Do you want to be a space pirate? Do you want to be a space mercenary? Do you just want to fly a spaceship and shoot big guns?
Then you might want to consider playing starsector.
Starsector was released on April 26th, 2013, by Fractal Softworks—a small group of people who continue to work on the game to this day. It describes itself as an “open-world single-player space-combat, roleplaying, exploration and economic game.” (quote from fractalsoftworks.com), and is technically in early access–but make no mistake, this is a finished product.
The game is set in the Perseus Sector, an arm of the galaxy that was cut off from the rest when the Domain, the human empire that once ruled the Milky Way, collapsed. Now, six major factions (seven if you count the pirates) vie for control over the highly populated core worlds at the center of the sector, while the edges remain filled with ancient technology, ruined colonies and mysterious, hostile ships the sector’s rulers would rather ignore. This is the world the game drops you into, equipped with only a couple of ships, a small crew and enough supplies to last the next few months.
From here, the world is your oyster. The game itself is essentially split into three sections—the open map, from which you navigate within and between systems in real time, the various dialogues, from which you can explore worlds and talk to the sector’s many inhabitants, and the battles, which form the core of the gameplay.
Navigating within a system doesn’t cost any fuel, but moving from system to system does. You also have limited supplies which are consumed constantly to repair and maintain your ships, and both resources can be restocked from fallen enemies or local markets. This is where the “economic” parts of the game comes in—each ship has its own maintenance and fuel costs, meaning you have to carefully manage what ships you have and what resources you have to make sure you don’t run out.
If you visit a local populated world or stop to talk to a passing fleet, you’ll be presented with the dialogue part of the game, and will experience these interactions exclusively through text and a few pictures. This does mean you have to be prepared to read in this game, but don’t worry—the writing is excellent. Unfortunately, there isn’t very much you can actually do on most planets—there’s a market to buy and sell ships and goods, a bar to pick up a few quests and that’s it. Interacting with most fleets is equally pointless.
Once you encounter a hostile fleet, however—or decide to make yourself the hostile fleet—you will enter this game’s space battles, which, in my opinion, is where it really shines. In a space battle, you control only your own ship from a top-down, 2D perspective, but can still give your fleet general commands—ranging from a simple “attack this” or “defend this” to more complex ones such as harassing specific ships or ordering one ship to guard another.
Ship combat is largely governed by the “flux” resource. You can think of this a lot like an overheat meter; it’s charged by firing your weapons or taking hits on your shields, and if it reaches full capacity, your ship is disabled and set to drifting for several seconds, more than enough time for even larger ships to be shot down.
There are lots of ship types in this game falling into lots of different categories, but one of my favorite aspects of all of the ships is how modular they are. In addition to health, armor and speed stats, each ship has a set number of “ordinance points” and a number of weapon slots. Installing weapons on the weapon slots costs ordinance points, as does adding hull mods, which can be anything from a small boost to completely changing how a ship works. Put together, this in-depth customization system makes each ship in your fleet feel truly unique, and allows two ships of the same type to serve totally different functions.
So how does the game actually feel to play, with all these systems? I’m glad you asked. The first thing I have to touch on, now that I’ve introduced you to the basics, is how much I’ve left out. This game is massive—and for each system I’ve talked about, there are a dozen systems and complexities I don’t have time to discuss. The depth and complexity of its gameplay is one of its strongest points. It’s hard to understate how in-depth this game’s simulation is. But of course, with all that complexity, comes an annoyingly difficult learning curve for any new players.
Now, to be clear, Starsector does have a tutorial—and it does a fairly good job of explaining the basic systems—but it doesn’t remedy the fact that afterwards, you’re dropped into a massive sandbox with zero direction. You can take on bounties, but in the beginning, almost all bounty targets will be far too powerful to fight. You can take on surveying missions to explore distant worlds, but many of those require heading out into the dangerous corners of the sector and cost fuel and supplies you don’t have. In short, much of the early game—especially if you don’t know what you are doing—is a series of trying something, failing horribly and reloading your last save. It can be a pretty frustrating experience, and provides an unfortunate difficulty curve you have to pass before the game gets truly interesting.
The endgame is also one of Starsector’s weak points. The game lacks meaningful challenges once you get past a certain point—specifically, once you get your first colony up and running. Now don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of being able to found and control your own colonies, but it runs into the problem that once you have, large parts of the game are trivialized. Lost your favorite ship? Your colony can just build you a new one. Low on funds? Wait around for a few months and the passive income from your colony will have you back on your feet in no time. Being hunted by pirates? Your colony will spawn its own patrols to protect you. I think many of the problems with the system come from the fact that, right now, there is no simple way to lose a colony that you’ve created—it can be raided, sure, it can be stolen from, sure, but it can’t be occupied by an enemy faction or destroyed outright. This means that starting a colony is only a risk in terms of how long it will take you to make back your investment—other than being a drain on your finances to set up, there are no real long term penalties for owning one.
The final major criticism I have of Starsector is its often repetitive nature. I didn’t really notice it on my first playthrough, but on subsequent runs, I started to realize that there just isn’t that much variety in what you can truly do. Decide to be a merchant? Get ready to travel between systems battling pirates. Choose to be a bounty hunter? Get ready to travel between systems battling pirates and defectors. Choose to run surveys? Get ready to travel between systems battling pirates. Don’t get me wrong, the main gameplay loop is very good, but I think it could really use some variety from time to time. Ship design helps, but I don’t like how so many of the game’s systems boil down to “wander around killing pirates”.
Overall, despite my many criticisms, I do like Starsector, and would recommend it to everyone. It has problems, certainly, but those are scratches on an otherwise perfectly solid whole, and especially considering the game is only fifteen dollars? I would say it’s well worth the price. If you enjoy space, ship battles and exploration, I recommend Starsector to you.