Starvoid Review (PC)

To answer your first immediate question, “starvoid” is the name of a rare spaceship fuel that mercenaries are fighting over. Yes, it’s like the Spice in Dune or Tiberium in Command & Conquer, except in this RTS you’re not mining for it. It really makes no appearance at all in Starvoid, unless the money you gain is actually the fuel, making me wonder why the game’s named after it. Perhaps all the cool one word multiplayer game names are taken and developer Zeal were forced to make one up (makes sense considering we’ve still got Warface to come).

Starvoid is a multiplayer-only online real-time strategy game that attempts to provide fast, furious, addictive combat play akin to Team Fortress 2 or Defense of the Ancients (and that’s the only time in my entire life where I’ll write both of those titles out in full instead of saying TF2 and DOTA). You customise a commander (or pick one of the presets, which is probably wisest for new players), including choosing weapon and up to five available units, and then send them out to take on other players in three different team-based game modes.

The three modes are Battle, Sabotage and Team Deathmatch. Team DM is pretty self-explanatory, although it does tend to devolve into a big button-mashing frenzy around a small corner of the map and is easily the weakest. Battle is Conquest or Capture The Checkpoint or whatever you want to call it, with various checkpoints on the map that your team has to get to and hold, with the added twist that you have to destroy a bunker perched on top of the checkpoint if it was captured by your opponent first. In Sabotage you have to plant bombs on your opponent’s base which take 10 points off their score, although if you can kill an enemy you can steal their bombs and make that higher.

Hee hee, never spot me sneakily hiding up here!

Sabotage is the most traditionally RTS of the modes with both base defence and attack, although without the ability to build any defensive structures you’re down to either relying on your teammates or leaving a few precious units behind. There is a very strict unit cap so your commander can only be accompanied by only two or three sets at a time. Smaller units come in groups whereas tanks come singularly. If your commander character dies then all their units are immediately destroyed, which applies to all modes. You do definitely have to think tactically in Sabotage, more so than Battle. The 10 points for going straight to the enemy base is nothing (both teams start with 500), but kill a few opponents and you could have a stack of bombs saved up that’d make a huge difference… if you can successfully plant them on the enemy base.

The commanders themselves come with a range of abilities, styles, weapons and units, all of which can be upgraded or replaced. This is the biggest long-term draw of Starvoid, as every level nets your character access to a wild array of items that could totally change your play-style. The four default commanders on the other hand offer a decent set of skills for new players to get stuck in straight away, although you’ll find yourself very quickly outmatched. As far as the shop goes however a lot of effort has clearly been put into diversifying everything on offer and the potential upgrades really add to the game’s “just one more go” appeal, which was clearly what Zeal’s counting on.

Games only last a few minutes and can be fast, fun, and furious. A successful Starvoid match is really all the about tactics. Dying gets an instant respawn but it takes a few crucial seconds to get all your units back up, so do you wait or get them when you need them? That power-up that’s just dropped in might be useful but it’s right in the corner of the map, should I go for it or wait for my opponent to try and use that time to take over one of their checkpoints? Matches can get very quick and tense, and work as a nice counterpoint to multiplayer in most RTS games which can go on for hours. Zeal wanted to make a fast ‘n’ addictive online RTS and they’ve certainly managed it.

It’s just a pity that the game is lacking any sort of visual identity. I’m not asking for Starcraft II-quality graphics, I’m looking for a way for Starvoid to stand out from the crowd. The default commanders for example: a couple of thin women and two muscley blokes. Who wants that? This is a fun game on an alien planet, let your imagination go wild guys! Why not a big fat woman who sings all her orders in a voice like Aretha Franklin? An Elvis impersonator who wields a viciously sharp kebab? A green alien moose whose units consist entirely of back-talking sheep? Not these bland human stereotypes! The dull look extends to the units (all grey robots basically) and even the maps. There are only about three maps and they all become hard to tell apart. You know how every map in TF2 is fun to look around? Not so in Starvoid, they blur together quickly.

Ah yes, three maps, three modes. We’ve hit the next snag. There simply isn’t enough game here. Yes there’s many units, weapons etc to buy and even whole new commanders, and I’m 100% confident that more maps will be added in due course, but right now there simply isn’t enough game here. TF2 launched with six maps, all visually distinct. There are a couple of neat points in the landscape where you can set traps or rain death down on your enemies, but otherwise the few maps available could just be a big empty square with a couple of sinkholes in it. Times three. There’s also no offline mode, no bots, not even a tutorial mode.

Wow, that’s a real wall of robots you’ve got going there...

Oh, and we’ve already got another snag. You see Starvoid, as an online-only multiplayer game, cannot have a single barrier for entry for new players if it wants to succeed. Unfortunately it has several. The first, and I won’t knock any points off for this but have to comment, is price. Starvoid wants to compete with TF2 (free, or originally bundled with two of the greatest games ever), DOTA (free), or League of Legends (free), but it’s got a £7.99 price attached to put people off. Even worse, there’s no demo as far as I can see. The knock-on effect is that I’ve played against the developers and Q&A team as often as I have against normal gamers. This is really a game that needed to be F2P (or at least tried first) to get as many players as possible going, and the extensive shop could very easily have paid for that. At least shop items aren’t paid for with real money still, so £7.99 does get you the whole game.

Just as bad is the lack of a tutorial mode and poor explanation of many of the game’s features. Sure there are pop-up windows with basic explanations, but you can only read them while in a multiplayer match and your team won’t be happy with you if you’re sitting there reading while they’re getting slaughtered. Even then not everything is explained – what do power-ups do for instance (Flux? Surge? Eh?)? Even on the menu putting together a commander or buying upgrades is confusing. This chaingun can only be used by Skitters, are those units I’ve been using? Why can’t I just see a unit, click ‘Upgrade’ and choose a list of upgrades? The interface really needs to be more user-friendly.

There were technical problems too. I was plagued by frequent match disconnections, often found myself unable to join a match with more than 10 people (the best matches!), and sometimes I’d load the game and not be able to see any servers running at all. I could write this off as problems with my own connection except that several other players I’ve chatted with have had the same issues. Even the simple traditional RTS controls can have problems too: I ordered my guy to attack an enemy, he followed her for a little while then proceeded to change to attacking some random units when I wasn’t looking. He died. Also clumsily if you scroll to the edge of the screen to move the camera you sometimes open up the menu instead.

The final little trouble is that there are no bots to take over when human players leave or the sides aren’t equal, and if the sides aren’t equal the side with the greater number of players will win every time. Furthermore 1v1 matches are utterly boring, so unless you’ve got even players for each team for the entire game the whole match becomes pointless. Teams aren’t balanced during a match either, so I once had five Blue Team players against one Red Team member in a match. It wasn’t fun for anyone.

Team Deathmatch. One side pins the other into their spawn point and keeps blasting them. Fun

Starvoid is a fun little online game with a lot of cool upgrades that can change your entire play-style. Zeal have taken a traditional RTS and putting it through the TF2/DOTA filter to create an addictive, fast tactical multiplayer game. It mostly succeeds, but this is the type of game that lives or dies on how many people are playing and there are a worrying amount of barriers of entry. The price, no demo, disconnection issues I won’t judge the game on but certainly affect the player count. I will however judge the game on the bland visuals, control problems, confusing interface, lack of explanation for some of the game’s features (there’s not even a digital manual), and the general lack of game here. No matter how fun the game three rather dull maps won’t keep anyone’s interest forever.

I’m sure a lot or even all of these issues will get corrected over time, but I’m judging Starvoid based on how it is now at launch (in fact already one patch after that) and I’m worried that there’s just too many issues to keep a community going for long. It’s certainly fun for the odd match, definitely different from all the other quick-play multiplayer games out there, but you have been warned. It needs an injection of extra fun, STAT.

Top Game Moment: Finally levelling up and saving enough Starvoid to afford that gigantic Scythe you’ve always wanted.



By JonahFalcon (SI Elite) on Sep 17, 2012
They should have said "Star Void", because "Starvoid" makes it sound like a hungry planet.