Because Stars Matter: Starshatter (Sci-Fi Flight Sim) is Free!

Entering orbit in an F-34D, a slower multi-purpose fighter.

Update

The original host site, Starshattermods.com, succumbed to hacking and is down. Hard Light Productions, a fantastic community that grew around Freespace Open, has generously taken up hosting the Starshatter forums here. Starshatter files are hosted in this thread. I still have some of the files, please let me know in the comments if you have any trouble obtaining them.

The Short

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm is a moderately complex, moderately realistic, spaceborne military flight sim that takes place in a series of dynamic campaigns. It won’t change your life, but it ain’t bad.

The Good:

  • it’s not too punishing or difficult. It strives for a moderate amount of realism, but offers an optional video-gamey control scheme
  • takes place in four dynamically shifting war campaigns, rather than a static set of missions or a bland open world design
  • graphics and sounds are good for such a small studio, but won’t blow your entire head off
  • receive promotions! Start flying fighter craft, and move upward to capital ships, even become an admiral and direct the course of the war.
  • heck, it’s FREE and open source!
  • fairly open to modding
  • rewards come after overcoming the learning curve, about 4-6 hours, perhaps less if you’ve flown flight sims before

The Bad:

  • a bit repetitive, a bit spare, a bit bland. It’s a quasi-military flight sim, there’s not a lot of character here.
  • lack of variety in ships
  • reportedly difficult and tedious to create your own missions
  • no multiplayer campaign

Read on for the review, or skip to the “Getting It” section for info on how to get it!

A Shattered History

Much of the action occurs in space, but you’ll frequently fly terrestrial missions as well.

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm became open source in December, to very little notice. Almost none. I’d never heard of it, either, and it’s in a genre I’m crazy about. Originally published by Matrix Games, a well-meaning but almost unknown publisher and games store, Starshatter was released somewhat buggy, somewhat incomplete, and was taken off of its only real marketplace some time ago. So on top of everything else, it’s been nearly impossible to obtain. Even with a few dedicated fans, the game has languished. But now, it’s free and open source, and mature enough to play on its own.

What’s all this Shat About?

In-cockpit shot. See that moon? It’s a real part of the current system.

Starshatter (apparently a sequel to a buggier original that we can safely ignore) takes place in familiar territory: thousands of years in the future, with space ships as common as house flies, a conflict that can only be solved by open war, that sort of wonderful thing.

Most space combat games fall into some combination of two types: either a series of static, scripted missions focusing on dramatic events (Freespace, Wing Commander), or an open, RPGish world emphasizing character building and economy (Privateer, Elite).

Starshatter takes a third route with dynamic military campaigns, something more frequently seen in military flight sims like Falcon 4.0 or IL-2 Sturmovik. A real war plays out between two or more fleets, and the battles you (and your AI brethren) engage in affects how the war proceeds. How you perform in one mission determines both what your next mission might be, and the overall progress of the war campaign. While you pursue your specific mission, the other AI pilots, friend and foe alike, pursue theirs, and the war plays out day by day.

Though you start out a fighter pilot, you gradually gain rank, which allows you to command more powerful vessels, eventually gaining control of capital ships, even carriers (if you want to). Commanding more critical ships means that your actions have a greater influence over how the war plays out. Your successes and screwups are magnified. You can even progress to an admiral level and dictate the movements of the entire fleet.

This is all optional, by the way. If you prefer, you can stay a fighter pilot, or, if you have the rank, jump from mission to mission to any ship.

Here’s an example of the effect you have on things: In one case, I accidentally dove through the atmosphere and onto a nearby planet (fighters are at home in space and in gravity environments). Once there, I discovered a small enemy site with anti-aircraft installations (AAA). The very next day, I noticed that my inadvertent intelligence gathering had been noticed by the AI admiral: clearing those AAA installations was now available on the mission board. As a fighter pilot, I had a small impact on how things were going. As the captain of a capital ship, I’d expect my successes and my screw ups to have an even larger effect.

Fighter Jets in Spaaaace

Thrusters firing during a carrier landing. You have first person, cockpit, chase (shown), and orbit views available.

I haven’t played a lot of flight sims in my time, mostly logging in some very satisfying hours in IL-2 Sturmovik. Though it is a WWII military aircraft simulator, you also get to pilot some early military jet aircraft. They’re a bit finicky, and far different from the prop planes that make up the vast majority of the game.

Starshatter’s fighters are like this in more ways than one. They do feel quite like jet aircraft in space. (And in terrestrial missions, they feel like jet aircraft on Earth.) You get the strong notion that, like real jet aircraft, they’re mainly good at providing a lot of thrust in pretty much one direction, and any advanced maneuvers take some experience and forethought. Fighters have no magical shields, and no magical repair systems. Dogfighting tends to rely on firing missiles at mid-range, then closing in and finishing off an opponent with guns. There’s no run-away-and-regenerate period, such that you might get with Freespace or Independence War. You can and will get so damaged that you can’t fly home (sadly there are no search and retrieval craft; if you don’t make it home, it’s a loss). Or you could lose your sensors and HUD, limping home to your carrier, unable to determine whether anyone has locked onto you in the meantime. A fighter is a delicate, deadly thing.

Bring Out the Big Guns

A peek at the carrier I just launched from. Later on, you can captain it if you like.

Helming a starship is a different matter. These are big, slow, complex things, and unlike fighters, they do have shields (which consume quite a bit of power when deployed). They also have engineering crews to help with repair, and you can micromanage these if you like.

Capital ships include frigates, destroyers, and carriers. I haven’t gotten far enough to toy much with these yet, but from my limited experience, it’s quite a different ballgame. You have multiple banks of guns, fighter squadrons to command, and ship systems to manage. From what I’ve seen, it’s not a perfect version of what I’d like to see (the ancient Rules of Engagement series seems to do this better), but still… want to command a capital ship? Don’t want to pay money? You’re in luck. Have a seat, captain.

The Bird’s Eye View

F3, or Orbit View, gives you a view of the whole map. Depending on your rank, you can command some or all of these ships.

F3, or Orbit View, gives you a view of the whole map. Depending on your rank, you can command some or all of these ships.

The last stop in the game is fleet admiral. Since I’m still new, I’m not sure whether you can command just a fleet, or deploy all fleets as you see fit, but at this point, things turn into a hybrid turn-based/realtime strategy game. If this is what you’re craving, go for it.

Obviously, there are better grand strategy games out there. However, even as an admiral, you should still have the option to pilot a lowly fighter, so all roles are now open to you, should you shy away from the strategic level of things. Play the game as you like, and enjoy the freedom. The AI admiral will take over for you at any time.

Mods

No game worth a buck these days can be without mod support, and Starshatter boasts friendliness to mods right out of the box. It’s a hard boast when generating campaigns and missions is reportedly unweildy, but still, there are the standard array of sci-fi mods. It is apparently relatively easy to import models from other formats into the game and create your own fleet. Here are a few fleet mods to choose from:

  • Star Wars HD and Star Wars HD2: still being continuously added to, and it looks pretty good. Some of these models are kind of high-poly, though, and could probably stand some optimizing. These mods include many of the ships from the movie, as well as many semi-official fanwank designs.
  • Battlestar Galactica: both the original 70′s series and 00 ships are represented here.
  • Star Frontiers: this was apparently a Japanese series from the 70′s that predated Macross/Robotech. Never heard of it, myself, but it’s one of the newest mods.
  • More stuff: Probably the best place to check out the more current/popular mods is the mod announcement forum itself, or just visit the front page at www.starshattermods.com.

It’s actually a bit surprising to see so many mods for a game that’s been mostly ignored. That, combined with how horribly difficult and un-fun the mission editor is to use, results in a landslide of ship mods, and almost no missions available that actually let you fly them. (Exceptions seem to include the Star Wars HD mod and the Battlestar Galactic mod.)

The result is that this is even less impressive than Independence War’s scattered few mods, but since the platform has gone open source, this may well improve, if the community can get enough people interested. As it is, the price to try it out is very low, so you have nothing to lose except your time.

Overall Comments

Starshatter isn’t without its problems. It’s a bit simmy, which may put off a more casual audience. It’s not too simmy and very sci-fi, which may put off a hardcore audience. But for those in-between guys (like me), who want more complexity than Freespace, and are tired of dull economic sims like X3, this is a great diversion.

Even with a dutiful manual reading, there’s a learning curve. The game has its own way of doing things, and you should be ready to play and observe at the same time. Pause, jump into F3 mode, observe. There is a scripted way to engage destroyers, there is a scripted way to destroy AAA.  And then, there’s your own way, which you’ll have to discover on your own. You’ll have to be willing to fail and lose a few fighters while you learn the war-proper way to engage enemies. And, along the way, you’ll have to be OK with dying a few times.

Starshatter is at least trying what I’ve wanted for some time. Like many games of its type, it helps if you love what Starshatter is trying to do and meet it halfway. Starshatter scratches an itch that Freespace and Independence War II can’t, and that’s quite good for a title that’s freely available.

A Few Tips

  • Read the manual. I know, manuals are boring, and this one is no exception, but the tutorial missions leave out about half of what you need to know. On the other hand, you never really die in a campaign (though your ships do). You can do what I did: play the campaign and read a little bit of the manual each time you die or come across something unfamiliar.
  • Register and comment at http://www.starshattermods.com the new StarShatter forums. The future of this game will live and die by its community participation, so participate! Be warned, though, the community is small, insular, and a bit snarky to newcomers.

Getting Starshatter: The Gathering Storm For Free

  1. Visit Hard Light Productions for the downloads. That was easy.
  2. You’ll have to register an account with the gatekeepers here: www.starshattermods.com.
  3. Download the latest version of the “full game” in the Legacy Official Files category, currently here.
  4. Download vox.dat (voice files for the game), currently here. Original post is here.
  5. Finally, download the base enhancement pack, Starshatter Reborn Effects Mod, here. Original post is here.

Installing It

  1. Extract the main game into a new folder.
  2. Extract vox.dat in the game’s root folder.
  3. Extract the Effects Mod to the \mod folder.
  4. Delete the CFG files in the game’s root folder, particularly player.cfg and video.cfg. The game will recreate them when you start it.

Configuring It

  1. Just run Starshatter.exe to get started!
  2. Page through the settings and set as desired. Here are some of the less obvious items:
    1. On the MODS screen, be sure to enable the Reborn Effects Mod.
    2. If necessary, edit video.cfg in a notepad app to fit your screen resolution.
    3. Disable shadows for better performance.
    4. Enable the rudder for your joystick.
  3. Restart the game for your settings to take effect.

Playing It!

Here are some notes on the more jarring things I ran into:

  1. If you play through the tutorials, you can completely ignore your instructor and just play around on your own.
  2. If you find that your wingmen are having a lot of trouble landing, check to make sure the Reborn Effects mod is enabled. Even with the fixes in place, friendly fighters will often take suicidal flight paths and smash themselves into the capital ships, especially early in a mission.
  3. For the in-cockpit view, hit Shift+F1. Press K to get a wider view.
  4. Hit J to toggle between the roll/yaw axes.
  5. The manual is under \manuals in the game directory. You’ll need it!
  6. Feel free to pause at any time, and hit F3 to examine the battlefield.
  7. Whether paused or not, you can press N to take a look at your flight plan. You can make changes on the fly, or ignore your navigation route completely.
  8. Minefields in space shoot back. (I guess that actually makes more sense than them sitting around waiting for the very unlikely event of someone accidentally crashing into them.)
  9. Fighters are extremely delicate! Treat them like the glass cannons that they are. On the other hand, screw it, death isn’t permanent.
  10. There is no real penalty for ignoring your mission and doing what you want, unless your actions become a detriment to the war effort itself. Explore and have fun.

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