Review - Star Reach (DOS, 1994)

A list of good real-time strategy games can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Star Reach sets out to increase that number, but sadly, falls somewhat short of doing so.

The premise behind Star Reach, described in detail in a 17-page short story in the front of the manual, bears resemblance to the smash hit Star Control, and the television series Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5. The background has little impact on the game, however. The essence of the game involves basic resource management and conquest.

There are two basic ways to play Star Reach, depending on your preference for arcade-style combat. In Ship mode, you issue commands from the helm of your Star Cruiser. By flying to, and docking with, a planet, you can direct that planet's production. Planets produce four different resources - minerals, food, population and money - with the rate of production depending on the type of planet.

Naturally, you can take these resources and build things with them. As in many strategy games, there are two types of things you can build: military units and planetary improvements. Planetary improvements include strip mines (which increase the rate of mineral production); biospheres (which increase the maximum population); hydroponics plants (which increase the rate of food production, and, indirectly, rate of population growth); and ground defense (which helps a planet resist invasion by enemy ground troops). Available ship types include light fighters and destroyers (general attack and defense units), planetary bombers (used to take out ground targets), scout ships (which reveal enemy ships and let you look at the improvements on enemy planets), repair ships (which repair or refuel other ships), satellites (which orbit your planet and comprise the planet's main defense), missile ships (designed for taking out heavy ships like Star Cruisers and planetary bombers), pirate ships (which can scavenge scuttled enemy ships) and troop ships (which can take over neutral and enemy planets).

In turn-based games, bases (which can be cities, planets, whatever) generally have a set generic "productivity." They are assigned "projects," and when a project is completed, you are notified and given the opportunity to start a new project. Since Star Reach runs in real-time, this clearly does not work. Instead, production is amassed in stockpiles of money and minerals. When you want to build something, the cost of producing it is deducted from your planet's stockpile of resources.

The problem is that shortages of required materials occur fairly often. In a turn-based game, you at least have the satisfaction of watching things grow, e.g. "ooh, ten more production points toward the completion of my Parthenon! Only five more turns and it's done." Also, in games with a larger scale than Star Reach, you have many units to move around, so almost every turn there's SOMETHING to do. In Star Reach, the scale is small enough that there aren't many units to handle (and, in fact, the game is designed for a kind of hands-off approach to controlling all ships except your flagship). Add to this the fact that you will often spend lots of time waiting for the coffers to fill to the point where you can build the next planetary improvement or ship that you need, and you have a recipe for extreme boredom.

Even this could have been forgiven if the arcade action was any good – hey, the strategy part of Star Control I was really bad, but it was still one of my all-time favorite games – but unfortunately, it's not. Not only can you only control one ship – your Star Cruiser – it's easy to miss a battle. In order to see your ships fighting, you've got to send your Star Cruiser with an attacking fleet or attach your remote view to one of your ships. Either way, there doesn't seem to be any easy way to judge whether an attacking fleet will be powerful enough to accomplish an objective – such as landing a troop transport on a planet in order to set up a base. And once you're involved in a battle, the presence of your Star Cruiser doesn't seem to make all that much difference. More often than not, my Star Cruiser got blown up, either from damage inflicted by the enemy, or because it ran out of fuel.

The majority of strategy gamers seem to be proponents of turn-based over real-time games. Their argument is that when you don't have all the time you want to think about what to do with your pieces, a game loses a lot of its strategic appeal. In recent years, there have been a few games that refuted that notion, but sadly, Star Reach isn't one of them. Despite what is basically a decent underlying management engine, Star Reach's cumbersome gameplay gets stale pretty quickly.