While it may seem that giant robot sims comprise a prolific genre, the three facts remain that nobody but Activision has made one in years, that no one but Activision ever did a very good job, and that Activision only got it right with the original MechWarrior 2. As such, the nebulous mech genre remains unrefined, and in recent years, underrepresented. If nothing else, then, Sierra's Starsiege brings new life to a genre otherwise devoid of it, even if it doesn't really succeed in elevating robot sims out of their long-term rut. It's a great looking game, and a lot of energy was put into its story and setting, but that energy should have been redistributed in the interest of gameplay.
Sierra's always wanted you to notice the Earthsiege universe. Starsiege is the sixth game in the universe, and it tries harder than ever to get you involved in the story. You get a book dedicated exclusively to setting the scene, with a complete historical account of the future conflict. That's in addition to the actual gameplay manual, which is also first-rate. The plot is fully realized within the game, with cinematic cutscenes, mission briefing voice-overs, and in-engine scripted sequences, all of which attempt to draw you into the game. The attempt succeeds, and were it not for the story you'd have a harder time accepting some of Starsiege's problems that gradually become evident.
Starsiege's 3D engine is fast and colorful, and the terrain looks authentic, with atmospheric hazing that creates a believable sense of scale. You'll actually feel isolated in the immense landscapes if you stop to look around, but despite the desolate Solar System settings, the detailed terrain always looks beautiful. The stars shine at night, the sun beats down during the day, and foreboding half-buried derelict machinery adds that extra incentive to get out of there alive. This rich scenery will look familiar to Starsiege: Tribes players, who've long since realized the tactical advantages that go hand-in-hand with being able to see an enemy as it appears as a speck on the horizon.
Terrain notwithstanding, the giant robots in Starsiege look rather plain. Most of the vehicle designs are forgettable even if they are highly detailed, although a few of the larger machines look particularly sinister. You can quickly identify the weapons on any given adversary, and all are especially well animated, and pivot and recoil discernibly. However, the vehicles themselves don't manage to convey the appropriate sense of scale because they move about just a little too quickly and end up looking like they're made of plastic rather than heavy metal. The destruction of a target exacerbates the sense that these are toys rather than war machines, as they merely split apart at the seams and the pieces go twirling around. Fortunately, the fiery explosions themselves look good, as do the various colorful weapon special effects.
Still, what really hinders suspension of disbelief in Starsiege is not so much the look of the game, but rather its strangely subdued sound effects. Some of the largest machines in the game hardly even make a sound as they walk about, and even when they go up in flames, the explosions are strangely silent. Meanwhile, the CD audio soundtrack is an inconsistent mix of techno and bass-heavy industrial tunes, some of which are inspiringly fast-paced, while others are embarrassingly bad. At least the voice acting in the mission briefings and other story sequences is consistently good. But if Starsiege had only sounded more visceral, that would have helped compensate for its gameplay.
It isn't the case that Starsiege plays badly; it's fast for a giant robot sim, and the campaign missions are tough, concise, and mostly well designed. But the problem is that Starsiege seems confused. The game abandons the typical torso-twisting mechanics of the genre for a control scheme that demands comparison with first-person shooters. Forget your flight stick - the game practically demands you aim using the mouse, with which you can pinpoint your weapons quickly on any area of the screen. This becomes especially critical if you pilot a tank instead of a walker, as tanks can swivel their weapons in a full radius. Yet no matter how precise you think you are, hit detection in Starsiege feels suspiciously inconsistent, and you'll often miss your mark even though you swore you had it in your sights. At other times you'll hit, or get hit, but won't notice. The Starsiege machines don't ostensibly respond to damage and just continue to go about their business, while your HUD doesn't clearly represent how much damage you've taken.
It isn't difficult to overlook Starsiege's many minor faults, in light of what it actually does right: the game looks good, and its story is well integrated. Its vehicles are fully customizable, and the game plays well without feeling either simplistic or obtuse. Multiplayer Starsiege, your only other option besides the campaign, isn't to be overlooked either. The game includes complete Internet multiplayer functionality straight out of the box, with plenty of deathmatch and capture-the-flag maps, as well as the option to host custom servers with whatever restrictions you like. CTF Starsiege is quite fun, and makes a lot of sense since the smaller, faster vehicles in the game are ideal flag runners, but entirely incapable of fighting against larger opponents. Then again, the overall slower pace will take a lot of getting used to for Tribes players, most of whom will probably prefer that game's more dynamic feel. After all, the vehicles in Starsiege control about the same as Tribes' foot soldiers, but they're slower and can't even jump.