The Ur-Quan menace was successfully defeated by the destruction of their flagship at the end of Star Control II, but that doesn’t mean the universe is still safe. The effects of the Precursor bombs used to destroy it have, for some reason, completely nullified hyperspace. What’s more, after the explosion, your character went into a brief coma and foresaw the destruction of all sentient life at the hands of an unknown entity. Upon awakening, you use your knowledge of Precursor artifacts to build a vessel using a special bubble technology to traverse long distance without hyperspace, and assemble a loose alliance of races to solve the problem. The mission? To investigate the Kessari Quadrant, previously uncharted and ruled by the Hegemonic Crux, and prevent your deadly visions from becoming reality.
Star Control 3 feels drastically different from its predecessor because it wasn’t even remotely made by the same people. Reportedly, Ford and Reiche were offered the same budget to work on this game as its predecessor, which they found unacceptable, especially considering they worked for six months on that game without pay. It was instead outsourced to Legend Entertainment, the heir apparent to Infocom and a generally great developer of adventure games. They employed some of the best game writers in the industry at the time, and given Star Control II‘s extremely strong narrative, it seemed like a logical fit. Unfortunately for a number of reasons, Star Control 3 never reaches, or even comes close to, the heights of its predecessor.
The interface has been updated, displayed in SVGA and controlled using a mouse cursor, rather than directly controlling your ship. Working your away around the various systems is much faster and smoother. The core of the game has been revamped to bring back some of the elements from the first Star Control, particularly the focus on colonization. When you enter a star system, you are shown a map of all planets and their resources. It’s easy enough to find a fruitful planet at the outset and establish a colony, which are used to mine for Resource Units, build ships, and research artifacts. The only control you have over them involves fiddling with sliders, allowing you to prioritize the colony’s function. Each colony is helmed by a particular race, which determines the ship it can build – Spathi bases can only build Spathi ships, for example. And rather than presenting all crew members as generic, each are broken down in specific races, so Spathi ships can also only be staffed by Spathi crew. Certain races also function better on certain types of planets.
Compared to Star Control II, this is much easier to deal with. Your travel range is still limited at the beginning, but once you settle a few outposts, you can create an easy way to travel between systems, quickly refueling and gathering any ships that may have been produced in the meantime. And it’s not so complicated as to interfere with the crux of the game, which is still to go around, visit alien races, and try to ally to them. The downside is that after the initial sections of the game, the colonization aspect is largely inconsequential, and there’s no real semblance of strategy to any of it. In other words, anyone expecting Master of Orion, or even anything resembling the strategy elements of the original Star Control, will probably be disappointed. You can also set up dig sites to look for artifacts. This is really only important for certain plot specific events or enhancements for your ships, and not a major aspect of the game.
As the game begins, you and your allied races are spread throughout the galaxy. While looking for them, you can also try to recruit some of the Crux races, though ultimately it’s futile – eventually they’ll declare war on you and you need to find a way to diffuse tensions. However, even your own alliances are fragile – the Spathi will (predictably) run away, the VUX start raiding their neighbors, and the Mycon start violating the Alliance’s ethics’ policies. So you’re not only assembling a new coalition but trying to keep your current one from falling apart, before facing off against a greater menace.
Conceptually, this is all pretty decent, but there are a number of issues that dampen the experience. First off, the game just looks and feels weird. It runs in SVGA now and is navigated entirely with the mouse, but the interface is too clean, too sterile. Instead of a friendly blue, the interface bar is a boring grey, and commands are tiny buttons whose function is only identified when you hover the cursor over them. It looks easy to use, but navigation on the starmap proves troublesome, because it’s presented in 3D rather than flat 2D, making it impossible to judge the distance between star systems. There are no more coordinates either, and finding star systems involves running your cursor over all dozens and dozens of systems or so until you stumble on to them. Once you’ve explored them, you can type in their names to search for them, giving an incentive to explore everywhere, but it’s still a pain in the early stages.
Rather than static drawings, most races is represented by a puppet, which was hand-crafted and then filmed against a set. (A few of them are rendered in CGI.) There’s no real lip synching or anything, as there are only handful of filmed animations that are looped over and over. The results are mixed, to be extremely generous. The general rule is that the more human-like the race, the worse it will look. The Syreen, for example, being blue-skinned women, look beyond hideous. On the other hand, the fish-like Orz look decent enough. But even disregarding their mixed quality, both their design and their backdrops are missing the color and liveliness of its predecessor.
Owing to the CD-ROM format, all of the dialogue is fully voiced. The actors are entirely different from Star Control II, which most PC gamers had not heard at the time of this game’s release, since it was exclusive to the 3DO. The voices are generally much more professional, both in that they’re missing some of the sillier accents, as well as the sound modulations, and the line readings are well done. The inconsistencies between the games are sort of annoying, but Star Control III‘s takes on certain races are a bit better. The Orz, for example, now deliver their mistranslated words in a totally different voice, which makes them sound even goofier.
One of the absolute biggest sore points is the music. It’s awful. Despite the improved hardware, Legend went in a regressive direction by sticking with a MIDI soundtrack rather than the sampled MOD format. Not only is it incredibly lifeless, but the music for each race is quietly indistinguishable from one another, completely ruining one of the high points of its predecessor. The only decent tracks are the melee battle themes. According to message board posts from the composer at the time of release, the music format choice was done to ease the porting to the PlayStation and Saturn consoles, which were planned but cancelled before the PC version was even released.
In general, the game simply feels too easy. The opening chapters of Star Control II were rough, but they were rewarding once you scrambled yourself up from practically nothing. Here, you’re less than five minutes away from obtaining several powerful Chmmr and Ur-Quan vessels. And since travel is instantaneous, there’s no danger from much of anything. At worse, if you run out of fuel, you’ll be stranded for a bit until your colony can produce more of it. Much like Star Control II, there are a few unwinnable situations, but they are mostly due to scripting bugs rather than design issues. The game is not entirely linear, but if you execute certain events out of sequence, it won’t trigger a vital event, and leave you stuck without even telling you anything is wrong. The bug was widely recognized when the game was released, but no patch was ever issued.
In general, the game just simply isn’t finished. Once the war officially starts between the Alliance and the Crux, the enemies were supposed to start invading your systems, and you’d have to defend them. But instead, once you’ve gotten to this point in the game, not much actually changes other than conversation being more hostile. Similarly, while you can fight the ships surrounding the colonies, you can’t actually take over or destroy the colonies themselves. The game’s interface taunts you with the resources that enemy colonies have, but you can only get control over them once they’re allied with you. It makes sense that the narrative wants to encourage peaceful solutions, since that’s the only way the story can really proceed, but it makes the strategy/resource gathering section of the game even more meaningless than it already is. Even the story is undercooked. Some races are severely underrepresented, with plot threads that don’t really go anyway. For as menacing as the Ur-Quan were in Star Control II, and how cool it is that they’re on your side in this game, they barely do anything here.
But it’s almost just as well – even when you’re just exploring, you’re constantly interrupted by messages from your home base on the research they’ve found, as well as messages from your onboard computer about other news throughout the galaxy (the Mycon are constantly sending distress signals and it takes awhile before you can figure out how to stop them). And eventually you’ll be harassed by the Daktaklakpak, a robotic race like the Sylandro, who will continue to act aggressively until you can translate their language. They also tend to attack with half a dozen ships at once, which makes encountering them extremely tedious. With all of this in mind, it’s probably for the best that the game just concentrated on the adventure elements and left all of the strategy stuff aside, because there’s a good chance it just would’ve been nothing but distractions like that.
The one aspect that’s done well is the combat. There’s a new ill-advised “3D” mode, which puts the camera at a horizontal level. This was a bad idea and never should’ve been implemented, because it’s basically unplayable, but thankfully the classic view still remains, and it’s generally improved over the PC original. The rotation of the ships are much smoother, offering many more degrees over the 16 steps of Star Control II, and the scaling is much smoother than the 3DO version. The right sidebar has been removed, compressing all data to a small portion on the top of the screen. While it gives a greater view of combat, it removes the tiny portraits of the pilots, as well as their unique captain names.
The ships have been redesigned and rendered in CG, and they come off as the most pleasantly designed aspect of this sequel. Like the rest of the visuals, they aren’t nearly as bright, but they are well detailed, and it’s an acceptable trade-off. All of the sound effects, including most of the victory tunes, are exactly the same as Star Control II, leaving melee the only portion of the game that really feels faithful to its predecessor. On the downside, not all of the races made the transition to this game. If the race isn’t in the main story mode, then their ship isn’t available either. It’s a shame too, because many of the new races’ ships aren’t really all that good, offering only slight variations on what’s already there. The enemy AI is also fairly annoying, as it tends to run away instead of directly confronting you, making combat sessions drag.
The other aspect where Star Control 3 excels is the dialogue. Though there’s a tendency to re-use certain quotable lines from the previous game, it’s still just as fun as ever to sit and chat with all of your weird friends and foes, even if a bunch from Star Control II are missing. The new races are generally fun, particularly the K’Tang – cowardly worms that present themselves as robots, who appear to constantly be throwing temper tantrums, and the Owa, who speak in goofy faux-Shakespearean talk. The overall plot leaves something to be desired, though, particularly in the way it answers some open-ended questions from the previous games. Much of this, particularly anything to do with the Precursors, was better left a mystery, and the resolutions are uniformly disappointing.
Indeed, even the premise seems like wasted potential. The biggest unanswered questions from Star Control II had to do with the Arliou and the Orz, two races that hail from a higher dimension. It doesn’t help that the writers of the first two games had nothing to do with this one – Ford and Reiche had said in interviews that a planned third game would’ve delved more into this story. But instead this premise of this game is “main character has weird dream, runs off into new part of space, faces new menace”, which isn’t exactly compelling. It’s obvious the designers of Star Control III had great reverence for the older games, it still can’t help but feel like fan fiction.
That feeling, that everything is slightly off, is what harms Star Control 3 the most. A few core aspects are still there – the combat, the alien chats – but most of the rest of its character is stripped away. It’s not like Star Control II didn’t have problems, and this game certainly works to fix them, but what they came up to replace it just isn’t interesting enough. It’s still worth playing to see how the universe was expanded (even if it’s not considered “canon” among many fans), but it can’t help but feel like a disappointment. The game got a fairly decent reception from critics when it was first released, but fans never warmed up to it, and despite several efforts at sequels, failed to continue the series.