Stellar Impact is a pretty basic experience as far as interstellar war goes, but it's still compelling.
The upcoming movie Battleship appears to take space battles and put them in the water. Stellar Impact, available now on Steam, does the opposite: It turns multiplayer sci-fi skirmishes into something approximating naval combat thanks to the elimination of that pesky third dimension.
As a ship captain in the Stellar Impact universe, you'll be siding with either the Axis or the Allies and slugging it out alongside teammates over small areas of contested space. The factions don't affect anything other than the cosmetic appearance of your ship, as the game doesn't dwell much (okay, at all) on story. After a short tutorial to show you the basics of movement, combat and upgrades, you're off to join in the battles.
The role you'll play within your team depends largely on your choice of ship. There are five classes to start, ranging from the fast, highly maneuverable Corvette to the Dreadnought command ship. Three additional classes are already available as paid DLC, giving you even more options for a few extra bucks.
Every ship can also be fully customized with a selection of skills before each battle. Skills range from extra powerful attacks to buffs and debuffs, and while they're all available to any ship class, the number you can select varies according to that class' expected role. The offense-minded Destroyer, for instance, can pick three Offensive skills, while the tanking Cruiser can take three from the Defensive category. All skills have a cooldown timer when used in battle, so making proper use of them is critical.
From the main lobby, players can choose to join a specific game, start their own game or simply queue up for the first available match. The scenarios come in two flavors – Conquest, which is won by destroying the other side's base and aided by controlling a number of neutral resource points, and Battlefield, where the goal is to wipe out the other team or seize a central objective and hold it for two minutes. There are 10 different maps for Conquest games but only four for Battlefield, and players can choose from 2-on-2 battles all the way up to 6-on-6.
Controlling your ship once the fighting begins is done by way of simple thrust and turning commands, with weapons fired by the spacebar and skills mapped to the number keys. A big part of success in combat is maneuvering properly, as certain guns can only target ships in the front or rear firing arcs, while turning your side to the enemy allows all your guns to be brought to bear. It feels somewhat similar to the way things play out in EVE Online or Star Trek Online, except without having to worry about three-dimensional depth. That small but important difference makes it feel a little less intuitive since you are always looking at the action from the top down.
There are a number of strategic elements on the battlefield too. Environmental zones include gas clouds that can hide your ship and dangerous asteroid fields. For a really fun time, you can fly close to the sun and watch the gravity and heat distort the screen.
Capturing neutral objectives earns your team Command Points, which can be spent on upgrades or escort ships that aid you in a variety of ways. You'll have to spend these while your hands are still full with the enemy, though, so there's a lot to keep track of at the same time. The pace may simply be too fast for some gamers. You need to think first in Stellar Impact, but when the time comes to act, you need to do it quickly.
Win or lose, you'll get a full statistical breakdown and the chance to choose some power-up items for your ship at the end of every battle. Experience points go toward leveling up the specific ship class used in that scenario, so you can specialize or dabble in everything as you see fit.
Since the game is all multiplayer, all the time, it's nice to see that Team Speak is supported. The in-game chat is functional enough too, with options to create your own channels as needed. The graphics are solid if not spectacular, and the soundtrack sets the mood in appropriate fashion.
Without a single-player mode, Stellar Impact is a bit of a one-trick pony, but that trick is pretty good. It's simple to learn yet takes skill to play well, so the guess here is that some players will think it's the best $10 they've spent in a long time. The rest? They're probably going to throw up their hands, saying it's just too much for them.
- Straightforward tactical space battles challenge reflexes and strategic thinking. Extensive customization options tailor each ship to a player's liking. Good set of features for supporting multiplayer action, especially for the price. Solid graphics and mood-setting music.
- Casual crowd may be intimidated by the level of skill needed to succeed. Not much in the way of story or setting. Could use more of everything: Ships, maps, game modes, etc.