Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy is one of those rarities in console gaming. It’s a port of a PC strategy game which hasn’t been dumbed down or edited for consoles in any way, apart from transferring the control scheme from a mouse and keyboard to a single controller. Created by Black Lab Games and published on the Xbox by Slitherine LTD & Matrix Games, it’s a title which is designed to appeal to the dedicated hardcore fans of turn based sci-fi combat. And yet, it remains accessible enough for anyone who’s ever thought of taking to the bridge of the Enterprise to indulge in their fantasy.
Star Hammer begins with some much needed back story. By the 22nd century, the Human race, doing what we do best, has stripped a dying Earth of her resources and set out to find a new world – A world we call Novus. Unfortunately, we didn’t plan on running into the Nautilids, a race of squid-like space faring aliens who we become embroiled in combat with. Add into this the usual machinations and politics that human beings always manage to get themselves tangled up in, and we have as much of a war coming from within as we do from without.
Your character, Valeron Dyce, is a part of a combat fleet on orders out in space around Novus. Throughout the story you have a plethora of missions to complete, around sixty in all, and these range from protecting Novus to heading off to take out Nautilid invaders and groups of defected human pilots known as Remnants. There’s a lot to do, and between missions you can communicate with various different personnel to get up to date situation reports on what’s happening at any given time. Each mission takes around a half hour to play through on the medium difficulty setting, so you’ve got over thirty hours of gameplay throughout the story driven campaign. Missions are selected from a 3D star map, which looks great and helps keep the atmosphere whilst you decide what to take on next, and there’s a highly detailed tutorial which covers how to pilot the different ships and adjust their various systems. Should you wish to take a break from the campaign, you can also indulge in Skirmish mode. This allows you to set your own parameters – map size, number of enemies, difficulty, victory conditions – and have at it from a narrative free perspective.
The missions are of course where the chunk of the gameplay lies, and it’s here where the developers really show off how they’ve managed to squeeze all of the controls into a console release. Star Hammer is a turn based game, where actions are simultaneously resolved. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this means the action is essentially paused while you give orders to your fleet. When you end this phase with a press of a button, those actions play out, as well as those of the enemy. Unlike pure turn based games, such as X-Com or Worms, this requires deeper thinking as the enemy will be acting at the same time, as opposed to sitting their helpless until it’s their turn. You can play out the actions at variable speeds, allowing you to slow things down and keep a track of what’s happening all over the map.
The controls are kept displayed on-screen at all times, and this is really handy as space is a three dimensional area. The maps are split into horizontal planes, being placed vertically above one another, and you can command ships to move up and down through these planes as well as flying forwards and yawing left and right. This means you can flank enemies from above and below as well as around the back and sides, allowing for some really clever, rewarding and intense battles. At times you’ll find yourself in sticky situations which require out thinking your opponent as well as out shooting them, and it’s just as satisfying. You can micromanage every ship in your fleet, and have the ability to transfer power between weapons, engines and shields on a slidable scale if you need to flee or risk one final massive shot while your shields are down. You can also divert power to different areas of your ships, should you find yourself outflanked for example and need to boost the durability of the stern of your craft.
From a distance, everything looks fairly generic for a space based strategy title. But zoom the fully controllable camera up close during an action scene, and you’ll see the developers have gone to great lengths to produce good looking, recognisable ships across different categories. From tiny little single-manned fighters to hulking dreadnoughts, every ship look and feels unique. Setting the speed to slo-mo and watching the lasers and rockets fly into an enemy cruiser, then seeing it spiral off into space with a trail of smoke behind it is just awesome. And it’s all set across a backdrop of colourful nebulae, stars and planets which look great too. Couple this with a great musical score, suitably orchestral and befitting of the wonder and scale of the final frontier, and you have an atmosphere which matches the gameplay.
The only downside I can think of to the whole experience is the lack of multiplayer. In a turn based game such as this, it would be great if you and an opponent could face off online, trying to second guess each others tactics before watching the scene play out. It’s especially notable with it’s absence considering the Skirmish mode is ripe for it. It would even work in local multiplayer, although you’d have to implement a classic ‘look away player 2!’ screen between planning phases.
Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy is a great turn based sci-fi strategy title, and it’s with huge thanks I gladly accept it’s full, unadulterated porting to Xbox One. It looks great, it sounds great and it plays great. If a multiplayer component was present, I could see myself playing this for years to come. Regardless, a huge campaign and endlessly playable skirmish mode make this a title the developer should be proud of, and one fans of the genre should snap up immediately. Here’s hoping Black Lab don’t stop here!
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