Star Control II
|Star Control II|
MS-DOS cover art
|Developer(s)||Toys for Bob|
Crystal Dynamics (3DO)
Paul Reiche III
|Release||November 1992 (DOS)|
|Genre(s)||adventure, shoot 'em up|
|Mode(s)||Single player, multiplayer|
Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters is the sequel to Star Control. It was developed by Toys for Bob (Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III) and originally published by Accolade in 1992 for MS-DOS. This game features exoplanet abundant star systems, hyperspace travel, extraterrestrial life, and interstellar diplomacy, with the game featuring 25 different alien races that can be communicated with.
Released to critical acclaim, Star Control II is widely viewed today as one of the greatest PC games ever made, and has appeared on numerous publications lists of the greatest video games of all time.
The game was ported to the 3DO by Crystal Dynamics in 1994 with an enhanced multimedia presentation, allowed by the CD technology. The source code of the 3DO port was licensed under the GNU GPL in 2002, the game content under a Creative Commons license. The 3DO code was ported to PC as The Ur-Quan Masters. A sequel, Star Control 3, was released in 1996.
Star Control II is an action-adventure science fiction game, set in an open universe. It features ship-to-ship combat based on the original Star Control, but removes the first game's strategy gameplay to focus on story and dialog, as seen in other adventure games. The player's goal is to free Earth from the evil Ur-Quan, by recruiting aliens to help. The main gameplay elements are exploring the galaxy, gathering resources, building a fleet, defeating enemy ships, and conversing with aliens.
One-on-one spaceship battles take place in real-time, based on the core gameplay of the original Star Control. Each ship has unique weapons, maneuvers, and secondary abilities, and winning a battle requires a combination of ship selection and skill. This combat mode can be played separately in a two-player battle mode called Super Melee. In the story mode, the player is limited to the ships they can gain from sympathetic alien races, whereas Super Melee includes every ship in both Star Control games. The only ship unique to the story mode is the player's capital ship, which is upgraded as the player gains new technology and resources.
After a brief opening sequence, the player is given near total freedom to explore the galaxy at large. Exploration often involves travelling to stars, landing on planets, and gathering resources. The player navigates their star map, with over 500 stars and 3800 planets to potentially visit. Players must manage their risk as they explore, as planets with more dangerous hazards usually feature more valuable resources, which are vital to upgrade the player's fleet. More rarely, a planet will feature an interactive alien race, who the player can engage with as a potential friend or foe. The interactive dialog options help advance the story, with branching conversations similar to other adventure games. These conversations also reveal secrets and information about the galaxy. The game vastly expands on the characters and backstory from the first game, with each species having their own characteristic conversational quirks, music, and even display fonts.
Whereas the first Star Control stores most of its lore in the instruction manual, Star Control II continues the story with a rich in-game experience, playing through events after the Alliance is defeated by the Hierarchy. In the last phase of the war between the Alliance of Free Stars and the Hierarchy of Battle Thralls, an Earthling ship discovered an ancient Precursor subterranean installation in the Vela star system. A massive Hierarchy offensive forced the Alliance fleets to retreat beyond Vela, stranding the science expedition, who went in to hiding. Decades later, with the help of a genius child born on the planet, the colonists activated the Precursor machinery and found out that it was programmed to build a highly advanced but unfinished starship, which could be piloted only by the now grown genius child, who alone could interact with the Precursor central computer. The new ship set out to Sol to make contact with Earth, but shortly before reaching Sol the little fleet was attacked by an unknown probe; The expedition commander, captaining the expedition's Earthling Cruiser, intercepted the alien ship before it could damage the defenseless Precursor starship, but was killed in the short fight, leaving the genius young man in command.
The player begins the game as the commander of the Precursor starship, who returns to Earth to find it enslaved by the Ur-Quan. The Captain gains the support of the skeleton crew of Earth's caretaker starbase and ventures out to contact the other races to find out what's happened since the end of the war and try to recruit allies in to a New Alliance of Free Stars against the Ur-Quan. The Captain quickly discovers that the rest of the humans' allies in the war against the Ur-Quan have either been eradicated, put under slave shields, or put into service as Ur-Quan battle thralls. As the player progresses, it is revealed that the Ur-Quan are fighting an internecine war with the Kohr-Ah, a subspecies of Ur-Quan who believe in eradicating all life in the galaxy, as opposed to enslaving it. The winner of this war will gain access to the Sa-Matra, a Precursor battle platform of unparalleled power. The player must take advantage of the Ur-Quans' distraction to contact and recruit alien races into a new alliance, gather resources and build a fleet, and find a way to destroy the invincible Sa-Matra, before the Ur-Quan finish their war and become unstoppable.
The Captain resolves issues several of the races are facing, or exploits their weaknesses, to get them on side. Notably the Captain finds the Chenjesu and Mmrnmhrm on Procyon undergoing their own plan to merge in to a composite species powerful enough to defeat the Ur-Quan, and captures a psychic alien Dnyarri, which the Captain discovers is a member of the race that brutally enslaved the galaxy millennia ago, causing the Ur-Quan's hegemonic and genocidal rampage around the galaxy. The Captain uses a precursor Sun Device to accelerate the merging of the Chenjesu and Mmrnmhrm to create the Chmmr, who amplify a precursor terraforming bomb, allowing the Captain to sacrifice his ship to destroy the Sa-Matra and defeat the Ur-Quan.
Star Control II began as a more ambitious project than the original Star Control, with Reiche and Ford hoping to go beyond ship combat to develop a "science fiction adventure role-playing game". The team credits the pre-existing combat from the original Star Control with giving them a strong core to build a larger game around. The sequel would develop into a much more detailed adventure than the first edition. Ford explains that the original Star Control had "some story there, but it was mostly in the manual. In Star Control II, we made a conscious decision to tell more of a story". The duo would downplay the scale of the game when pitching it to their publisher Accolade, and the game's development would eventually go over schedule.
Reiche and Ford drew inspiration from many science-fiction authors, as well as peers in the game industry. A few years earlier, Reiche had been friends with Greg Johnson during the creation of Starflight, inspiring Reiche to offer creative input on Johnson's expansive science fiction game. Once Reiche and Ford conceived Star Control 2, they would draw large inspiration from Starflight. This friendship and mutual admiration led them to even hire Greg Johnson, who they credit as "one of the most significant contributors to Star Control II". Ford also cites their shared love author Jack Vance from their childhood, and were intrigued by the idea of exaggerated societies taken to their extremes, and intelligent characters committed to an interesting agenda. Reiche would cite the influence of numerous fiction authors over the Star Control series, including Jack Vance, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, David Brin, and Andre Norton. David Brin's science fiction series about the Uplift Universe is also often mentioned as inspiration for the Star Control II universe, as well as Larry Niven's Known Space universe.
The creators started by asking "what people do when they go out and have an adventure in space", while keeping in mind what they could actually implement. This led them to create numerous stars and planets, through a combination of procedural generation and handcrafted assets. Despite the fact that exoplanets had yet to be fully discovered, Reiche initially took on the challenge of simulating planetary systems based on scientific principles. They ultimately decided to bypass some details of the simulation, due to its lack of distinct planets to explore. Instead, they imagined cracked planets with magma chasms, ruby planets with precious zirconium, and even rainbow colored planets. The planets were created with a procedurally generated height map, which required difficult programming solutions to simulate the appearance of a 3D sphere. They additionally simulated 3D asteroids by digitizing images of pumice they had taken from a parking lot.
The Star Control II team also invented their own fictional, flat version of space, so that the stars could be arranged in a more clear and interesting way. The algorithmically-assisted generation of the star map helped to create a vast, mysterious setting for players to explore. The map also added circles of influence for the aliens, not just to describe their location, but to provide narrative hints about their changing power, relationships, and stories.
Reiche and Ford wanted their new game to further investigate their self-described "superficial" stories and aliens from the original Star Control. Thus, the story for Star Control II would greatly expand on those original characters, and add a few more.
Paul Reiche III describes this creative process, "I know it probably sounds weird, but when I design a game like this, I make drawings of the characters and stare at them. I hold little conversations with them. 'What do you guys do? And they tell me.'" Early in the process, they used the first game's character and ship images to create simple visual stories about the two main sides of the conflict. The main antagonist the Ur Quan were already understood as a race of slavers in Star Control, so Reiche developed their motivation by writing their backstory as slaves themselves. To justify the Mycon's organic structures and high energy plasma, they decided that the Mycon lived beneath the planet's crust, and must have been artificially created to survive there. Fred Ford inspired the character design for the Earth starbase commander, as well as the Pkunk's insult ability, while the Spathi were inspired by a running joke about Paul Reiche's desire for self-preservation. The rich storytelling was a contrast to the first game's emphasis on player versus player combat, but they realized that their combat artificial intelligence could give story-loving players an option to delegate battles.
Ford and Reiche created a first pass of the dialog, transforming story beats into in-game placeholder tags. However, the sheer quantity of writing and art proved to be challenging for the game's epic scale. Fred Ford surprised the team with his prolific coding, and it was the rest of the team who needed to catch-up with art, writing, music, and other assets. They quickly enlisted the help of friends and family to create game content. One crucial friend was Starflight creator Greg Johnson, who Reiche had previously helped on Starflight while sharing office space. Johnson ended up writing dialog for several aliens, as well as creating most of the artwork for the alien spaceships. They were also able to hire fantasy artist George Barr through mutual friends, who had inspired the game's "pulp science-fiction" feel, and happened to be living nearby. Long-time friend Erol Otus was another collaborator, who Reiche describes as contributing the widest range of content, including music, text, art, illustrations for the game manual, and (later) voice-acting.
The largest number of collaborators were needed for the game's numerous dialog options. The creators were admirers of the Monkey Island games, and aimed to achieve the same level of player choice and humor. Reiche felt that each character needed their own font to match their distinct personality, and built a font-editing system to achieve this.
Deadline and budget
Once the project went over schedule, their payment from Accolade came to an end. Fred Ford financially supported the team for the final months of development. However, the creators cite this as part of their success, giving them the creative freedom to finish the project on their terms, while Accolade limited their role to publishing. They were ultimately able to finish the project with the help of numerous family, friends, and other collaborators.
The team stretched their music budget by holding a contest to create the game's soundtrack. Reiche and Ford had previously discovered the sample-based MOD file format while porting the first Star Control's music to consoles. They posted the music contest to a newsgroup for Amiga users, despite the fact that the game was for PC, because Amiga hobbyists were the main community of MOD-tracker users in that time. The contest attracted people from around the world, due to the popularity of the MOD format in the largely European demoscene. The contest also led them to discover a teenager named Dan Nicholson, who they hired to create additional music as needed. Further music came from existing team member Erol Otus, who first composed the Ur-Quan theme on a synthesizer before it was re-sampled and exported to the MOD file format. The critically acclaimed soundtrack would include music from Aaron Grier, Erol Otus, Eric E. Berge, Riku Nuottajärvi, and Dan Nicholson.
Months after its release, the team would create hours of voice dialog for the 3DO version of the game, taking advantage of space afforded by CD-ROM technology, while bucking the trend of CD-based games with full motion video. In the end, the 3DO version would feature 11 hours of voice audio, including performances from Reiche, as well as friends Greg Johnson and Erol Otus.
In addition to numerous awards by gaming magazines published around its release, Star Control II also has spots in top games compilations of notable gaming publications.
Computer Gaming World stated that Star Control II was as much a sequel to Starflight as to Star Control. The reviewer praised the VGA graphics and wrote that the game "has some of the best dialogue ever encountered in this genre". He concluded that the game "has been placed on this reviewer's top ten list of all time ... one of the most enjoyable games to review all year. It is not often that a perfect balance is struck between role playing, adventure, and action/arcade". At the time, the game earned praise for its music and sound, as "among the best done for any game on the market." The game was reviewed in the first issue of Finnish magazine Pelit, who gave rated the game 96/100. A 1994 survey of space war games gave it a grade of B+, stating that the game lacked replayability except for the ship-to-ship melee minigame. A 1994 survey of strategic space games set in the year 2000 and later gave the game four-plus stars out of five, stating that "it offers hours of 'simple, hot and deep' play". The game was reviewed in 1993 in Dragon #195 by Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk Lesser in "The Role of Computers" column. The reviewers gave the game 5 out of 5 stars. Questbusters called it the "best science-fiction role-playing game since Starflight", and "best RPG of the year".
Reviewing the 3DO version, GamePro remarked that the user-friendly interface makes the complicated gameplay easy to handle. They also praised the impressive graphics and the voice acting's use of unique vocal inflections for each alien race, and concluded that the game is "an addicting epic sci-fi adventure that will have patient space explorers and zero-gravity tacticians glued to their screens for a million hours. All others should stay away." The four reviewers of Electronic Gaming Monthly likewise praised the accessible interface and impressive graphics, but complained that the alien voices are sometimes difficult to understand. They cited the CD-quality audio and the Melee mode as other strong points, and one of them commented that it "blows [the PC version] out of the water." They gave it an 8.25 out of 10. Next Generation reviewed the 3DO version of the game, rating it three stars out of five, and stated that "if you've the patience to spend hours digging for minerals, the game is addictive, but not state of the art."
Awards and "Best Of" lists
Star Control 2 was quickly hailed as one of the greatest games ever made, and continues to be mentioned in "best of" lists, long after its release. The 1993 Game Developers Conference honored Star Control II as an exceptional game among their "Class of '93", calling it a "perfect blend of action and adventure", as well as "sound that is exceptional enough to make gamers think they've upgraded their sound boards". The game also received Pelit magazine's first "Game of the Year" award, and an award from Computer Gaming World, naming it the magazine's Adventure Game of the Year (a co-honor with Eric the Unready). The game quickly and frequently began to appear on players' "all-time favorite" lists over the next few years, including PC Gamer's Top 40 reader's choice list.
In 1994, PC Gamer US named Star Control II as the 21st best computer game ever. The editors called it "an Epic" and "thoroughly enjoyable to play and look at." That same year, PC Gamer UK named it the 33rd best computer game of all time. The editors wrote, "If ever a game deserved an award for being underrated, it's Star Control II." Computer Gaming World created their own list in 1996, ranking Star Control II as the 29th best PC game of all time, calling it "a stunning mix of adventure, action, and humor." In 1999, Next Generation also ranked it among their top 50 games of all time. This acclaim continued into the next millennium. In 2000, GameSpy inducted Star Control II into their Hall of Fame, and GameSpot included it on their 2003 list of greatest games of all time. In the same year, IGN named Star Control II as their 53rd greatest game of all time, and ranked it again at 17th greatest in 2005. PC Gamer's 2011 version of the list once again mentions Star Control 2, this time as their 52nd greatest game. In 2015, Hardcore Gaming 101 ranked it in their 200 best video games of all time.
Compared to classic games from the same period, Star Control II is also ranked on several "best of" lists. When Kotaku compiled their list 2013 list of "Classic PC Games You Must Play", Star Control II reached the very top of the list. Retro Gamer remembers Star Control II as one of the top 10 games made for the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and it is ranked in #37 among classic DOS games by Den of Geek. Its status as a classic game would lead IGN to list the series among the top 10 franchises that needed to be resurrected. Comparing it to the original Star Control, Cinema Blend celebrates Star Control II on its list of sequels that progressed well beyond their predecessors.
Star Control is also recognized for its excellence in several creative areas, including writing, design, and music. GameSpot twice ranked the Ur-Quan among their top ten game villains, with the Ur Quan appearing at the top of one 1999 list as "one of the very best villains. Even now, we are hard-pressed to find a race of adversaries as complex and three-dimensional as the Ur-Quan." GameSpot also ranked Star Control II as their third greatest game ending, which was echoed by their readers as the sixth greatest game ending. The world design of Star Control II is also celebrated, with Paste magazine giving it top ranking on their list of "games that capture the infinite potential of space". GameSpot ranked the Star Control II universe among their top ten game worlds, whereas GameRant listed Star Control II as the third largest open world map, also noting it as "perhaps the most underrated game of all time". The soundtrack itself is remembered as the 37th greatest game soundtrack by the music magazine FACT, describing it as "a lost 80s treasure trove of unreleased techno, synth pop and Italo". GameSpot also ranked it their second greatest game soundtrack which was also mentioned among the top ten soundtracks by their readers.
Legacy and influence
The game continues to garner positive reviews long after its release. In a 2014 review, The Escapist magazine called it a "must play for space loving gamers", offering "a massive experience filled with exploration, action and some of the funniest aliens you'll run into any video game". Rock Paper Shotgun wrote a retrospective on the game in 2016, heralding "some of the most memorable aliens ever put in a game, and still some of the best written." In a 2018 review of the entire series, Hardcore Gaming 101 notes that "there are aspects of Star Control II that are rough around the edges..., [b]ut once you surmount those obstacles, it reveals itself as one of the smartest, funniest, most adventure-filled science fiction games ever made. Game historian Rusel DeMaria describes it as one of the best games ever written. The Dickinson Press called it "one of the best PC games ever", and The Completist notes it as "one of the greatest games ever made".
Indeed, Star Control II is admired and influential amongst notable developers in the game industry. According to Felipe Pepe in The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games, "Star Control II has been considered one of the best computer game ever developed and ... [y]ou can see its influence in the open-endedness of Fallout and Arcanum." Tim Cain does credit Star Control II with inspiring the open-ended design in both Fallout and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. He also mentions it as his favourite RPG of all time, acclaiming its breakthroughs in player freedom, story, dialog, combat, and music. Founder of BioWare Ray Muzyka also cites Star Control as an inspiration, stating that "the uncharted worlds in Mass Effect comes from imagining what a freely explorable universe would be like inside a very realistic next-gen game." Indeed, journalists have noted heavy similarities in the story, characters, and overall experience of Mass Effect, even calling Star Control II a spiritual predecessor. PCGamesN explains that "while Star Control II is a little clunky and esoteric by modern standards, this was the Mass Effect of its era, defining many of the elements you might have taken for granted in Bioware’s classic sci-fi RPG series. ... Star Control’s weird and wonderful alien races are far more exciting than anything Bioware gave us." Henrik Fahraeus of Paradox Interactive credits Star Control 2 as one of the major influences on strategy game Stellaris. In Joshua Bycer's book "20 Essential Games to Study", his first chapter is devoted to analyzing Star Control II, as an unprecedented open world game far ahead of its contemporaries.
Star Control II is sometimes credited as a spiritual successor to Starflight, inheriting its legacy as a genre-defining space exploration game.
The Ur-Quan Masters
The Ur-Quan Masters (or UQM) is modified open-source release of Star Control 2, based on a freely available version of the original 3DO code. The project began in 2002, when the original creators Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III released the source code for the 3DO version of Star Control II as open-source under the GPL. Ford admitted "we haven't made a sequel yet, so we thought the least we could do is release the source code and let the fans revive it on modern computers." An intern at Toys for Bob began porting the game to various modern operating systems, and the fan community would continue the project with further support and modifications.
The release was named The Ur Quan Masters upon its 2002 release, because the Star Control Trademark was owned by Atari (which was acquired from Accolade). However, Reiche and Ford own all the copyrighted content within the first two Star Control games, and granted the fan-operated project a free, perpetual license to the Star Control II content and the Ur Quan Masters trademark.
Ur Quan Masters has been modified and extended several times. Reiche has responded that "our policy has been to let people do whatever they want, as long as they don't turn our characters into mass murderers or make money with it. If you're making money with our stuff, we'd like a pizza." Most notably, the code was modified to operate on newer operating systems, due to compatibility issues that arose from the transition away from the original DOS platform.
The Ur-Quan Masters introduced features from the 3DO version that were previously unavailable on other platforms, including improved scaling in combat, improved planetary graphics, and full voice acting. The most notable modification is the high-definition version of the game, Ur-Quan Masters HD, released in 2013. In addition to modified graphics, this later version also adds the option of online multiplayer Melee play, something which was not available in the original game.
Reception and legacy
Since its 2002 release, The Ur Quan Masters has been downloaded nearly 2 million times. Finnish magazine Pelit reviewed "The Ur Quan Masters" in 2004, rating it 5 stars for its timeless appeal, as well as new choices over PC or 3DO features, as well as remixed or original music. In 2005, Retro Gamer featured The Ur Quan Masters on the cover of their Volume 2, Issue 2 edition. They further commended Reiche and Ford for making such a quality game available as an open source project, stating that "this small Californian group has seen fit to grace the gaming world with one of its finest achievements, and at no cost."
Ur Quan Masters is considered one of the top 15 space games ever made according to PCGamesN, who additionally celebrated it as "one of the best free PC games you'll ever find". PC Gamer also mentions The Ur Quan Masters on their list of best free games. The HD fan-remake has received praise of its own, for "retain[ing] a certain 1990s vibe despite being made more appropriate to modern machines. It lends it a certain psychedelic silliness that today’s more self-regarding space games seem to lack." PC Games calls the HD Remake "a genuinely impressive piece of work." Kotaku likewise praised the HD updates to the visuals and sound. Rock Paper Shotgun praised the HD version as an "ambitious and well-received fan-made (and free) remake," with Hardcore Gaming 101 also calling it "a brilliant port and a fantastic initiative to keep old games relevant".
Sequel and continuity
In 2017, Reiche and Ford announced plans to create a direct sequel to The Ur Quan Masters, which would effectively bypass the story from Star Control 3, created by the now defunct Legend Entertainment. This announcement comes after years of fan requests for a sequel.
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