In the distant future, humanity finds itself defeated, humiliated, and enslaved by a superior alien race. Faced with a choice between becoming an entire species of battle thralls or submit to complete subjugation, mankind lowers its head and allows itself to be confined to its home world under the baleful red glare of an impenetrable planetary shield. In a distant solar system, a hidden human enclave of scientists discover an ancient factory belonging to a precursor race. Pooling the scant resources of this fringe world together, they craft a single spacefaring vessel with the ancient schematics at hand. The mission: reestablish contact with Earth, and break the Ur Quan's yoke it has placed on the entire galaxy. Tasked with gathering technology, materials, and the alliances needed to dethrone a tyrannical galactic empire, you have been given the helm of the single, last desperate hope of a free universe.
Star Control II was originally released in 1992 for the MS DOS and given an upgraded port to the 3DO a year later. Despite its incredibly high praise, it seemed to fail to gather the universal appreciation and notoriety that many other heavy hitters of the era had. In 2002, under a Creative Commons license, the 3DO port was remade and remastered into "The Ur Quan Masters", readily available for download for both the PC and smartphone.
Ur Quan Masters doesn't attempt to hide its pulpy science fiction feel. Everything from antimatter rays to doomsday ships to a cheesecake race of blue skinned damsels exists not as a mindless imitation, but as a revelry of tropes both good and bad. Your vessel is a product of a civilization that disappeared two hundred thousand years ago, with enough firepower to punch holes into small moons. Your antagonists are a species so shaken and wounded from their past as slaves that they war among themselves to choose whether it is 'right' for them to enslave or simply exterminate all sentient life in the galaxy, lest they ever risk falling into bondage again.
As you explore both Sol itself and the many star systems of the Milky Way galaxy, these encounters with alien races can cast massive ripples throughout space. Allies can grant you schematics of their fighters, diversifying your fleet. The choices you make, if, or when, you choose to be diplomatic, can have tremendous repercussions. You can even sell your own crew to a slaver nation to pick up extra credits on the side, if you're THAT kind of captain.
Directing your ship through space can be awkward, with the complete lack of friction and all. Early attempts at piloting can lend to frequent overshooting of intended planets. While this can be corrected later by purchasing additional propulsion to boost maneuverability, accurate piloting is something that has to be practiced a bit before it starts to truly sink in. Solar systems gently zoom in to individual planets as you close in, allowing you to search each for precious materials you can trade in to support your war effort. This is done by scanning the world below, identifying the location and value of the deposits, and sending a plucky, brave landing craft down to try and extract everything it can.
Filling your cargo hold requires a lot of fuel and even more evasion. Depending on the planet, there may be earthquakes, hostile life forms, fire storms, lightning, or a combination of the four. The age of the star system, the world's composition, and even its proximity to the sun are all factors in the risks and rewards. Hotter, more dangerous planets are known for their plentiful and lucrative radioactive elements. More inert terrestrial bodies may only contain base metals that barely cover the cost of the trip. These profits can expand your arsenal, fuel and storage capacity, and even purchase new ships to act as 'extra lives' in combat.
Combat itself plays out in a one on one survivor style match. Each race has a single ship, and each ship has a weapon and characteristics that form a particular fighting style. Some rely on careful placement of homing shots while others blister past their opponents' weapons and dogfight. Each requires practice to get used to, which is thankfully easily at hand with the Super Melee mode. This instantly allows you to hop into any ship and practice to your heart's content, or build a fleet and compete with the AI or a friend. The battles are fast paced, and each and every hit results in a loss of crew. This 'all or nothing' approach pushes you to think carefully and save often, since the loss of a single ship is a major setback.
Despite the sprawling star map above, Ur Quan Masters has a knack of cutting you loose to explore on your own, then gently pushing you in the direction you need to go right about the exact time you start to really feel lost. True to its DOS heritage, you are expected to pay careful attention to the clues given to you in dialog. If someone mentions a star system or a series of coordinates, there will be no journal tab to remind you of it, no compass icon eternally hovering overhead as a guiding light. Keep a pen and paper handy, it will spare you a lot of headaches.
Early on, Ur Quan Masters feels quite overwhelming. However, I fully believe this was the design team's intent. You are a fledgling captain tasked with something that borders on insanity, with the entire galaxy awaiting your move. As your skills increase and your knowledge of the stars expand, you grow cunning and bold. Combat is brutal to the uninitiated, and only through conversation with the alien races will you start to understand the complete picture of what is happening in this tumultuous era. There isn't an experience bar next to your ship that magically makes you a better fighter, you have to develop into one. You have to remember the systems that are better to mine, and you have to have to be the one who gets the rover back to the ship safe. And maybe, just maybe, you can become the hero the galaxy needs...
But I'd look a lot more heroic doing it if I didn't need to do fifteen flybys of Earth because I keep missing the ENTIRE PLANET.
http://sc2.sourceforge.net/downloads.php - For easy access to the download, complete with a self installer! No DOSBOX knowledge needed.
For smartphone apps, looking up "Ur Quan" in Google Play's store should take you directly there.