Starscape is an unusual game, it can afford to be as it is distributed as shareware by its producers Moonpod but with all due respect to the many bedroom programmers out there, this game really isn't in that league. You see Moonpod is a company of three industry veterans whose vision for gaming had been stifled by a lack innovation by an increasingly unadventurous industry. Rather than pump out a myriad of uninspiring sequels, licenses or tie-ins, clones or even conversions, these guys set up shop with the old axiom "Gameplay is king."
And so we come to Starscape, Moonpod's first release. It is immediately apparent this is not a multi-million dollar production; we are frequently reminded when the topic of game pricing comes up, that a modern day "AAA" title developed by a team of 40+ people does not come cheap, but then really, all your getting for your money is more spit and polish.
A good game is a good game, regardless of its polygon count, or its sound production values, ask any gamer in his mid twenties or thirties and you'll hear how they don't make games like they used to and how many firm favourites didn't even have two polygons to scratch together.
It is to the delight of this audience then, that Starscape is firmly retro in origin.
Built from a 2D perspective Starscape is a space based shoot-em-up with more than a passing nod to Asteroids and even the old Amiga classic Stardust, its not all shooting though as there is extensive research, development and even resource management systems to keep you interested.
Set in the future, your assigned to escort the Aegis, an experimental research station into deep space so that they can test a new drive for faster-than-light travel, upon activation, the drive pulls you and the Aegis through a rip in space into another dimension. Aliens who dwell in that dimension have boarded the Aegis and stripped her of the drive and a number of crew thus preventing your escape home; you must play through 5 zones collecting drive parts and missing crew from the alien invaders.
The plot is pushed forward adequately by RPG style text boxes with pictures of the character speaking whenever you trigger an event, we're definitely in the land of cheese though, everyone is happy and you get the impression they never fight and unfortunately, all the characters seem very bland. It is an opinion bolstered by the visuals which are very clean and smooth cartoon with a cel-shaded look.
In contrast, the graphics while playing are pretty sharp, pre-rendered 2D sprites are manipulated in OpenGL which allows Moonpod to pull off some mind-blowing effects in 3D; weapons fire, ships warping in and out, explosions and some seriously large ships are all handled far better than any fully 2D engine could cope with. Due to the style of the game it has a very similar look to Stardust which is an obvious appeal to retro fan boys like me, this is the sort of game where if it had been created in 3D it would be in a totally different genre, while that might be perceived as an improvement I feel too many genres made the eager leap to 3D in the mid-nineties without looking back and we've lost an art of gaming, but again that's my retro preferences showing through.
What's most important is the look of the game and overall that is clean, coherent and attractive, the perfect balance of 2D and 3D.
I don't think so much of the sound though. Sound effects are adequate, that's not important really, but there isn't a lot of variety and it's the same story with the music. There are a small number of tracks in the game and they're played non-stop, that's fine but play your favourite music album for 6 hours strait and you'll soon grow tired of it and I'll bet it's got more than 3 or 4 tracks.
Maybe I'm being harsh, the sound does fit the game and it has good quality production, I'm just a bit cheesed off with it after such a long time playing the game.
This brings me to the gameplay, one word; Fantastic!
This really is a game to get the blood pumping; worries at the start that this will be a slow game are proved to be an overly friendly difficulty curve, later on the screen is packed with enemies and the firepower from both sides fills the screen with colour. This is good old fashioned shoot-em-up action at its best, no confusion and no over complication; just shoot anything that's not you or the mothership!
When you've destroyed all the enemies, harvested all the minerals from the asteroids and larger ships, you can dock with the Aegis and work a little on the management aspects of the game, unfortunately for arcade purists, this part of the game cannot be skipped or automated and is vital to the progression of the game but in the absence of collectable power-ups, you'll soon learn to spend some time here, developing then building new ships and weapons.
New ships you say? Oh yes, you don't get the standard 3 lives in this game, you want an extra life? Build a new ship, you want bigger weapons? Research them and while you're at it, research new ship designs so those big new guns will fit on.
All research and development requires both time and resources, the resources are found in the form of 3 types of minerals found when destroying asteroids and large ships, time can be skipped by going to the node navigation screen and surfing in and out of the node event horizons. Be warned though, while you pass the time, enemy presence in the nodes continues to move and when a large enough number inhabit the node you're in, it pulls you into the node and before you can leave you'll have to do battle.
Overall this is an immensely enjoyable retro blast wrapped up in a modern day game; its pretty, it's interesting, it's large and it's stuffed to the gills with playability. Add to the fact its shareware, you can play a demo before you buy and it only costs £20, bargain!