The less than engaging storyline and the heavy focus on defensive missions holds the game back and keeps it from being as good as the classics that made the genre popular.
StarLancer began life as a PC game produced by Digital Anvil, a company founded by Chris Roberts, the man behind the Wing Commander games. StarLancer essentially takes the familiar space-sim concepts founded in and built upon throughout the Wing Commander series and serves them up with a slightly different and mostly unimportant storyline.
The Alliance and the Coalition are at war. You're a member of the 45th, a squadron of rookies. As you begin the game, you're treated like rookies - the rest of the squadrons and fleets in the alliance turn their noses up at you every chance they get. But as you progress, you'll eventually earn the respect and admiration of the rest of the fleet. The story is told via in-game radio chatter and cutscenes, which makes the plot points extremely easy to miss. In between missions, you're limited to drab mission briefings, 90 percent of which end with your commander instructing you to "lock and load," and totally meaningless audio-only newscasts, which are meant to fill in some of the game's back story but only serve to make things even more confusing.
Throughout the life of the space-sim genre, the level designs have stayed roughly the same. Either you're out on patrol, attacking a capital ship, or defending a capital ship. The developers of SarLancer apparently have something against the first two types, as it seems like you're spending most of your time in the game defending your fleet against fighters and torpedo bombers. This means you're going to spend a lot of time targeting and destroying torpedoes before they hit your ships and cause you to lose the mission - not exactly the definition of fun. As you progress, the defensive missions become a little less frequent, but more offense up front definitely would have made the game easier to get excited about. There's a fairly wide selection of different ships, and each ship is armed with reasonably devastating main guns, making dogfights fairly easy. You can also select your missile loadout, opting for more dumbfire rockets or upgrading to lock-on missiles or large, devastating bombs.
Outside of the campaign mode, you can opt for instant action, which is a level-based timed mode. In instant action, you merely fight off a few waves of fighters, then take on an array of capital ships, which serves as a level boss of sorts. Complete the boss encounter successfully, and your missiles are replenished before you move on to the next wave of fighters. Also, a countdown timer keeps you on your toes, as you must defeat enemies to earn more time on your clock. The most interesting mode in the game has to be the multiplayer, which allows up to six players to compete via the Internet. The online game, which consists of a few different deathmatch variants, is pretty different from the rest of the game, featuring power-ups and a confined arena. The omission of the cooperative missions found in the PC version is a bit disappointing.
The Dreamcast controller does an admirable job of handling the wide array of available commands in StarLancer. Two of your buttons act as modifier buttons - holding down the targeting button brings up a detailed menu, making it easy to select your closest foe, though selecting specific targets, such as the constant barrage of torpedoes, is a little too time consuming. As with any complex controller scheme, it's going to take an hour or two before you've really got a good feel for the commands at your disposal.
StarLancer looks great. The ship models are nice and solid, and the weapon effects and explosions look great. The only thing holding the game back from a higher graphics score is the frame rate. While the game usually maintains a firm, playable speed, occasionally you'll warp into an action-packed area and the frame rate will take an extremely severe nosedive. All the sound in the game is passable, though it's mixed pretty horribly. At the default settings, the music overpowers the rest of the sound, making in-flight communication - which is crucial to the gameplay - almost impossible to understand. Turning the music down seems to have the odd effect of occasionally causing your laser fire to shoot silently, though.
StarLancer is a pretty good game. It looks nice and it has nice control. However, the less than engaging storyline and the heavy focus on defensive missions holds the game back and keeps it from being as good as the classics that made the genre popular.