Written by Brock Poulsen, brockst4r Friday, 22 July 2011 11:00
The Ur-Quan Masters is the shareware version of PC game Star Control II. It is my latest addiction due to its easy initial accessibility and surprising depth. Despite being nearly 20 years old, it is extremely enjoyable and available for free on just about anything with a screen.
A full list of platforms can be found here, including several portable systems (though it's not yet available for iPhone). This would be a great game for taking on the go, allowing you to gather resources and conquer evil alien races on the bus and in the bathroom. It allows saving at almost any point, so it is an excellent pick-up-and-play experience.
The premise is classic sci-fi: Earth is under servitude to a vicious alien race, and you are humanity's last best hope. Everything the player learns about the story must be extracted from various NPCs that are encountered through your travels. The voice acting during these conversations is really quite good, and I laughed out loud on multiple occasions. The aliens are creatively designed and run the gamut from funny to strange to scary.
The environments encapsulate a galaxy of stars, each with a system of planets to be explored. Gameplay consists of travel between these solar systems in a large spaceship, and landing on individual planets to gather resources and zap aliens with a smaller landing craft. Different resources (indicated by color) are worth different amounts, and planet surfaces behave differently depending on things like temperature, weather, and seismic activity. PRO TIP: Learn to identify the Gas Giant planets, and don't bother scanning them. There are never any resources on them. I wasted hours my first time scanning these planets and never finding anything.
Despite its futuristic facade, Ur-Quan Masters is a sort of RPG. It's ostensibly simple, but there is a dungeon crawler flavor to the game. Resources are harvested and brought back to a space station orbiting Earth and traded in for credits, which are used to purchase ship upgrades. These upgrades do things like increase turning and traveling speed and allow you to carry more fuel and resources. Thus, as you gather more resources, your ship becomes more powerful and you are able to travel further from the space station and explore more of the galaxy.
One thing that impresses me about the design is the way it communicates with the player. The main screen has an image of your ship that graphically shows you all the information you need to know: it shows you your number of crew members, how full your storage bays are of resources, how much fuel you have left, and how many fighting ships and landing crafts you have. It's a very slick display. There's also a very helpful function on the star map, where it shows you with a gray circle how far out you can travel while still having enough fuel to make it back to the space station.
Ur-Quan Masters is deep and somewhat merciless, and at the price of free it is well worth your gaming time.