Summary Judgement: A perfect fit for anybody who loves strategic starship or naval combat.

Space combat games are few and far between these days. So when the good folks at Tindalos Interactive, Headup Games, and Meridian4 gave me a chance to review Stellar Impact, I jumped at the opportunity. The easiest comparison, but not quite the most accurate, would be to say that Stellar Impact is a space battle analogue to Defence of the Ancients or League of Legends.

As an exclusively multi-player game, Stellar Impact sees two opposing fleets battle to control resource points on a map, before blowing up the other team’s starbase.

Each battle begins at the ship yard screen. From there players can review their ships, the various experience points attached to those vessels, and any loot that they earned in previous battles. Believe me when I say that ship customization is at the core of this title. Each of the game’s five core ship classes (eight if you buy the two dollar DLC pack) have twenty-five active abilities. Each ship can have five abilities selected at a given time, and the class of the ship dictates how many abilities can be loaded from specific sub-categories. For example, a destroyer can equip a maximum of three “attack” abilities where a corvette can only have one.

A boy and his destroyer

If that’s not enough modification, each completed battle awards loot in the form of hull, weapon, ammunition, and crew upgrades. The crew upgrades alone add another twenty-five passive buffs to a given ship. Then there are all the in-game buffs you can give to your weapons, armour and NPC units as your fleet collects command points and collectively levels up. So if you’re the sort that likes to tinker, then you’re probably going to find a lot of room for experimentation with this game. At the same time, none of these options feel too overwhelming. On the complexity scale, Stellar Impact falls somewhere between Wing Commander: Privateer and an Armoured Core game. There’s just enough customization to make tactical load outs a matter of some thought, but no real way to break your ship and subsequently ruin the game.

At present, Stellar Impact offers two game play modes, “conquest”, which is the DOTA-esque action I’ve been talking about thus far, and “battlefield” scenarios that focus on ship-to-ship combat without any capturing or base defense. Conquest boasts ten maps to choose from, all of which support 6v6 competition, and Battlefield offers four. The game play itself, in either mode, is quite good. The sound quality is great. The visuals are slick. I’ve yet to notice a serious frame rate drop.

If only immersion were a guarantee of success in battle, I’d be a much better commander. It took me about four or five battles before I really learned the finer points of ship handling and weapons management. It’s not that either are particularly difficult; the game’s tutorial offers an effective overview of commands, navigation, and the UI. The thing of it is that even the smallest ship in Stellar Impact manoeuvres like the massive weapon of war that it is.

Navigating hazards, maintaining formation, and keeping turrets directed on the enemy of choice can be a little challenging to a newbie captain. Even now when I’m piloting a corvette or frigate, I occasionally misjudge the distance I will need for a turning arc and ram into an asteroid. Yet those moments are trumped many times over with the sublime pleasure that comes in tearing through an opponent’s shields with a missile salvo before laying into them with a full broadside from my plasma cannons. It is so rare to see a game that makes capital ship combat feel like the methodical dance that it ought to be, while retaining a level of accessibility that is challenging without being punishing.

One of the reasons I was reticent to immediately lump Stellar Impact in with the likes of DOTA is that where the latter is filled with dickbags and trolls, the people who play Stellar Impact are about as helpful and friendly as can be. Even folks on the opposing team were offering my hapless captaining a bit of constructive advice during my first couple of battles. The game’s general chat room offers a maturity that is almost impossible to find in today’s online gaming world.

We're going to need a bigger boat...

While my overall experience has been a positive one, I can see some room for improvement. Stellar Impacts match making system is almost painfully primitive. Once a player joins a game, they are taken to a fleet screen where they select the ship they want to command. Problems occur in that there’s nothing to stop the opposing force from picking a fleet of heavy ships to meet your team’s mixed unit fleet. Lighter ships are great for ninja capturing control points, but other than firing a few pot shots before running away, there’s not a lot they can do against a destroyer or cruiser. On a few occasions my team has readily surrendered once it became obvious that our fleet was simply out gunned. Arguably, sound tactics could get around that problem. However, I would love to see an option that limited fleet values so not everybody could have a dreadnaught. Further, a forced auto-balance between the teams in the pre-battle lounge would seem like a natural thing to include given Stellar Impact’s impressive player ranking system.

I’d also like to see some better descriptions on the loot. Other than looking at the trade in value, the colour coded ship parts don’t do a great job of differentiating between common/uncommon/rare/epic items.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, Stellar Impact offers a DLC bundle that adds three additional classes of starship to the game: the carrier, the support ship, and the artillery ship. Now don’t freak out on me here; none of these ships are essential to enjoying the main game. I repeat, you lose nothing by deciding not to buy the DLC package. However, the DLC ships are unique enough to add some significant tactical options to your combat experience. On that note, I would deem them a good investment. There’s also the fact that the difference between Stellar Impact and Stellar Impact + DLC is a measly two dollars. Consider the DLC good karma toward indie devs, if nothing else.

Overall, I expect that Stellar Impact is going to find greater appeal with a certain type of gamer rather than among the general gaming public. If you’re the sort of person who enjoyed the Starfleet Command series, the Renegade Legion: Leviathan tabletop game, or any sort of naval combat RTS, then you are likely among the target audience. Still, there’s nothing in this game that would alienate people from outside that demographic. What Stellar Impact lacks in game play variety, it makes up for in ship customization. While the community playing this game is small, they are very dedicated and the exact opposite of every negative gamer stereotype in the book.

If you love starship or naval combat, then this game is a definite buy.

Stellar Impact is currently available on Steam for $9.99 or $11.99 with the DLC bundle.