I grew up loving starship combat. On the Star Wars vs. Star Trek divide, I was clearly aligned with the slower-moving naval combat of Kirk and Picard’s universe. I spent many an hour playing FASA’s Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator, and eventually moved on to the genre’s heavyweight, Star Fleet Battles. Those games were great fun, but they brought a lot of bookkeeping to the table, so it’s great to see another take at starship combat on the PC.
Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy is a new release from Black Lab Games that puts you in command of a fleet of up to eight starships, directing their movement, targeting, weapons, and defenses as you fight to ward of a horde of invaders known as the Nautilid. While a game like this is inherently about tactics, the designers took an interesting direction, crafting a detailed, branching campaign that I found well written and engaging. The mission instructions and conversations with your crew tell a larger tale of the war, politics, and the weight of history on the shoulders of your main character as the game progresses.
But you likely aren’t playing a starship combat game for the narrative – you’re looking for hot ship-on-ship space battles. Star Hammer delivers with six different ship types that each fill a specialized role. From the nimble Swordfish Raider to the torpedo-slinging Triton Battlecruiser, ships have unique models that make them easily identifiable in the game. The variety in roles is important as each ship can counter particular threats: your frigate may not seem like it brings much offensive capability to the fight, but without its missile countermeasures you’re not going to last too long in the sky.
Gameplay proceeds through a repeated sequence of giving your ships orders while the simulation is suspended, then watching ten seconds of battle play out during which you can’t intervene. This leads to some gut-wrenching moments as the enemy makes choices you failed to anticipate, gaining line-of-sight on your weakest shield, and sending your favorite ship to the galactic scrapyard. If you like, you can replay the previous sequence repeatedly, moving the camera around to see how events unfolded.
Giving orders in three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional screen is a tricky UI feat, but Black Lab Games has done an excellent job of it. Dragging a ship produces a boundary showing you the extent to which it can move during the next turn, and its future position is represented by a line leading to a ghost image of the ship, allowing you to keep a holistic view of your plan. Z-axis movement is controlled with up/down buttons, which may seem limiting, but which I found added tactical variety without unnecessarily complicating the interface. Focusing on a ship makes it easy to rotate your view around it to see allies and threats, determining if you’re where you want to be on the z-axis. Countermeasures, essentially a sphere where enemy missiles will be intercepted, were easy to place. The only exception to the excellent controls is that, inexplicably, there is no direct camera control for the z-axis. Moving up and down is accomplished by zooming in and out with the camera, allowing you to achieve the view you want, but often taking far more time than would otherwise be required.
Tactically, the game is very rewarding. Besides the aforementioned vessel variety, ships feature six sides (front/rear/left/right/top/bottom), between which you can divert your precious, fast-melting shield strength as you see fit. While missiles can fire in any direction, all other weapons have arcs of fire that you have to satisfy to hit your target (there are overlays on the starfield that let you see where you can shoot). You also dictate the output of your power plant between engines, shields, and weapons, forcing you to trade one off against the others. The Nautilid sport ten ship designs that, refreshingly, are not mirror images of your own ships, and learning enemy behavior and which ships are priority targets is key to escaping engagements unscathed.
Your flagship also features crew members, recruited as you progress through the campaign. Crew members gain experience and level up, gaining abilities that can enhance both your flagship and your entire task force. Each ability has an offensive/defensive stance, and depending on how you configure your crew, they will work more or less cooperatively, creating a small mini-game as you attempt to min/max your crew configuration to your style of play.
In fact, your gameplay is evaluated as offensive or defensive as a whole, contributing points to an offensive/defensive track called Warscale. Moving the Warscale in either direction conveys benefits to your ships, including bonuses to points for new ships and replacement missiles. Moreover, it even opens up (or excludes) some chapters from the campaign as you progress, adding an incentive to play through the campaign a second time.
There is very little to complain about with Star Hammer. For those uninterested in the campaign, you will discover that you must complete a mission before it shows up in Skirmish mode. I feel that this is an unnecessary gate that could be removed; why not let people play the game how they like to play? Graphically, while the game is full of eye candy with pleasing, visceral, weapon effects, the Ionic Trails put down by the Nautilid Sprayer started to get on my nerves. While tactically very interesting (they damp down your shields, forcing more exploration of the z-axis), they can get out of control, cluttering your view and making it hard to position your own ships and spot the enemy. An option to toggle this effect would have been appreciated.
There could also be some more in-game information. A link from the game’s main menu brings you to the Star Hammer wiki, where you can read about the starships you control. This is the only place I could go to learn about some of the features of my fleet. Other important game elements aren’t explained anywhere. For example, you are resupplied with munitions between missions, but nothing in the games tells you how many missiles you’ll receive. I never figured it out over the course of the campaign, particularly because my defensive Warscale added a bonus. This made it difficult to determine how conservative I should be with my torpedoes and missiles. I had similar issues with understanding how reinforcement points, which allow you to buy more ships, are allocated.
These though, are minor issues. Star Hammer provided many truly epic starship combat moments. My final mission had me on the edge of my seat, my fleet having been torn to tatters, my last two battlecruisers out of torpedoes and sacrificing themselves in a ramming action into the enemy. My flagship rode out of the final explosion, holding on with less than 10% hull remaining, to the accompaniment of the game’s excellent soundtrack. I actually cheered out loud and was busy congratulating myself on my victory when I remembered that I was playing on easy.
Disclosure: GeekDad was provided a review copy of this game.