It's a game that reaches for the stars, but in trying to give you everything, it doesn't do any one thing as well as it might.
Where Derek Smart and his infamous Battlecruiser space sims are concerned, small and modest just won't cut it. Oversized hype, hopes, and controversy have long surrounded this ambitious homegrown game franchise. A lightning rod among gamers, Smart loudly boasted about his first game, Battlecruiser 3000AD, during its protracted development. After an unpleasant journey between publishers, the game was finally released in unfinished and essentially unplayable form by Take-Two Interactive in 1996. This drew howls of derision from gamers just aching to type, "I told you so!" into the nearest online forum. Smart stood his ground, vocally and provocatively meeting his detractors head on while patching and revising the game for a 1998 re-release as a budget title, Battlecruiser 3000AD v2.0.
Since then, Smart and a band of like-minded programmers scattered across the globe have created his latest opus, Battlecruiser Millennium. It's an ambitious, sprawling, and flawed game that tries to give you everything, yet fails to do any one thing as well as it might. Playing it will remind you of Han Solo's letdown in The Empire Strikes Back: As he and his companions flee Imperial forces, there's a dramatic buildup as he prepares to launch the vaunted Millennium Falcon into hyperspace--and then nothing happens.
The first thing you'll notice about Battlecruiser Millennium is that it's improbably ambitious. You can engage in single scenarios, play a structured campaign, or explore in a free-form mode. You can fight with capital ships in space, with fighter craft in space or in planetary atmospheres, with vehicles on land, and with small arms in a first-person shooter mode. You can choose to play as one of 12 races, select from 13 castes (areas of expertise like science or diplomacy), and pick from six careers like marine, ship commander, or fighter pilot. You can visit more than 200 planets and moons and dock at more than 100 space stations and star bases. The game tries to include everything and the kitchen sink--with the bathroom sink and a plumbing supply store thrown in for good measure. For all the things that the game gives you, it lacks any multiplayer support out of the box. A free multiplayer update is planned, though.
Not surprisingly, the sort of expansiveness offered by Battlecruiser Millennium comes with many costs, one of them being the steep learning curve. The game's lengthy printed manual looks like it would be at home with a hard-core Jane's flight sim. The keyboard and joystick command reference alone takes up two pages of tiny print. All the ship systems create an alphabet soup that would confuse even a veteran Pentagon planner--you have your MTD, TTD, MTAR, VMI, FPA, WHI, FPI, and TIR, to name just a few of the seemingly endless acronyms you'll stumble over. Making matters more difficult is the lack of an index in the manual.
Along the same lines, the main menu interface is rather rough around the edges, and that's true of the in-game interface too. Considering the towering piles of information that the game puts at your disposal, the interface still works decently overall, despite some convoluted spots. To help you out, pop-up tooltips appear when you hover the cursor over the numerous buttons and icons, giving you the full name of each item. Still, information overload can be a problem.
The game does offer six training scenarios, with one for each possible career, but these aren't worth much as teaching tools--you're just thrown into space or onto a planet's surface. There are no enemies to worry about, but also no instructions at all, either in the game or its documentation. Battlecruiser Millennium also offers 24 instant action scenarios, and you do get written tutorials in a separate HTML file for four of these. Using these tutorials is difficult, though, as you can't reference the tutorials while playing. A game like this needs full, interactive, in-game tutorials.
Still, once you get the hang of things, you'll really appreciate all you can do in Battlecruiser Millennium. The instant-action scenarios cater to the different careers like commander or marine, and they'll let you perform varied missions like leading one fleet of ships against another, rescuing a downed pilot, or intercepting a smuggler ship. Some of these scenarios are quite dull, though. Then there's a campaign where you play a capital ship commander, as well as a more interesting free-form "roam" mode that lets you do just about anything you want.
Until the promised multiplayer update arrives to let you battle other human pilots or marines, you'll find the great majority of the action and interest lie in commanding the big fleet ships in space. From there, you can navigate the stars, wage battles with enemy ships, launch probes, trade at stations, assign orders to your complement of shuttles or fighter craft, and much more. Overall, there's a huge amount of flexibility on hand. As a carrier captain, for example, you can get in one of your ship's fighters, take it out for a spin, then enter a planet's atmosphere, land, get out of your ship, and run on foot.