Monday 1 July 2024

Free Stars: The Ur-Quan Review (Steam)


Buckle up, as you are about to take a bold adventure through time and space to a land of OLD GAME. In this remastering (freemastering?) of Star Control 2, you can feel the anxiety of gaming in the past as a gamer of the present as you game a past-present game. Widely lauded, the Star Control titles from the start of the ’90s broke ground on many forms of games we still see crop up today. If you read about it, people mostly concoct a family tree to Mass Effect or Stellaris, but also things like Fallout. The strongest a-likeness I felt was one of the games of the century, Faster Than Light: FTL, and Highfleet. At the time of Star Control coming out, I was just too young for it. It would be over the subsequent couple of years that I’d discover point and click adventure games, that led me into the world of games proper. While I would soon enjoy being baffled by Elite 2 and played such sci-fi milestones as Pickle Wars (shareware), I never encountered Star Control. Now, this new resurfacing allows us all to experience a bit o’ history and hopefully a charming resuscitation of a classic IP.

I’ll warn you, this is a strange and uncompromising title that is, so I understand, a faithful porting. Be prepared to do a little research around its unexplained edges. I especially came to confusion over controls. Piloting a wayward research ship returning to Earth, your first encounter will most likely be with an Ur-Quan surveillance drone that approaches when you close in to the planet. Being briefly informed that humankind is now enslaved, and Earth is a sort of zoo-farm, and the space-caterpillar police were soon en-route. After connecting with a human slave to have an exposition dump, we are launched into a mission to rally allies and compatriots to the cause of galactic riddance of the insectoid overlords.

The Ur-Quan, and all the creatures and characters, are colourfully voiced in this version, with joyfully ludicrous animated portraits. These were roundly imitated by Fallout, among other games, to good effect. The voice-acting is kitsch and camp and adds a lovely Ed Wood vibe. The typefaces for each alien species remind me of when the Neil Gaiman Lucifer comics helped provide accents visually with a vivid range of evocative hand-made type. It would be worth entering this game with a wry smile rather than a po-face, especially when you experience these aliens. I remember the abject seriousness (and punishing consequences of failure) of the Star Trek games such as 25th Anniversary and Last Rites. This is not that, which was trying hard as it could to legitimise its game tie-ins. Ur-Quan feels more like the absurd bio-racer Vangers most of the time. Racing around different space-vehicular minigames for resource gathering, combat and traversal. This is an open-world survival game that has an alpine learning curve and, what feels like, 8-axis movement.

You can visit all sorts of planets, craft new ships, and primarily form relationships with the alien cultures. It plods along well, but simple mistakes are hard to recover from. I often found myself struggling to make ground on enemies, or turning at the wrong point and losing lots of progress (almost identical to the brutally gorgeous Highfleet, but for different reasons). It becomes a little repetitive, and I eventually ran out of steam, but for the time it endured, Ur-Quan was a wonderful experience, well ported. A lot of jaunts down Dos Box lane that I’ve had over the years resulted in games simply falling apart, or being themselves simply torturous to play. Enough has been smoothed, and some accessibility options are present in this “museum” piece that it is a worthwhile experience for curious gamers. It’s free, the hu-mans are not!

Overall 6/10

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