In Space Crew you manage (surprise, surprise!) a spaceship crew, travelling the solar system in a battered old tin can, fighting off hundreds of purple alien “phasmids” while completing vital missions for the good of humanity. Each member of your team has a different specialization, from piloting to scanning, and you must micromanage their activities to shoot down foes and keep your craft in good working order.
It takes a while to get the hang of this. Players used to the precision and planning of FTL will be in for a rude awakening the first time they try to hit pause. Space Crew is a very different beast, requiring you to handle its chaotic battles in real-time (though a limited slow-down ability has saved my skin on numerous occasions). You don’t control when and where your weapons fire either, instead ‘tagging’ enemy fighters for your crew to gun down however they feel is best. Rather than tense encounters, you can think your way through methodically, combat feels more like a storm to be weathered.
Space Crew-sing for a bruising
Despite its cutesy visuals, Space Crew is a brutal game with a surprisingly steep learning curve. Your ship has more stations to be manned than crew members, so some experimentation is needed to figure out how to make the most of your team. This inevitably means that, sooner or later, things will go wrong.
And when they do, they go wrong in lots of lovely different ways. Aliens come aboard, electrics ignite, crewmates bleed out, and engines leak radiation. Once, while my engineer was on a spacewalk, an asteroid struck the ship and sent her tumbling away into inky blackness. Even on ostensibly low-risk missions, a few seconds of nonchalance can result in disaster. The sight of home base is always accompanied by a sigh of relief.
The missions themselves are a little bland: escort transport vehicle X, deliver cargo Y, kill a bunch of baddies. Though later in the campaign there are more interesting goals centred on space exploration, I found the game lacked some of the flavours of its prequel, Bomber Crew, which kept things fresh with several missions based on real-life WWII heroics.
Champions – alien mini-bosses that repeatedly pop up in missions – help to add some much needed extra variety (and less needed extra challenge) to the game. One blew up my ship and stuck around to doggedly harass my new recruits, shouting taunts and scarpering whenever his health got low. Finally hunting down and utterly rinsing him to claim a generous bounty was extremely cathartic.
Comfy flight, bumpy take-off
Unfortunately, Space Crew’s first few hours are by far its weakest. In early missions, your strategic options are limited. You can move gunners to different sides of the ship, instruct your pilot to line up either your strongest weapons or your strongest shields with the enemy, and that’s about it. The trouble is, because the phasmid ships are small and nippy, circling your comparatively cumbersome vessel in moments, none of these options feels particularly effective. Early on, I was forced to adopt a ‘watch and pray’ approach to battles, and my first ship loss felt frustratingly out of my hands.
That learning curve I mentioned isn’t helped by the fact that Space Crew is not what you’d call communicative. New enemy types are introduced without fanfare or explanation, and there are no health bars or damage indicators on regular enemies. It’s more work than it should be to figure out which tactics are effective and which are not.
But as you get a better feel for the game, these problems start to melt away. And once you unlock the full suite of abilities for your squad, Space Crew comes into its own. By the four or five hour mark, I was managing cooldowns like a pro, boosting reactor and weapon power to start each battle strong, then triggering stealth or evasive manoeuvres just as my shields popped, to earn some much-needed breathing space. I was a regular Captain Kirk, setting phasers to stun and erm… powering the thruster beams. (I confess, I’ve not watched much Star Trek).
At this point, you have the tools to deal with most calamities and a strong sense of how your crew’s different capabilities fit together. Like all the best management games, Space Crew makes you feel masterful when everything’s going well and panicked when it’s not. It’s just a matter of getting over that initial hump where things aren’t so stellar.
I hope you had insurance for that
The activity in between missions becomes increasingly interesting too, as you unlock new gear for both your ship and your crew. Sometimes these will be straight upgrades, but more often they’ll involve a trade-off of some kind. A shield generator might be particularly powerful but recharge more slowly, for instance, or some boots may provide scant physical protection but allow their wearer to run like the wind.
The level of customisation is quite impressive: most everything can be upgraded or altered, right down to the positioning of onboard fire extinguishers and medkits. You are very limited by cash, however, which is an issue, mostly because it turns losing ships and crew into a major setback.
Thankfully, when disaster strikes, you don’t go all the way back to a basic ship, but it still takes several hours to level up your new crew, buy all your old upgrades and get back to full strength. I’m a big fan of games where “losing is fun”, and while Space Crew has that rapid descent into chaos that I look for, what comes next is a lot of grinding low-level missions for space bucks. I found a winning streak of over a dozen successful assignments to be infinitely more satisfying.
Still, if you’re not averse to a bit of grinding, there’s plenty of fun to be eked out of Space Crew’s enjoyable core gameplay loop. Its main flaw remains the somewhat lacklustre beginning.
[Reviewed on PC]