Thursday, 16 January 2014

Star Control - Part 6

Most of my gaming friends are well aware of my appreciation of the Star Control series but I actually discovered it completely by accident. My dad, you see, went through a brief phase of MegaDrive gaming and he discovered a store which I didn’t even know existed. On one of his trips there he picked up a handful of games – some were ones I knew of well, but the one that I’d barely heard of soon turned out to be my favourite of his selection – Star Control.

The strategy game wasn't too popular - but I loved it!
Full details of the actual game can be found in the rather sizeable review I wrote many moons ago but suffice to say, it was a game that had a lasting impact on me. It wasn't just the game either; the main strategy section of the game was enjoyable as well as the more exciting overhead combat, both of which were even better with two-players, but I think it was the attention to detail which impressed me the most. The unique names, look, and spacecraft of all the alien races involved were well thought out and the story, while hardly original in this early form, was quite intriguing too. It revolved around the powerful Hierarchy - a group of subservient races commanded by the apparently evil Ur-Quan, and the Alliance of Free Stars - a hastily assembled group of races opposing the Ur-Quan's murderous goal of enslaving all the sentient races in the known galaxy.

It was a game my dad and I both enjoyed playing against our respective friends (though never against each other, curiously) and was the source of many laughs as well as arguments and hissy-fits (my friend Stu always declared the game a draw if he lost a ship by crashing into a planet)! I even persuaded a couple of friends to try the more drawn-out main game. Success was mixed but this remains a rare example of a strategy game that I've really gotten into.

Your base of operations throughout Star Control 2...
Fast forward a few years and I was still playing games on my MegaDrive, including Star Control, but newer systems had now been released. The only one I bought was the 3DO which I got from a friend who was looking to offload it quickly (and therefore cheaply!), but I didn't know much about it. My first stop was my local games store and what did I see staring back at me from the meagre 3DO shelf? That's right, some previously unheard of game called Star Control 2! I needed no further encouragement to buy it but when I got home I was slightly shocked. Not by its badness, you understand - quite the opposite. I was expecting something similar to the first game but with slightly flashier graphics and sound. What I got was a completely different game. The multi-player 'Melee' battle mode was back, this time dubbed 'Super Melee', but the main game? Gone was the strategy game represented by single-screen rotating starfields; replacing it was an enormous free-roaming RPG/adventure game made up of hundreds of explorable star systems.

Anyway, I'll write an actual review of the game another time but rest assured - the countless worlds to explore, the unique assortment of distinctive alien races and cultures (including hours of dialogue), the dozens of special items and ancient artefacts to find/collect, and the immensely detailed game world full of things to discover, all combined to make Star Control 2 an incredible game with surprising depth. The thing that really made it for me, though, was the intricately crafted mythology and back-story to all the races and the region of space in general. The fantastic intro sequence the 3DO version received gives a good taste of this and sets up the beginning of the main game superbly. Check it out:

I can't speak for anyone else but the first time I saw the intro it did a perfect job of getting me psyched up to kick Ur-Quan arse! It only gives hints of the much larger and deeper story involved though, and soon after starting the game you find that every race had their own (often overlapping) stories to tell and accounts of recent events, but the main story that drives the game and most of the other events is unsurprisingly centred around the fearsome Ur-Quan who dominated affairs in the first game as well. However, it turns out that these fearsome green conquerors are but one half of the species. Opposing the green 'Kzer-Za' Ur-Quan are an even scarier black version known as the 'Kohr-Ah' and it is the ancient doctrinal conflict between the two that comprises the main backdrop to the game.

A rather crowded (and hot) supergiant system in SC2...
What divides them is their differing ideologies. Many thousands of year ago, you see, the Ur-Quan were a united and peaceful race happily coexisting with their neighbours in a group called the Sentient Milieu. The peace lasted an age, until the accidental discovery of a small, seemingly simple life form called the Dnyarri. However, these frog-like creatures were actually highly intelligent as well as psychic and capable of mental compulsion. Upon discovery by the Ur-Quan, they soon infiltrated the Milieu and it didn't take much longer for them to completely dominate the Ur-Quan who were forced to destroy any individuals who opposed them including an entire race who were immune to the Dnyarri's mental control. The reign of these evil creatures lasted thousands of years until finally a scientist named Kzer-Za (for whom the green Ur-Quan were named) discovered that the Dnyarri had to break their connection with a mind when it neared death. He soon discovered that by inflicting extreme pain on himself he was free of their control for a few brief, precious seconds.

News of this discovery quickly spread causing Ur-Quan everywhere to begin cutting, hacking, and slicing themselves to be free for just long enough to grab the nearest Dnyarri and squeeze the life out of it. Soon the Ur-Quan had all implanted devices called 'Excruciators' which caused agonising pain but also enabled them to gradually over time eradicate the Dnyarri and end their brutal occupation.

Being sleazy with a lovely Syreen lady...
Finally free of the evil Dnyarri, the Ur-Quan vowed to never again become the subjects of any conquerors, but the Kzer-Za and Kohr-Ah couldn't agree on how this should be ensured. The Kzer-Za favoured at least giving other races a choice - serve them as Battle Thralls or remain on their homeworld which would be sealed shut behind a shield, preventing anyone from coming or going. A few races chose the former, some enthusiastically, others reluctantly, and it was the first of these who opposed the Alliance of Free Stars in the wars of the first Star Control game. Its sequel reveals that the Alliance lost that war with most (though not all) of its races choosing to be slave-shielded on their worlds, including Earth. The Kohr-Ah, on the other hand, believed that even the Kzer-Za's solution was too risky and instead maintained that all sentient life in the galaxy should be wiped out.

Due to their inability to agree on a way forward, the Kzer-Za and Kohr-Ah set off across the galaxy in opposite directions. When they finally met again they would wage war with the winning side's philosophy being adopted by all remaining Ur-Quan. The events of Star Control 2 take place shortly after the Kzer-Za and Kohr-Ah have met and are in the process of fighting the long-prophesied war - something which of course affects the numerous neighbouring races as well.

The starmap showing the territory of most races...
It's an interesting story which is told gradually through the game by numerous races and soon proves engrossing, and the fact that you eventually even sympathise with the Ur-Quan is evidence of its quality. It's so good, in fact, that I've often thought over the years what a fantastic TV show could be made from the Star Control universe. All the ingredients are there - a history stretching back thousands of years, dozens of varied alien races occupied with their own affairs, the hopes of an enslaved Earth resting on a sole free Human and his adventures... it could make for an amazing show for sci-fi fans. If there's one other show with a roughly comparable style that might indicate what a Star Control show could be like, it would be my favourite such show ever - Babylon 5 - and it seems I'm not the only person to have pondered this. Indeed, I recently stumbled upon a fantastic video on YouTube (which is unusual since I rarely venture there) by JimPlaysGames.

Jim is apparently not only a fan of both Star Control 2 and Babylon 5 as I am, but he's also much better at making videos, so if I'm the only one you've ever heard babbling on about this amazing game, take a look at the clip below. Jim's passion for both subjects is clear to see and pretty much sums up my thoughts too.

Spoiler Alert: As superb as this video is, it does contain many spoilers about the story, alien races, and the game in general, so watch with caution!

I'm sure you'll be delighted to hear that this won't be my final post on the Star Control games either! A full review of the second game will soon finally be underway and there are a few more related things I can think of too! In closing this post, however, I implore you: if you have even the merest interest in retro video games, you really must at least try Star Control 2. As I've mentioned before, a PC port of the 3DO version is available to download for free so there's no excuse! Many thanks also to Jim for his permission to post his great tribute video here.

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