Once upon a time, there was a game where you were put in the position of a human being in a universe where humans must co-exist with many other lifeforms found around the galaxy. You become aware of a threat facing the entire galaxy that requires you to bring all of the numerous races together by finding them around the galaxy, performing quests for them and adding their strength to your own. In order to complete your quest, you must explore all types of planets and scavenge them for resources. All of this is done, with the hope of ultimately facing off alongside your newly made allies against the greatest threat the galaxy has ever known.
No, I’m not talking about the Mass Effect trilogy, I’m talking about an even better, more amazing game. The greatest game of all time!
Star Control 2! …Okay, I admit, the game isn’t a looker but bear with me for a minute, will ya? By the time you’re done reading this, I’ll make you a believer, I promise.
Mass Effect isn’t just a clone of Star Control 2 although the inspiration is extremely clear. Unlike that series, Star Control 2 has you start off as the sole remaining spaceship from a failed scientific journey that took your people to a distant, remote planet. After returning to Earth many years later, you find that things are quite a bit different than you’d been told.
See, when your people left, humanity was at war with a group called the Hierarchy of Battle Thralls led by a species called the Ur-Quan. Humanity fought alongside other races in the Alliance of Free Stars. Turns out, though, the Alliance lost the war and Earth is now a thrall planet to the Ur-Quan. All thrall planets are given a choice, either they become a warrior race, fighting for the Ur-Quan to enslave other worlds. Or they become workers, contained by a shield in their own planet and isolated from the rest of the galaxy forever.
It’s been a long time since Earth became “shielded” so they don’t have much to offer your ship other than information before sending you on your way. And that’s where you come in. You must decide how to proceed from there. Star Control 2 is the very embodiment of freedom in a game. The galaxy is large but is populated by many interesting things to find, people to talk to and enemies to fight.
Everything happens in real-time in Star Control 2. Exploration, scavenging for resources and fighting are all actions you control directly. Much of the game controls a bit like playing Asteroids. Left and right spins your ship and you accelerate or decelerate to move. Better get used to doing this on the main map because when you start fighting other ships, you’d better have the controls mastered.
Star Control 2 doesn’t mess around when it comes to combat. As you make your way across the galaxy and recruiting allies, you can be given fighters to join your fleet. These fighters make up your combat force when fighting aliens. When a fighter is destroyed though, it’s gone unless you can get it replaced after the battle. There are numerous different types of fighters you can get and each one handles differently and fights using different weapons. The close-combat oriented Chmmr ship has a tractor beam which brings ships in close to attack with highly concentrated lasers while the cowardly Spathi ships are extremely quick and fire out the back to help with their retreats.
The combat is fast-paced and a lot of fun once you get used to it. It can be very satisfying to find effective ways to use the various alien ships and discover which ships are strong against which enemies in turn. As they are fun to use, the ships make for a great reward for finding and recruiting all the numerous races around the galaxy. Each race has it’s own distinct personality which are usually over the top but not too much so. I loved discovering each race’s quirks and getting to know what made them tick.
Finding each race out in the galaxy isn’t the only type of discovery that’s important to Star Control 2, you also must figure out how to speak with each race. While I enjoy the grand cutscenes of modern games as much as anyone else, one thing that high-fidelity graphics have taken from us is meaningful dialogue choices. In the screenshot above, this is just one tiny choice you get to make when talking to this particular alien species. You can play the game as a straight-laced ship captain, a violent war-monger, a sarcastic quip-slinger or whatever else you want to be. Depending on how you speak to races, you can get useful information, become allied with them or even turn their race against you. Your actions actually matter to the game and will take you down different paths.
Remember, if you will, back to a time when the very first Mass Effect had yet to come out and we got a trailer for the game. Do you remember that trailer? It involved the Normandy receiving a distress call from a planet and Shephard turning it down, presumably to serve the greater good. It was a great trailer but when the game actually came out, no choices like this actually existed in the game. You could take your time helping everyone with no consequences whatsoever. Star Control 2 actually forces these choices upon you. See, all the time you’re playing the game and exploring the galaxy, there’s a calendar and a time down in the corner slowly ticking along. Why does this date matter? That’s just something you’ll need to find out for yourself but be aware, you can’t sit around forever.
When you boil Star Control 2 down to it’s essence, there are really two main things that make the game great. Discovery and choice. Star Control 2 gives you the tools you need to succeed but refuses to hold your hand. While you get some possible points of exploration at the beginning, it is entirely up to you whether or not you want to check them out. Unlike most modern games, Star Control 2 doesn’t have “story missions” or side quests. There are simply missions around the galaxy that you can either do or not, depending on your choices. My first playthrough of the game actually had me completing the game without ever meeting multiple whole species, at least one of whom is supposed to be one of the most important species in the galaxy. But I took a different path and you will take a different path from the one I took.
If there’s one downside to Star Control 2, it’s that there isn’t more of it. Despite what the name would have you believe, there aren’t any other games quite like Star Control 2. The first game in the series is simply the combat from 2 as it’s own self-contained game and while Star Control 3 did attempt to create a full sequel to 2, it failed miserably in almost every way. Supposedly, there is actually an attempt at a reboot of Star Control coming from Stardock (the folks behind the Galactic Civilization series) but little to no news has actually come from them about it so the status of development is really unknown.
The best part about Star Control 2… is that it’s free. Yeah, that’s right, one of the greatest games of all time is free to download in its best version. Long story short, the game was released on DOS and on the 3DO. Both versions had their upsides and when the developers made the game’s 3DO source code publicly available, some wonderful human beings mashed the two versions together making the definitive version of Star Control 2 called The Ur-Quan Masters and it’s available at this website: http://sc2.sourceforge.net/. It’s available on PC, Mac OS X, Linux and even BSD so there is no reason for you to not give this phenomenal game a try. If you do want to try the other games in the series too or, for some reason take some moral issue against free games even when they are endorsed by the original developers, the whole series is also available on http://www.gog.com for $12 ($6 for Star Control 1+2 and $6 for Star Control 3).