In the beginning, dearly beloved, in a time not 15 years ago, when football shirts were relatively tasteful, Paul Weller was still making great music and the height of computer game sophistication was Hangman with four syllables, there was a Play By Mail game known as Starlord. And the wise and the learned respected this game, even if some of them did not understand all its ways. And, dearly beloved, the people throughout the land thought the game was 'skill' and spent their money on stamps (which in those innocent days were but two shillings for a book of ten) so that they could be a part of it.
The wise man, nay guru, behind this game was known as Mike Singleton who would go forward to produce works of such legendary status as Midwinter and Flames of Freedom and be worshipped by those both clean and unclean. There was much chanting and singing and washing of private parts. And yet some people were disenchanted and would whinge (in a whiney sort of way): 'What of Starlord, for we could do with more of that matey'. So the great Singleton, who knew much mystic lore, unleashed a plague of boils and they were all struck down and in much need of Germolene.
Okay, I made up the bit about the boils and Germolene but the rest is fairly accurate. In fact Mike Singleton has been looking to develop a computer game version of Starlord for some years, though it is only since February 1992 that he's been working on it in a formal manner. Since September of that year the project has been continued under the auspices of MicroProse, whose in-house team have provided some of the artwork. However the bulk of the programming has been done by Mike Singleton and Peter Barnett who have worked together on games such as Midwinter and Flames of Freedom. (I'm on a fiver for each time I mention those games in my copy!)
The concept of Starlord takes medieval feudalism and transports it into the future. The galaxy is run on feudal lines with a chain allegiance based on alliance and family contacts. It's a political maze through which, in a mixed metaphor kind of way, you have to work your way to the top. You start the game owing allegiance to an Earl, your aim is to fight, buy, cheat and grovel your way through the aristocratic ranks until you reach the dizzy heights of Emperor. As well as your own success you need to look out for members of your family - blood is thicker than water and a lot more use in easing your route up the greasy pole. Nepotism is all.
However you are not alone in setting your sights on the top. There are a thousand other young hopefuls out there with the same ambition. Occasionally you might work together, occasionally tacitly ignore each other but, at the end of the day, there's only going to be one winner.
The PC as GPO
The key aspect of a Play By Mail game is the interaction with a huge number of human opponents. Your progress is, in part, influenced by actions of other characters over whom you have little or no influence. In Starlord there are one thousand other lords for you to interrelate with. The simulation of a thousand independently active opponents is one of the challenges in programming Starlord and, MicroProse hope, one of the strengths of the game. They have developed a genetic subsystem whereby each of the thousand other Starlords will act relatively intelligently and, more importantly, consistently in character. Some Starlords might tend to act aggressively others passively, some might like Coronation Street, others might be Brookies. These characteristics will be randomly generated (unless you select a preset stardate where all values are constant) so the fact that a character acted one way in one game doesn't mean they'll act in the same way next time you play. To add challenge (and realism) to the whole thing these characteristics aren't going to be telegraphed to you in the manual or at the beginning of the game. You'll have to suss the characters out as you play. As producer Steve Ramsden explains: 'In real life all our genes are different but you can't see the different genes. What matters is that our behaviour is different.'
PC as arcade machine
However the aim is to do more than simply mimic Starlord the pbm. Starlord on the pc should have a lot more to it. Namely a 3D combat sequence which, based on what we've seen already (and what we've seen from Mike Singleton in the past), should be pretty special. Obviously strategy purists might shy away from such crudely Epicurean delights as hands-on combat and they'll be able to play Starlord solely as a strategy game. For the rest of us the battles will provide a welcome rush of adrenalin and a chance to influence the outcome of crucial space battles. Probably only the arcade junkie will elect to fight every battle though. Steve Ramsden again: 'The way we tend to play is to let the computer calculate the results when the battle looks to be a foregone conclusion and only step in when the result seems to be in the balance.' Is this the spirit of Rorke's Drift, The Battle of Britain and Botham's Ashes?
PC gamer as audience
The people most likely to get excited at first mention of Starlord are fans of the original. However MicroProse believes that it should have a much wider appeal than that. There's no shortage of strategy for the traditionalists and there's plenty of'jumping and shooting around bits' for people who like their software to leap out of the screen at them. Let's face it, space strategy/combat games are not exactly unpopular at the moment.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
There are now almost as many space trading games for the pc as there are stars in the galaxy. Hardly a month goes by without another one or two popping up, proudly claiming to be fab, brill and oodles better than all the other ones. Invariably, theyre not. They all seem to get most things right and one vital element or other horribly wrong. Either the gameplay is crap, and the combat is great or the gameplay is great and the interface is crap or any other combination of stupid mistakes.
And its not as though programmers havent got any examples to work with. A zillion space trading games have already got one thing or other completely right or completely wrong, so why is it so difficult for any software house to come up with the perfect example of the genre?
Lets delve into the realms of fantasy for a minute or two and play the If I were to design a space trading masterpiece... game and see if we can come up with the goods, shall we? You can substitute my choice of combat style with your own fave seeing as how it always appears to be such a controversial subject.
So, if I were to design a space trading game... I would happily run around plagiarising everything in sight to come up with a perfect product. My space trading combat masterpiece would have the gameplay and complexity of Frontier: Elite 2; the charm and massive scope for sub-plot upon sub-plot of Nomad; the tense, exciting (and graphically stunning) combat scenes from Privateer; the extra realism of having digitised speech for all the characters as in, er, some game that has loads of digitised speech, and the entire musical score from Wing Commander (alright, I know theres no space trading in it, but its my imaginary game so Ill have whatever music I like wobbling in the background, okay?).
There! That wasnt too difficult, was it? I now fully expect zillions of letters from software houses begging me to design their next space trading game. I wont do it, though. Its much easier (and much, much more fun) to wait for it to come in for review and then tell them how they should have done it. But back to Starlord...
In the beginning
The background for Starlord is typical of what you might expect from a space trading game, in as much as its unnecessarily complex. What it basically boils down to is this. Mankind went exploring the Galaxy. Mankind found lots of little planets and colonised them. Mankind put lots of different space bods (starlords) on these planets who promptly began to scrap with each other over worries like who owned what planet, who had the sexiest spaceship and who was the cleverest of them all etc. Now mankind is in an even worse mess than it was before they started.
You are a starlord. Your ultimate goal is to become emperor of the galaxy. To achieve this you have to go out and bully all the other starlords, call them nasty names and then show them whos boss by booting them off their planets. Simple enough stuff, though you wouldnt think so if you took the time to read the background section of the manual.
Social ladder climbing
If you choose to play the simplest scenario for Starlord, you start life as a lord. This is the lowest ranking of all the starlords. The only way to improve your status is by defeating a starlord of higher ranking and pinching his base star. A lord who defeats an earl becomes an earl. The same applies from earl to duke, duke to king and eventually, king to emperor.
To defeat a starlord of higher rank, all you have to do is go to his base with loads more fighter ships than him, insult him to provoke him into a fight and then blow all his ships up. At the start of the game, this is relatively easy. Its no problem for a lord to defeat an earl because earls just arent very powerful. But it gets much harder to win the higher up the rankings you go. If you want to take on a king, for example, youll need hundreds of starfighters and mercenary ships. To get these, youll need money, and plenty of it. That means youll have to do lots of what comes naturally to anyone who has played this type of game before - trading. The old buy stuff for peanuts and sell it for a fortune game.
The obligatory trading bit
If you want to become a successful trader in Starlord, youve got to know your stars. Every starlord has their own base star which they use as an hq. What type of star you inhabit depends on your ranking. Lords inhabit production stars. Each time you go up a rank, you will be rewarded with a flashy new residence, starting with a castle star and moving up to a city star, citadel star and, if youre really lucky, the rather smart-sounding throne star.
For trading purposes, the only ones that matter are production stars, since theyre the only ones that sell anything. Once youve found out where they are and what they sell, you just go zipping about the galaxy, buying and selling everything like a mad person until you eventually end up with an enormous amount of cash. So, once youve got this mother of a wad together, what do you do with it? Simple! You buy as many starfighters and mercenary ships as you can possibly afford and fly around beating the living daylights out of everyone.
The obligatory combat bit
Battle sequences in space trading games are usually pretty goddamn awful. You look at some of them and wonder how on earth atmospheric, Frontier: Elite 2 feel to them, and there are several neat camera angles from which to view the action. As soon as you jump into the action, all your starflghters and mercenary ships zoom about scrapping with the enemy ships while you control your own battle fighter and home in on your opponent's capital ship. It all looks so exciting and tense and smart and utterly fab. This is just too good to be true, I thought. Unfortunately, I was right.
First impressions dont count
So here we are, straight back to the getting most things right and one thing horribly wrong problem. Its not the graphics, its not the atmosphere, its not even the gameplay during the battles, which isnt exactly gripping but would have sufficed. No, MicroProse has managed to come up with a completely new reason to hate battle sections in space trading games instead. And look, here it is!
Your objective when you go into battle is to destroy the enemy starlords capital ship. If you blow that up, you win the battle. That wouldnt be too much of a problem if it wasnt for the fact that the bastard thing takes about four or five hundred hits before it blows up. That means you have to spend hours and hours pounding away at the same ship before the damn stupid thing explodes.
As you can imagine, this becomes a trifle boring after about ten or 15 minutes. The only way to avoid this is to take the quick result option before the battle begins. The computer then decides who wins based on the amount of ships each side has and how heavy duty they are, so you dont get to fight any battles at all. So there are your choices. You can either take part in battles that go on forever, or just skip them completely. In reality, theres only really one choice.
I cant honestly see anyone going through these never-ending battles every time they meet someone who wants a scrap, which is virtually every time you come to a new planet. So now we have yet another space trading/combat game without the combat bits. Oh well.
If theres one thing this game is big on, its families. The most powerful starlords are the ones who can rely on their relatives to help them out. They give you stuff cheap, help you out in scraps, and are generally nice to you in every way.
It sometimes feels like a sort of Neighbours in space. Every time you successfully take over a base star, one of your family members is installed as the new ruling starlord. Each time you visit that base star afterwards, you can trade with them and buy whatever commodity the star produces at reduced cost. Your family also come running to help you if you are fighting a battle and they are within one jump of the area you are in.
If you stay at the same rank for long enough and keep attacking base stars with the same rank as you, you will soon end up with loads of aunts, uncles, cousins and other family-type people hanging about all over the place.
There are distinct advantages to this. You can set up your own family trade circle and avoid dealing with unscrupulous traders completely. If your family becomes large enough, (aka the Beales in EastEnders) your family hierarchy will override the Galactic hierarchy. Generally, being nice to your relatives is a good idea, no matter how many pairs of dodgy socks they buy you every Christmas.
Par for the course
Without the battles, Starlord is just another buy, sell, upgrade and win game. Its a shame, because it really could have been so much better.
Apart from the battles, theres another vital element missing which could have saved the day had it been included - a plot. Starlord has no plot or storyline whatsoever - which is hard to fathom, since Mike Singleton, the man responsible for the classic strategy game Midwinter, had a part in programming and designing this game. Most of his games to date have been very strong on character development and interaction. In comparison Starlord. feels a bit aimless. All the game tells you is you have to go around conquering bases and sticking members of your family on them. Once youve conquered enough bases and climbed the social ladder you become emperor and win but, without any vague hint of a storyline to keep you hooked on the way, I doubt if anyone will have the patience to see it through to the end.