Defense Of The Ancients' mix of real-time strategy, single-character roleplaying and hectic action proved intoxicating to gamers, so much so that Eul's Warcraft III mod eventually spawned its own sub-genre. Legions of fans now flock to the now-familiar experience and eagerly await Valve's impressive upcoming Dota 2, even as the market heaves with similar games such as the phenomenally popular League of Legends. However, while Stellar Impact looks to its peers for inspiration, Tindalos Interactive has taken the concept to its illogical destination: outer space.
As an admiral in charge of a powerful starship, you'll take to the wild black yonder (represented here by a 2D plane) in hectic multiplayer engagements. Much like the majority of DOTA or MOBA games (take your pick), players are split into two teams and tasked with destroying the opponents' base; carving their way through powerful turret defences, harrassing the foe, falling back to defend and eventually delivering a final crushing assault. Working closely alongside team mates and coordinating a balanced strategy tends to win more battles than relying solely on your own skills, and the attractive space setting really helps to stamp a unique personality on the proceedings. King Of The Hill and Domination modes are also present, but they're very much an afterthought compared to the main event.
Stellar Impact's major addictive hook is deftly provided by a selection of powerful skills and persistent upgrades. From the get-go, players have full access to twenty different combat skills that are classed into manoeuvring, recon, attack, defense, and command specifications. Five ship archetypes - from hulking dreadnoughts to speedy frigates - all excel at different combat roles, and thus can equip a limited number of skills from each speciality. The number of potential builds are absolutely staggering, and allow players to adopt their own play style and tailor their vessels to advantage. Will you harry enemies from range, deploy sensors and disappear before your foe can counter-attack? Sneak up using a cloaking device and 'nuke' them point blank? Or damn the torpedoes? Finding a build that suits your personality takes time, but it's an enjoyable journey.
On top of the skills, you'll also receive experience to spend on upgrades and useful items after completing each match, seven of which can be equipped to improve ammunition capacity, damage, handling and other ship characteristics. You can deploy AI support vessels to supplement your firepower, select your weaponry and accrue medals that slightly increase key stats. There's a huge amount to tinker about with and consider, especially when complementing team mates is as important as fearsome lone wolf prowess.
Interestingly, controlling your vessel can be a bit of a pain, at least at first. The right mouse button controls your ship's heading, and velocity is mapped to the A and D keys. Spaceships handle like naval vessels: there's a fair bit of momentum and sluggishness to overcome, and a necessity to constantly correct your vector mid-battle. Again, like maritime battles of old, the majority of your gun batteries fire sideways from your ship's flanks, meaning that carefully positioning to take advantage of your firing angle without presenting a vulnerable target is the order of the day. It's an undeniably unique and skilful set of mechanics compared to most of the competition, but you'll have to endure a few humiliating defeats and log some serious practice before the controls feel natural.
This wouldn't be an issue if Stellar Impact offered in-depth tutorials and afforded newcomers a staggered learning curve, but surprisingly, you'll be thrown straight into the lion's den after the briefest and most perfunctory of training missions. With no offline practice modes to hone your skills, you'll enter the online arena totally unprepared and completely unaware of how to use most of the advanced features to advantage. And since players can't optionally matchmake with opponents of a similar level, you'll usually stack up against experienced foes packing powerful, upgraded vessels.
Stellar Impact is crying out for an offline skirmish mode against the AI (especially as a way of trying out new builds before taking them online), and this glaring omission is made more obvious by a surprising barrier to entry. While similar games increasingly tend to adopt a freemium model, Stellar Impact will set you back between £6.95-£9.99; more if you want to treat yourself to a range of DLC support ships. Considering that it carries a price tag, I'd have expected at least a bare minimum of offline options, not to mention a greater range of ships and modes. I appreciate that £6.95 probably won't break the bank and there's a limit to what we could reasonably expect for the price, but after all, League Of Legends is free.
I was good and ready to crucify Tindalos for this apparent lack of foresight, but on balance, I soon discovered that the one-off charge has a massive single benefit. It's a barrier to entry that's resulted in a fairly low player population, but the cost also keeps the servers clear of griefers, the inappropriately young and the dregs of the online player base. Everyone who plays Stellar Impact paid good money to do so, because they were excited to be a part of the community and to get into the spirit of the game. Identifying myself as a new player, I was delighted to find that fellow pilots were almost always patient, considerate and helpful, cluing me into the nuances of combat and even suggesting ship builds that I'd never even considered. These early encounters taught me more than any FAQ ever could, and it was great to see veterans treating total noobs with a modicum of respect.
While relying on the kindness of strangers is definitely no substitute for strong tutorials, it was certainly a pleasant surprise.
And that's what Stellar Impact ultimately needs to capitalise on: the player base. Tindalos Interactive needs to continually provide the community with new, fresh and regular (and balanced) updates throughout the next few months, keeping the hardcore invested enough to stick around while encouraging new players to pay some money and get involved. For now, Stellar Impact has the potential to be truly great, but it feels like a foundation rather than the finished article. Only time will tell whether it becomes a sensation or becomes yet another brief sidenote in the history of downloadable multiplayer-only games.
- Skilful mix of space strategy with DOTA/MOBA mechanics
- Versatile and addictive ship customisation
- Helpful online community and player base
- Odd controls, weak tutorials
- Needs more level-specific matchmaking options
- Dismaying lack of offline/skirmish features and added value
The Short Version: Stellar Impact is an intriguing proposition, and one that could well blossom into an emergent online phenomenon. For now, though, the mix of DotA with naval manoeuvres feels like a solid foundation - the potential is obvious, but Tindalos needs to experiment with the formula and pricing model to attract a thriving player base and compete against its established rivals. Hopefully they'll succeed.