Alongside Saving Private Ryan, the 1997 classic Starship Troopers ranks atop my favourite movies of all time. It’s a seemingly dumb sci-fi action flick with as much character as there are creepy-crawlers in Klendathu. The plot is nonsensical, an advanced species of bug-like creatures bombarded Earth and now we have to show them the stiff backside of humanity’s hand. Players were able to tear down the bug menace when, in 2005, a first person shooter with the series name came out to enjoy moderate success, eventually fading into FPS obscurity in the year that Call of Duty 2 and Brothers in Arms came out.
This is where we’re at, with Starship Troopers being one of Sci-Fi most beloved franchises and a fantastic piece of satire against the propagandistic nature of the military complex and yet it’s missing any kind of relevant video game adaptation. Guys at Slitherine noticed this and snagged the license for the development of what I can only hope to be the first entry of a long-lasting series of real time strategy games. Their wishlists numbers, as stated during one of their thursday habituals “Tea Time” streams is nearing the quarter million, with 200,000 and counting. If the “most wishlisted upcoming games” on the Steam Next Fest is to be believe, then Starship Troopers started as the most wishlisted game of the entire festival and at the time of writing is still on the top spot, cementing said position. It’s fair to say expectations were met and Slitherine’s gamble seems to be paying of. The questions that remains are: Is it really that good of a game? And how well does it represent the universe it’s set in?
Yes and very well are the short answers. In fact, if the demo is something to go by, there’s little doubt in my mind it’s going to be probably the first mainstream breakout hit for Slitherine, a company that’s slowly but surely coming to the unsuspecting eyes of many a strategy loving gamer, very much like Paradox did a decade prior.
With all that said, it’s also necessary to do some expectation management from the start: Go into it expecting not a revolutionary entry. It’s a fact Starship Troopers isn’t the next Age of Empires II, Company of Heroes or Command and Conquer. What Starship Troopers: Terran Command is, is a traditional RTS with very customary mechanics that got adapted (extremely well, might I add) to its sci-fi, bug-slaying-festival setting.
Available to play were 3 missions of the game’s campaign and those were, for the most part, decent. Now, I couldn’t be arsed to pay close attention to the story on display because I was attempting to speedrun as many games as I could before going way for a couple of days before Sunday. And also because I want to get into the story when I’m able to actually finish it, instead of only getting a couple of missions in and getting blue balls for six months afterwards. Mission structure is what Starship Troopers aficionados can expect and downright predict: Move along a set path, clear waves of endless naughty bugs, eliminate hives, establish and defend forward operating bases, by set up advanced defensive positions and clear the another wave of misbehaving cockroaches. Clear mines and protect the miners by clearing even more waves of these mischievous pests. I’m curious to what other missions will bring and it’s nice to see some back and forth fighting going on around the map, with the bugs actually managing to pushing my forces back a number of times, especially during the third mission. And the last push to clear the final cave was a massive hurdle to overcome.
A good understanding of the games mechanics will give Terran Commanders a big advantage in the field of battle. Go into it expecting to bunch up your units and start firing way until all the vermin are dead and be prepared to become scarab food. Right out of the gate the game let’s you know that left-click+drag and right-click on top of the bug is going to be your doom because space marines can’t fire if they have a friendly unit in front of them- meaning you’re going to be employing Napoleonic line tactics a lot. This makes Starship Troopers a game about positioning units in ways that maximize their firepower while keeping them safe from prying claws. Engineers equipped with abridge-range flamethrowers excel at holding chokepoints with lots of obstacles but are easy to kill if left unattended or unsupported. The mobile infantry squad is the essence of every army, and will they’ll be able to pump a decent amount of bug wrecking lead out of their Morita Assault Rifles. They also come equipped with grenades to deal with more difficult situations that require explosive solutions. They work better in large groups to covering each others flanks and blind spots. Another unit in the demo is the sniper that does exactly what is expected, taking down bugs at long range and it really comes in handy when ranged bugs crawl into the scene. While the units in the demo were limited to its most basic the Steam page for the game promises a lot more “As a campaign progresses, technological breakthroughs unlock the true potential of the Federation’s arsenal with E-Pulse rifles, TAC Fighter airstrikes, heavily armed Marauder mechs, and many more developments“. Units accrue experience overtime and will level up, gaining access to more skills. This actually forces players to pay close attention when deciding what units to sacrifice if push comes to shove, as to how relevant said new skills can be I’m yet to be sold on, as the ones available in the demo were far from interesting.
The ground plays an essential part in defining tactics, with the high ground taking a center role. Units at different heights can fire over one another, multiplying their forces by two and even three-fold if the location is right. Obstacles and chokepoints can be used to funnel the enemy into a killing field and bases allow players to project their presence across wide areas by building machine gun positions that will tear down every enemy that crosses its field of view into tiny little bits. Ground is also fundamental if you want to keep your troops alive. Akin to the series infantrymen, an entire squad can die in seconds if warrior bugs manage to get their claws on them.
Starship Troopers ia a game that can allow itself the luxury of crappy AI and still get away with it, because fighting waves of brain-dead (or are they?) of armoured spiders requires very little programming skill rather than “charge first unit” you find. Later down the line I’m expecting to find a bit more nuance in the way the AI works with the addition of more types of enemy units that come in to fill different roles in battle.
Some of the problems I hope that get fixed before the game launches is the occasionally bunching up of units (see screenshot below), the stiff turret gunner animations and please, for the love of everything that is sacred either let us know how the field of fire mechanics work, because sometimes it seems like the unit can fire but for some unspecified reason it can’t or, at the the very least have them automatically adjust their positions so they can engage the enemy without too much micromanaging. The most disappointing aspect of this demo was the sound- that doesn’t exist, save for the gun fire and boring, repetitive music. Good sound design is intrinsic to an experience and to sell players a believable fantasy and there’s too much to do in this department. I’m still expecting Luckily, there’s also a lot to draw inspiration from. The graphics also feel a bit jarring, especially in maps with simple geographical features, also known as the desert. A little bit more of unit detail and better ground textures wouldn’t hurt.
There’s very little doubt in my head that this is going to be a sales hit, especially amongst starving fans of the series. The game is solid in its own right and is by no means expecting an easy piggy-back ride from the franchise it’s drawing from. Unlike most cash grabs, the developers actually took their time to understand how they could properly translate the combat style seen in the movies to the digital realm and the result is phenomenal. Polish a few things here and there and it has all the necessary ingredients to become a core part of such a beloved franchise.
Starship Troopers Terran Command is releasing on the 31st of March, 2022 in Steam.