The elevator pitch for Starcom Nexus is that it’s a modern, somewhat lighter version of Star Control. You’re an officer in an incredibly thinly-veiled analogue for the Federation from Star Trek, and you have control of a single ship that is, to begin with, just an engine, a bridge section and a plasma turret bolted together. This is not much with which to face the scenario the game tosses you into roughly thirty seconds after you boot it up: a magical rift in space appears (some might even call it… a Nexus) and tosses both your ship and a nearby friendly space station into a totally uncharted region of the universe, full of weird new phenomena and unknown alien races to make friends with/blow up for resources. You use those resources at the friendly space station to bolt new modules onto your ship, growing it from a rinky-dink shuttle into a titanic space behemoth that lays waste to everything around it, while solving the central mystery of where you are, how you got there, and how you can possibly get back.
Much like Star Control, Starcom Nexus is a mix of relatively freeform exploration, story-driven encounters that are almost adventure game-esque, and arcade space combat. When you encounter hostile alien ships the game plays almost identically to a twin-stick shooter, since at first the only type of weapon you can mount on your ship is the plasma turret, which can fire in any direction completely independently of your ship’s orientation and which also has a very fast fire rate. You control your ship movement with WASD and your fire direction with the mouse (Starcom is compatible with gamepads but I never felt the need to use one); later on you get access to a selection of secondary weapons like missiles and cutting lasers but your primary reliable source of damage is always going to be those omnidirectional plasma guns. Since your ship handles like a brick to start with you’re not going to be doing any pinpoint maneuvering here, and so your initial combat encounters are a series of high speed drift turns around groups of enemies while spraying them with plasma fire.
The game doesn’t stay like this for long, however. Unlike Star Control, Starcom Nexus won’t let you recruit friendly alien ships to serve as part of your fleet, but it makes up for it by having a far more detailed set of systems for upgrading your own ship. First you have a surprisingly detailed and dense “research” tree — this functions more like an RPG skill tree for your ship than it does a classic research tree, as you’re awarded Research Points (i.e. XP) from completing missions and encountering weird galactic phenomena that are then spent to instantly unlock things from the tree — which both unlocks new ship modules and boosts the effectiveness of the ones you already have. Given the amount of complaining I’ve done about small numbers in RPG systems recently I was pleased to see Starcom Nexus making the correct choice and having each research/skill tier purchase increase your power by a hefty amount that had an immediately visible impact on the ship combat side of things, and if you go far enough up the skill branch for your plasma turrets (for example) you can triple the damage and fire rate (along with the energy drain). All of your weapon systems can be specialised like this, along with your engines, energy generation, tractor beam efficiency… it’s not a staggeringly deep system, but since Starcom Nexus isn’t a 4X or a true RPG it’s enough to keep presenting you with interesting choices on where to invest your skill points almost until the end of the game1.
Then you have the ship construction system, where you bolt together your ship from a selection of ship modules that are uniformly square in shape. Your command module is your starting point, and aside from a total module cap (which can be increased via the research tree) there’s no hard limits on what you can add to the ship; you’re free to jam on any ridiculous combination of modules you want just so long as you can pay the resource cost. Of course making a ship that’s twenty plasma turrets and only one engine wouldn’t be very efficient, so you find yourself balancing certain soft requirements as you build out your own personal Super Star Destroyer. The larger your ship gets the more mass it will have, and the more engine modules you’ll need to maintain your accustomed top speed. Firing the engines requires energy, and while a single reactor module can provide enough energy to keep a single engine going indefinitely it won’t be able to power ten at once, so you’ll need to add more reactors at some point too. Plasma turrets drain energy at a far more precipitous rate than the engines and you’ll never add enough reactors to keep those firing for long before your energy reserves run out, so you need just enough that you can maximise your damage output during a thirty-second combat encounter.
These soft requirements governing what you can and can’t put on your ship are enough to make the ship construction a success — again, it’s a system that presents you with interesting choices to make almost until the very end of the game — but it’s a very qualified one. The decision to make all of the modules square blocks results in your ship having a blocky, Lego-like appearance, and since all enemy ships are put together using the same system they also look like flying Lego models. That’s not an aesthetically invalid choice, but it is somewhat at odds with how the rest of the game looks and doesn’t spur you to make anything beyond the most utilitarian of designs. There’s a great bit in Iain M. Banks’ Excession where one of the Culture GSVs converts the majority of its internal volume into engines because it has somewhere that it needs to be right now, and that’s what my Starcom Nexus ship designs felt like a lot of the time: a huge bank of engines propelling a set of energy reactors and plasma turrets, with the odd armour module scattered about to boost effective HP.
The curious thing about it is that there’s very few hard rules about where you can put a given module. Engine modules need to go at the back, and missile modules can’t have any modules in front of them, and modules must be connected to at least one other module, and that’s the sum total of the build rules the game gives to you. Galaxy Trucker has more restrictions on where you can put a module than Starcom Nexus does, and that’s a game where you have to keep all of the rules in your head and adhere to them under extreme time pressure. Because ship modules can go basically anywhere and positioning doesn’t matter all that much outside of armour modules (which boost the armour of adjacent modules) what you’ve actually got here is an overcomplicated interface for using a simple counter to increment and decrement the number of engines/guns/reactors on your ship. It’s a style choice, and nothing more, and while I do appreciate a touch of style and it’s by no means detrimental to the game, it’s still a little frustrating that more isn’t made out of the ship construction.
Still, between the research tree and the construction there’s enough of a sense of power progression to sustain Starcom Nexus throughout its campaign as you go from a rinky-dink shuttle to a heavily-armoured dreadnaught with a dozen plasma turrets, missile pods, activatable shields and even a railgun, and which is still capable of hurtling across the galaxy at a fair clip. Starcom has the now-familiar galactic map of star nodes connected by warp lanes (with the occasional stellar nexus that acts as a fast travel point), but an interesting thing it does is to also let you eschew those warp lanes and travel from solar system to solar system using your regular engines in real-time. In most cases this is much slower than using the warp lanes, but occasionally you’ll see a star several sectors away that isn’t connected by any warp points; sometimes you’ll be able to remotely activate a fast travel point there by following one of the game’s various plot strands, but setting a course via the star map and getting there the old-fashioned way is always an option. This is why it’s a good idea not to let your ship get too bloated, since even with a fast ship that’s maxed out on its engine capacity since it takes several real-time minutes to cover interstellar distances.
Because you can theoretically go anywhere in the game from the word go (just so long as you know where it is and you’re willing to invest the time to get there), Starcom Nexus has a rather freeform feeling that’s quite important in a game whose beating heart is the Star Trek-esque exploration of new worlds and new civilizations. This is achieved by warping into a new system and visiting each of the planets there in turn to see if they have anything interesting on them; if they do you can dispatch a team to investigate via a short text-based away mission (although usually with an appropriate piece of art accompanying it to set the scene). These missions are mostly hands off with the away team retrieving technology and/or dying horribly to weird phenomena with no interaction from you required, and while there’s a significant minority that require you to make some sort of choice that choice is almost always been “poke the weird alien artifact” and “do nothing”. Since doing nothing gets you nothing, and poking the artifact will, at worst, cost you some crew (who are an abstract number which negatively impacts the ship if it gets too low, but adding a single habitation module will give you enough crew that away mission losses are trivial), you always poke the artifact. I think I came across exactly one encounter where poking the artifact ended up negatively impacting my relationship with a certain alien race, and even they let me off with a stern warning not to do it again; otherwise the away missions are completely self-contained either as single encounters or as their own brief two- or three-part plot threads.
The key thing about Starcom Nexus’s away missions, though, is that while they might be short and relatively light and disappointingly atomic, there are an awful lot of them and a surprisingly low number of them are repeated; I’d say maybe 60-70% of the encounters in the game are unique one-shots, which is impressive when you consider there’s north of 200 of them. And for all that they might be brief, they are consistently well-written by people who have clearly read and watched a lot of classic sci-fi and who manage to successfully tread the line between “homage to” and “ripping off from” when incorporating those influences into their encounter narration. Some of the encounters are multi-stage and involve solving navigational puzzles or visiting several different locations in sequence, which can get interesting because Starcom Nexus doesn’t have anything quite as gauche as automatic quest markers or waypoints breadcrumbing you towards objectives; it does have a list of outstanding missions but figuring out where to go and what to do to complete these missions is entirely on you. This has the potential to become extremely confusing given just how many distinct missions and encounters there are in the game, but nearly every single piece of encounter text is recorded verbatim in your fully-searchable mission log — so if you come across a mission that refers to a warp pylon located in an unknown location of the galaxy you can just whack “warp pylon” into the search bar to see if there’s anything in the log that fits that description that might clue you in as to where it can be found.
This approach of not handing you everything on a plate combines with Starcom Nexus’s freeform navigation and exploration to produce some of the game’s most satisfying moments. You might be able to see a neighbouring star several sectors away, and you might be able to get there if you set the engines on autopilot and walk away from the computer for a couple of minutes, but if there’s anything hidden in the darkness of interstellar space you have practically no chance of finding it without trawling through your mission log to figure out precisely where it is. Often the clues take the form of puzzles where you have to decipher oblique directions or a map drawn in a different frame of reference. Going through the log, slapping down a manual waypoint on the star map around roughly where you think the thing is and then travelling to it to find that you were right is a great feeling that’s been somewhat lost in AAA games; it’s something that’s seems to be slowly coming back into vogue there2 but in the meantime it’s good that we have titles like Starcom Nexus picking up the slack. Yes, the gameplay rewards for hunting down these things are necessarily limited to a big chunk of XP or a bunch of rare materials for building ship modules (plus occasionally unlocking an otherwise-hidden technology) because the gameplay systems don’t allow scope for much more than that, but I think solving these little puzzles was a worthwhile goal in and of itself.
Unfortunately the generally freeform, think-for-yourself ethos of Starcom Nexus does throw its biggest flaw into unusually sharp relief: when it comes to the games’ various mission chains it’s not actually possible to do anything out of order. For example, there’s a region of space that’s been overrun by a sentient virus called the Phage, and one of the things you can do is try to find an antivirus to eradicate it. I thoroughly explored all of the Phage-controlled systems but even though I got all the way to the Phage homeworld, and even though my science officer dropped a pretty heavy hint that I could kill all of the Phage by dropping in an antivirus there, I still had to wait for some other non-obvious quest trigger before he’d actually give me the damn antivirus to do it. It was an entirely scripted A > B > C > D event chain, with no step skipping possible and where step C was barely hinted at in the mission text. If you find anything related to the main plotline before you’re supposed to it’ll just be curiously inert until you hit the appropriate stage of the story, at which point it will magically turn on. In fact there’s a distressingly high number of “Oh, this thing you just found? Yeah that doesn’t do anything until you’ve flicked this switch at the other end of the galaxy. Also we won’t tell you where the switch is” encounters in general. The worst example is at the very end of the game’s main story, where you need to repeatedly blow up a certain type of enemy ship so that you can scavenge three of a certain component from it, except:
- The ship spawns are comparatively rare.
- The drop rate is very low.
- The game doesn’t even tell you you need this component until you pick the first one up, which given the rarity of the ships and the terrible drop rate takes around twenty minutes of randomly flying around looking for spawns.
I think being this mechanically prescriptive with quest objectives means you need to be equally clear with the player on what they need to be doing. It’s fine for the game to be vague when it’s just about finding the correct point in two-dimensional space, but when it demands that I perform a specific set of actions in a specific order it’s far too easy for vague directions and hints to be misunderstood, especially when trying to translate them into the limited set of gameplay actions allowed by Starcom Nexus’s systems. Often the information flow dries up completely, as in my ship component example above, and you’re left flying around at random wondering what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. Thankfully these incidences are clustered towards the endgame (which feels rather rushed in general) and so the bulk of Starcom Nexus just about gets away with it, but it’s definitely a trap I feel the devs should watch out for if they make another one.
I do have other complaints about Starcom Nexus, but I feel it would be slightly unfair to make them given that it’s supposed to be a lighter version of Star Control and mostly succeeds at being that. It would have been nice to have a more detailed set of relationships with the various alien races you encounter, but implementing a proper diplomatic system is somewhat beyond the scope of what the game is trying to do. It would have been nice if those same alien races interacted with each other in any way instead of randomly flying around their own systems, but that’s also one of the first things you cut if there’s any doubt you’re going to be able to get this game out of the door. I missed the voices, animated portraits and music of the Star Control aliens — again, though, replacing them with a simple 2D portrait is a bit disappointing but doesn’t irreparably harm the game. You could definitely make the argument that they cut back a little too far on features and systems, and that Starcom Nexus is too light, but it managed to successfully keep my attention for around 15 of the 17 hours it took me to finish it. The end of the game is a bit of a mess — the progression systems all cap out long before then and the quest design gets substantially more scattershot — but the rest of it is a damn sight better than anything I’ve played since Space Rangers 23. The combat is fun, the exploration is fulfilling, and the progression curve of powering up your ship is well-handled, and I think that if you’re in the mood for the kind of thing it’s doing then for fifteen quid you could do a hell of a lot worse than Starcom Nexus.
- A further thing Starcom Nexus did with the research tree that I liked: it had distinct names for each of the techs instead of copping out and going with “Phaser I”, “Phaser II”, “Phaser III” and so on. ↩
- Something else we can thank Breath Of The Wild for. ↩
- A game that I have very fond memories of despite the terrible English translation rendering the text adventure portions borderline unplayable. ↩