From the makers of Bomber Crew, Space Crew takes the experience of flying bombing missions in World War 2 and moves the whole experience into the future and the cold depths of space. For those unfamiliar with Bomber Crew, the original game saw a somewhat cutesy crew of customisable characters fly multiple missions, dealing with German planes and dropping bombs. The crew that survive get to come back, level up and repeat the process.
Space Crew is similar: you now command a light cruiser, at least at first, and a small crew of six bold men and women who head off to battle the alien Phasmids, who you may initially think are kind of cute until the first time they board your ship and blow you up!
The game is a real-time strategy with a heavy emphasis on crew management. Your starting ship has four gun ports, each which requires a member of your crew to man it in order to shoot down Phasmid ships. The ship also requires an engineer who can divert power from and to the engines, gravity, guns or shields. Then there’s the communications officer who instead of simply managing the space-phone, scans and locates enemy ships for you. You also have a Captain who pilots the ship. Whilst any of these crew members can and will carry out other jobs, they do not excel at them and the crew are best used in the role they trained for. But you’ll never have enough crew for all the roles, so you’ll be constantly juggling between stations in order to manage battles, put out fires, apply first aid and repair broken systems.
As for the enemy, the Phasmids attack with nippy fighters at first, before arriving with bigger and tougher ships. As mentioned, they can and will board your ship and you’ll need to divert one or more crew armed with phase-rifles to see them off. Your security officer excels at this task but they may well be busy shooting at other alien ships. As well as Phasmids space offers lots of other problems, with asteroids a common one, but there are plenty of other “natural hazards” to run into in space.
Controlling your crew with the gamepad takes some getting used to and Space Crew’s strategy origins do show, as it would be much easier to control with a mouse. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you plugging your mouse into your Xbox and giving it a go that way. If you’re using a controller, then you’ll need to master holding down one button and moving the D-Pad to choose a crew member, and then holding a shoulder button to tell them where to go. They aren’t the most complex of instructions but they lack the intuitiveness of your normal RTS selection and movement methods of left click to select and right click to order.
Crew are also deselected fairly easily and there are times when you’ll accidentally release control of someone and need to quickly roll through your crew to get hold of them again. Time slows but doesn’t pause when you’re navigating menus or issuing orders, and it takes time to get used to the orders. Some of the icons on the ship are also very small, with the fire extinguishers easily visible but the space-suits and medikits looking fairly similar. The controls may have benefited from a simple order menu with an option to “get medikit” or “get phase rifle” rather than having to roll your pointer over the item you want your brave member to get hold of.
Added to that difficulty is the AI of your crew. They will not target anything on their own; you’ll need to enter Focus mode by hitting a shoulder button and then “painting” a target for them to shoot at. There’s nothing wrong with that, as such. Characters can be ordered to put out fires, change stations or get medical aid but once these tasks are done the crew don’t always return to their station and continue their “day-job”, leading to another layer of micro-management which during a pitched battle can feel quite annoying. A stance setting so that characters know when they are done with their current task to return to their station would have been very handy.
Still, there’s plenty to like about Space Crew. The graphics are once again cute, with near bobble-headed characters who bumble around the ship in an endearing way. When gravity on the ship is low, they float and fumble around too, adding to the cute appearance and feel. Even the spaceships are kind of adorable, with a bit of a 50’s retro feel to them without seemingly truly kitsch. You can customize your ship as much as you want with the look and livery, as well as adding modules that actually might impact the gameplay.
Your crew can be fully customized with a new name, a new appearance and gear to match. Each crew member has their own skills and mission count, but you won’t want to get too attached as crew and ships can go up like a roman candle, sending you back to the drawing board with a new crew and a new ship, unless you’ve done really badly in which case the Phasmids may have conquered the Earth and ended your campaign! Of course, if your ship is taking a beating, you can always abandon the mission – or even ship – if you’ve added enough life pods. Otherwise you’ll need to make a tough choice about who goes down with the vessel.
As missions go by and your crew level up, new options and skills become available, giving new ways to combat the various scenarios. They aren’t all just combat, with rescues and supply runs also on the menu, but in my time the Phasmids showed up in every mission.
Navigation post mission is done through the Athena – the space station orbiting the Earth that offers you options to customize your crew, your ship and even to carry out research to unlock new technologies to use against the Phasmid foe. There’s a nice hub area with a news screen that shows rolling reports of how the war against the Phasmids are going, and features memorials for fallen crew or lost ships… something which happened a lot during my time.
Space Crew is a potentially maddening game to play and that’s more by design than by accident. The game asks the player to keep a lot of plates spinning at the same time whilst offering some small strategic choices, like taking a safer or quicker route and how to upgrade the ship. But the game is generally just a madcap race to make sure your poor crew move between stations to manage fires, battles and their own injuries.
The game also asks a fair amount of grind from players to gain resources, level up the crew and try to keep them alive. Whilst losing one or two crew members isn’t a death blow, losing a whole ship always hurts, and by my fourth ship I’d stopped bothering to customize my crew, aside from changing the colour of their uniform so I could tell at a glance what their job role was.
From the point of view of someone with eyesight issues, Space Crew is hard to play with some tiny icons on screen, especially for the items stowed on the ship which at times I could barely see. I found myself having to sit very close to the screen if I wanted to see which item was which.
In the end though, this is the sort of game that will be catnip to some players and poison to others. Space Crew is frustrating, by design, and for the risk-averse and “play it safe” players, there’s just no way to play error free: you just have to try and roll with the punches, suck up the damage and shrug off the losses. However it is nicely designed and will be hugely popular with some; if you liked Bomber Crew or the likes of FTL, you’ll likely love this one.