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Digital Anvil has tried to bring the great air battles of the Second World War to the space arena. As the source of their inspiration for the style and strategy of the campaigns, this attempt is heart-felt by the player and evidenced throughout each scenario. There is a real W.W.II. feel to the dogfighting action that I liken to Jane’s W.W.II Fighters. Battles are waged close-in, a style appreciated by this historical flight sim fan. Like their W.W.II plane counterparts, most of the space fighters in StarLancer are equipped with cannon-like gun placements, as opposed to the streaming and broken laser effects used by so many offerings of this type. The impact missiles have to gameplay is negligible as well, further enhancing the throwback combat style. Most ships are equipped with missiles, however, the amount of guided bombs even on larger fighters and bombers is severely limited.
The number of weapons is decent and StarLancer gives you ability to configure the dozen or so ships as you see fit. The game though, doesn’t contain a lot of weapon variety, and as such over time players will become accustomed to a certain configuration and stick to that. Here StarLancer closely mimics its Wing Commander predecessors by limiting the class of ships and weapons available to you based upon your rank. As the single player campaign progresses, the Alliance will make new technologies available in the form of weapons, ships and shields enhancements. StarLancer doesn’t break any new ground here, it’s all traditional options you’ve seen before, such as a target lead technology the game calls Blind Fire. It would have been nice to see StarLancer introduce some new toys to the genre: The nuts and bolts style of ships and technologies is a little stale.
Much like the weapons, the ships are also very traditional. While these vessels have a higher degree of realism probability, their sheet metal, rustic visual style gives the game a little bit of a drab look. That’s not to say things don’t look good though, because they do. StarLancer’s 3D engine is fabulous, and while the color schemes of the ships are a little dreary, their detail is top-notch. Graphically there are few titles that can match the detail and sophistication of StarLancer’s engine, and from a technical perspective it provides a great many “oohs” and “aahs.” However, I’m not nearly as impressed with StarLancer’s overall visuals as I am with those presented in Novalogic’s Tachyon: The Fringe. The capital ships in Starlancer, as well as asteroid bases, space platforms and defense stations are miniscule compared to those in Tachyon. While StarLancer’s bases and what not include a lot of activity and look great technically, nothing can take the place of size. Unfortunately the lack of large scale ships and structures hurt its gameplay as well. Taking into consideration the tongue and cheek dogfighting, the lack of large structures and ships in most missions can make combat feel like it’s taking place in a vacuum, and here again the game feels all too familiar.
Mission design in StarLancer, despite all of its inherited flaws and limited pocket-style arenas, is generally good. Most scenarios have multiple objectives, which routinely change mid-mission, keeping the pilot on his/her toes at all times. Almost all of the missions possess great length, which in some ways makes up for the deficiencies in size and scale modeling. Still, even with the stylistic missions and good use of in-game cinematics, I was tired of the mission progression methodology before I finished the first scenario. Here’s how nearly every mission plays out: You and the squad get your mission objectives at the base. After that you’re given a transitional cinematic that shows the pilots running to their ships — cool the first ten times, but after you’ve seen all the transitions you’re skipping by them without hesitation. Then there’s another transition that shows your ship being dropped into space from its carrier — it only takes one viewing of this before you’re sure you’ve seen it enough. Once out in space, either your commander or you (depending on rank) summarize the orders given in the briefing and you jump (autopilot) to your first waypoint destination — again using another transitional scene. Once at the waypoint you’ll fight some bad guys that weren’t supposed to be there, at least according to Naval intelligence. At this time the barrage of radio chatter begins, with the same verbiage being iterated over and over again from your wingmen and enemies. No, they’re not nearly as annoying as Maniac was in Wing Commander’s 3 & 4, but the repetition will annoy you before game’s end.
After the first batch of baddies is dispatched it’s off to your next waypoint, and yes you get the same autopilot jumping sequence you’ve seen a billion times already. At the second waypoint things get a little more interesting. The enemy will likely be introduced via a cinematic, or some sort of scripted event will occur that will progress the story, sometimes changing your mission objectives. Herein lies one of StarLancer’s greatest strengths. Besides all of the repetitive behaviour, the game still manages to throw in enough twists, and does it with such flair, that as the player you still remain interested. Most scenarios usually have two to three more waypoints and within them there’s often another cinematic as well. So on the one hand I appreciate the efforts made to include the story within the elements of the action, but on the other become increasingly annoyed at the repetition involved with the way missions progressed. All too often they make the player feel as if the action is taking place in small pockets of space, rather than sprawled out across the vastness of space. To StarLancer’s credit however, there are a few missions that totally buck this trend. There’s one that takes place in and amongst an asteroid base, and were all the scenarios as good as this one I would have had fewer complaints.
The pocket-style arena combat is also hampered by StarLancer’s flight model, which isn’t as consistent as it needs to be to handle the style of combat offered. The sensation of moving in 3D space isn’t as good as in Freespace 2 or Tachyon. There’s not as much difference in the performance of the ships as in either of those titles, which perpetuates the inconsistent perception. These problems are further exacerbated by the one failing all space combat games seem to suffer from, and that’s less than adequate artificial intelligence. StarLancer’s enemies aren’t very good at combining their forces against your squadron, but their individual flight patterns are pretty good compared to the competition. As a side note, I do find it odd though that the enemy can continue to taunt you all the while his ship is being scattered into a million pieces. On the multiplayer front however, StarLancer makes few mistakes. A number of different style modes are available for play, and a lot of originality can be found in nearly every game type. A number of deathmatch and team modes are available and with the included MSN Zone support, there’s always someone to fly with or against.
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