It's a bit difficult what to make of Starshatter: The Gathering Storm, the "follow-up" to 2004's ambitious space combat sim. That's because The Gathering Storm isn't really a new game; rather, it's an updated version of the original Starshatter with enhanced artificial intelligence and better production values. Starshatter remains something of an interesting throwback to a time when space-combat sims like Wing Commander and X-Wing were the first-person shooters of their day. But to its credit, Starshatter does a lot more than simply mimic famed predecessors. In many ways, Starshatter feels like a cross between Wing Commander and Falcon 4.0, combining the fast-paced action of the former with the depth of the latter to create a dynamic space combat game.
Rather than have a campaign comprising a linear set of missions, Starshatter features a dynamic campaign that lets you feel like you're participating in a wider war. You can select your mission from a group of available missions, determine a flight plan to and from your target, and customize the payload on your fighter. It's a process that feels very similar to a traditional flight simulator. Old-school flight-sim fans will love this amount of control, though it might feel a bit daunting to newcomers. Thankfully, you can stick with the default mission options and not worry too much.
The mission types should feel familiar to flight-sim fans, as Starshatter ships modern air combat to outer space. There are fighter sweeps, patrols, and suppression of enemy air defense missions, and all of these could fit into any modern-day flight simulator. Even the fighter designs and designations all seem inspired by the Air Force's inventory (there's an F-22 and an F-35 in the game, for instance, that look to be taken from the next generation of US fighter craft).
Thankfully, unlike Falcon 4.0, Starshatter doesn't force you to master hideously complex cockpit controls, though the controls are still detailed and you'll do a lot more than simply blast every fighter in your sights. There's a fair amount of flight management, and the focus is as much on simulation as it is on action. You can issue various commands to your wingman or your flight squadron, such as break and attack. Or when you land, you need to request clearance and fly your ship into a hanger, a process that's similar to a carrier landing. The game has two flight models. The first is an arcade flight model for fans of Wing Commander, and the second is a Newtonian-based flight model, if you think that ships in space should possess qualities such as mass and momentum.
Unfortunately, while Starshatter ships with support for mouse-and-keyboard controls, you will most definitely want to use a joystick with the game. The mouse-and-keyboard controls are unwieldy, to say the least, and it requires a lot of juggling between the two to do basic maneuvers. For instance, if you want to roll your fighter, you have to enable the mouse steering by hitting the tilde key, and then if you want your mouse cursor back, you must release mouse steering by hitting tilde again. You don't have these issues with a joystick, though casual gamers will most likely not have one of those. So if you want to really enjoy the game, you'll need to invest in a good stick. We tested the game with a gamepad, and the results weren't as pretty, as the controls failed to remap to the analog sticks on the gamepad.
If you were expecting Wing Commander-style combat, where you can get into a raging dogfight, take a lot of punishment on the shields, and survive to fight another day, then you're in for a different experience with Starshatter. This is a game where fighters have no shields and the king of the battlefield is the missile. Thus, the winner in an engagement is usually the one who locks on and looses a missile first. Guns are available should the engagement turn into a dogfight, but the danger of becoming embroiled in one is that you'll become so focused on one enemy that others will be able to pick you off. The improved AI can be challenging in this regard, as you'll need to constantly be aware of the lock-on warning, at which point you must dump a countermeasure and break into a sharp turn to avoid the missile heading your way.
In addition to fighter combat, Starshatter lets you command capital ships in battle, though this remains a fairly dull experience thanks to the slow speed of capital ships and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink nature of the battles. The main tactic is to close with the enemy, unload everything into them, and hope that you inflict more damage before they do. Still, it can be cool to witness these colossal fights as they happen in the distance, as it creates the feeling that you're in a much larger battle.
Most of the action in Starshatter unfolds in the four dynamic campaigns. The new voice-over work and the cutscenes do their best to introduce you to the political machinations at work in this universe, though it's so confusing that you'll probably end up ignoring it and just focusing on achieving your missions. The dynamic campaign is nice since you can select your missions. There are a handful of stand-alone missions if you just want to jump directly into the fight.
The improved visuals certainly boost the look and feel of the game, as ships now have bump-mapped textures and look like metallic objects. The Gathering Storm won't blow you away, though there is a solid workmanship to the graphics. And considering that Starshatter remains the work of mostly one very dedicated individual, it's an impressive achievement. However, what the game sorely needs is a sensation of speed, as you never really feel like you're moving that quickly, whether you're in space or flying a planetary atmosphere mission.
When you get down to it, The Gathering Storm is basically Starshatter 1.5. There are some welcome improvements to it, but the flight-sim-meets-space-action formula and gameplay remain much the same. That's likely good news for the small cadre of space-combat fans out there, though that's an audience that's been shrinking for years. Starshatter is a game designed to appeal to those space cadets, though everyone else need not apply.