Review: SPACECOM

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There’s this quiet little strategy game by Martin ‘Grapefrukt’ Jonasson called rymdkapsel. Purposefully lower-case, and perhaps an observation on the ruminative softness, the game is slow and peaceful. It feels like a perfect construction abstraction, something you’d find eleventh-dimension beings thrumming into existence with ionic twitches of a hyperspace mind. Or something equally as florid.

And you know DEFCON: Everybody Dies. Never has such existential horror been so sublimely rendered, so subtly effected. The quiet soundtrack, the muted booms and flashes. That cough. That crying.

Finally, Galcon, to complete the trilogy and to mess with the homogeneity of capitalisation. The en masse rush simulator, busting down nodes and flying by the seat of one’s pants at the head of a vast, flickering armada. It is tactical fun at its most raw and uncomplicated. A stunning piece of programming.

If you find yourself wanting a digital cocktail of the aforementioned, then along comes indie studio Flow Combine with this seductive slice of, as they put it, bare-to-the-bone strategy. It’s glacial Galcon, with that mournful dread under calculated, languid arc of ICBMs in DEFCON. And hell, rymdkapsel is there because the game in question – SPACECOM – shares a lot in common with its understated sound design.

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Space nutshell, SPACECOM features the same node-capturing mechanics as Phil Hassey’s galactic romp. Planetary systems form the hubs and points of conflict, with each system being connected by hard space-lanes. Fleets ply these lanes in a bid to annex enemy systems to point of total domination of an opponent. It’s basically a numbers game, which sounds mightily disingenuous. However, SPACECOM takes the formula, adds a few layers of strategic complexity, but never forsakes the minimalist design for bloat. This is lean gear.

Instead of uniform systems, SPACECOM features a few different types that pertain to manufacturing, resources, support and maintenance. As any old bearded strategy grognard or real estate agent will tell you, it’s all about location. The early game phase is crucial in locking down – or up, depending on your proclivities – interstellar bottlenecks. What’s more, neutral systems still require subjugation. Their abstracted indigenous populations don’t take too kindly to Admiral Quazkig of SPACECOM deciding to stick around, so each node does require a properly-equipped invasion fleet. Which is where the fleet types become apparent.

There are three main fleet variants available for manufacturing on planets sporting the capacity; battle fleets, invasion fleets and siege fleets. Battle fleets are the primary combat pieces, sent as scouts or on interdiction, bolstering systems against enemy fleet encounters. Invasion fleets capture systems and do battle against ground forces, as well as deploy colonies on systems sporting more than one planet. Siege fleets lay waste to systems, effectively rendering them useless to all parties. Fleet composition is paramount to sustaining any sort of worthwhile push into neutral or enemy territory. Do you spike through an occupied system to hit a valuable resource point and stall their production capacity? Do they have a worthwhile junction world? Should a bulwark be created and bolstered by hideously expensive orbital lasers and a kinetic shield? May mercy befall anyone who misjudges minimal graphics for minimal strategy, as SPACECOM touts a lean, bollocks-free tactical experience that rolls with the best of them.

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Like Introversion’s self-styled ‘genocide-em up’, the audio-visual experience of SPACECOM is as well-conceived as the mechanics. It’s a slow game, and the crisp iconography and abstraction only helps to infer the protracted grandeur of quiet military science-fiction. I couldn’t see it working any other way, much in the same way DEFCON wouldn’t have had the impact it did by being bombastic or vulgar. Just the great void, her clutch of systems and the brow-furrowing engagements that run about her structure.

As a fellow who puts ambient music right at the very top of his vices, one such splash screen telling me to take advantage of headphones for ‘a meditative strategy experience’ immediately put the game in good standing. A subtle soundtrack will win my heart over any loud, pompous score, with SPACECOM’s being one hell of a compilation. Spread over a few different artists, though never lacking in cohesion, it does for soundscapes what Paul Ruskay did for ethnic instrumentation in Homeworld. These are blissful synthetic tides, matching perfectly with the unhurried demeanor of the game, etched with barely-audible modulated fleet chatter.

SPACECOM is nothing more than it needs to be, and for some that might not be enough. In the vein of Neptune’s Pride, this really is a game with the legs for a specific kind of multiplayer experience; a slow but highly tactical affair within a very small strategic spectrum. There will be no cheesing, no rowdy blitzkriegs or head-spinning APM wizardry. Just the glacial plying of triangular fleets, the pulse of logistics and a peripheral awareness on bogey radar pings.

Highly recommended for strategy buffs. Nothing more, nothing less.