Shadow Stars: The Ventrui Belt
The Tarwyne and the Warfyr have been in conflict for a very long time. The two mighty empires were evenly matched until recently, when rumours reached the Warfyr of a new super weapon the Tarwyne were developing. Presumably the Warfyr have been watching the original Star Wars trilogy because they decided to gather together all the ships they could muster, zip off to the Ventrui asteroid belt and blow the secret weapon to pieces before it's too late.
And, like the rebel fleet's advance on the new, improved Death Star, this too was into a trap. The Warfyr fleet exited hyperspace bang on top of a large minefield, destroying most of the fleet before they knew what hit them. Tarwyne fighters zipped in, taking out the survivors. All that remains of this proud fleet are your fighter, and the crippled command cruiser Starblade. With no functioning hyperspace engines and hence no way home, there's little else you can do except try to complete your original objective, and blast a few Tarwyne ships along the way.
Shadow Stars is a 3D space combat simulation. You have control of the Warblade fighter, with the usual shields, laser cannons and missiles. Your objective varies each mission - take out all the enemies, protect a ship, cross hostile space or simply stay alive for x minutes. But primarily, you will be flying around amongst the asteroids and blowing up enemy ships.
The graphics for Shadow Stars are impressive (though not quite exceptional), with ships zipping by at dizzying speeds. It's the minor areas that let it down - the arrows that show where off-screen targets are can be misleading, and having your ship constantly in view blocks the central part of the display. The HUD is at first unintuitive but easy to interpret once you learn how.
I like the briefing voice-overs, and feel the reader's accent adds a delightfully exotic touch to the game. It's a shame that the briefing text scrolls far more slowly than the words are spoken! Sounds work well in combat - plus marks go to having different sounds for laser bolts hitting shield and hull.
The game music is a little disappointing though - while an excellent piece, there is only one track. There should ideally be a range of these to suit different missions and moods. Those who have played such games before may Shadow Stars simplistic. It sharply reminded me at first of Conflict: Freespace, though without the gigantic command list. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because it makes it much easier to play. Bad, because it makes the game seem rather samey rather quickly. Controls can be a combination of mouse, joystick and keyboard, with the mouse operating the crosshairs for your guns. Shooting in a different direction to your flight is unusual and effective.
Unfortunately, the game itself suffers a little in the combat stakes. Tarwyne fighters weave and dodge like maniacs and keeping them on screen is often difficult, much less keeping them in your crosshairs. If one escapes your attention it can often regenerate its shield before you can hit it. Then there are the missiles, which rather neatly are replaced if you have the spare energy, but which seem to often only take out enemy shields. Ironically, because they don't move, cruisers are easier to kill than fighters!
In some ways the game seems unfinished - pressing ESC will quit the game, rather than provide a menu. Missions are not always clear from the briefings, and when I was to cross hostile areas I had no idea which way I was supposed to go. In another mission I kept "leaving the engagement area" - but I wasn't sure where the boundary was.
There is one other mysterious problem I had with Shadow Stars. For some reason, it won't run on my laptop (complaining about a missing DirectX file). Fortunately I have access to several machines. Having looked this up online I have observed that I am not the only one to encounter this, and that it may be linked to having installed the DirectX Software Development Kit.
Overall, this is an ambitious and relatively successful game from an ambitious and relatively new developer. If you like space combat games then this is definitely worth a look.
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