PREVIEW: Space Crew

Sep
27

PREVIEW: Space Crew

“Call that thing a starship? My smallest larvae could have made it in craft class!”

Pre-release: Steam
Type: Single-player
Genre: Action, Adventure,
Simulation, Strategy
Developer: Runner Duck
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release Date: 16 Oct, 2020

Introduction

Space Crew is the upcoming real-time simulation strategy game from Runner Duck, developers of 2017’s critically acclaimed game, Bomber Crew.

Now I’ll confess something here: Bomber Crew has been sitting in my ever-increasing backlog now for a couple of years! I was really excited when I got it, but was distracted by some other shiny thing, and I never got around to actually playing it. Until now, that is. You see, Space Crew is basically Bomber Crew in space. I suspected that from the store page and what I’ve read about it, but I thought I’d better actually play Bomber Crew a bit before making that statement, even though I’m sure pretty much everyone else will say the same thing.

The game is set in the year 2159, on Athena Station in low Earth orbit. Humanity has been in conflict with the Phasmid, an alien species first encountered two years earlier and which now seems set on invading Earth. It’s your job to lead a new spaceship crew of the United Defence Force across a number of missions against the Phasmid in order to try to prevent their invasion.

So It’s a Reskin of Bomber Crew?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Space Crew is just a reskin of Bomber Crew, but it’s not. It’s more like a proper sequel: Bomber Crew 2, if you will. You can even import your Bomber Crew characters’ descendants to crew your space ship, if you’re so inclined. The gameplay is extremely similar, too, with the same sort of chaotic real-time strategy aspects, and the same controls and UI elements, except that Space Crew doesn’t seem to randomly start ignoring the right mouse button like Bomber Crew does.

The game is played in real time with no tactical pause, though you do have a cooldown-based slow motion control that can be used to issue orders when it gets too chaotic. You don’t have a lot of direct control over the ship; instead you issue orders indirectly through tagging enemies, waypoints, or other objects, and through setting different modes and abilities in the UI.

For example, you tell the captain whether to head towards a waypoint by tagging it, which puts the ship in patrol mode. Buttons on the captain’s UI panel can alternatively abort the patrol (untagging the waypoint) and instead engage enemies defensively or offensively. Similarly, you tell the gunners to fire the ship’s weapons by tagging enemies; any untagged enemies will be ignored. But you can’t control ship speed or heading directly, and you can’t prioritise or target individual enemies; the crew make up their minds about the best course of action.

Each crew member has a single role, but can have up to two with experience, though there can be only one captain. Other roles are gunner, security, comms, and engineer, with each having certain level-based abilities when at the relevant control station. For example, the comms officer can call in reinforcements or monitor the crew to increase earned experience, while the security officer can put out fires by purging the ship’s atmosphere, or even cloak the ship for a short time. Each class has a handful of abilities, all of which are on cooldown timers.

Almost every jump leads you into a region with an enemy encounter, and these always have you outnumbered; you’ll often have more than a dozen Phasmid attacking your ship at once. The challenge comes from manipulating the crew into doing what’s necessary to dispatch the enemy, while also keeping the ship intact. You’ll frequently need to call your engineer away from gunner duty to do mid-battle repairs, sometimes even donning a space suit and climbing out onto the hull!

It’s really quite difficult at first, especially when your first bounty (unique Phasmid, like the flying aces from Bomber Crew) appears. But if your crew survives, by the time you start to get access to improved engines and reactors, it becomes easier. Or at least less chaotic, anyway!

The Campaign

Space Crew puts you in charge of a crew of six inexperienced members of the UDF (Universal Defence Force?) in a new light space cruiser, the Excursionist. You’re given various missions to complete to hinder the advance of the attacking Phasmid forces, with each mission having you launch from Athena Station, hyperjump through one or more gates to different areas, and kill or fend off a number of Phasmid space craft. The further the mission area is from the station, the more jump points you’ll have to traverse, and the more encounters you’ll typically have with the enemy. You start off in LEO, but as the story progresses you move much further afield.

Mission descriptions range from simple patrols, to investigating enemies, escorting transports, or taking cargo to a besieged station, with a reasonable number of variations. Some missions give you a choice of “safest” or “fastest” routes, with the safest route taking you through more jumps, and thus typically more encounters, but the fastest route often having a smaller number of more difficult encounters: usually at least one area with “increased enemy activity”.

Complete a mission and you earn research points to unlock new technologies for your crew and ship, and credits to buy them. Even if you fail, though, your crew will earn experience for each enemy they killed, no matter how much damage they suffer themselves, or how damaged is their ship — as long as they make it back to Athena alive! Each time you return to Athena you’re given a choice of missions, sometimes including the opportunity to replay an already-completed one, though I believe these give decreased credits and no research points on completion.

There’s a good range of abilities to unlock with experience, and a huge range of crew and ship equipment to discover and buy, though for the most part it’s a much smaller number of individual types of item, each with a number of incremental upgrades.

But It Looks like a Mobile Game!

That’s one I heard levelled at Bomber Crew a couple of times: the graphics are crap; it looks like a mobile game! Given the graphics in Space Crew are in a very similar vein, I can well imagine the same criticism here. And yes, the graphics do have a certain sort of low-poly, basic-texture look to them that is reminiscent of many mobile games. But they’re consistent, amusing, and, I think, work very well for both games.

Characters in Space Crew appear more detailed than those in Bomber Crew, and are similarly altered whenever you fit them with new equipment; it’s good fun seeing the crew members strutting their stuff in your chosen loadout, most items of which also come in a range of colours. The crew themselves can also be customised, as can your ship, including name, livery, colours, and other text. It’s simple, but works well.

The backgrounds and solar system objects — the sun, planets, asteroids, etc. — look suitably sized and impressive. Obviously it lacks the terrestrial scenery of Bomber Crew, and probably saves a fair few polygons for that, but animations are great and really add to the feel of the game. Try turning off the gravity generator and navigating about the ship. Even better, try firing a fire extinguisher with the gravity generator off; it’s hilarious! The final look is very polished and, while still cartoonish, a good improvement on the previous game.

Space Crew reminds me of a sort of shlock SciFi film, with big-headed, green-skinned aliens, enemy space ships that resemble classic UFOs, and a player craft that looks a little like it’s suspended by fishing wire when it takes off, bobbing up and down as it launches. Oh, and cool technologies like shield generators, plasma cannons, and tractor beams! The weapons, special effects, and explosions actually look really good, though; much better than an old SciFi film.

The UI and controls are essentially the same as Bomber Crew, with a different skin, and some small modifications where required to fit in the extra functionality. If you’ve played Bomber Crew, though, and didn’t hate its UI, then you’ll feel right at home here.

Sound effects and music are perfect, too, with a sort of weird spacey – phasey sounding title screen, like Bill Bailey playing the theremin. Exploration and combat tracks are more military in nature, while the mess hall has piped elevator musak, but it still maintains that science fiction feel that’s reminiscent of classic space adventures. Explosions are big and loud and weapons fire is appropriate, and not too annoying — given that you’ll be hearing it almost non-stop! In-game voices are a sort of weird “simish”, which works well, but a bit more variation would go down a treat.

And, unlike Bomber Crew, Space Crew plays without a hitch at maximum detail level on my desktop PC: an i5 with a RX5700. In contrast, Bomber Crew runs like a dog on this PC, even lowering detail and running in 1080p, which is pretty disappointing. But Space Crew is fluid and beautiful at 3940×2160 at high detail, much like I’d expect. I really hope that whatever magic the devs have worked here can be backported to Bomber Crew, because the lag in that game makes it painful to play!

Room for Improvement

Space Crew is a blast to play, once you get the hang of the UI and slightly odd game mechanics — which won’t be an issue for Bomber Crew veterans. But it’s not all sunshine and roses, and it does become a bit stale given that every mission feels very similar to every other one. The version I’ve been playing also has room for improvement in at least the following areas.

First, the risk rating is misleading. I’ve done low-risk missions that were ridiculously difficult, while the very high risk missions to take out some of the bounties are much easier than when they appear in the middle of a normal, lower-risk encounter. I’d like to see this rating either removed entirely, altered so that what is actually encountered more closely matches the rating, or at the very least, explained in a way that makes sense. At the moment I just tend to ignore it.

The captain’s Defensive Piloting selection doesn’t seem to do what it says: present the strongest shields to the enemy. During chaotic, all-sides attacking encounters, it’s hard to tell if it’s working in this way. But I’ve been in small encounters or at the tail end of larger battles when enemies are only attacking from a single direction, and the captain does absolutely nothing to manoeuvre the ship into a position or facing where the strongest shields are presented in that direction; instead, without fail, the shields get worn down to zero on one side, while the others remain at full power! So either the description is incorrect, or there’s a bug with the AI here.

I also found a bug where I completed two optional (procedurally generated?) objectives in a mission — scanning technology and recovering an alien item — and both were shown as complete until I landed at the station, whereby the second disappeared without a trace and I was only awarded the first. Perhaps the game doesn’t cope with both in one mission? Other than these issues, the game seems exceptionally stable; far more so than Bomber Crew is even today.

I’m a bit disappointed in the upgrade cycle, both with crew and ship equipment, in that the game seems to punish you for upgrading early. It offers ship equipment refunds on items if you downgrade, but only a pittance compared to how much they cost, so you’re best off upgrading rarely or you’ll end up having to grind already completed missions just to get the cash to buy new items. I’d much prefer a system with the option of trying out new equipment with a much lower risk, and upgrades giving significant discounts based on what’s already equipped.

Personally I’d like to have a bit more fine control over the ship direction, and particularly enemy targeting priority — I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been boarded because the rear gunner was fixated on some far-away fighter while a boarding craft slowly approached, or enemy shields were given the opportunity to recharge because my gunners kept switching targets — but I think the current implementation is deliberate, so I don’t expect changes such as these to make it in.

And though the game world looks fully 3D, with wide open space all around, your ship seems to be fixed in a sort of 2D plane + elevation type of orientation; your captain never seems to spin it about all three axes. This made perfect sense for Bomber Crew in its terrestrial environment, but in space we can make full use of all three dimensions, so there’s no reason to not spin the ship about in any orientation.

I’m honestly very impressed with Space Crew so far, and happy that it finally got me to take a look at Bomber Crew at last as well. I’m much more taken with it than I am with Bomber Crew, though the premise makes very little sense: why am I going out alone on all of these missions that are so important to the future of humanity!? Why can’t I hire more crew to at least keep all my control stations manned; surely the UDF can find two more cadets!? And why am I having to spend money I earn on ship and crew improvements; surely the UDF should be buying all that stuff for me — whatever I could possibly want!?

Verdict

Though this is only a preview of the current pre-release state of Space Crew, and it still has almost a month to go until release, I’m happy to say that if you enjoyed Bomber Crew at all, you should definitely pick this up when it comes out! If you haven’t played Bomber Crew, but you have a sense of humour and can handle a bit of stress and multi-tasking in chaotic situations, it’s worth a look, too.

I’ve enjoyed my time with Space Crew so far. I hope to have a lot more of it.

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