re committed to the project, but the actual lines repeat too often and, in many cases, are silly, especially when a female Captain is speaking in the same male voice (for some reason everyone speaks in one universal voice for their race, it seems, so female Captains speak like old Bruce as noted above, which is… weird). The effects are, as one would expect, futuristic beeps and boops, explosions (in SPACE) and about a billion different “laser penetrating the metallic hull of a spaceship” effects, but they fit and sound appropriate, at least.

Upon jumping into the game proper, you’re offered the options of either playing through one of the campaigns (the Human campaign, actually, as the other two are locked to start), jumping into a free-play skirmish, which is effectively similar to playing the campaign only without any story backing it up, playing the game online or jumping into a Tutorial to explain the game to you. The Tutorial seemed like a good idea to start with, but it didn’t seem to be too interested in working with me; after explaining the basics of base building and collecting materials, I found myself completely incapable of triggering any more assistance, leaving me to figure out combat on my own. This wasn’t so bad until the game opted to consider a dead Captain to be still alive about half an hour later, this locking up the game when I accidentally tried to move her and the game found itself with nothing to move.

And so, forty-five minutes of progress down the drain, off we go to Campaign mode. Campaign mode essentially sticks you in the role of your chosen race, and in most cases, gives you one or more Captains (each with a basic amount of ships) and one or more Stations to build up, with the purpose being to kill one or more fleets of enemy forces and take over one or more enemy bases. The game is turn-based in nature; you can maneuver your forces around the map by simply clicking on the location you want them to go twice and watching them meander off in that direction. Clicking on various locations will either take them over, if they are resource bearing installations, or impart their benefits if they are simply locations that contain bonuses (which can be anything from leveling the Captain to providing equipment to your craft to providing additional resources and so on). Ditto for floating piles of resources; a simple double-click makes them yours. All of these resources are needed to upgrade your station, and as there somewhere around eight different resources to collect, you’ll have to hustle to afford the best upgrades. Your station can be upgraded with various spaceship docking bays (which allows you to produce your chosen race’s ten ships, five levels each with two types), a bar (for gathering info from the bartender and hiring captains and such), gun turrets (for defense), research labs (for researching tech for your commanders to use in battle) and so on. In short, you’ve got a lot of stuff to do with your bases and you’ll need a lot of resources to accomplish it all.

Eventually, whilst moving about the outer-space mazes that are the game worlds, you will come across enemy forces, all of whom want you dead, and you will have to battle it out with them. Combat is done via a 3/4ths isometric strategy-oriented battlefield, where your starships will be on one side and the opposition will be on the other. Now, I’ve noticed that a few comments have been made in other reviews that there is no way to determine the effective range of your ship’s movement or firing, so for the record: you can enable a grid to determine your maximum movement and while your ships do not DIRECTLY list their firing range, their descriptions (which are accessible in your Starbase and under your captain’s information) tell what their firing ranges are if you’re curious. Anyway, you can move into range or use ranged fighters to attack from a distance as the mood strikes you, and depending on the technologies you’ve researched and the amount of energy your Captain has available to them, you can also use various techs to either protect your forces or deal damage to the opposition. As noted, each race has five categories of ship, each of which is capable of being used in different fashions (some are huge frigates with heave guns but are mucho expensive; others have long-range missiles, and so on), and two categories of each ship (which only amounts to one being stronger than the other, mind you), and as your Captains can have six in their group at a time, this means you could have the five strongest models or six spaces of the same ship type or whatever. Captains also go up in levels as they win battles and encounter learning structures, which grant them additional energy levels and bonuses to specific actions and techniques, and between this and the items they can recover that can be equipped onto their craft, your Captains become fairly important to turning the tide of battle.

Or they would, if there were any specific strategy involved in battle itself.

Now, here’s the thing: Spaceforce Captains is trying very, very hard to convince you as you’re playing that it is a strategic experience, but in reality it comes down to two actions: fast-forwarding turns to earn materials/new buildings/more ships/money/whatever, and having more spaceships than anyone else. This isn’t Starcraft, where you’re waiting for more minerals to come in so as to allow you to build more troops; more often than not, the ONLY thing minerals other than cash are used for is upgrading your space station. Once that’s maxed out, that’s it, there’s no more need for any of your supplies save two: credits, for building more ships, and the one specific mineral your “top level’ ship needs to be built; control those and you’re golden. Battle, again, comes down to who has the most ships in any confrontation; when you engage in battle with the opposing forces, a one-or-two ship difference may well come down to the abilities of the ship and commander, but a fifty ship difference will often spell your demise or victory, depending on which side of it you are on (and while in small confrontations, that’s a significant number, in confrontations where there are six or seven hundred ships in battle, not so much). The abilities of your Captain and their equipment often mean diddily-squat, as you are either GOING TO WIN and thus don’t need them or you are GOING TO LOSE and thus using shields and space satellites isn’t going to mean much. Such would not be a big problem if the game were willing to point out to you, for instance, how many ships the opposing forces you are about to engage in battle possess (as there are generally a large amount of enemy ships in the space maze, all of whom wish to do you harm), but it seems to be unable to do this thing, and once you’ve entered into battle, you’re screwed, so if the opposing force is larger than your own, your choices are limited to fleeing, which loses you all of your troops, but the captain lives and can be re-recruited (which, as noted above, DOESN’T MEAN A WHOLE LOT), surrendering, which keeps all of your troops, assuming you re-recruit the captain, and allows you to re-recruit him or her, if you have the cash to pay the surrender fee, or death, which loses you EVERYTHING. This is bad enough if you’re uncertain of the outcome of battle, but if you enter into a battle knowing full well you’re boned, it’s really asinine that you have to pay a fee to escape without losing anything, then pay another fee to re-recruit the Captain AND ALL OF YOUR SHIPS.

Unfortunately, these are just the most troublesome of the problems, and not the only ones. The game maps are mostly identical, even with the differing backgrounds, and since you can basically upgrade your ships and space station to the maximum level in the very first campaign, you have quite literally seen EVERYTHING the game has to offer the first time you play it. And on the battle front itself, there’s an option to outfit your space station with cannons to repel attackers, which seems really useful until you realize that the space station cannot actually engage in combat UNLESS some of your own fleet is there to help it, which makes one wonder what the hell the point was of building the guns and force field if the base can’t actually defend itself without help. Campaign missions take hours to complete largely because the enemy forces outnumber you, and the fact that there are rather a lot of them makes playing through the game time-consuming and tedious for little reward. Online might well be better, but I wouldn’t know; on four separate attempts to find someone online to play with I was unable to find anyone with which to play (but one can assume that, as a turn-based game, online it is probably not very much fun waiting for opponents to take their turn); even so, as the core experience is not terribly enjoyable, it’s fair to assume playing it with other people would not help. The game takes upwards of two minutes to load every time you start or load a mission, and while that’s only a one-time problem, it feels very excessive and boring. The in-game options menus are also very confusing; when I attempted to turn ON the grid under my ships and the movement indicator, they disappeared; only by turning them OFF did they pop up an option that claims to auto-resolve battles didn’t no matter what option I chose, changing the detail of the graphics made absolutely no difference to the levels whatsoever, and I have no idea what difficulty level I was playing on because none of the other options menus worked well so who knows if that one did. The game also has this annoying affectation of aligning the game world in the OPPOSITE orientation to the game map each time you load or begin a mission, so that moving UP on the game screen moves the view indicator on the mini-map DOWN, you see; this is REALLY REALLY ANNOYING and REALLY REALLY STUPID, because you have to fix it EVERY TIME YOU START PLAYING, and there was NO REASON for it to be that way in the first place.

There’s presumably a certain amount of appeal to Spaceforce Captains in that it’s a sci-fi take on Heroes of Might and Magic, so if you’ve been aching for just such an experience, this might well be something you’ll want to invest time and/or money into. Ultimately, though, it’s a very boring “spend twenty turns building up resources, upgrading space station, and building spaceships to go explore, repeat as needed” sort of experience that boils down less to any sort of strategy and more to “he with the most guns wins”. The Captains don’t seem very useful, the Technologies don’t seem very helpful, and the overall game takes way more time to accomplish something with than a game of its design really should. If you’re looking for something that’s time consuming and low-thought, Spaceforce Captains might be up your alley; otherwise it’s not anything special, new, or interesting.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: DREADFUL
Balance: POOR
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: BAD

Final Score: POOR.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Spaceforce Captains is Heroes of Might and Magic, in space, with mazes, minus any sort of strategic elements, charm, personality, or reason to play it. The game amounts to flipping past turn after turn waiting to build up enough resources to go kill something so you can acquire more goods/resources, you can see everything the game has to offer in an hour, and it’s really just aping competitors who have made similar, but better, products. If you’re just dying to play a sci-fi HoMM game, Spaceforce Captains is probably the closest you’re going to get, but it’s not really worth it if you’re looking for something that actually does what HoMM does, as this doesn’t really come close.

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