Starsector is a kind of difficult for me to describe, but I think the most accurate way to define it is as a mixture of fleet management and combat, space 4X and RPG elements. This might sound like a mouthful at first, but once you start playing the game you’ll slowly realize what I mean. It’s also worth mentioning that, for those that are unfamiliar with the game, it has been in development for about 7 years, more or less, and during that time, Fractal Softworks changed the name of the game from Starfare to what is now, due to “business reasons” according to them.
The game offers several tutorials and standalone missions that slowly, but steadily, teach you the basics and new things about the game. Nonetheless, the main mode is the actual sandbox mode, in which, everytime you play, a new world will be generated, one which you can share with other people by giving them your world seed. You can also customize how big and old the world is, thus affecting the range of planets and stars, as well as choose a portrait for your character, name them and choose their background, which in turn will affect your starting ships.
The way you play in sandbox is really up to you, if you want to make up your fleet of highly armed vessels and go blow things up, do it. I personally like to stay off the grid and try to make some credits as silently as possible, either by smuggling, scavenging or just surveying uncharted planets and derelicts. In any case, there are also three other major resource types that are vital in order to assure the continuity of your fleets’ efforts, and these are fuel, supplies and crew. These affect how long you can travel and how well fitted and prepared your fleet is for certain encounters, such as confrontations and mining debris fields.
While Starsector might seem like a fleet management game or some sort of genre defying space 4X, it does also have some RPG elements. Besides the fact that you can pretty much do what anything that you want, there’s also some sort of stamina system, or as the game calls it, “combat readiness”. This pretty much determines and tells you how fit for combat your ships are, and this is affected by things such as constant fighting. With that said, the game does punish you if you go out of your way and keep using ships that are not combat ready, as these ships’ systems can simply stop functioning properly.
The core and essence of Starsector’s gameplay is its combat and movement. Each ship maneuvers differently, even if just in the slightest way, so knowing how to properly dodge, use your thrusters to your advantage and time your shields is key to avoid getting hit. In the same way, the combat system offers some depth that most games like this don’t. While some games just decide to stick with the basic notion of aiming towards an enemy and shoot it until it’s dead, Starsector relies on different weapons and damage types, as well as different ship systems and their synergies to make things a whole lot more interesting. The player has to approach ships with different layouts in different ways and adapt over the course of fights.
One of the things I really like about the way Starsector handles combat is the use of its flux system. Each ship has a different flux threshold that, once exceeded, it will overload your ship and it will render it unable to use shields and weapons, until you eventually slowly dissipate that flux. Now, flux can be generated in two different ways, either by firing weapons, and subsequently each weapon produces a certain amount of flux, or whenever your shields take any damage. Truth be told, flux dissipates over type, but in the heat of battle it gets tough to manage everything all at once.
When starting a battle the game enters this tactical overview, allowing you to deploy your ships and give them orders. Likewise, once combat starts, you can also pause and unpause the action at any given time, and I find that this is very much necessary if you want to keep every ship following orders, it really reminded me of old school RPG’s, mainly because things can get very hectic really fast. While during one instance you might find yourself using kinetic weapons against heavily shielded vessels so that these overload with the increase of flux generated by their shields resisting to kinetic damage, some other time you might just simply have to resort to EMP weaponry so that you can disable the enemy ships’ weapons or engines a lot easier. Still, it’s also an option to leave your main ship in autopilot, but I honestly think that that removes most of the excitement in regards to combat.
On that note, given the fact that your piloting and combat skills will be tested, you’re bound to face defeat. With that in mind, you can retreat from combat by either flying towards the top edge of the screen or the bottom one, depending if you were the one that initiated the confrontation or not. Besides that, losing your fleet doesn’t mean that it’s game over, as you’ll spawn on another ship, assuming you didn’t lose every ship that you had or had some stored in a friendly station, and you’ll also retain your skills. As you play you’ll level up and gain skill points, which you can then use to gain passive bonuses such as, increased damage to shields, increased maximum speed, better targeting accuracy for weapons on auto-fire and other things like that. These skills are included in one of four different specializations, Combat, Leadership, Technology and Industry, so you can easily shape your character to fit your gameplay style right from the very start.
No matter the emphasis the game puts into combat, maneuvering your ship, ship customization and playing out the way you want to, either that being engaging in all out warfare against the major factions, looking for places in which you can scavenge in peace, or just being a trader full-time that happens to do some smuggling, it’s the small touches and the attention to detail that really sold me on Starsector. For instance, there’s one thing that Starsector does that, unfortunately, not enough space games do, and that is that you take damage if you’re too close to a ship that explodes. Also the fact that each weapon group can be set to automatically fire at nearby targets is really great, especially when your weapons start taking out incoming missiles
In terms of visuals, while I think that it’s somewhat hard to see some actual detail on the ships themselves, mainly because some are either too small even when zoomed in, or because the textures are somewhat blurry, the game does a really good job in conveying information and providing visual feedback about what’s going on. I must also admit that the it’s very thrilling to see a bunch of small fighters and bombers go against capital ships and attack them while getting destroying by their defenses. Poor bastards. One thing that does rather bother me is the font size, which I find to be rather small, which results in me having a hard time reading things such as a ship’s info.
At the end of the day, despite the fact that this is already a massive game with plenty of content, which is even more enhanced by its mod support, after reading the upcoming features and development plans, Starsector seems that it still has plenty more content to come. With that said, I’m extremely looking forward to see how this game comes along and shapes out to be.