Star Control 2 (1994, 3DO)

Star Control 2 is an often overlooked classic that could easily be described as Mass Effect long before anyone had even dreamed of Mass Effect. Sure it’s primitive in terms of technology and in a few of its gameplay areas, but it was way ahead of its time for being a creation of the early 90’s and even did a few things better than Mass Effect would come to do so many years later.

You play as a human space captain who was away on a secret mission to uncover ancient alien artifacts and returns to Earth many years later only to find that he missed out on a big space war where the evil Ur-Quan won and enslaved everyone. So now you have to perform your standard duty of re-uniting all the ally alien races and figuring out a way to defeat the Ur-Quan and their other assorted space baddie buddies.

It all sounds rather familiar and generic, and at its core it is, but what sets Star Control 2 apart from other similar stories are the little details in the plot and gameplay. The various alien races you encounter are full of personality and have some surprisingly deep and fascinating backstories, especially when you start digging into the secrets of the previous eras and the now mostly disappeared alien races that used to populate the galaxy.

Some may even be a little too interesting and mysterious for their own good, like the Orz, who are a friendly new race that become a powerful ally to you, but are rumored to be sinister physical extensions of some vast extra-dimensional horror that may have devoured the alien race that used to live in their system. Unfortunately, aside from the fact that the Orz will turn hostile on you if you ignore their requests that you stop asking what happened to the Androsynth race, this is as far as this plotline ever goes, so I guess we’ll never really know on that one.

Hopefully you’ll like the eccentric aliens and their dialogues though, because you’re going to be seeing A LOT of them in this game. A pretty big chunk of the game is made up of lengthy conversations with various friends and foes, and you’ll have to pay close attention too as they’ll contain vital clues to the whereabouts of the next alien race or artifact that you’ll need to continue your quest (P.S. you’re going to need a pen and paper to write down a lot of locations and hints).

That brings us to the next biggest part of this adventure, exploration. There are hundreds of star systems to explore, each with their own set of planets to explore and mine the shit out of. Many more than you could ever possibly explore all of, but that’s good since you’re really going to need all those mined resources to finance your big space revolution. While there is a huge amount of mining involved in the early time of the game, at least the mining mini-game is actually pretty fun, moreso than any resource farming activity Mass Effect has ever had.

The other part of the game is the space combat, though if you’re playing well this will actually end up being a pretty small part of it. Diplomacy will always get you better results in this game so it’s rare to end up having to resort to conflict unless you happen to run into one of the few extra aggressive races that will just attack you relentlessly no matter what. The combat system is actually really interesting, with each race having their own unique ship types with completely different abilities, though the way this is integrated into the story campaign may be a bit unbalanced.

Most of the unavoidable fights are against the baddest of the baddies, and naturally those are the guys with the most powerful ships. Unfortunately, most of the friendly aliens you recruit are pathetically weak compared to powerhouses like the Ur-Quan and you’ll have to end up sacrificing several of their tiny ships just to whittle down the health of a single Ur-Quan dreadnought. As much as you might want to take every type of ship out for a test spin, you’re probably better off just dumping those resources into upgrading your flagship instead, as it can be made to be much, much more powerful than anything else around.

So that’s Star Control 2 in a nutshell. I haven’t played through this one for quite a while and I used to consider it one of my top 5 games of all time, but as of now I feel like it’s dropped a bit on my list. I still think it’s an essential classic that everyone should at least try, but it feels like some of the clunkier aspects of the game stand out even more nowadays. Conversations can be overly long, the whole weird “romance” subplot with the Syreen is really juvenile and cringey, getting swarmed by alien ships in friendly territory and having to cancel out of identical conversation after conversation just to get out of the system is pretty annoying, and man, I still have no idea how some of these races and artifacts were supposed to be found legitimately without having notes already.

A good enough chunk to get you started will come up naturally in early conversations and explorations, but I hit a point where no matter how thorough I was being, I didn’t know where to go next and had to resort to some old previously made lists of coordinates. I really don’t know how some of those things were supposed to be found outside of blind luck. Maybe there was a manual or magazine article I had back in the day that had some hints, but who knows now?

Anyway, I’d still highly recommend it despite its flaws. Good news too, you can actually download the whole game for free (legitimately) if you want to check it out.

One last thing before I go, a few tips for anyone who wants to try it out:

  • Load up on cargo pods early. You’re going to need the room for resources badly and you can always swap them out for other parts later at no extra cost.
  • Find the Melnorme traders hanging out near supergiants and buy out all their tech deals ASAP. The upgrades to your mining equipment and flagship are a massive help.
  • Make meeting the Arilou your top priority (the Spathi will give you a hint about their location early on), as they can give you a warp portal spawner that will hugely reduce your travel time and fuel costs.

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