Starport: Galactic Empires Review
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium 400 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 16 MB video card, internet connection
Official site: starportgame.com
As has been described in our review criteria, FI is very much in favor of free games. Pretty much everyone loves free, so we take the price of a game at release into account when rating games. You can download the client software for Starport: Galactic Empires (S:GE) at no cost (save the time to download just under 60 MB of data), and start playing immediately. The hook for this simple, multiplayer game of strategy, combat and exploration is that after two weeks, the persistent world ends, and the player with most experience wins. Then everything begins anew, giving players a chance to conquer an all-new galaxy.
While it takes a while to figure out and get the hang of the controls in S:GE, the game is fundamentally simple. You navigate the two dimensional universe in your ship of choice in search of power and money. At the end of two weeks, someone wins and everything starts over. The galaxy is represented as a collection of star systems, all linked by warp points, each containing planets and moons. You navigate by turning your ship and using thrusters in the manner of a classic space combat game. Each ship can carry equipment or cargo, has a primary weapon and a secondary special ability. Each ship also has a regenerating pool of warp fuel needed to transit between systems or land on planets – an energy supply that regenerates quickly and is needed to power weapons and thrusters – and shields. The problem with shields is they function like a sort of ablative armor. If damaged, you can only bring your shields back to combat readiness by purchasing more shield energy in ports.
Ports function as graphical menus where you can trade goods, meet settlers or rent a safe place to dock and sleep. Each port has a supply of and demand for certain resources, so players can earn income by shuttling cargo between ports. Planets are small, two dimensional mazes sometimes littered with resources that can be picked up or immobile aliens that can be slaughtered (for their component resources). Should you collect the galaxy's scattered resources, you can sell what you find at ports. More complicated strategies come into play as you start seeding planets with colonies.
Outside of combat, the big bucks come from building colonies, filling them with colonists and protecting them as they grow and become productive. A populous and happy colony can yield tremendous income. The population will grow over time, but your best bet is to bring willing settlers from port bars, or from the unlimited supply of disenfranchised citizens on Earth. As colonies build structures, they become more productive, generating income that can make you wealthy and powerful. When you initially place a colony, it will be protected, but if you don't build sufficient defenses, others will quickly come and seize the outpost you've worked so hard to establish.
Trading, prospecting and colonizing are the honest and honorable ways to earn a living. Piracy seems to be a popular alternative. Destroy other ships and you can seize funds while quickly gaining experience and notoriety. Of course, gain enough of a positive reputation and you can go pirate hunting for the same sort of rewards. The preponderance of pirates is S:GE's primary problem. The players with the highest experience all seem to be pirates, and they love to hang out on the edges of protected space, blasting anyone who exits a warpgate into component atoms. At the same time, you need to venture into uncontrolled space to build colonies on unoccupied worlds or find worlds not already raped of their resources.
The need to venture into the realm of pirates means you risk getting "ganked" (killed) early and often. The penalty for death is not only a significant loss of experience, but all your cash (not in a bank or colony) and cargo. Even if you escape the encounter, you have to spend to rebuild the shields lost in your encounter, which can cripple your cash flow. Die before setting up a colony, and you are effectively starting over, with even less cash. Even if you set up a colony, you may find it difficult to return to improve or protect it. You won't be able to buy weapons or a better ship to defend yourself without a lot of cash, either. Ultimately, this means that players who are the first to join a new galaxy, or people who skulk about for many (contiguous) hours to build sufficient funds are the ones who succeed. You can place a bounty on pirates to urge powerful players to take vengeance on your behalf, but that takes cash, as well.
Non-consensual player vs. player combat is a problem for many games, and S:GE is probably still working out such issues. This is a classic game design problem – how do you deal with experienced players preying on ill-equipped newbies? The problem is aggravated by the system for logging off. Leave the game, and unless you pay the hefty fees (levied hourly) for staying in protected space or docking at a port, your ship will just sit vulnerable in space or on the surface of a planet – wherever you left it. Unless you earn a lot of money, or establish colonies with strong defenses (in which you can hide), you are likely to log back on to find yourself floating in space with only an emergency pod between you and hard vacuum. Alternately, you could venture into the far reaches of space, incredibly far from the few live players. Unfortunately, there are only four StarBases where you can purchase new ships or the hardware needed to build and support colonies. One is in Mars orbit, and you won't be able to enter certain others unless you have a piratical reputation.
There is one alternative to spending a lot of time in-game. The four StarBases each have Admiral's clubs where you can spend real-life cash to improve your lot in the virtual world. Thus, when it comes to free games, S:GE presents an interesting case. The main paths to success require either incredible amounts of time (enough to build a colony with impressive defenses) or spending real cash. Of course, games typically last two weeks, so that investment is transient at best. Corporations (small teams of players) align the interests of multiple players, but aren't enough to protect the casual player who wants to log in for brief and occasional stints of play. S:GE is an interesting exercise for the devout fan, and completely free to try, but until it better copes with non-consensual player vs. player combat, it will remain forbidding to the casual player.