I thought it would be fitting to book-end this series of posts with a “final impressions” edition. When I wrote the first post about Stellar Tactics, I had only played for about 3 hours. It was intended to provide the reader with the same kind of literal first impression to the game that I had — with all of the excitement and wonder at possibilities hinted at by the new player experience. As I played through, got familiar with the existing systems, and was able to try even newer systems, I brought them to the page in discreet batches so you wouldn’t have a plow through a wall of text to get the complete idea of what the game offers. Now that I feel that I’ve gotten more or less the feel for the game in its current state, I wanted to leave the series with that same sense of how I’m thinking about it now.
Stellar Tactics is a good, solid game, made more so when you remember that it’s being written by one person. It is ambitious, melding ground-based tactical combat with free-roaming space exploration in over 160,000 different locations. In many ways it ticks expected boxes: turn-based moves use action points, there’s cover to consider, ship shield management is crucial, and FTL travel can take a while to reach far-flung systems. In other ways, it tries to do new things, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. A lot of issues or missing systems must be forgiven, however, as this is an early access title which should not be assumed to reflect the quality aims of a finished product. The dev maintains a roadmap on the Steam forums for the game, and mentions some systems that I never covered that he’s planning on adding. Considering how far the game is along at this point, I have no doubt that this roadmap represents a promise and not a wish list.
I think that the main selling point of Stellar Tactics is implied in the name. Tactical games are popular (X-COM, Fire Emblem, etc.) and this game should pop up in recommendation engines for those who are evaluating their next turn-based game.
Right now, however, the tactical combat could use some work. I have been playing on “normal” level, but it feels like “easy”. At worst, I have had one party member downed, but I have never felt that I was in danger of losing a fight. Part of this might be due to the balance between weapons and armor, as melee weapons seem to be a hell of a lot more potent than ranged weapons are (which may only be a perception due to the fact that ammo is always a concern for ranged, while melee is just bashing enemies until dead). I also feel that the enemy NPCs aren’t all that smart. Sometimes they’ll approach and stop at a distance when it’s obvious they must have AP left to close and attack. Sometimes they’ll gather around a single party member for no logical reason. Sometimes they run, again for no logical reason. I don’t see NPCs using cover tactics, nor have I encountered any who use AOE weapons (aside from one enemy who used a rocket launcher, and easily became the target of my team for the 1.2 seconds he was alive).
I would like to see better options for tactical arenas, although as this game is very procedural I assume that setting up a combat zone on the fly, with proper cover and obstacles that feel meaningful might be difficult. To this day, I think I have only seen the “cover bonus” icon appear over my party members two times, even in cramped ships and stations where doorways and support pillars abound.
Finally, I’m hoping that the dev will add more options to fight with. A lack of an “overwatch” ability is painfully obvious, and could be a massive boon for both players and NPCs. If party recruits had different skills, then choosing to hire one over the other might be more exciting — or more agonizing — and would add a layer of management that I would love to see.
In-space systems are pretty good. Combat is about as good as I would hope for, with the multiple weapons being able to focus on multiple enemies, and the need to manage capacitor power and shield coverage.
Movement, however, is a bit annoying. As movement works primarily on a POI system, clicking the destination will rotate the ship — but not the camera. To remedy this, I need to hold the right mouse button and drag, but use of the right mouse button is also used to pick an arbitrary POI pixel somewhere in space, causing the ship to misalign. I’ve overshot many, many destinations in FTL space (where there are few waypoints to navigate by) because I wanted to keep an eye on where my ship was headed, only to inadvertently reset my vector when I moved the camera without realizing this.
I could do without mouse interaction with the ship, honestly. Leave the right mouse button and drag to manipulate the camera — which is crucial in combat — and the left mouse button to click on real objects in space. Unless there’s a reason why I would fly out into absolute nothingness in a system (like for additional exploration options) I can’t see free POI being useful.
Mining is something I care a lot about, and I’m sensitive to both good and bad mining systems. Elite Dangerous‘ mining is abysmal in my opinion, because I don’t want to have to chase floating rocks to collect them, especially when I have to target each one to decide if it’s worth it. Star Citizen, as nascent as it is, has stellar mining, being a dangerous and interactive affair that provides you with concrete info on what you’re working towards up front. When manual mining in Stellar Tactics, there’s too much potential variation on what you could get from a rock. I’ve filled a cargo hold with almost every type of mineral available in-game, but all in uselessly low quantities. At this point, manual mining seems pointless, although drone mining is a brilliant addition despite moving the act of mining off-camera.
I’d like to see a more EVE Online-like system, where rocks contain a smaller variance of material, with more rocks to scan down and mine in a bid to target the best sellers or necessary materials for crafting. This could open new gameplay systems, like the need for better scanners to find better materials, and different mining laser qualities to mine them.
The exploration system is probably about as good as it’s going to get from an algorithm-based game. It seems that right now, “exploration” is about three things: finding friendly colonies to trade at, finding one-off missions that are a delightful surprise, and finding places to mine. This is good, but in a game sporting 160,000 different locations, exploration quickly becomes anemic and repetitive, and cannot be expected to maintain a momentum through that many star systems.
You are introduced to a story in the prologue that hints at what’s to come, involving ancient aliens, ruins, and the promise of discovery. As none of this is currently in the early access game, I can only hope that exploration is going to become crucial to those allusions. One feature I would like to see would be a pure exploration locations which allows the party to use non-combat skills, or areas where combat isn’t the sole tool in the toolbox. There is a system in place now which allows you to sell your scan data to faction merchants, so I can imagine a “tomb raider” system which has you explore some of the alien ruins, map them, find artifacts that can be turned in for faction rep or just sold to vendors or black market officials. If there was some way to cause an escalation in other gameplay mechanics the more this was done — factions bitter that you’re selling on the black market, or maybe hidden but observant species getting tired of your pillaging their crypts — that would be pretty awesome.
I can’t say much about the story, except that I already miss it. I found one non-faction mission giver who wants me to travel to a far-flung system to get in touch with some criminal elements and I’m doing that now, but I hope the game isn’t going to be all “story or sandbox”, meaning that the main story is the only pre-designed narrative, and the rest of the engagement comes from the dynamically generated universe. The agent missions are good options for when there’s no other outlet to engage in ground combat, but as I have never been a faction rep grinder, I can’t get excited about why I’m choosing those beyond “I haven’t done ground missions in a while”.
I’d also like to see the actual faction system mean something beyond grinding rep. These ruling Houses are supposed to be shifting alliances, so that should be reflected in different ways that affect the player directly. I’d also like to see an “event” system that can been a boon or a bust for a player. Consider a system beset by a plague — don’t think to hard! — which is blockaded by an opposing House. The player’s job is to run much needed medicine into that system. I don’t know how a player would do that, exactly, but the event could spread, causing more chaos, or could be shut down quickly based on the player’s interactions.
As I feel that I’ve reached the end of the “scripted” content for Stellar Tactics at this point, I feel that I have two decisions: keep sandboxing, or put the game away and not run it into the ground before it reaches a point where it kicks into higher gear. As much as I love this game, I am leaning towards the latter mainly because I don’t want to get tired of it before some/any/many/all of my above-mentioned issues or concerns are addressed.
On the other hand, I might keep it installed and just nickel and dime some activities here and there. Do some traveling. Some ground combat. Nothing hardcore (none of the four hour tactical missions!) but just enough to keep the game fresh in my mind.
I like some of the proposed road-map ideas, like ship-to-ship boarding operations, more missions, repair systems, and others, but I’m wondering how comprehensive that road-map is. I hope there are “things left unsaid” that are just obviously unfinished systems that need to be addressed. I feel that Stellar Tactics can be an absolutely fantastic game that tries many things and succeeds at all of them, assuming that it doesn’t come up short in it’s ambition.