At first blush, Starfighter Origins should absolutely, 100% have been right up my alley; all the way up in there, so deep that I should be coughing laser blasts and sneezing proton torpedoes.
As far back as I can remember my number one, go-to genre of gaming has been the space combat simulator. From the sit-in Star Wars arcade machines in the 80s, through early sims like X-Wing and Wing Commander in the 90s to later titles such as Freespace 2, Freelancer and Colony Wars and into the modern resurgence with Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, I have been, and always will be, in love with space combat simulators.
So when I heard that Mad About Games Studios was releasing something that promised a return to the 90s-style space combat greatness, inspired by games that I spent so much of my childhood wrapped up in, I was understandably excited to have a go.
Unfortunately, one of the first trips down memory lane that I experienced with Starfighter Origins was one of hours spent painstakingly trying to calibrate a joystick on my mate’s Acorn. While the Steam store page boasts controller and HOTAS support, I can unequivocally – as far as at least two hours spent in the menu is concerned – state that Starfighter Origins has neither.
I tried using a standard Xbox controller with the game’s default setup and found that the majority of the controls didn’t seem to be mapped properly and, where they were, the input felt laggy and largely unresponsive. But it was the HOTAS setup that had me wrapped in menu-based hell for the majority of my first night with the game. There are no presets available so I tried, in vain, to program things myself. Happily, Starfighter Origins has a test flight button right there in the control setup screen so I didn’t need to launch a mission to test things out, but testing seemed to be a moot point when almost everything I tried resulted in total failure. My being unable to stop the throttle controls working in reverse was the last straw and I settled in for some thrilling keyboard and mouse-controlled action (though, more than seven hours later, I still have yet to successfully fire a secondary weapon).
When I eventually got to play the game, I did get some good nostalgic tingles. The graphics are in-line with some of the games from the late 90s (make of that what you will) and boast the same realistic cockpit design philosophy: all blinking lights, switches and physical elements that contain the HUD and swap positions based on the ship you’re flying. Starfighter Origins’ ships themselves are… interesting, and again, are bang on if we’re shooting for designs and ideas that are now over 20 years old in some cases.
The game’s audio, however, is one of a number of low points – though not the lowest. The sound effects are a little lacklustre to say the least, and while the voice actors may be trying their best, the stilted and clichéd dialogue makes any briefing or conversation come off as more of a piss-take than a pastiche on those games I loved so much growing up.
Starfighter Origins features four different ways to play: a story campaign, a simulator, a Challenge mode and an ‘Instant Action’ mode. The campaign aims for Wing Commander or Starlancer, even going so far as to include briefings in various parts of the Churchill – the destroyer that your fighter wing is based out of – in an attempt to evoke some sort of plot. From the missions I’ve played though, it feels more as though the briefings are just there to serve as single-use flavour for each of the actions that you’ll fight through, rather than there being an overarching narrative. The simulator, as you might guess, is mainly for training; helping you to get to grips with your ship and its abilities.
Challenge and Instant Action modes are possibly the most interesting. They make no pretence to story and let you jump straight into a variety of different missions at varying difficulties. Instant Action is probably the best place to start to practice your skills and you can increase the difficulty through Easy, Medium and Hard modes as you become more accustomed to the gameplay. Challenge mode is, in my experience, the toughest that the game has to offer, providing some of the most intriguing mission ideas and letting you play with all of the different ships that the campaign locks away until it feels you’ve earned it.
Here comes another ‘unfortunately’, though. The problem is that, while Challenge mode certainly is challenging, it’s not just because the missions are hard. To be fair, I found Freespace 2 to be difficult to master and even some of Starlancer‘s early missions were incredibly tough to ace. But Starfighter Origins’ gameplay as a whole is going to be the first hurdle that you’ll need to jump over before you can sprint into any other type of action. The controls are not particularly responsive and turning circles feel rather large, even in the smaller, more nimble scouts. Ships operate at alarming speeds and great distances that, while probably more realistic than slower speeds and closer engagements, often mean that you’re trying to snipe enemies that are little more than a dot on the screen with little possibility of up-close-and-personal style dogfights. The weapons, too, feel largely ineffectual for the most part (a feeling not helped by the ‘pew-pew’ sound effects that accompany them) and the ‘unique’ targeting aid is, often, less than useless as it takes up too much room in the HUD for very little benefit.
That being said, these are criticisms that could have been (and probably were) levelled at some of the games that Starfighter Origins is based on, so there’s always a possibility that it’s meant to be like that. It’s clearly obvious from spending any time with the game that Starfighter Origins is something of a labour of love; meant to evoke and honour those who have come before it – though rather than just paying homage to those games, Starfighter Origins may instead be closer to emulating them entirely.
The biggest problem that Starfighter Origins has, though, is that it’s so close to being a competent space combat game. Bar some buggy controls and slightly mediocre gameplay, it might have been an enjoyable blast of nostalgia; a magic portal transporting you to the hazy days of X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter and two-button plastic joysticks in all their feedback-less glory. But Starfighter Origins flaunts its influences so brazenly that it’s difficult, no matter how much I tell myself that it was made by a small team of indie devs, not to compare it to those giants of the genre.
And, while GOG.com still boasts the complete X-Wing series within its store, if you’re looking for 90’s nostalgia you might as well go right to the source.