Ahead groove factor five

Star Command logo

EARTH is a little more than a distant memory to the brave pioneers of outer space. Now, at the distant edge of the galaxy, things are moving along nicely for the descendants. Or at least they were.
Bands of wandering space pirates threaten to destroy all trade links. The threat of invasion by a race of highly developed insectoids looms ever nearer. And who are the robot pilots sometimes glimpsed at the outer reaches of your territory?

For some time now Star Command has been doing its best to keep on top of the situation. They've been started drafting their troops at an early age, putting them through training and giving them starships in the hope of regaining control out of hand.
You control eight such troops. It's your business to decide exactly what training they should undergo and in which areas - like astrogunning, medical and heavy arms - they should specialise.

There are four basis classes - pilot, soldier, marine and esper (psychic warrior). Each of these is further divided into 13 ranks ranging from private to grand admiral.

Once you have assembled them and trained your squad you must equip them ready for combat. A huge array of items is available - 60 personal weapons, including nuclear grenades, flame throwers and laser rifles, 16 types of armour, four varieties of gun sighting equipment, plus numerous others.
There is an equally wide choice of starships and accessories. You can't afford most of these in the early stages.

So, equipped and eager, it's off to HQ to get your first mission, which will undoubtedly be fairly straightforward. Mine was to find and capture five freight ships. It took me in two minutes.

Mission in hand, you launch into space, where you are presented by a star map divided into 1,024 sectors containing one or more star systems, which in turn might contain numerous planets. This provides a vast playing area. There are no silly planet names, and the whole galaxy is important during the course of the different missions.

Some missions require you to operate on a galactic level, finding pirates in space, that sort of thing. Others require you to go down to a planet's surface, perhaps for an espionage mission.
Combat plays a major part. There are two levels of this in Star Command - man to man and ship to ship. Man to man offers greater scope for weapon selection and use of terrain. It is the more enjoyable of the two.

Should you complete your mission successfully, all surviving squad members will receive a salary according to their rank. This can be used to buy more equipment, or maybe a clone for when things get really nasty. Now you can accept a new mission, or just go pirate hunting to boost your finances.

The game is totally keyboard controlled, which is a shame. And messages sometimes flash by too quickly to be read, which is a pain. The graphics are extremely poor, even for a role-playing game and the sound effects would have been better left out.

Sometimes humourous, sometimes frustrating, always thoroughly absorbing. Star Command is based heavily on the famous Traveller role-playing game. It combines the best of both RPG and strategy and is sure to please fans of both.

Star Command logo CU Super Star

Price: £24.99

The recent spate of SSI games, bar the AD&D licenses have been a little samey, so it was some trepidation that I loaded Star Command, the game that promised to be everything I've been looking for. I can honestly say that after a dozen or so hours of constant play that it is not only one of the best games SSI, it's also one of the best I have ever played.

You, as Commander of eight sturdy young men and women must take on the known universe and most of the unknown one as you battle to save The Triangle. The Triangle, by the way, is the new human home. The old one, originally known as the Earth, was blown away by marauding pirates out looking for some fun.

The Triangle is so called because of its three protective starbases. Within the Triangle is the only known place in the galaxy where any form of law and order exists. Outside pirates roam wild in small groups. They've never really formed much of a threat. Until now.

A particularly nasty pirate by the name of Blackbeard, has rounded together as many pirates as he can get his hands on and is now planning the first ever major assault on The Triangle. You must win the massive war that threatens to erupt any moment.

But not yet. For now you must be satisfied with more menial tasks, yet even the simplest of jobs is fraught with danger. Take the first job for example. It seemed simple enough, just collect a shipment of ore from a mining colony on one planet, and drop the shipment off at another. Simple, only I didn't reckon on being set upon by a gang of pirates while approaching the starbase. I got a couple of shots in before they completely obliterated me.

And that's what this game is all about. Action, adventure and more battles than you could possibly imagine. Of course, it's just as full of options and different weapons as you'd expect an SSI product to be, and more besides. There are 16 types of human armour, 54 different weapons, 9 different types of starships, dozens of different weapons for your ship and loads more besides.

It represents total heaven for an unbalanced lunatic like Mark Patterson. Sadly, the graphics aren't brilliant. They're restricted to small single colour sprites and lots of text windows. However, what's lost in aesthetics is more than made up for by the wealth of information at your fingertips. All controls are single keypresses picked from an on-screen menu.
The sound is pretty limited too, the game's chief effect being a very clever impersonation of a digital alarm clock. Nevertheless there's already a degree of disk swapping involved. The inclusion of graphic and sonic frills would have meant at least a third disk. The Triangle may not push the Amiga to its limits, but it has a level of gameplay and depth most conversions and licences can only dream of.

Star Command logo

SSI, Amiga £29.99

Stuart's log, Stardate 1259pm. After being beamed down into The Prometheus Prophecy last month, the dastardly Dr Norman Nutz has now stranded me on a space station in the Triangle. After accidentally being sold off in last month's Classifieds, he claims he hasn't time to explore this Amiga release. And in any case thinks a non-RPG fan's opinion would be useful to people who haven't played this sort of game before, so here's the idiot's guide to... SSI's Star Command.

'Why read science fiction when you can live it?' demands the packaging; a provocative statement to me and I soon set about reading the 28 page manual. With six pages devoted to charts showing hardware available such like, the manual seems relatively small, but it's densely packed with how-to-play stuff and not an easy read.
The scenario is surprisingly brief, about a page, and tells us the Triangle is the shape and name of Mankind's space empire. Its borders are the Alpha frontier (dominated by piracy under Blackbeard), Beta Frontier (intelligent insects planning a war) and the Unknown. You are in command of a crew of eight which must complete the various missions assigned by you. Many arcade games have better and more realistic settings than this!

Once you begin the game, you must assemble your crew. All instructions are via key presses to selection options. Despite the mouse arrow on screen, there's no WIMP system. Crew selection begins with you pressing 'A', and a character's seven attributes are soon displayed. Attributes range from strength to speed to intelligence. Some attributes overlap, both courage and accuracy affect aiming in battle.
If you like a character's attributes you can hire him, if not you go onto the next. Hire a character and you can train him as a Marine (useful for espionage missions), a Soldier (Explosives and Chemical weapons option), Pilot (fly ship and communicate with aliens) and Esper (psi healing and attack).
To train a character you select a subject (i.e. Light Arms) and if you're lucky he'll go up a notch in that subject. Level eight is the highest you can go in a subject and you have eight years to train someone. This might mean one year Light Arms, two years Special Forces (improving speed and accuracy attributes), one year Scouting/Recon, one year medical, one year explosives and one year repairs. You can also go to officer school, and there are 13 ranks from private to grand admiral with widely varying earnings.
As a consequence when someone fires at an enemy the computer takes account of the weapon, whether it's loaded, range, any aiming devices added on, the soldier's accuracy, courage and willpower attributes, plus training rank with weapon type. Each time you complete a mission you can return to training to improve selected attributes/skills further.

Once you have picked up your crew you should pick a starship. There is a big range, but they're expensive, limiting choice to two initially. Choose the cheapest as you also nee to buy defensive equipment (shields, armour and later, electronic gadgets), ship's weapons (a large range) and crew equipment. Your team has a massive choice of weapons (5.56 mm Palm Guns to Neutron Grenades), plus protective clothing and miscellaneous stuff such as medikits, radiation detectors and lock pick sets.

Now you are all kitted up you can get a mission from Headquarters and set off. My first mission was to go a set zone, and conduct espionage missions on all the planets there. In essence, this meant moving a cursor across a plain space map until said zone was reached, then stepping down the map to show all the stars in the zone, then moved the cursor to the nearest star, stepped down the map scale, and moved the cursor to the nearest planet. Map scale is scaled down to show a piccy of the planet, and a mission (either espionage, trade or scientific) is selected. A dropship is shown flying off, Then returns. Pretty boring, huh?

Of course it takes time to get into the game, and soon enough space combat had begun. The first phase of combat is communication where you can, for example, plead for a truce or even pretend to be a deity and demand the enemy to surrender. Phase two is movement. Your rather pathetic ship icon (it resembles a stick man! - Norman) can be moved around or rotated. The latter is important because which direction shields, and gun positions, face is crucial. Phase three is firing, the computer suggests targets, but can change them or not fire at all. Choose fire, and a laser beam flies off, it's course and impact determined by weapon type, the gunner's skill and so on. As important as tactics in battle, is the planning of the ship's defences; which weapons are where and so on.

If you've planned well you can badly damage the enemy and choose to board his vessel. Squad combat then begins: this is basically the same whether on an enemy ship, space station or planet. The view switches to show the combat zone, from above, and details of your squad's health. The environment is divided up into empty areas, impassable areas, and defensive and offensive areas. Combat is again divided up into communications, movement and shooting phases. The squad always moves together and occasionally you can stumble over a computer, allowing you to scan its memory etc.

Presentation throughout the game is crude and unattractive. Using the mouse to point and click on a nicely designed layout would've added a lot. The basics of gameplay are surprisingly simple, but killing someone involves so much (skill, character, attributes, choice of dozens of weapons etc) that it's far from easy to play.
Appropriate enough for something which claims to be like a book, the reward of playing the game isn't so much spectacular space battle scenes but the gradual development of the adventure. Your squad builds up its skills (and if you lose a man you might to clone him, expensive as he is). The missions gradually become more interesting, and clearly there's a lot of memory to provide a big variety.

If I had more spare time, Star Command offers the sort of challenge most arcade games couldn't dream of matching (though FOFT has a go). It is, in a very limited sense, like being in a book. But you must use your imagination a heckuva lot to get over the poor presentation. According to Robin this is only an average example of the gametype, so I'll be looking out for some of the better ones (Oh no you won't! Norman).