22 March 2012

Review: Star Prospector

At least the concept art is kinda nice.
Star Prospector is a by the numbers RTS. I mean, really, it's like a "reference implementation of typical RTS game" project or something. There are only two things that you could argue are unique; one is trivial and one is rendered irrelevant by bad decisions.

Every game goes like this: You are thrown in the middle of a map with your "rig", which is a unit that can build and mine. You build a unit factory, an ore drop-off, and one worker. Then you wait for money to be collected, and make a second worker. Then you build a power generator, and a fuel factory. Then you build three combat units. At this point an enemy or two attacks. You kill it, mass your units, attack move them to the objective and win the map.

I'm not exaggerating. This is literally how every level goes. There is no variation in the gameplay. There are supposedly different objectives, but all of them amount to the same thing: Go to the exclamation point on the opposite side of the map, clear the enemies there, and possibly right click a few of the entities placed in a cluster there. Sometimes it's called clearing archeological sites, sometimes it's "recovering downed shuttles", sometimes it's "refueling powered-down base" but in practice all that changes is the building model and briefing text.

Even the maps are all the same. They are not even randomly generated: The same mission always has the same map. Which is unbelievable, because of how utterly flat and featureless the one level template is: A flat square, with one tiny impassable pit somewhere in a corner, a few scattered rocks/trees, and one completely straight river with two bridges crossing the map horizontally or vertically. There's lots of different biomes but it doesn't matter because they're all the same map with the textures swapped.

There's always a few lone enemy spawner buildings which regularly pop out the local enemy variety and the ubiquitous scavengers. All the enemies, indeed all the combat units, behave exactly the same. There's a couple of damage types, maybe 8, but they're immediately, stifflingly boring: There's the one that does extra damage to type 1 enemy, the one that does extra damage to type 2 enemy (there's pretty much only 2 types), the one that damages in a line, the one that does splash damage, the one that does extra damage to buildings, the chain lightning one... It's tiresome even to think about. There isn't even so much as a rock-paper-scissors unit network, it's even simpler, and very boring.

You build a base and train units like in a normal RTS, but the enemy is just milling around. They have free units, and they don't compete for resources or territory. In fact they just sit there and wait for you to come and kill them. So theirs is a forlorn cause, and you really can't lose unless you can't kill that weak first rush (which always comes at the same time and is extremely easy to beat) or you just not notice some enemy walk in your base and level all of it while you're not looking (base defenses aren't worth it).

There's two resources: Ore and fuel. There are also power and population but those come from buildings so you just make a pile of generators/houses in a corner and that's that. Anyway, fuel doesn't matter, because all you have to do is build some "fuel well" buildings next to some purple fuel spots on the map and you get free fuel forever. Well, they deplete, but you never play long enough for that. Ore is the only resource that isn't trivial, and boy is it ever non-trivial. Unlike the two rich fuel spots you always get next to your start location, by the time you set up the bare minimums and a tiny army, your starting ore runs out. You then have to find new ones and here comes the fun: Ore is mined from these colorful rocks, but until you walk up to them with your rig or a scout and use the short ranged "scan" ability, they look almost exactly like the other useless grey rocks on the map. Nor do they show up on the minimap. So exploring for expansions is one enormous chore. You also have to build a resource drop off at every site, and occasionally start over because some enemy came and wiped it out, again, when you weren't looking.

The AI is also abysmal. The pathfinding barely works. Units refuse to follow simplest orders because they can't path around a building and get to a destination half a screen away. They get stuck on corners. They occasionally forget bridges exist. They attack without the slightest understanding of tactics. I mean it, even the CnC era (that was 15 years ago!) RTS games had better unit AI!

All of this combines to make a very frustrating, boring game. What's even worse is that the initial base building phase at the start of each map is very slow and tedious, so it takes half an hour of grind for five minutes of barely entertaining combat. And then you do it again, and again, and again... There must be something like 20 "stars" on the map (essentially a glorified list of levels to play), and each star seems to have at least 5 planets/moons. So you get at least 100 maps... And remember, as I said, every one is exactly the same damn boring map!

I talked in the beginning about two "unique" feature. They aren't, really, they're old as rocks but I guess they're not "canonical RTS features" so I might as well say that... Yes, I really do have to grasp here to find something in Star Prospector that does not old and boring the moment you see it.

One is the concept: You're this guy who flies around the galaxy with a host of automated robots trying to gather resources and run errands. It's an interesting idea - if it wasn't so completely tacked on. As I said, the galaxy and system maps are nothing more but a list of playable missions/maps just like every RTS game ever has had. The maps work like standard RTS maps, instead of taking into account that concept: If you built units and buildings permanently on the galaxy map screen, and brought them with you mission to mission (same for resources!), while missions consisted of defending a harvester and so on, it could have actually been fun. Or at least less of a chore.

The other thing is the "RPG-elements". Your rig has a level which goes up, you can buy upgrades like better weapons for it and stuff. However, your rig is never really much stronger than a single basic soldier, so in practice there's no point bringing it into combat, it just gets killed and you lose the map. In fact, you rig does everything badly, so you only use it for collecting loot and building (because only the rig can do those two). The rig still sucks at either, though, and you cannot even upgrade them, so it's all quite pointless. We could as well have cut to the chase and just had a building system like in CnC.

Needless to say, as a hero unit the rig is useless. It has no unlimited use healing power (and what's the point of wasting money on potions when you can just rebuild units?), no area buffs, no useful ability whatsoever. Like I said, if other units could build and collect loot, the rig would not move a cumulative inch throughout the entire game.

By the way, you can't buy upgrades for units between levels. Not only that, you can't even upgrade them all at once inside a map. If you want upgrades you have to do it over and over until not just in every map, but for every individual unit. I kid you not.

I can see Star Prospector being interested for someone who has never played an RTS in their life. Otherwise, you'd need quite a bit of cheating and hacking to make the game even remotely enjoyable, and even then, it would only be remotely enjoyable.

Score: 2/5


  1. Did you only play the demo?

    1. Why, is there a special "pathfinding that doesn't suck" power up you get at the very last bit?

  2. At least the concept art looks great..