The Star Trek universe is appealing in many ways: there’s a frontier of outer space with thousands of planets, a virtually limitless number of aliens, a galactic federation dedicated to peace. (Also: big space ships and funny costumes.) But its concepts of freedom, commanding a ship and crew, and going on adventures appeal to almost everyone. Those ideas make up the main premise of $3 Star Command, an adorable, challenging, and addictive sci-fi strategy game loosely based on Star Trek itself.
You’re not tasked with boldly going where no one has gone before. Instead, you have the more cliché task of helping Earth’s fleet defend its borders and ultimately save humanity. You’re given a ship and a crew, and you’ll learn to utilize both to fight off enemies over several missions.
Make no mistake: from retro pixelated crewmembers to the dialogue choices, this game is a love letter to Star Trek. The most obvious example is how you organize your crew, who can be assigned to one of three classes, distinguished by the color of their uniforms. The red shirts operate the ship’s guns, armory, and bridge. They’re also your first line of defense against any enemy invaders beaming onto your ship (yes: they die a lot). Yellow shirts, meanwhile, are engineers who operate your “dodge” drive (a sci-fi tool that allows you to dodge enemy attacks), sentry robots, and engines. They’re useless in combat, but can repair any damage your ship takes once they don their adorable little welding masks. Finally, there are blue shirts, which are your science officers. They maintain your ships’ shields and medical bay, but essentially they’re a healer class.
Combat in Star Command has a steep learning curve and a huge list of things to pay attention to, but once you get the hang of it, you only wish there was more to do and things to fight, which is, in short, the mark of a great game. Through combat, you earn tokens, which serve as Star Command’s in-game currency. At first, this combat is overwhelming, and not entirely well explained; just when I had gotten used to ordering my crew around, I was thrown into battle and had to manage about a dozen different things at the same time. You have to dodge, use shields, brandish weapons, and take care of your crew simultaneously.
Enemy crews will beam onto your ship, and your red shirts will automatically fire back while blue and yellow shirts will sit idly and eat blaster bolts until you order them to hide somewhere, heal, or repair the ship. When you see your enemy locking on parts of your ship, you can use a dodge token, which are generated in an engineering room, to stop those attacks. You’ll also have to generate torpedo and shield tokens, deploy them, and then engage insipid mini-games every time you want to fire them. These are annoying, even at the beginning, but become groan inducing when you have to organize your red shirts to mount a defense against an invading crew and keeping the various defenses online.
Unfortunately, the campaign is very linear, and Star Commend doesn’t lend itself to replay-ability. Sure, the game’s RPG elements and challenging battle mechanic will keep players engrossed for a few hours, but once you’ve mastered the mini-games and upgraded both your crew and ship, the game is essentially over.
My biggest issue with Star Command is its narrow focus, which has lead to a few missed opportunities. I love that you can visit different planets, meet a diverse spectrum of aliens, and organize your ship how you’d like. But the promise of exploring the galaxy and being a “Star Commander” is a bit more ambitious than what the developers deliver. Right now, every battle involves enemies boarding your ship, but you can’t send an away team to attack theirs. Even with shields, your enemies can still blow massive holes in your ship. It feels like the developers need to fine-tune the rock-paper-scissors of battle.
You also can’t explore and gain resources as an alternative to fighting, and every interaction with an alien species—save one—is essentially a prelude to a battle, giving players the illusion of choice. No matter how you interact with a species of tech-trading aliens, for example, they’re going to attack; it’s just a matter of whether or not you let them beam a bomb on the ship first. Even the action-heavy JJ Abrams Star Trek films had more in-depth alien interactions than this game.
As a franchise, Star Command has a great deal of potential, though it’s not fully realized yet. Still, there’s a lot to like here; the ability to name members of your crew after your friends and customize your crew’s skill sets and your ship’s layout are commendable and compelling distractions. And while the shooting mechanic is frustrating, the overall battles were exceptionally frenetic and challenging; I had to always check a dozen different things to make sure I didn’t lose my crew, surrender an important room, or spout a hull breach. Star Command is also sweet and surprisingly clever at times, with strong writing and well thought-out character design. A great game makes you want to spend more time exploring and understanding its universe; with Star Command, I can’t wait to get lost again in pixelated space.
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Chris is a former Macworld editor who has turned to a life of crime.