Original Release: 1992, Platform: DOS, Developer: Toys for Bob, Publisher: Accolade
Star Control 2 is a massive experience filled with exploration, action and some of the funniest aliens you'll run into any video game. A must play for space loving gamers.
One of the problems that comes with reviewing old video games is figuring out where to start. I'm always curious to see how a series began and get a real taste for its roots. Surprisingly, a lot of retro franchises really hit their stride with their sequels, building on and refining the mechanical foundations laid down by their predecessors to craft a whole that's ultimately more worthwhile and interesting. When it came to Star Control games, the choice wound up being unexpectedly easy. I gave both the original game and its sequel an hour and picked the one that I had the most fun with. Star Control 2 won hands down.
A direct follow-up to Star Control, Star Control 2 follows the efforts of humanity to rebuild a coalition of alien allies and defeat the tyrannical Ur-Quan who defeated and enslaved the human race following the end of the first game. What this amounts to in terms of gameplay, is gathering resources, building a war fleet, conversing/fighting with aliens and jetting around space and exploring the galaxy.
Out of all of these activities, the gathering of resources dominated the bulk of my time. That might make the game sound boring, but it smartly incorporates elements of strategy and danger to make resource gathering something you actually have to think about. While many of the planets you'll ransack are perfectly safe, others are decked out with environmental hazards that can damage or even destroy your landing vehicle, something that can become lethal under the right circumstances. If you find yourself low on credits and without a landing vehicle to earn more, it's pretty much game over. The landing vehicle also draws its health from the same pool as your flagship. Take too much damage on a planet and you can put yourself at a disadvantage if you stumble across a hostile ship on your way back to Earth. As a result, resource collection often comes packaged with difficult choices. Do I go for that gold deposit despite the impenetrable electrical storms or do I move on to safer, less profitable pastures? It all adds up to a mechanic that's leagues more engaging than resource gathering in more modern titles like Mass Effect 2.
This still doesn't stop it from becoming grindy from time to time, but even then it's worth it because of the great experience it lives in service to. There's a real sense of joy to the process of exploring the universe the game takes place in. When you first start Star Control 2, your ship barely has enough fuel to do more than a few laps around our own solar system. Building your ship and fleet up into something formidable, in turn, is an addictive and satisfying experience. The game does a great job of making each upgrade you invest in feel like a tangible step forward. Buying my first fuel expansion, for instance, doubled my overall travel range. Buying extra cargo pods made every mining expedition more profitable. There aren't any barely noticeable behind-the-scene stats to invest in. Every upgrade you buy is tangibly useful.
Your progress through the stars is marked by hard-earned accomplishments and discoveries that make the hours spent surveying lifeless star systems feel well worth it. To be sure, the bulk of the game's enormous starmap is dead space. However, the persistent lifelessness of the universe increases the quality of the experience when you finally do encounter a living, breathing, talking (and sometimes squawking) alien race. And let me say that the aliens ofStar Control 2 are some of the most uniquely designed and portrayed I've ever seen in a video game. This isn't Star Trek where half the races you encounter are just humans with face ridges or a coat of green paint. Most of the aliens are impressively inhuman, right down to the way they act and speak. My personal favorite was a race of psychic bird-aliens who endeavor to be almost perfect as they've seen other species turn to evil as a result of attempts to attain perfection.