Because so many turn-based strategy games deal with high fantasy, it's initially refreshing to get to play with the aliens and starships of Spaceforce: Captains. Unfortunately, the sci-fi setting is all that this low-budget DreaMatrix Games effort has going for it. Although this space-opera wannabe aspires to take traditional turn-based fantasy to the final frontier, it pulls the genre down to earth, courtesy of sloppy design and third-world production values.
The background is taken from 2006's space sim Spaceforce: Rogue Universe, which in this turn-based form resembles the Star Trek-styled setting of strategic epics going all the way back to Star Control. There are three solo campaigns depicting a stereotypical galactic war told from the points of view of the three main Spaceforce races: the human EMD, the orclike Ord, and the vaguely reptilian Alreani. But it's not as if the setting is developed enough for these factions to make much of a difference to the game itself. DreaMatrix seems more concerned with moving Heroes of Might and Magic to space than with creating a unique identity. Gameplay is a straight-up rip-off of the Heroes formula, with the stereotypical studly knights, pointy-eared elves, and gallant steeds. These are in turn swapped out for studly star-faring rogues, bug-eyed aliens, and warp-driving spaceships.
Most of your time is spent on an isometric 3D star map (on a 2D plane) where you direct fleets as you would parties of adventurers in fantasy-oriented turn-based games. Instead of picking hero knights and mages to lead parties, you hire human and alien captains. These captains represent classes, such as explorer, pirate, scientist, and doctor. And, instead of exploring a medieval land to plunder caches of goodies guarded by monsters, you explore star systems to plunder goodies guarded by ET spaceships. Space stations are developed instead of cities, with you constructing fighter bays, gun turrets, and research labs rather than fantasy barracks, ballistae, and mage schools. Sci-fi techs replace magic weapons and spells, with lasers, cloaking devices, or teleporters doing the same jobs as old-fashioned +1 swords or lightning bolts. Such futuristic resources as credits and nano-bots also stand in for gold pieces and mana.
If copying such an old formula were pulled off successfully, Spaceforce: Captains would be an interesting take on a traditionally fantasy-centric genre. But just about everything here is broken. Level design is an absolute mess. Maps are dark and convoluted, and feature mazes wouldn't look out of place in Pac-Man. Alien ships are positioned at junctions leading to the best goodies, so you're presented with a strictly A-to-B path through each level. Space rubble, asteroids, and other objects blend in so perfectly with the star-system backdrops that it's hard to tell if you can move in certain directions or not. The minimap is of no help here, either, because it is so black and devoid of features to be all but totally useless.
Empire management is even more annoying. Enemy fleets are so huge that you have to spend a great deal of time building your space station and creating huge fleets. This isn't particularly difficult because your floating HQs make big money automatically with a couple of basic upgrades, and ship-building resources can generally be readily found just floating around in space. But, man, is the empire-building process ever tedious. You start levels off making a space station from scratch, which involves doing nothing but hammering on the end-turn button for five or 10 minutes to accumulate enough credits for construction jobs. Then you repeat this same mindless process to earn the cash required to crank out the hundreds upon hundreds of ships needed to defeat the massive enemy fleets lurking in the mazes of the maps. Sheer numbers are key, so forget about tactics. It's more like you're working on an assembly line than playing a game.
Actual combat is just as dreary. All the shooting takes place on chessboard-style maps where you move ships around by turns and simply blast away. There isn't any strategy here, though, because the ships all rely on basic beam weapons and missiles. Tactics are about as evolved as infantry combat in the 18th century--meaning that you just line everybody up and start shooting until one side or the other goes boom. Yet the game doesn't even get this romper-room stuff right. There isn't any graphical representation of firing ranges, so you're left guessing how far you can shoot. Chessboard squares are often unresponsive to move orders, making every maneuver a frustrating multiclick affair where you repeatedly zoom in and out looking for the magic spot where the game will recognize your command.
The no-frills presentation also casts its shadow on the oppressive mood. There are just a handful of ship classes for each of the main races and some of the alien species you encounter. All of these vessels are hideous too, with jagged lines and few details. Research options liven matters up a little bit with some interesting weapons and gadgets. Still, as with the station and ship building, all you have to do is click "end turn" repeatedly to automatically earn the big bucks needed to buy all the tech on offer. Audio is excruciating because of lame order acknowledgements that don't make any sense ("law and order" is a favorite) and the shred-happy canned-rock soundtrack. And multiplayer might as well not even be present because there are never any servers available that are actually hosting the game.
Spaceforce: Captains belongs in the brig, not on your hard drive. A sci-fi take on Heroes of Might and Magic is a great idea, but you're better off sticking with warriors and elves until somebody greatly refines this concept.