Fully 3D real-time strategy games set in space are a rare breed. Adding the third dimension seems to scare off both developers and gamers, so many games simply ignore the oft-confusing vertical plane and stick to 2D stellar battlefields. Shattered Suns is a good example of why so many people shy away. The Clear Crown Studios game is certainly adventurous enough, due to the ostensibly more realistic depiction of outer space, the mix of RTS and 4X space sim traits, and a few innovative touches when it comes to custom ship design; but the production values are bottom-drawer, and your galactic adventures are highlighted by boring resource management and simplistic combat that doesn't really utilize those three dimensions. These issues, along with some serious problems with the in-game camera, all but ruin the reasonably original game design.
Originality doesn't extend to the plot, however. In the single-player campaign, you play Captain Max, a former starship commander in the Statian military who's drafted back into active duty during an invasion by the evil Qalan and Trexon Empires. So the story deals with the standard one-man-against-the-alien-hordes shtick, albeit with the rather interesting addition of a love story. At the same time as Max is trying to save Statia, he's also searching star systems for his missing fiancee, a fellow officer with the much more exotic name of Seeng-Si. A fair bit of the game is spent with the hero dithering over his duty and chucking it all to search for his woman, which gives the game a bit of teen-love cheese, as nobody over 17 actually thinks like Captain Max.
Still, much of this tale is fairly well told, regardless of the lapses into 90210 melodrama. The one huge flaw is that every plot point is described through text, as though you're playing the game via instant messenger. As the budget apparently didn't allow for any cutscene production, a single screen filled with a drab starfield map and a huge block of tiny, hard-to-read green-on-black text conveys all of the story and dialogue. Even some full missions take place here and are resolved entirely through answering questions. Many of the lines are well written, although apparently the designers realized this and allowed the writer free rein to ramble on to absurd lengths. Scenes meander for many, many minutes, and you're stuck waiting for every single line to slowly pop up onscreen because you can't skip ahead. All of this dialogue goes beyond sci-fi boilerplate to help develop realistic characters with depth and personality (like your snarky computer assistant, Citron), although it's hard to appreciate any of it when you're screaming "Get on with it!" at your monitor. More appeal is lost due to the text scaling in lower-resolution displays. Letters are shrunk to what looks like an 8-point height and scrunched so tightly together that you soon squint your way into serious eyestrain or a king-size headache. Keep eyedrops and ibuprofen on hand.
Shattered Suns isn't particularly easy on the eyes during missions, either. Ship design is generic, textures are plain, and the lighting and shadow effects are so primitive that there is no depth to any of the models. Star systems are just as rough and ready, with basic planet types like Earth look-alikes and lava worlds. The background is really odd looking, too, due to the inclusion of so much green nebulae gas that it overwhelms what should be a very black outer space. At times, this backdrop is so green and lush that it seems more like you're waging war in front of an English country garden than the inky darkness of space. Ship movements and explosions are nothing short of embarrassing. Vessels avoid colliding with planets by simply jerking to one side or the other, and the usual pyrotechnics of ships going ka-boom have been replaced with wimpy puffs of smoke and chunks of debris flying in all directions. And despite the game's low-rent appearance, loading times can be onerous. Initially loading the game up takes so long that you can not only safely duck out of the room to make a sandwich, you just might have time to bake the bread, too.
Of course, really ugly games sometime boast some really stellar gameplay. But that isn't the case here, as Shattered Suns is just as unappealing within as it is without. The game sort of blends typical RTS gaming with 4X space sims, with campaign missions that are split among building fleets for combat, focusing on space-station base building, and fulfilling economic duties such as setting up a trade route or gathering resources. You generally accept an order at the beginning of the assignment to do something like juggle the game's three resources of crystals, ore, and credits in an effort to repair ships, set up a mining operation on a moon, or simply crank out ships and blast into a system to annihilate the enemy. Everything is pretty straightforward. Most resource management can be done with a couple of clicks. To mine a planet for ore, for example, all you need to do is load up a ship with miners and send it on its way. Combat is equally simplistic, with the only complication provided by the ability to rig up different ship production lines on space stations to crank out vessels for different purposes. So you can build one line of ships with huge storage capacity to serve as cargo carries, another line with serious weaponry and armor for front-line combat, and so on.
None of these actions are particularly interesting. Resource management is a dull production-line affair where you shuffle goods from one space station to another to boost ship production. Combat, in both the campaign and the skirmish mode--which happens to be the only other way to play the game, as there is no multiplayer option--mainly involves band-selecting fleets and then right-clicking on enemies to start lasers blasting in scraps that are just as ridiculously drawn out (20 minutes to take out a few pirates? Really?) as the interminable between-mission dialogue. Most of the challenge comes from trying to figure out exactly what you're supposed to be doing when missions start, as there are few instructions given out after the initial orders are passed along on the main map/text screen. Combat missions often dump you blind into a system and leave you aimlessly flying around until you discover the ship you're supposed to escort, the enemies you need to exterminate, or whatever else. The only serious drama during battles is provided by the drum-thumping score. Even then, the pounding is so relentless that you'll soon want to turn off the music and enjoy the silent vacuum of space.
Worst of all, the 3D engine for space battles is just about meaningless. It doesn't add serious tactical considerations; you can essentially ignore the extra plane and click directly on enemies, space stations, and planets just as you would in a typical 2D RTS. If anything, it just gets in the way due to some annoying camera issues. For starters, everything moves all the time. Ships float randomly through space the moment that they leave space stations, which makes it tough to keep them in view. Locking the camera by left-clicking on an object like a planet or a moon helps somewhat when it comes to keeping an eye on an entire region of space, but even then every interstellar body is orbiting something else, so you still experience a lot of irritating "Stop the world, I want to get off!" moments. You can scroll way back to view an entire system at long range, but this turns ships into tiny dots and makes the game just as unmanageable as it is when you're looking at a close-up whirl of soaring vessels and rotating planets.
If you're in the mood for a 3D RTS in space, you might be better off heading to the mall and going spelunking in the bargain bin for an old copy of Homeworld. That almost decade-old classic remains a better bet than Shattered Suns.