Starsiege was Sierra’s take on the old Battletech universe. Like Battletech, this universe imagines a future in which warring factions duke it out in giant bipedal robots packed with heavy weapons, a concept that makes little sense militarily but looks great on the virtual battlefield. Since the term Mech is already taken, Sierra’s bipeds are called HERCs.
The single player game consists of two campaigns. The first is a fairly engaging progression from fighting police units to Imperial troops to hi-tech Cybrid invaders. The second campaign is far more interesting, played from the Cybrid side, but prohibitively difficult. The throwaway storylines are buried in cluttered news flashes that scroll beside the main screen, while occasional cutscenes are built using the game engine. The game intro is a sharp little cinematic with an eerie narration and nice 3D visuals, while later mission briefings provided by Mark Hamill.
Gameplay will feel familiar for those who’ve played through MechWarrior 3 or even the older EarthSiege or Heavy Gear games. Starsiege encompasses common features like weapon firing groups, standard targeting options and wingman commands, and some indirect energy management (basically you stop firing to charge your shields). The default control setup uses the mouse to move an aiming cursor and the keyboard to drive.
The often-confusing torso twisting you’ll find in most robot games is limited to tank vehicles, whereas actual HERCs can’t look to the side or sidestep. This can be terribly awkward in close quarters fighting, but it keeps the game from degenerating into circle strafing. In multiplayer games, this makes heavier HERCs somewhat vulnerable by giving them huge blind spots from which smaller HERCs can attack with impunity. But Starsiege’s lack of AI means computer controlled vehicles rarely do anything other than charge straight at you.
At first glance, Starsiege seems to use a balanced system of weapon types and tech levels. There is an immense amount of detail when it comes to building your vehicles. Roll up your sleeves and build your own HERC from the ground up. As with Sierra’s detail-steeped Cyberstorm strategy games, you can swap out components to create whatever kind of machine you’d like. Choose your chassis and stuff it with an engine, a reactor, a targeting computer, and a shield generator. Slap some armor on the outer skin and stick weapons and fun little toys on the chassis’ hardpoints. Go slow, heavy, and hard-hitting, or choose something lighter to run circles around those nasty lumbering behemoths.
Strap on a cloaking device, or add extra energy. Take a turbo booster to beat hasty retreats or jack up your shields with an amplifier. One of the game’s most ingenious ideas dates back to Dynamix’s original Red Baron, in which aces could paint their planes. In Starsiege, you can choose skins to put the finishing touch on your vehicles with a custom coat of paint. Do you want the desert camo, the checker cab black and yellow, or the leopard skin pattern?
The devil is indeed in the details, however. Firstly, the building interface is fairly clunky, unlike that in the Cyberstorm strategy games. There’s no good overview of your current configuration. The details of your weapons, armor, shields, and special items are buried one click too deep into the interface. Swapping out components involves scrolling through lists of items identified only by an esoteric graphic and an abbreviation. There’s too little information about the specifics of each weapon, even in the otherwise adequate manual. For weapons, shot speed and recharge rate are nowhere mentioned..
The weapons themselves don’t seem very well thought out. An important element in deciding which weapon to use is its effectiveness against shielded vs. unshielded targets. Mounting both anti-shield and anti-armor weapons would be an effective and flexible combination if there were any indication of when you should use either weapon. But there is no way to determine an enemy’s shield level. Tactical considerations like weapon variety, stealth, and countermeasures all take the backseat to simply spitting ammo and energy bolts at your opponent. As it is, combat is a matter of blasting away and keeping your fingers crossed.
The multiplayer aspect of the game, which is better suited to this frantic attacking, is smooth and easy to use. The program will list any online games with a single mouse click and even middling connections are playable with minimal lag. Starsiege is indeed a game that lives up to the developer’s promise of being optimized for multiplayer gaming. But the other side of this coin in painfully evident during single player games, which seem little more than an afterthought.
The mission structures aren’t new – go here, kill these guys, then go there and kill those guys. Occasionally you’ll have to defend a target or play a frustrating timed mission over and over. But the most damning indictment of Dynamix’s disregard for the single player game is the almost complete absence of AI. Enemy vehicles behave identically, charging at you no matter what weapons they have and running away when they’re damaged enough. In many instances, you’ll be within clear visual range of a vehicle, but until you fire at it or step into its activation radius, it will conveniently ignore you all the way.
At times, Starsiege is attractive. It’s a touching little moment when one of your wingmen idly murmurs, “It sure is pretty out here”. The terrain rolls gently and the sky looks ethereal. The spindly Cybrid units look dramatically different from the blocky human HERCs. Weapon effects, especially the spectacular beam weapons, are impressive enough. It has enough variety even though it doesn’t know quite what to do with it, and the action won’t bring much you haven’t already seen before in MechWarrior 3.
System Requirements: Pentium 200 MHz, 32 MB RAM, 524 MB HDD, Win95
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