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Monday, March 4, 2024

Star Control II: the Ur-Quan Masters

A followup to the moderately successful 2D space strategy sim, Star Control 2 takes things in a much different direction.  Drawing heavy inspiration from Starflight, there is now a much greater focus on storytelling, resource gathering and following a trail of clues to defeat a powerful enemy.  But does this blend of simplistic, arcadey combat and complex storytelling work out for the best, or does it get lost among the other stars of early '90s gaming?

The original Star Control was a modestly successful game in its time; with gameplay encompassing a blend of strategic board control and arcade action, it worked both as a single player experience and as a two player head-to-head combat game, earning a following both on computers and from a Sega Genesis port produced by Ballistic.  There was an overarching story about a war between two factions - the Alliance of Free Stars and the oppressive Ur-Quan Empire - though it was mostly told in text blurbs at the start of each campaign and had little bearing on the gameplay save for determining what types of ships each side utilized.  Combat was inspired by one of the very first video games ever made - 1962's Spacewar! - and featured one-on-one top-down duels between two ships, with varying specs and weapons depending on the type of ship.

Star Control 2 retains the top-down combat in both single and multiplayer mode (called "Super Melee!"), but the rest of the game is completely reworked into a narrative experience.  After the Alliance canonically loses the war in the first game, the people of Earth are permanently imprisoned by a "Slave Shield" that encircles the entire planet.  The player, captain of a skeletal ship from a long-lost alien race called the Precursors, was stranded during the final leg of the war and thus was not imprisoned with the rest of humanity.  Aided by the crew of a space station orbiting Earth, they begin a journey to seek out other alien races, build a resistance force to the Ur-Quan and eventually reclaim their freedom.

Building on that, you start off with just your skeletal Precursor ship (and should it be destroyed at any time, it's an immediate Game Over) and a single Earthling Cruiser.  However, you have the option to build more Cruisers at the space station, and as you interact with and befriend other alien races, more options become available.  From the cowardly Spathi (whose Eluders are weak, but relatively durable and extremely fast) to the Pkunk Fury (with a short-ranged minigun and random ability to resurrect from death) to Arilou Skiffs (which can teleport and move independently of inertia), there are numerous options.  Enemy ships are equally varied, of course, and picking the correct ship type to counter their strengths is invariably a good idea.  Each ship has up to two weapons and runs off a slowly-recharging energy supply to ensure that you pick your shots carefully rather than just firing wildly.  If you're severely outmatched you can also press Escape to flee from battle, though you are left vulnerable for several seconds while the escape drive activates, so it's best saved as a last resort.

As in earlier games like Starflight and Elite, you won't get too far on a basic ship and little backup, so you'll need to purchase a boatload of upgrades to give yourself a fighting chance.  Crewmen also effectively serve as your ships' hit points and (of course) do not regenerate on their own, so you'll have to purchase quite a few replacements over the course of the game.  This is primarily accomplished through exploration - visiting other star systems and planets in search of raw materials you can trade in for Resource Units (abbreviated as RUs), which in turn can be spent to buy upgrade modules.  Resources are color-coded by value, ranging from common (cyan) materials worth only 1 RU apiece all the way up to radioactives (orange) being worth 8.  Scarcer still are "Exotics", colored purple, which are worth a whopping 25 apiece, but are very hard to come by outside of rare Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald planets.  Planetary surfaces come with their own array of hazards - violent storms, earthquakes and waves of fire on particularly hot planets, as well as wildlife that can damage you on contact and potentially destroy your landers.  Stunning wildlife with your landers' beams allows you to collect data icons, which indirectly serve as a secondary resource - by trading it to another race called the Melnorme, you earn Credits to purchase useful clues for your journey and an array of useful upgrade modules for your ship and your landers.  From making your landers more resistant to planetary hazards to more efficient fuel tanks to stronger weapons, they all prove quite useful, though the order you get them in is fixed and they cost quite a few Credits apiece.  The Melnorme also pay highly for the location of "Rainbow Worlds", of which there are only a scant few in the entire game, so those are well worth seeking out once you have the means.  Finally, they're a much cheaper source of fuel than your starbase (1 Credit per unit as opposed to 20 RUs), so they're invaluable for refueling your ship, especially when you're far from Sol.

Of course, the meat of the game is finding and interacting with other alien races; not just to add more combat ships to your repertoire, but they'll often give vital clues in the form of planets with valuable deposits or point you in the direction of other helpful races.  Of course, help rarely comes for free - you'll often have to complete some quest or another to convince other races to aid you in the fight, and at times you'll even have to get creative - coercion is a perfectly valid tactic.  The dialog throughout all of these encounters is incredibly inspired and often downright hilarious, succeeding in bringing the universe of Star Control to life and getting you raveled in its lore while rarely regressing into stretches of empty exposition.  Even without the 3DO version's voice acting, they still manage to add some personality to each individual race by having them all speak in different fonts.  Solid proof that a well-written narrative does leagues more to keep you enthralled in a game than any amount of empty filler missions could.

Despite being over thirty years old at this point, Star Control 2 remains a highly regarded game among fans of both science fiction and PC gaming.   There's little doubt to why after you play it for only a short while - with its relatively simple interface and combat but engrossing story, sharply written dialog, a massive universe to explore and countless secrets to uncover and mysteries to solve, a it's downright addictive experience.  It proved to be a big inspiration among industry names too, with developers on high profile titles like Fallout, Mass Effect and Stellaris citing it as a major influence.  Since it's also been made open-source and fan-ported to numerous platforms (with the title trimmed to just "The Ur-Quan Masters" owing to copyright concerns) and can be freely downloaded and played natively in Windows with the benefit of controller support and enhanced music from its 3DO port, there's little reason not to at least give it a chance.

Developer: Toys for Bob
Publisher: Accolade
Released: 1992
Platforms: MS-DOS, 3DO, PC
Recommended Version: As mentioned above the 3DO version of the game had its source code released in 2002, allowing for freely-available enhanced ports to numerous platforms under variants of the title "the Ur-Quan Masters".  These include HD graphics, native Xinput support and numerous gameplay extensions, as well as implementing the voice acting and enhanced music from the 3DO version.  Check out the vanilla version at this Sourceforge site, or the Ultronomicon Wiki for other versions of the Ur-Quan masters (including an HD remaster).