I have to admit that when I first saw preview footage of Starlancer for the Dreamcast, I was pretty excited. Despite being a PC port, the game appeared to be one that would follow in the footsteps of great console shooters such as Panzer Dragoon and Star Fox 64. After playing through the finished product, however, my reactions are a bit mixed. At times, Starlancer can be fun and suspenseful. Unfortunately, it often seems too unrewarding and poorly orchestrated to be compared to such classic console shooters.
Starlancer is your basic outer space shoot-'em-up in the vein of Descent and Wing Commander. You are a pilot in the Alliance's 45th volunteers, fighting to prevent the evil Coalition from taking over the solar system. The missions are a mix of offensive objectives, which consist of destroying enemy fighters, ships and bases, and defensive objectives such as protecting friendly ships from fighters or torpedoes. The single-player missions revolve entirely around the game's plot, so your missions seem to have a greater purpose than merely progressing to one level after another. In fact, much of the advancement of the plot occurs in real time via in-game dialogue. I didn't fully realize how effective the plot was until I played the comparatively dull "instant action" mode, in which you progress by destroying enemy ships in the shortest time possible. Put simply, the story gives relevance to the events in the game, making you feel as though you're actually accomplishing something rather than mindlessly blowing up ship after ship.
If Starlancer can be praised for anything, it is the intuitive control scheme. Your ship controls effortlessly, and the complex targeting and comms systems can be easily accessed via the X and Y buttons. Pressing X will display a menu that allows you to select your target or adjust the camera angle with the D-pad, while pressing Y allows you to communicate with other fighters and perform rolls and strafes. Targeting enemy ships is a breeze as well thanks to a "blind fire" option (a sort of auto-aim) and a "match speed" function which causes your ship to fly at the same speed as your target, allowing you to focus on making the kill.
Despite the fun of the intense, Star Wars-like battles and the small degree of strategy involved in some missions, Starlancer gives itself a black eye through numerous glaring flaws. The more I played the game, the more its flaws, seemingly minor at first, began to tear apart what had started out as an enjoyable gaming experience.
Graphically, Starlancer falls short of its potential. While explosions are well-animated and a few of the ships are impressively detailed, the backgrounds are surprisingly dull and drab—at times even resembling 64-bit quality. The game is often plagued by slowdown when many objects are on screen, and many of the special effects look blocky and unconvincing. Surely games such as Shenmue and F355 Challenge have demonstrated that the Dreamcast is capable of much more. Unfortunately, Starlancer suffers from the sub-par graphics which often plague PC ports.
Many of Starlancer's features are haphazardly implemented. For example, your ship features an alarm that is supposed to tell you when you are being targeted by enemy fighters. The problem is that the alarm simply goes off at random, thus rendering it useless. Your co-pilot isn't much help either, barking "We've been locked on! Missile moving in!" when in fact there is no missile, or even any enemy fighter for that matter.
Additionally, the computer, which selects your targets automatically, frequently does not select targets that are near you or relevant to your mission. For example, you may be required to destroy a wave of incoming torpedoes. After you've destroyed a few of them, the computer will switch your targeting to a distant fighter while another wave of torpedoes comes in. In order to target a torpedo, you must manually scroll through your list of targets until a torpedo is displayed, then find and destroy it—a task which frequently takes just enough time to make you miss a few torpedoes, costing you the mission. It seems obvious that the computer should direct you towards the nearest, most relevant target instead of leading you on a wild goose chase around the solar system.
Even the dog fights, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, can be exasperating. Some fighters merely cloak every few seconds or fly around you in tight circles, making them nearly impossible to hit. Frankly, flying around in circles for 20 minutes and chasing targets that disappear every few seconds is not my idea of fun.
Starlancer's missions start with a purpose, but fall apart quickly. Getting help from your wing men is like persuading Al Gore to break dance. Most of the time, I had to complete entire missions by myself—destroying turrets, fighters and torpedoes while the rest of my squadron sat on their hands. To make matters worse, even a minor mistake can easily result in the entire mission (often a good 20 or 30 minutes) being scrapped. As if that weren't frustrating enough, a failed mission usually results in a full-motion video encounter with a commanding officer who tells me I've brought disgrace to the Alliance. Call me sensitive, but I don't like being insulted when I'm the only member of my squadron doing the job. Starlancer sets a new record in my book of frustrating games. It's not that the game is a challenge. Challenging games require skill and strategy. Starlancer merely requires that you be in the right place at the right time, making success more a matter of chance than quick thinking.
Starlancer redeems itself somewhat with modestly enjoyable online play. Up to six players can play a handful of creative games such as "Hunt the Shadow," in which one player is cloaked but has no armor and cannot collect power-ups. The player who kills the cloaked antagonist is rewarded with five kills and becomes the next cloaked ship. Despite a respectable variety of options however, the online mode doesn't even remotely approach the suspense and excitement of NFL 2K1 or Quake III: Arena.
Starlancer is a game that had a great deal of potential, and to its credit can often be very engaging. Unfortunately, its amateurish flaws make it best suited for the rental shelf or the bargain bin. A little more time in development and who knows, perhaps Starlancer could have held rank along side the elite console shooters of the past.