Command Adventures: Starship

Merit Software's newest release is a galactic exploration game vaguely reminiscent of Starflight. Called Command Adventures:Starship, this enormous production looks appealing on the box, but struggles to live up to its own high billing.

When I say enormous, I mean it. This game lays itself out on your hard drive in a big way. After installation, I discovered 10 or so subdirectories and countless data files adding up to 27MB! What's more, Starship is definitely the pickiest game I've ever seen when it comes to configuration. Woe be to those who don't know everything about sound cards and system files...unless you have a system from God, you'll be fiddling with both. My ordeal included two calls to Merit's Customer Support number and countless rewritings of my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS. This is not a good way to win over an already skeptical reviewer.

My mixed feelings on copy protection got even more mixed upon execution of Starship. It presents you with four symbols and "asks" you which one has a twin at a certain coordinate on a dark red, copy-proof sheet included in the box. Not a bad scheme, but for some reason, you're required to do this twice. What's worse, the manual neglects to mention this, and you can imagine my surprise when I was forced to verify again after giving the correct answer the first time. My patience for this game was waning by the second.

After mumbling countless unprintable words, I selected NEW from the main menu and began to play. Well, kinda. I did what the manual told me to do first...namely, select an alien race, and then purchase a ship, some weapons, and a crew with the large sum of money I suddenly possessed. Jumping at the notion that I conceivably had some control now, I started purchasing several of the neat-looking gizmos available to me. Not unexpectedly, I ran out of money, and was amazed to discover that I had to return to the main menu and redo the copy protection check to get another crack at coming under budget. I quickly learned that the best method of selecting my initial equipment was to use a calculator and add up the total cost of what I wanted before I bought anything. This, of course, is anything but user-friendly, but most experienced strategy gamers are used to rough interfaces.

Speaking of interfaces, Starship contains several. The three phases of the game that you'll spend most of your time in are all motion-and-exploration-type sequences, each on a different order of magnitude. The first interface is a zoomed out starmap, in which you simply click on an area to move your ship to that vicinity. Once there, the second interface is used to control precise movement within the vicinity, and to engage enemies and dock with planets. Finally, once on a planet, you're given the familiar, RPG-like overhead party view to make movement and man-to-man combat easy.

"Point-and-click" is a big buzzword in the computer industry nowadays, and it hasn't taken long for the mouse to become the control of choice among game programmers. Starship is totally mouse-driven (with optional keyboard control in some sections), and for the most part, is designed well for use with a mouse. There are awkward moments, though. Ship vs. ship combat is real-time (or, in layman's terms, real fast), and I found myself needing the keyboard for thrust and direction controls. Also, frustration ensued when I tried to navigate members of my party on a planet filled with odd rock formations. In clear territory, clicking on a spot of land will move the selected character to that spot. However, he'll just stop if he hits something he can't walk through. How many lines of code would it take to make a character automatically move around something? Merit's neglect of little things like this will annoy you more than you might think.

A game with this many quirks in only the first hour or so is sure to cause hair-pulling anxiety in many would-be players. Nevertheless, Starship did keep me hooked for a while...partially because I was beginning to like the challenge of overcoming its problems, and partially because I couldn't stop looking at it. The screen shots don't lie. Starship's graphics are simply dynamite. There are several animations included in just the right places, and crisp detail throughout. If you're familiar with my reviews, you're aware that I'm a sucker for games that look good. Not only does Starship qualify on that count, but it's also surprisingly fast despite almost nonstop crunching and decrunching of graphic data. Frankly, I'm surprised at the disparity between the quality of the above aspects, and the quality of the overall gameplay.