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.
You get an enormous sense of freedom playing this way. All this freedom and flexibility isn't as exciting as it initially seems to be, though. Traveling around on a whim is really neat at first, but some may find that the freedom begins to feel like aimless puttering fairly quickly. Plus, the places you can visit are usually very dull--the worlds seem essentially barren, and you don't get to explore space stations since docking just means accessing new menus temporarily.
Looked at separately, the various portions of the game don't succeed particularly well, either. Take the first-person planetary gameplay, for instance. This shooter portion of the game feels downright awkward and, frankly, amateurish. You get a number of weapons, a jetpack, the ability to drive vehicles, and other theoretically promising options. Nevertheless, clunky controls, distinctly underwhelming weapons, the inability to look up or down, and poor environmental feedback mean that Battlecruiser Millennium has no chance of competing with the majority of today's shooters.
Battlecruiser Millennium features its own decently fleshed-out science fiction milieu, though you'll gain much, if not most, of your knowledge of it outside the game from an accompanying HTML file. The game universe feels dry and unimaginative, lacking the creative hooks or sophistication you find in familiar science fiction franchises like Babylon 5, Star Wars, Star Trek, Farscape, or Dune, to name a few. This means that despite the opportunity to explore a huge game universe, there's little actual incentive to explore it.
The game lacks the epic drama, sense of wonder and adventure, or emotional intensity you expect from a science fiction sim. That's particularly true where the real heart of the game is concerned--commanding capital ships. There, you have tons of information and options at your fingertips. Yet, as you pore over readouts and access menu after menu, you often feel more like some kind of futuristic accountant than a bold commander. There's a distinct dearth of audio-visual environmental cues that would make you feel like you're commanding a massive, powerful ship from the bridge. It usually looks and feels like you're just piloting a little fighter craft, albeit one with piles of missiles. That's uninspiring.
Battlecruiser Millennium's graphics get the job done, but barely. They look dated, and the game sorely lacks the sort of grand cinematic touches you'd rightly expect from a game about space travel and combat. Ships, planets, and player models in particular tend to look blocky, and the textures and visual effects are usually dull or unattractive. The game lacks the sense of visual scale you'd expect--space stations and capital ships don't look huge and awe-inspiring, but rather seem dinky and unimpressive. Technical weaknesses mar the graphics too, as clipping problems arise in the first-person shooter mode and textures swim across space stations, for instance.
For that matter, the game on the whole seems extremely buggy and crash-prone. It required a reboot after every session for other games to function properly afterward. Also, even if you have a computer that exceeds the game's recommended specs, there's a good chance you'll experience stuttering frame rates in the teens regardless of what video settings you choose. That isn't merely an aesthetic problem, either, since it can create practical drawbacks for moving and aiming.
The game's overall audio environment is extremely spartan. More than a few of the weapon sounds will literally remind you of the bleeps and bloops of early '80s arcade games. Sound effects often fade out mysteriously, too. The occasional voice-over alerts you receive while aboard ships or vehicles are decently done, but the moaning and gasping "pain" voice-overs you hear when ground troops are wounded are embarrassing. The game's music nicely blends "new age" ambience with techno-style beats. It's not an inventive or even particularly memorable soundtrack, but it's pleasant and fits the setting fairly well.
Battlecruiser Millennium is one of those games that you really want to like for all it tries to give you. Still, you'll likely walk away from it rather disappointed. The game features an admirably massive scope and loads of varied gameplay options and opportunities. It gives you countless little details to revel in (or get lost in, as the case may be). Derek Smart and company seem to have bitten off more than they could chew, though. While the game undeniably offers a lot, what it offers isn't implemented nearly as well as it could be. More isn't necessarily better--a wealth of details and possibilities only matters if you have something exciting to do with them, which isn't often enough the case here. For a game about exploring and fighting in space on a grand scale, there's surprisingly little sense of drama or emotional engagement. Battlecruiser Millennium also tends to be dry, unpolished, buggy, and difficult to learn. It's a game that reaches for the stars, gets well underway, and yet in the end only makes it as far as the moon.