“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” This is how The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy describes the impossible vastness of space.
And Starpoint Gemini 2, a game of galactic exploration, strategic combat and political intrigue you role-play your way through, is a big game. A really big game. A game it feels great to get lost in. As a starship captain, the entire star map is yours to explore. There are pirates to hunt down, anomalies to map and worm holes to discover. There are factions to support, rail against or ignore completely. There are trades to be made, deals to be done, bigger guns and bigger ships to buy, even a fleet to build.
It’s a big game, but one that doesn’t overwhelm you with complexity, for the most part. It’s not surprising that a complex starship – even a gamified facsimile of one – has more buttons to press than you find on a controller. Developer Little Green Man Games has done a fantastic job of putting all the controls at your fingertips, through clever context-sensitive menus and hotkeys. After a couple of hours everything becomes second nature, your starship pitching, yawing and rolling effortlessly as you simultaneously spin the camera to keep your quarry in view and shift your power reserves to where they are needed most.
This is no space dog-fight sim; you’ll find no Wing-Commander-esque battle techniques here. It’s no full-on sim either, though, so you won’t need to be Dr. Sheldon Cooper to fly. Combat flight is about positioning your ship at the right range to your quarry, whilst minimising your profile to make it difficult for your enemies to aim, and constantly making sure your strongest shields face towards the direction of attack. You’ll balance power between shields, engines and weapons to keep you and your crew safe, and you will do it all against a beautiful backdrop of stars, planets and nebulas. It is a rewarding experience, and proof that in this area of the game Little Green Men have got the console conversion just right.
The left stick controls pitch and yaw, while left and right on the D-Pad will roll your vessel. The right stick is purely to rotate your (non centering) third-person camera view around your vessel. You zoom the camera using up and down on the D-Pad. With accelerate and decelerate on the right and left triggers respectively, it’s a control system that suits the nature of the game perfectly. Bumpers control your weapons. A is reserved for context-sensitive actions, X brings up an in-flight orders menu (for example, target the enemy’s weapons or fire at will) that pauses the game, whilst B and Y open live context menus allowing skilled captains to employ speed boosters, shield regenerators, or use their perks which give timed bonuses like evasion or attack modifiers.
Aah, yes, “pauses the game.” Pausing is feature that almost seems anathema to the games industry at the moment. But in this world of always connected, always online vast multiplayer experiences, Starpoint Gemini 2 is resolutely, defiantly single player. And it’s the better for it.
The Sky At Night
It’s a beautiful game, too. Your vessels and those around you are beautifully drawn, with designs that clearly communicate speed, ferocity, and scale – even before you have targeted one to have the Heads Up Display (HUD) confirm your suspicions. Yes, that’s one to be avoided just now, but there’s a fat cargo carrier ripe for plunderimg. Space, too, is beautiful, the inky-blacks swept through with glorious pink nebulae, glowing green rifts, binary star systems and planets of every hue. You’ll come across communications satellites, solar farms, mining outposts and all manner of spacefaring junk.
A hiccup or two
Where the conversion from PC is less successful is when your starship is anchored at one of the many ports and space stations you will encounter. The User Interface (UI) is clear but navigation is on occasion inconsistent – more than once this reviewer accidentally spent a significant proportion of his (ill gotten) credits buying a piece of weaponry he didn’t need, when the aim was just to see what was on offer.
This is a minor hiccup, though, and taking a little more care over button presses would help – but that’s so hard when the lure of space exploration is just so strong.
Starting Starpoint Gemini 2 gives you the option of free-roam or launching into what Little Green Men calls a starting Scenario (there was only one in the review copy, but others are promised). The campaign scenario tested places you as a brand new captain of a small gunship vessel (limited firepower, limited cargo capacity, limited shields) tasked with unravelling a plot of familial revenge and intrigue set against the political backdrop of The Gemini League. Whilst the campaign may offer new pilots a little purpose and direction as they come to grips with their new found responsibility, pushing you around the star map to show off the galaxy, in truth the game could stand without such a device. The voice acting is so uneven it makes a toblerone look like an after eight mint; the furiously scowled lines delivered in accents so thick trading standards must have been informed only serve to confuse and annoy.
Finally on the technical side there are tiny loading pauses – just a second or two – as you progress from one quadrant to the next that occasionally fracture the action. The game has been supremely stable throughout, though, and whilst the save mechanic is somewhat PC-like, if I lost progress it was because of a bad decision I made, and not the game’s fault.
Explore and discover
The exploration really is the draw of, the joy of, the game. Far better, then, to jump straight into free roam (with the same ship and starting point) and simply explore. You will be rewarded with the same range of missions, none of which are remarkable in themselves (being of the go there, take this, destroy that, variety) but which produce such incredible moments of emergent gameplay in the vast space-box in front of you. Outgunned and with shields failing you’ll loop around a rogue asteroid to put an obstacle between you and your pursuer, providing a few seconds grace to recharge your shields and emerge on your opponent’s blind side, guns blazing. Happening upon some piratical activity you’ll help the beleaguered transport captain fight off the ne’er-do-wells before choosing to remain the hero, or destroy him yourself for his valuable cargo.
In true RPG style, such decisions affect your standing with the local factions – and there are so many to consider very little you do can be coloured in simple black and white. As you explore, unlocking more of the star map as you go, you’ll gain experience and unlock new sills and perks, helping you progress you along your chosen path.
In truth, though, some of this feels like window-dressing. Yes, you can commit to your character and your chosen political affiliations, weighing each decision carefully. For example, you could work to increase your standing with a particular faction to make the area of space they control less hostile. Or you can just focus on capitalism, working towards the bigger ship you need, with the loudest guns and the best crew to help you explore the more dangerous reaches of space. It really is up to you.
No one can hear you scream
Whichever way you go, you will find – perhaps to your surprise – a game that doesn’t rush and encourages a relaxed style of play. This isn’t an adrenaline-pumper, it requires more thought than many games but rewards you with an experience all-too-rare on consoles. With no online rogue elements to worry you, you’ll find you can generally make an informed decision about which fights to start, and which to run away from. Even when balancing all the elements that strategic combat requires, once you have the control system in your head you are rarely overwhelmed by the game mechanics, but make a poor choice and you can certainly be outgunned by an enemy. Sonically the game provides everything asked of it, and adds a beautiful ambient soundtrack as you explore. Combat treats you to something a little more urgent to get the pulse racing. Excellent stuff.
Starpoint Gemini 2 is the kind of game that has a committed and willing audience on PC but traditionally has struggled to find a home on consoles, and that is a shame. With a maturing audience consoles are now showing there’s more to life than the next Call of Duty. Here at xboxoneuk.com we want to see as diverse a range of games as possible, and on that basis alone we would welcome Starpoint Gemini 2 into the Xbox One fold. It’s all the better, then, that Starpoint Gemini 2 has turned out to be more than a welcome distraction but is a joyful, relaxing and different experience for Xbox gamers. As much as we champion games as social experiences, bringing new people into our lives and staying in touch with some we might otherwise have lost, we actually rather enjoy the solitude that Starpoint Gemini 2 offers.
Starpoint Gemini 2 gives us the vastness of space – packed with interesting things – to explore, and lets us do so at our own pace and in our own way. It might not offer the pulse-pounding excitement that other forms of combat lay out for us, but it encourages us to go about our business in a quiet and professional manner, and rewards us with the satisfaction of a job well done.
Starpoint Gemini 2
Starpoint Gemini 2 gives us the vastness of space – packed with interesting things – to explore, and lets us do so at our own pace and in our own way. It might not offer the pulse-pounding excitement that other forms of combat lay out for us, but it encourages us to go about our business in a quiet and professional manner, and rewards us with the satisfaction of a job well done. Recommended.