Review: Shattered Suns (PC)

Shattered Suns
Genre: Real-time Strategy
Developer: Clear Crown Studios
Publisher: Clear Crown Studios
Release Date: 08/19/08
Minimum System Requirements: OS: Windows 2000/XP/Vista, Processor: 1Ghz or better Pentium 3 or equivalent, Memory: 512MB or more, Disk Space: 2GB, Video Card: 128MB with Pixel Shader 2.0 Support

There really aren’t a lot of truly 3D real-time strategy games; while you can certainly find more than a few turn-based strategy games that work with three-dimensional mechanics, real-time strategy games tend to stick to standard two-dimensional movement, largely because it’s somewhat complicated to make such a gameplay design work. Frankly speaking, in the best of cases it’s often hard to make a 3D RTS, mainly because you either end up making a game that still feels like a 2D RTS or you end up making a game with an unmanageable camera system. That said, thanks in part to the success of Homeworld, the attempt to create an RTS in space with a full 3D environment has become something of a significant project for many developers, with the end results bringing us products like Sins of a Solar Empire and the subject of our review, Shattered Suns. Shattered Suns is something of an interesting attempt at the genre, presenting itself as a story-driven, mission-based 3D RTS that combines resource management and real-time ship combat, but despite the promise of being something special, Shattered Suns ends up feeling less than special.

The player takes on the role of Max, a captain in the Statian army who is re-registering for active duty when a massive assault of allied alien forces more or less forces the Statian president to issue a formal surrender to the allied forces. Max’s fiancée, Seeng-Si, ends up a prisoner of war to the alien force known as the Trexite race (one of the allied forces), which Max is none too willing to take lying down, and over the course of the game, you will guide Max through his efforts to liberate Seeng-Si from her imprisonment, as well as ultimately help to undo the efforts of the allied alien forces and liberate the Statians from their tyranny. So, y’know, the usual.

The most notable upside of the storyline in Shattered Suns is that it’s generally pretty decently written, clichés aside; Max and his ship computer Citron (yes, like the fruit) have some amusing back-and-forth banter to keep the experience going, and the various characters you meet throughout the game are decently fleshed out and come off as somewhat real people with real agendas and such, making the experience generally come together well enough on its own merits. You can also skip the various dialogues that pop up with a simple press of the space bar, if you’re not interested in the story and simply want to play the game, though that’s a fairly large part of the experience to skip. Really, the flaws with the plot are largely due to the pacing and volume; simply put, there’s no voice acting to speak of, leaving the plot to be delivered by way of text logs, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that THERE IS A TON OF DIALOGUE to go through throughout the story, even if one only takes on the required storyline missions to progress. Further, the game often stops to allow Max (IE you) the opportunity to make some sort of response to various things… but there’s only one response you can make, and making said response doesn’t immediately send you into a new mission or anything, so there’s really no point to stop the exposition just so you can choose the only response provided to you just to move the conversation forward again. After a while, you just end up pressing the space bar every time someone starts talking so you can read through the dialogue (as it also takes forever to pop up on-screen) and move on, and the further you go into the game, the more annoying this becomes, which is kind of a shame, considering that had there simply been less story, the story presented would probably have been pretty neat.

Visually, well, Shattered Suns generally looks acceptable, in that the frame rate is generally solid on a system that can support the game, the planets and ship models generally look acceptable, and the interface is generally clean and easy on the eyes. That said, you won’t often spend a lot of time on close-up views of combat because of the large amount of space the game requires you to traverse, and the various battlefields are… incredibly colorful, especially considering they’re all cast in the middle of outer space, which is just incredibly weird and not particularly attractive. Aurally, the game fares somewhat better; the in-game music ranges from serviceable to good, the sound effects are about what you would expect of a science fiction RTS (though they’re infrequent in most cases), and the voice samples that pop up for unit acknowledgements are fine for what they are. Some voice acting during the intermission dialogue and a bit more diversity in the sound effects might have been more ideal, but all in all, what’s here is good enough to get the job done.

The gameplay of Shattered Suns mostly revolves around various space battles across the different systems in the game universe. Basically, when you start up a mission, you’ll be provided with ships and/or bases with which to do your business, which can range from simple interstellar combat to resource gathering to general repair and maintenance to diplomatic warmongering and beyond. How this translates to the gameplay is actually surprisingly simple, oddly enough, though it doesn’t seem as such at first. Space stations offer you a significantly large amount of options to work with, which basically break down between fleet management, resource management, and station management. Fleet management is one of the more interesting points of the game; basically, you can design up to ten different classes of ships for use as you see fit, depending on the needs you have for them. Now, ships generally have to be balanced out in some form or fashion, meaning you can’t cram the best shields, armor, and weaponry onto them; you’ll have to manage the builds of your ships between their storage space, engines, shields, and weaponry to create the right ships to do the job assigned to you, whether the purpose be mining, transportation, or blowing things up. Resource management is also fairly simple: basically, there are three types of resources in the game world (crystals, ore, and credits AKA money), and you’ll need all three in order to build and upgrade things. Now, in most cases, this involves simply sending a ship with some miners on it down to a planet to begin harvesting resources, then turning around and selling unneeded resources for credits as necessary, but occasionally this isn’t an option (one mission tasks you to gather resources from other ships in your fleet, for instance, instead of from any mining expeditions), which makes resource management somewhat interesting to work with. Ultimately, you can simply mine what you need and sell/buy the materials you need but don’t have, or you can simply check off the balance option in your station to automatically balance out your resources constantly, though you’ll also have scenarios where you’ll have to set up trade routes between stations to balance out your resources across your holdings, which also further expands the value of proper resource management across the game. Station management basically amounts to properly upgrading your station to meet the various needs of your forces, between hiring builders, building star docks, and improving the defenses of the station, thus enabling you to customize your stations to meet the demands of the mission, more or less.

Ship combat is a fairly elementary affair, in that you simply need to highlight your various ships and right click on their destination to send them where they need to go. All of your ships have three bars representing their health levels, between their shields, armor, and hull ratings. Shields represent their energy shields, which recharge over time and deplete as the ship takes damage; these can be considered your first line of defense in battle. Armor and hull levels represent the actual physical health of the ship, as neither regenerates, and basically amount to two levels of damage the ship can sustain. When your shield runs out, your armor begins receiving damage, when your armor runs out, your hull begins taking damage, and when your hull is depleted, the ship blows up. You can dock your ships with your station, assuming you have one, to repair damage done to them as needed, though in missions where such an option is not available, more creative methods will need to be employed (for instance, breaking your fleet up into groups and using revolving groups to fight enemies as shields deplete). The enemy forces often have equally hardy ships at their disposal, meaning combat often encourages tactical combat over sheer force of numbers battles, simply because it’s often easier to exploit tactical weaknesses in enemy forces than it is to engage in frontal assaults. As the game works on a three-dimensional plane, there are generally two ways to manipulate the camera; you can either have the camera unlocked, which allows you to maneuver the view wherever you need it at the time (allowing you to quickly jump from one group to another, or from a battle group to your base as needed), or you can lock it onto a specific target (say, one or your own ships or an opposing ship) to make your present actions easier. It also bears noting that planetary motion needs to be considered in the various battles you engage in; aside from the fact that planetary gravitational pull can throw off the movement of your ships, planets also traverse the area you’re presently engaged in along their pre-determined orbits, meaning that your station may pass close to an enemy installation, either allowing you the advantage of being able to quickly repair damaged units as you engage the enemy, or forcing you into an unplanned battle as an enemy passes by your station, meaning you’ll have to consider these factors as you engage in battle.

The core storyline, between primary and side missions, will generally take a good amount of time to get through (around twenty to thirty hours, depending on how good you are at the game and how fast you pick things up), and there’s also a skirmish option if you want to just jump in and fight enemy forces. Skirmishes offer a decent amount of customization options; aside from being able to customize the AI factions and their difficulty levels, you can also choose how many planets exist in the skirmish system, the starting resources, and the victory and defeat conditions for the battle (blow everything up, time elapsing, amassing a set amount of money, and so on), giving you a decent amount of options to fool around with to allow you a different challenge each time. You can also retain your ship build designs from game to game (and, in a nice touch, the game allows you to “scale down” designs you’ve made, meaning that if you’ve put a level five item on a ship that you can’t access at present research levels, the game will automatically sub in a lower leveled version of that technology into your ship design), and with multiple difficulty levels to choose from, you’ll have some reasons to return to Shattered Suns. Online multiplayer (or multiplayer of any kind, for that matter) is absent from the game, though this largely seems to be due to the fact that the game often requires you to pause the game to switch between monitoring stations and fleets, which would be unreasonable in a multiplayer setting; as such, the game is effectively designed to be a single player excursion, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Now, there are some questionable design elements to the experience that can make the game hard to recommend to many players, though many of these elements may not bother you or may, in fact, appeal to you, depending on the sort of person you are. Battles are often slow-paced, due in large part to the fact that various ships take a significant amount of time to destroy; combat between a few ships can take ten to fifteen minutes to resolve, as the pacing of battle is much more methodical than in similar games, and revolves more around tactical considerations than out-and-out brute force. The visuals, as noted, are odd-looking, but may not be a factor to those who place interest in gameplay over stylistic concerns. Micro-managing everything in the game, from resources to ship designs to basic combat and beyond, can be particularly involved, but many players will find that to be exciting and enjoyable. The camera can be awkward to manipulate in many cases, leaving the player confused as to what’s going on, but this can be worked around and circumvented in most respects with enough time and effort. Some of the gameplay elements can be odd to manage at first (like how ships float away when not directed to follow anything, leaving you to hunt around for them), though these, too, can be circumvented with enough time invested into the game. Thus, before we go any further, it must be said: IF you are the sort of person who is willing to learn the finer nuances of an experience, IF you are willing to put in time and effort into learning how the mechanics of a game work, and IF you are looking for a game that is very tactical, calculating, and requiring of a large amount of management across all fronts, Shattered Suns may well be for you.

But there is one HUGE flaw against the gameplay, and that is that it is not even REMOTELY intuitive to play, AT ALL.

This needs to be said up-front: unless you are the sort of person who actively loves tactical analysis and resource management, you are going to be disgusted with Shattered Suns in about ten minutes. It asks a lot of you, and even after taking on the tutorial missions to learn the basics of the experience, you will still not be prepared to really deal with the expectations the game has of you. Your very first resource management mission involves docking and un-docking ships to build up enough resources to hire builders and build docks so as to repair thirty ships in ten minutes, which involves micromanaging your resources to a fairly unreasonable degree in your first REAL mission, as a “trial by fire” of sorts to get you used to the management system. Your first notable combat mission involves using guerilla tactics (or what the game claims are guerilla tactics, anyway, being as how you have neither mobility nor terrain on your side in the battle) to assault enemy forces without attracting the attention of the main fleet (who will essentially wipe you out if they get in range of you), which is, again, a sink or swim introduction to tactical combat in the game proper. The problem is that the game isn’t particularly interested in really explaining to you how these mechanics actually are supposed to work, meaning that you’ll essentially have to repeat missions several times in order to actually figure out what it is that you’re supposed to be doing and how to go about it properly, which is the absolute OPPOSITE of intuitive gameplay; when you can’t understand how to actually do what it is the game is asking of you, and you have to replay the same missions over and over, that’s rather convoluted, to be honest.

This further becomes a problem both because of the generally unclear mission structure and the overly involved gameplay mechanics. Regarding the former: the game seems to believe that, after playing through the tutorials and reading the mission layouts, little additional assistance is required to figure out what it is that you’re supposed to be doing in the missions, and as such, you’ll basically find yourself, nine times out of ten, staring at the tail-end of a fighter or the front of a station with no real idea as to where you’re supposed to begin. This is generally convoluted the FIRST time that it happens, but the fact that this is a fairly consistent thing, to the extent that the game frequently gives you some broad, sweeping advice and says “okay, you figure this out”, is most likely going to put off all but the most die-hard of genre lovers. Regarding the latter: the game often REQUIRES you to pause the game so you can jump between your fleet and your station to consistently micro-manage what each is doing at any given time, and while this sort of thing is generally tolerable in the sorts of games where one is not required to micro-manage everything down to the minute level (say, Starcraft, where most management involves pushing a few buttons or moving around a few troops/Zerg-rushing everything), Shattered Suns generally requires a significant amount of management at any given time, meaning that each and every battle has the potential to either be incredibly hectic for entirely the wrong reasons.

That all said, the biggest flaw of the EXPERIENCE, beyond the awkward gameplay elements, is that it lacks any sort of specific personality outside of its storyline, and when this is combined with the generally rigid pace of the campaign, it ultimately paints the experience as something of a boring one. Generally speaking, the aesthetics of the experience are generally very bland, there’s no real personality to the various space stations and ships, or to the battles they engage in, and the end result leaves the player struggling to care on a base level. In a game like, say, Master of Orion or Sins of a Solar Empire, you can accept the generic presentation of the experience because YOU are in complete command of all things, and the level of customization, in many cases, is meaningful and complex. In a game like, say, something from the Command and Conquer or the various Star/Warcraft products, you lack any sort of basic customization of your troops short of specific upgrades, but the troops themselves make up for the linearity of the experience by having specific tactical uses and personality. Shattered Suns tries to do both, by way of forcing you into specified missions with generic, customizable ships, leaving you in the awkward position of feeling divested from the experience, as you have neither control of the experience (either you meet the listed victory requirements, or you don’t) nor any personality to your units, thus making the experience somewhat bland in execution. That’s something of a big problem, frankly; as Shattered Suns lacks the total control of more diverse products, and the personality of less diverse products, it finds itself fitting into this weird middle ground of lacking the style AND the substance of the two genres it’s trying to combine, ultimately leaving the experience as a series of interchangeable missions where the goals are different but the experiences remain largely identical.

So, this, then, is the basic final explanation of Shattered Suns: if you are looking for a game that takes the core mechanics of an RTS game, micromanages their elements down to a fine level, and presents them to you as a learning experience, you will find that very thing in this game. Between the skirmishes and the campaign, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to manage your forces and practice strategies, as the game expects this sort of gameplay, and in that regard, someone who is looking for an experience in broad detail management and tactical combat will find this to be a wise investment. For everyone else, the average visual presentation, imposing difficulty curve, unintuitive gameplay, slow pace, heavy micromanagement requirements, and general lack of personality and depth when compared to the genres it aims to emulate will more than likely scare away the average player. Clear Crown Studios, surprisingly enough, has spent a significant amount of time, in both their own forums and in other locations, seeking out input on the product in hopes of improving the core game by way of patches, which is admirable, and many of the gameplay elements mentioned above may well be fixed or modified over time. But in many more cases, the game will most likely never achieve a point of being intuitive to any but the most dedicated of fans, will most likely never be anything more than visually adequate, and will most likely never be “for you” unless you’re willing to sit down and spend a not insignificant amount of time learning the mechanics of the game, inside and out. If that appeals to you, so too will Shattered Suns; if it does not, then you will most likely find yourself abandoning the game in hours, never to play it again.

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

Final Score: BELOW AVERAGE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Shattered Suns is essentially a game meant for the more dedicated enthusiasts of the RTS genre, and it mostly succeeds by way of crossbreeding resource management mechanics and tactical warfare into a product that will tax the skills of those sorts of players, at the expense of generating any interest in a more casual player. For those who are willing to learn the nuances of the experience, Shattered Suns offers significant and deep resource and combat management, and will tax even the most skilled players to their limits at first, until they have mastered the experience, leaving them feeling fulfilled by the complexity of the experience. Everyone else, however, will be put off by the unexciting visuals, unintuitive gameplay, slow pacing, constant micromanagement requirements, and general lack of personality and/or overwhelming linearity of the experience. Shattered Suns is very much a niche title, and if you fall into that niche, you will certainly love the experience, but if not, you would be best served steering clear and finding something a bit less demanding or, in many cases, needlessly complex.

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