Flow Combine’s new title SPACECOM is out on steam, and we decided to take a second look after our beta review a couple weeks back. What we found was a solid entry into space-based strategy and a fresh new perspective for those looking to channel our inner general. Dive in for more details after the break.
What is most intriguing about SPACECOM is its emphasis on simplicity, which allows more of the focus to be on gameplay. The gameplay options, or “loves,” if you will, are fairly limited in number. You can build one of three ships, but only at certain planets. You can build one of three planetary defenses, but at the cost of resources. Resources come only from certain systems, and your ships must travel on predefined paths. That’s it. But on the face of it, chess is a simple game. You have six types of pieces, each with its own movement limitation— force the king to be immobile. And people watch chess on television! SPACECOM has doubled down on strategy, without the bells and whistles of other RTS games on the market.
From the beta we got a look at, the game has really been polished. The music lends itself to a futuristic zone, but with spots of long, wistful synthesizer that gives sci-fi fans goosebumps. There are audio queues for when your ships and systems are under attack, and units now show a timer for when they will arrive at their destination. The one thing that has lasted through from the beta, though, is bad copyediting, and the in-game tooltips could do with a bit of spellcheck. “Loose” is used in place of “Lose” almost everywhere.
There is a single-player campaign, which helps the player hone their skills in a safe environment, building their knowledge of the game through missions designed to slowly get more difficult. It starts out with the player learning the types of units, then using them to defend against a superior force. From there, the missions move into the different types of planetary defense, and shows the player how to use them, but also how to subvert and destroy them. This campaign, with its bonus objectives, provides several hours of strategic gamely on its own.
But the real beauty of chess is not learning the moves of the pieces and memorizing gambits and follies. It’s staring down your opponent and adjusting on the fly. What makes RTS engaging is the human element. There is no restart, and there is no pause. And its in the multiplayer games that SPACECOM becomes its most engaging, and most maddening.
A hallmark of Real Time Strategy is the rock-paper-scissor mechanic. It stipulates that Unit A will beat Unit B, which in turn beats Unit C. Unit C crushes Unit A, though. Game balance in the multiplayer space functions entirely around making sure there are multiple As for every B, to make gamely unpredictable and dynamic. This design is by its very nature flawed. A five year old figures out rock-paper-scissor within a few seconds, and game designers find themselves at odds with an intelligent player base that gets bored with the same routine and mandatory exploits (see: Starcraft).
But SPACECOM says to heck with that. Battle Fleets will beat both other types of ships any day of the week. They can’t invade systems or lay sieges. They kill other ships. Each type of ship has its own task, and the key to victory lies not in “Ha! I hard countered the unit you made a million of and you dies in a fifteen-second battle.” Instead, your units are tools with which you can build a snowballing force, applying pressure in the right areas to weaken and eventually destroy your opponent. You know, like chess. The balance is such that the planetary shields and space stations feel almost overpowered, and they should— they’re planetary shields and space stations. It forces opponents to build large fleets to counter the resources you sank into stationary defense. The game is about flow, and about planning. One thing I hate about chess is that a Grandmaster can look at the board and say “you lost three turns ago.” Really good SPACECOM players will be able to say that too, and is that really such a bad thing?
SPACECOM is available on steam for $14.99
SPACECOM provides tabletop-level strategy in an engaging sci-fi video game, without the unnecessary frills of AAA.