In space it’s a great adventure, but on the ground it’s a drag.
By introducing an entirely new and mysterious universe full of colorful, hilarious aliens and bringing back the intense arcadey space battles, Star Control: Origins gets about two thirds of the way toward recapturing the magic of Star Control 2, the revered 1992 adventure about forming an interstellar alliance against a greater threat. If it weren’t for the tedious chore of gathering resources from planets’ surfaces, it’d be a revival to celebrate.
As humanity takes its first step into the stars we find we’re not alone, and that many of our neighbors are delightfully stupid. There’s the pathetically needy Tywom banana slugs, the obsessively bureaucratic Measured, a sleazy race of con artists who’re basically Watto from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with longer necks, and plenty more – each stranger and more surprising than the last. All the major aliens have a distinct style and personality that’s brought to life by diverse character models and fun voice acting.
The absurdist and occasionally laugh-out-loud humor of Star Control: Origins’ dialogue is its greatest asset, and it uses it effectively to cover up some of its deficiencies – there are various jokes about why every member of each alien race looks and sounds exactly like the others, for example. Listening to aliens casually discuss interstellar fish genocide or the proper number of ears to everyone should have is usually well worth taking the time. Dialogue could’ve used a bit more variety for common interactions, though: having every conversation with the malfunctioning starbase AI end with “EXCEPTION – CIVIL FAREWELL NOT FOUND!” and every rescue when you run out of fuel come at the cost of listening to the Tywom’s god-awful Star Trek fanfic gets old pretty quickly.
It’s a reminder that Star Control: Origins is an adventure game, not an RPG.
Funny as they often are, it’s very rare that the dialogue decisions you make seem to have any effect on the outcome of an encounter other than to play your character straight or as a wise-cracking captain with a mean streak. There are definitely a few points where you can choose to accept or decline an offer from an alien, and what you choose may have consequences that must be resolved through a sidequest, but there’s never a risk of endangering an alliance by insulting your allies or anything like that. Nearly all of the quests are solved by traveling to a location, checking it out (maybe blowing something up), and returning to the questgiver. Sometimes you can opt to attack a ship you’ve approached, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to talk my way out of being attacked. That lack of control over the outcome of conversations is a reminder that despite its open-galaxy map, Star Control: Origins (like all the Star Control games before it) is an adventure game rather than an RPG – which is fine, except that there’s less value to replaying this 35-hour adventure.
Navigating the galaxy to chase your quest objectives can be a hassle sometimes because, unless you’re meticulously marking your map with the multi-colored marking tool, it can be a pain to find what you’re looking for. If you’re given a star system’s name you can search for it in the map screen easily enough, but if someone asks you to travel to another species’ homeworld without mentioning it by name you can’t just click on that race’s name on the map, even if you’ve been there before. Instead, you have to scroll through the detailed captain’s log screen until you find where they’ve specifically been mentioned, at which point you can click on the name to auto-pilot your way to them. I can certainly understand not wanting navigation to feel so automatic that you barely have to look at the map, but putting it behind this much annoying menu fiddling is a step too far.
It’s also frustrating that Star Control: Origins doesn’t keep track of which systems or planets you’ve already visited and stripped bare of resources (or passed over). Especially in the late game, it was aggravating to find that I’d already been to a system a few days earlier.
Star Control: Origins’ greatest sin, though, is that it failed to learn the lessons of the original Mass Effect. Remember how just about everybody loved that game except for the parts where you had to drive the Mako landing vehicle around empty planets? Star Control: Origins is a lot like that, except that its annoying driving makes up a much greater percentage of your playtime.
Star Control: Origins’ greatest sin is failing to learn the lessons of the original Mass Effect.
Everything you do on a planet’s surface is boring at best and an annoying chore at worst. After a simple landing minigame (where success usually feels all but guaranteed but occasionally seems impossible) you zip across the colorful and visually interesting landscapes of your choice of what must be thousands of planets on the galaxy map. That’s all well and good – these tiny spheres range from hospitable Earth-like worlds to frozen wastelands to toxic, volcanic hellscapes to planets that seem to be made entirely of gold. But there’s precious little to do there beyond driving over glowing pickups representing dozens of different elemental resources (almost all of which are effectively junk loot, since there’s no crafting system to use them in) and finding crashed alien ships to salvage. On the aforementioned golden planets it can look suspiciously like something out of Sonic the Hedgehog as you zoom along picking up a long row of floating gold rings, but without any of the high stakes of that gameplay.
That in itself would be boring, but like the Mako before it, Star Control: Origins’ landing vehicle is cursed by bouncy physics. Anytime your landing vehicle runs up against an obstacle it’s anybody’s guess whether you’ll glide over it smoothly or bounce around wildly, potentially ending up facing 180 degrees from where you were intending to go. You can’t actually flip over and get stuck, at least, but the unpredictability of it never stopped being annoying.
Other than that, the only thing to do on planets is combat, but it’s absolutely dismal. Most planets are uninhabited or populated with mostly docile wildlife that barely even reacts to being shot (a rhino-like animal will charge you if you don’t kill it quickly, but it’s kind of hard not to), and hunting them barely seems sporting. But fairly frequently you’ll find resource-rich worlds defended by utterly incompetent drones or turrets that are completely incapable of hitting a moving target unless it’s headed directly toward them. They can all be easily defeated by circle-strafing, but generally you can ignore them entirely and scoop up the resources they’re protecting as if they weren’t even there. That is, unless you manage to get your lander killed by one of the far more deadly natural hazards; then the drones might camp your landing site, destroying you instantly when you attempt to land again. And as far as I’ve seen there are only two weapons available for the lander, but neither is fun to use.
Once I hit the point about two-thirds of the way through the story where money no longer seemed to matter as much because I was able to get all the resources I needed from running the story missions instead of landing on planets, things improved considerably. The story became much more interesting and expansive, and boss fights and new enemy types made space battles even more diverse and challenging.
Space is where the real action is, and the punchy, top-down arcadey space combat is the most fun I had in Star Control: Origins.
Space is where the real action is, and the punchy, top-down arcadey space combat (which is almost directly lifted from the original games) is the most fun I had in Star Control: Origins. These one-on-one arena battles have a lot of variety thanks to a wide selection of offensive and defensive abilities. There are straightforward missiles, beams, and laser bolts, but also mines, area-of-effect attacks, shields, cloaking devices, speed bursts, and many more. Each ship gets a combination of two abilities in addition to its own speed, acceleration, turn rate, recharge rate, and durability, and that keeps dogfights interesting as you bounce off of planets’ gravity wells, warp through wormholes (which can also teleport projectiles), and pick up stat-boost items. Judging a target’s trajectory well enough to peg it with a relatively slow-moving missile by while simultaneously shifting your own ship’s movement to avoid incoming fire is a good challenge, and outmaneuvering a slow, heavy-hitting ship with a nimble but fragile fighter craft feels great. It makes a lot of sense that this head-to-head combat was what Stardock chose to break out as its Fleet Battles multiplayer mode, which can be played against the AI (which actually gets tough!), online, or in local two-player mode.
Like with Fleet Battles, in the campaign you can collect a fleet of ships to send into combat before you endanger your flagship (which must survive or it’s game over) but the vast majority of those I found felt pointless. If I was up against an inferior opponent it made the most sense to send in my much more powerful flagship to destroy it quickly; if I was facing a strong enemy, like a Scryve battlecruiser, the weaker ships in my fleet would be destroyed comically quickly with area-of-effect attacks and my flagship was the only one that stood a chance. It doesn’t help that Star Control: Origins doesn’t give you a view of the capabilities of your ships or your opponent’s ships at the moment you’re selecting which one to use, so it’s extremely easy to pick one that has no chance at all against the attacker.
Though the ships are in general creatively designed, I found it weird that even though this is a game about bolting alien tech onto your human-built spacecraft to dramatically improve its speed, capacity, and combat abilities, the look of your flagship doesn’t change at all from start to finish no matter how many fancy engines and weapons you acquire. That’s especially bizarre considering that since this is a game that includes a highly customizable ship-builder tool for use in Fleet Battles that allows you piece together a custom craft from a healthy assortment of parts. When the technology is built in already, why would Stardock would completely miss this important, rewarding aspect of an action-RPG upgrade loop?