Platform: PC (Steam Early Access, £16.99)
Developer: Little Green Men Games
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Starpoint Gemini 2 promises to be an intoxicating proposition for fans of space sims and RPGs. Throughout a freeform galaxy wracked by fierce conflict, players will battle, mine, salvage and trade their way to bigger and better starships bristling with turrets and fighters, exploring dozens of systems, all while pursuing a lengthy storyline and levelling up their character with perks and skills.
However, we've heard it all before, since the original Starpoint Gemini made much the same boast but fell short in the execution. Little Green Men Games have therefore gone back to the drawing board to deliver a firm foundation for the sequel: a fully 3D, PhysX-powered sandbox universe to explore and conquer in real-time, allowing us to directly control our capital ships in tense naval battles among the stars.
This foundation -- sans storyline and several features -- is currently available on Steam Early Access. Though Starpoint Gemini 2 still has much to prove, I'm delighted to report that it's shaping up very nicely indeed. Full power to engines, launch all fighter wings and fire at will!
Without any plot or setting to worry about beyond an intro cinematic, Starpoint Gemini 2's alpha build dumps us straight into the bridge of an agile warship and tells us to basically get on with it.
It's very much a case of 'get rich or die trying,' because the massive galaxy teems with freelance missions from various warring factions, who'll pay hard currency to captains willing to take out pirates, collect bounties, patrol hot zones, repair damaged installations and undertake deliveries in classic space sim style. After acclimatising yourself with lots of tutorial screens and perusing an enormous star map, it won't be long before you undock from the safety of your starting station and set out into the wild black yonder.
At which point Starpoint Gemini 2 quickly shows its colours as a full-blooded space sim, but with some nifty streamlining that irons out much of the micromanagement we're used to from the genre. Manoeuvring your starship in full 3D space is simple mouse/keyboard fare, with two camera and cursor modes allowing you to steer your ship with mouse movements or take aim of your railgun turrets and beam weaponry while yawing and pitching with the arrow keys.
Switching between these four modes (including locked and free movement cursor options) takes a little getting used to, but eventually becomes second nature. A helpful context-sensitive menu is also on hand to delegate commands to your crew, including movement waypoints and prioritising engine power for long journeys, while more advanced players can mess about with power allocation and other more esoteric options directly from the HUD with a few simple clicks.
That said, you'll probably spend a fair bit of time gawping at the sheer beauty of your surroundings, thanks to the gorgeously rich spaceboxes and sharp starship models, before ordering full power to engines and closing on the nearest pirate bounty.
You'll then probably attempt to control your ship like a traditional fighter, send your lasers sizzling through the void... and end up vaporised in short order.
Though the controls may be simple, space combat is anything but, because you're controlling a capital ship boasting numerous turrets, a full crew compliment, a battalion of assault marines and even fighter wings. Each turret emplacement can only acquire targets within a specific firing arc and take time to cool down or cycle, whereas shields only protect a specific section of your vessel. As such, space combat actually resembles 1700s naval warfare, requiring you to keep foes within your kill zone while presenting as small a target as possible; rotating to ensure that weakened shield quadrants are kept out of the firing line to let them regenerate, and your recharged weaponry is pointed towards the foe. Pressing 'F' orders your gunners fire at will with extreme prejudice, leaving you to marshal your direct-fire heavy weapons and deal with the all-important evasive manoeuvres.
It's deep, involved and frankly rather brilliant even at this early stage.
As a traditional space sim at heart, you'll eventually amass a sizeable war chest as you battle and explore the galaxy; travelling between dozens of stations to sell scavenged goods, hock asteroid mining booty and take advantage of each system's stock of new guns, crew members, upgrades and ships. The customisation system is currently incredibly confusing, since working out which weapons are better than others is extremely difficult with the UI in its current state, but there's a wealth of new ordinance and increasingly sizeable warships to accrue as the hours roll past. Graduating from garbage scow pilot to implacable warship captain is one of the most rewarding parts of any space game, and the largest ships in the alpha are practically floating battle-fortresses teeming with fighters and overlapping railguns.
Interestingly, your role shifts from throttle jockey to armchair admiral as your ship improves. Twitchy reflexes take a back seat to tactics and delegation as you send out fighter wings and task your gunners with the busywork, sitting back and admiring your hard-earned prowess before ordering your crew to lock in the next waypoint. Becoming the boss takes a lot of time and effort, but is intensely worthwhile.
After smashing through pirate formations squadrons and mopping up survivors with with fighter squadrons, I can't help but feel like Battlestar Galactica's Bill Adama. This cannot be a bad thing.
Since Starpoint Gemini 2's storyline and characters aren't present in the alpha build, its RPG elements play second fiddle to the traditional space sim action, but the framework is present and correct. Completing objectives and taking down targets awards players with experience that factors into character levels, passive perks and active skills that can be triggered mid-battle. The full game will offer four character classes that focus on different aspects of fleet combat, of which one -- the Gunner -- is currently playable.
Missing features are to be expected from an early access alpha, of course, so Little Green Men still face a lot of work and a stiff challenge ahead of them. Collision damage isn't currently present, meaning that you'll clip straight through space stations. Loading new sectors leads to frequent stuttering hang-ups. Ship customisation and trading desperately needs a more intuitive UI, the economy requires an overhaul, the RPG elements need to be fully implemented and... well... there's the small matter of the storyline. Starpoint Gemini 2's tale will need to be engaging enough to keep us interested for the long haul, and its characters nuanced enough to be worth investing in. After seeing so many promising space sims cheapened by limp characters and annoying support casts (see also DarkStar One, X Rebirth), I'll be keeping this aspect in my critical crosshairs.
To be honest, I always prefer to create my own character with a callsign and put myself directly in the story, rather than experiencing it through the eyes of a proxy. Go on. Let us do it, and live the adventure ourselves - even if it's in an optional sandbox mode.
As with any Early Access title, you should exercise caution at this stage, and remember that you're paying for first-hand access to the development cycle rather than a finished product. But if you're itching to strike out into the Big Black, full power to all engines and damn the torpedoes, Starpoint Gemini 2 has delivered a firm foundation that should be front and centre on your tactical radar. We can't wait to see where the project goes from here - and will keep you up to date with the latest.