Building the terrain of a strategy game is hard, when it’s set in outer space. Navigating a 3D world using only your mouse can be difficult, and strategy games tend to ask more of us; we have to manage armies and micromanage units or buildings. In most strategy games, we play on a 2D environment, or, at least, we don’t build on the Z axis. Space tactics are different, though, and this is the most interesting aspect of Stellar Warfare.
A strategy game that’s set in outer space, Stellar Warfare tries a lot to create a playable 3D playground full of meteors, shipwrecks, huge spaceships with blaster cannons and intricate metal bases hovering above a distant sun. It really tries it best, but sadly it mostly fails. Listen, I know it’s a tough undertaking, and I really wanted for this game to succeed, but it doesn’t.
First things first, Stellar Warfare looks OK, it’s presentation is decent for a game of this caliber, but some big problems arise. Well, there’s just too much going on! We see stars, space-objects, floating stuff, space ships, planets and really everything that’s to be expected to be seen in space. Nothing looks bad, it’s all serviceable, but it also gets way too confusing to play. Sometimes you can’t see where your ships are, it’s very hard to distinguish between different types of spaceships or structures and the pathfinding suffers a lot because of the 3D environment.
The graphical presentation is adequate really, everything looks good in an indie kind of way, the ships are detailed enough, the brightly coloured battles are fun and it’s nice to zoom in and out of the battlefield to watch the huge scope of the spaces. The problem is mostly mechanical to be frank. You see, you can hover around the available space, you can turn the camera in any way you want, but the way these actions are performed is unnecessarily complex and not very intuitive. In the opening hours you’re sure to forget how to manipulate the stages’ space, and the game doesn’t help you a lot. Also, when assets are placed in close proximity, the perspective can get very confusing. There’s not a clear view to help you understand exactly how the structures are placed, and turning the camera rarely makes it easier.
Sure, the developers tried to tackle all these problems, they did, but sadly they didn’t get it right. You can move the camera, you can zoom on particular units, you can follow them, you can move up and down in the Z axis and in general there are a lot of options. However, the UI isn’t helping at all and the tutorial doesn’t really explain the ins and outs of the gameplay. After completing the training mission, you will not yet know how to do most actions and you will just read the manual found in the options menu. The fonts, the colours, the size of the letters and icons, everything is just subpar.
It doesn’t help that we have to look at a fairly large space and manage a fleet of small ships that can very easily get lost. There should be more options to group, find and control individual units, so that the large 3D space can be easy to navigate. As it stands, well, it’s frustrating more often than not and it has a big effect on the fun Stellar Effect could provide.
In its heart, this is a simple game. You build a couple of structures, you collect some resources (mostly an automated process, no micromanagement needed), you create a fleet and you attack enemy outposts. There are some different modes, familiar ones, like wave defense, skirmish, in single or multiplayer. It goes without saying that you’ll have a pretty hard time finding other people to play with, so it’s better to stick with friends or going it alone. The gameplay can be fun, and trying to out-ship the enemy fleet to win a fight can be rewarding, if only for some hours.
The campaign, too, is underwhelming. A story is implied, about something to do with a Light that destroyed civilization, and it could be an interesting sci-fi backdrop. The presentation, though, does not lean into the narrative. We are given some very simple objectives, with no real background to them, and it really is all about fighting enemies and breaking space blockades. It is apparent here that this is not supposed to be an utterly complex grand strategy game, but a simpler, wave-based one. And that’s ok!
All in all, Stellar Warfare is built on some interesting ideas and has some fun aspects going for it. What it needs is a more comprehensive tutorial, some ironing-out on the controls and a more engaging campaign. It’s not the space strategy game you were expecting, but it can be fun if you know what to expect. It’s a small game, ambitious but made by a single person, and in early access. it’t getting updates, so it’s bound to get better as time goes by.