Review: StarPagga

StarPaggaSpace shooters have been around since the dawn of computing. The basic principle never really changed: Fly around and shoot things. But that hasn’t stopped these games from bringing joy to what are now generations of gamers. StarPagga doesn’t reinvent the genre. In fact, it doesn’t really change the formula at all, but can you blame a game for not fixing something that isn’t broken?

Download Video as WebM, Theora, MPEG-4, ASF/WMV
Sorry for the video quality and shakiness… Right now this is recorded with a PSEye webcam and a whole lot of duct-tape.

Note: The review is based entirely on how it worked on a rooted LG Optimus One P500, a 480×320 low-cost Android 2.3 device. Since every device is different, there’s really no way of knowing how it will perform on yours, but thankfully there’s a demo available that unlike many others does not require identity access. The developer was also very helpful when I encountered a minor control issue and responded quickly.

If you’re not discouraged by the strange name, you’ll find StarPagga delivering one of the most polished 3D flight experiences available on low- to mid-end Android devices today. The one thing where it falls short is the length of the single player campaign, but with the low price and a variety of extra modes like survival, online (with OpenFeint integration) and local multiplayer (including bots) as well as two classes of spacecrafts that really do control entirely differently (thus making you replay each campaign mission at least once) and dozens of customization options for your ships the game certainly tries to make up for it.

The first thing you’ll notice about this game is its interface. The menus are very pleasing on the eye with clear lines for the actual content and some nice effects for the background, but they also excel at making it very clear that this game does not try to compete with Angry Bird. This is a game that takes itself seriously, not the cute and cuddly kind. There’s a stylish design, explosions, (excellent) dramatic music and settings that allow anything from setting up the controls (which I suggest you do: I found the game to work best with sensor controls and non-inverted aiming, but you can also use an onscreen-joystick if that’s what you want) to setting up a whole fleet of different spaceships, each tuned with special items for specific missions (which you can safely skip if you’re not after the high-score: the default setup will get you through the game without any trouble). But even with the amount of options available the menus remain easy to navigate and you’ll end up where you want to go without any problems.

The heart of the game is the campaign with it’s 14 (plus 3 training) missions. Sadly, there isn’t much of a background story aside from you being a member of “Azure Squadron”, which fights enemies. That’s really all there is. While that’s not exactly a huge issue, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to breath some character into the game, specifically your enemies who might as well be the same drones that you fight during training. As it stands, the closest thing to a human face you get is a tiny image and some chatter from your superior during flights.

Luckily, the game manages to turn it around during the actual missions, which offer enough variety to keep you hungry for the next one, even without a background story. For one the game doesn’t fall into the usual trap of letting every mission play in open space: There are meteoroid fields, construction sites filled with debris, huge space stations that you circle around, the rings of Saturn, storms and even the odd ground mission taking place on the surface of a planet. The playfield is not endless, but always big enough so that you don’t run into a wall (which appears as a semi-transparent fence when you approach it and will simply turn your ship around instead of giving you a game over screen) unless you try to run away from the action.

All the ships and environments look beautiful, mostly because the game doesn’t really focus on raw polygon count, which is naturally limited on many Android devices, but instead spends its processing time on gorgeous effects like lens-flares and glows. The stages also benefit from some beautifully drawn skyboxes that add a lot of perceived depth.

Aside from looking great, the game also plays very differently in different environments: shooting enemies while trying to avoid crashing into meteors or the ground is a totally different beast than holding your ground against an incoming armada in open space. Along with the different environments, the game offers distinctive targets that, while all eventually boiling down to “shoot something”, still make every mission seem unique: There’s even a StarWars-esque “shoot the core of that space station and outrun the explosion” mission. Each run lasts around five to ten minutes and hardly ever requires more than one or at most two attempts, so you’ll never look at the same environment for more than ten minutes, which successfully makes the gameplay seem a lot more varied than it actually is.

During the whole game, the controls work wonderfully. There’s an onscreen-joystick for when you’re playing in the subway, but the game really is intended for sensor control. When you’re flying an interceptor, the game uses a flight-simulator like setup where leaning left or right makes your spacecraft turn, which keeps the orientation issues you usually have in space shooters to a minimum (there’s also a map and red arrows pointing towards nearby enemies).

The fighter class spaceships on the other hand are for experienced gamers, effectively replacing the missing harder difficulty level, since the pseudo-2D limitation is entirely gone: A fighter is controlled by rolling until your enemy is either above or below you and then thrusting towards him; there’s no simple way to just turn left of right, which means that you’ll be rolling around constantly, making terms like up or down entirely meaningless.

Shooting is done with two onscreen buttons with no way to aim but steering your ship into the right position (which really is quite a challenge with the fighter class as you either have to stay behind your target or keep your plane at a 90 degree angle to the direction where it is heading). Aside from that you can escape incoming rockets either by using a third button or by shaking your phone, which I can’t really recommend since it takes a while to react: better use the button, even if it isn’t the default option.

Weapons fall into two categories: Rockets and guns. Rockets lock on to enemies if you can keep them in your sight for a few seconds and are very easy to handle, but come in limited quantities. Especially on higher levels enemies are also able to escape rockets just like you are.
Your gun on the other hand cannot be blocked, but it requires you to aim manually at a rectangle where a shot is predicted to hit the target. What this all boils down to is that rockets allow you to quickly earn your first few medals, but the guns are really your primary weapons (plus, they are just plain more fun).

After the campaign is finished there are a series of training modes where you can try to beat the high-score, as well as a survival mode that sends wave after wave of enemy at you. Practice and survival mode are a bit tedious to tell the truth, but luckily there’s also an online mode which thanks to the good bot AI works remarkably well even when you’re not online (or can’t find any online games running, as was the case while testing for this review: hopefully this will change over time). Aside from the coop-survival mode there’s team-deatmatch and capture-the-flag; hardly surprising choices but like the rest of the game they are competently executed and pretty fun in small doses, but play them for too long and you’ll miss the motivation provided by the different targets it in the campaign. You can play on any map, which provides a bit of variety, but it’s no substitute for true single player missions.

At the end of the day this is a fine game that won’t win over people who never liked space shooters before, but brings solid gameplay to those who like this genre. If the campaign is fleshed out a little more it’s ready to play up there with the big boys. As it stands it falls a bit short… but really just a tiny bit.

Average Verdict: Buy

This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply