Let’s face it: computer game stories are, for the most part, pretty ‘meh’. You can take them or (more often) leave them, and they really add little to the game experience except to provide a bit of context for the action. Worse still, when a game does try to do something deep and meaningful, it often comes across as stilted and frankly lackluster.
So you can imagine my surprise when I picked up the Kickstarter success story, Between the Stars. Here was I, expecting a shallow bit of fun involving giant spaceships blasting away at other giant spaceships, and instead I got an actual story. What’s more, it was one which sucked me in to the point that I forgot this was a ‘game’. Even more remarkably, this was done by the power of the voice acting. That’s right: no CGI people for you to mirror emotions off and the well-delivered dialogue of your captain and crew. When it comes to storytelling, this is a game that sets a benchmark for others to aspire to.
So how about the gameplay? Between the Stars puts players in control of a giant spaceship. Instead of zipping along in a small fighter, performing acrobatics and taking on swarms of smaller foes, players will instead find themselves trading broadsides. This is more than simply lining up alongside your foe and letting them have it (though that does work occasionally). Rather, ships have four slowly recharging shields (front, back, left and right). Once the shield has been disabled through repeated attacks, the exposed hull takes damage (the hull can only be repaired at a friendly space station). When enough damage is done, the ship explodes.
This turns combat into a tense game of maneuvering to find the best position; one which lets you train all your guns on your opponent’s most vulnerable points (each ship has a weak zone), whilst turning your strongest shields towards them. Some weapons, such as missiles, can go straight through your shields and damage your hull, but can be nullified by point-defense systems. The devs have done an admirable job here, with ships somehow managing to feel vast and hulking, but still sufficiently maneuverable. Space combat turns into a delightful display of nuclear missiles, plasma bolts and tracer fire. Also, there is no lock-on. Rather, players will have to ‘lead’ their targets – aiming in front of moving targets to successfully land their shots. Skirmishes between two or three ships are tense and spectacular enough, but the fleet battles, where a dozen or so ships (both friend and foe) battle it out, are a sheer delight: this is the ship-to-ship combat I’ve been waiting for.
Of course, there’s more to the game than engaging story telling and tense combat. Alongside exploring the various sectors and planets, buying and building different weapons and subsystems for your ships (yes, you can end up piloting quite a few different types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses) there’s also an RPG component. Players can trade, manage their crew (through a simple but effective leveling-up system), and engage in side-quests. This is largely done through a text-base choose-your-own-adventure-style system.
For anyone who’s played Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy books, this will be quite familiar: at certain points text describing a scenario, and giving you several choices will appear. What happens next depends on your selection, as well as given statistics. Non-ship combat also takes place here through a turn-based dice game. The blending of the realtime game with this text-based adventure is inspired, and the writing (of which there is over 200,000 words) is top-notch. It does a brilliant job of painting a vivid scenario, and at times managed to make me feel like I was playing through an episode of The Orville or Star Trek. Also, thanks to a certain amount of randomization, you can never fall into the “I’ve seen it before” mentality.
Capping it all off is the passion and humour. Between the Stars is clearly made and written by people in love with science-fiction, and the greats of the genre. Some missions have a Lost in Space vibe, and others feel like they’ve walked out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the Dr Chaos quest is one such example). A sense of humour also extends to numerous Easter eggs throughout the game, include one of the funniest loading-screen messages I’ve ever encountered. This is clearly a game made by people in love with both the subject and what they are doing, and it shows.
What’s left to say? I came to this game not knowing what to expect, and got absolutely hooked. If this is what the early access looks like, it’s going to be absolutely outstanding once it’s fully completed. For sci-fi and space fans, Between the Stars is a must-have. ■