Review: Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy

By Alex Connolly 14 Dec 2015 0

I had this little gaggle of Battlefleet Gothic ships as a younger fellow, back when the game wasn’t relegated to mail order. Nothing fancy, just a stocky little Imperial Guard picket fleet, a clutch of handsome Dauntlesses with names borrowed from C.S. Forester. And you remember that short-lived but awesome Pirates Constructible Strategy Game by Wizkids? Age of Sail vessels plucked and popped from trading card-sized sprues, serving up a very satisfying beer-and-Lobscouse frisson. That was fine fare. And I do own a couple of Full Thrust miniatures, painted, mounted and veering between the detritus on my desk. In short and particular, ships.

Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy, published by Slitherine, has ships. A gritty, granular turn-based smorgasbord of ships. Having jumped from PC to iPad, one of 2015’s better strategies has arrived intact.

The preamble was necessary to paint a picture of Star Hammer. It feels very much like a good old tabletop naval game. Dreadnoughts, their imposing form dominating any fleet formation, thundering with elephantine grace across the map, guarded by nimbler vessels and defense craft. Broadsides thither and yon. Loosed salvos of ship-to-ship missiles and countermeasures zipping and popping in the expanse. Star Hammer is as much comfort food gaming for wannabe Woodwards as armchair Adamas.

The year is 2174AD, the place, Novus. Players are treated to an accomplished narrative setup in Star Hammer, backed by an extensive wiki if further investigation is needed. It’s good, solid popcorn space opera. Delivered in the vein of J. Michael Straczynski, the goings-on feel delightfully straight-faced and straight-laced. After colonising the world of Novus and eking out a foothold in the surrounding system, humanity clashes with the celestial cephalopod menace, the Nautilids. They’re a fine enemy, even if the whiff of a certain Hive Fleet foe inspiration permeates, and the utter alien nature of the foe makes for a refreshing combatant. Their chitinous design of spine and bulb and carapace works well as an aesthetic counter to the reliable gunmetal plate of the human fleet. Usually finding most science-fiction strategy narrative to be throwaway beyond Karan S’jet’s long tromp home, Black Lab Games‘ writing had me somewhat engaged. If I pause to read your paragraphs before punching the LAUNCH MISSION release, consider that a win.

Star Hammer touts a hefty sixty-odd mission campaign beyond its skirmish component. Single player offers a few temporary twists in branching sorties. While these are minor divergences to encourage repeat playthroughs, the campaign is straightforward and offers a decent upward difficulty swing. Introductory operations have players shunting small fleets about, completing entry-level objectives like protecting salvage operations and fending off scant Nautilid marauders to blood their ships and gain fleet experience. Command points are awarded for completed missions, thereafter used to bring more hardware into the vacuum. By the later stages of the game, it’s a case of musing over fleet composition; what vessels to bring out and who to leave on the bench.

The flagship also has a crew compliment, with each officer bringing an incrementally-expanding trait catalogue to the ship they’re serving aboard. Each trait feeds a binary of warlike or defensive stats, offering either bonuses to the flagship or the entire fleet. Character traits also link into a crew bias, where — hopefully — traits align and offer further distilled bonuses towards ship systems. A well-oiled fraternal crew might offer a buff to either weapons, shields or engines, depending on their amalgamated traits. If certain crew-members aren’t in alignment, this puts them at odds with their shipmates and bonuses aren’t as generous. It’s a nice concept, but I never found there to be much reason to put crew at odds with each other. Were that the traits proffered more unique abilities, or certain skills being a small percentage tweak, I might have found myself pondering bridge politics and toying with social stability. Alas, it’s generally all roses on the Good Ship Lollipop.

To the mechanics of the shunt. Ships have energy distribution settings which increase and decrease system proficiencies. Manoeuvring and fast-response might require all power be diverted to the engines, which — in the case of a Hammerhead destroyer — strips back its laser battery damage output from a maximum of 8.0 to a meagre 1.0. Putting all power to weapons has the reverse effect, cutting down distance in favour of pouring fire. Power balance can be tweaked beyond the presets with a manual interface, sliding a reticule between the triangulated points of each subsystem. You can see the granularity afforded by Star Hammer in just the power distribution model. There are shades of the quietly-revered Nexus: The Jupiter Incident lurking within the tactical grit. Again, it speaks to that detail-obsessed inference of tabletop and miniature wargaming.

As mentioned, speed and inertia play a big part in the flow of engagement. While it isn’t Newtonian, the stylised depiction of something large and something fast in the frictionless void works as it does in Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol series or, better yet, forgotten elder statesman Achtung Spitfire! Delicateness of course correction depends often on acceleration. It isn’t really a battle to plot a new heading, but when mixed in with elevation, shielding and hull integrity, smart use of position against weak spots is integral to the bug-hunt. Sliding transparent facsimiles of vessels around on their intended course not only looks cool, offering up all sorts of Star Admiral feelings, but at the end of a turn when you’re ready to see things unfold, the arcs and vector plots gives good situational fleet awareness.

Speaking of awareness, the game is very competent to control. I was initially wary, because Star Hammer does require a lot of perspective assessment and encourages panning and focusing. Thankfully, there’s a lot of snap-to icon double-taps, with ship information taskbar boxes a good way to zip around the fleet. Adjustable scroll-speed can be finessed if the camera feels too fast or slow. Players can also switch to a number of preset camera modes, including an operational overview and 2D top-down perspective. The latter certainly proves helpful in assessing distance for engagement.

The Nautilid swarm often offers an extremely target-rich environment, so rather than plotting the firing solution for each individual battery, turrets can be assigned an automatic protocol. This might be to track the largest target, the smallest or the weakest. Combat can be as hands-on as you see fit, but the option to streamline is there. Designating said solutions can free up the planning phase for positioning and more specialised measures like missiles, radar scramblers and anti-kinetic countermeasures. There are also drones and repair systems to bring online when the time calls for it, each with their own costs in efficiency.

I found the AI in both the later stages of the campaign and in the skirmish mode to be a relatively wily foe, though it would have been nice to see more utilisation of elevation. Their gnat-like Krill vessels swarm and shoal about the human fleets, keeping the guns busy with their weak but plentiful number. The larger Nautilid vessels such as the Leviathan, Healer and Monarch offer huge, implacable targets and aren’t afraid to ram your ships of the line. Knocking a vessel offline for a turn or two can be devastating in the later stages, where the temporary loss of control can leave it or its sister ships open to attack. You come to Star Hammer for fastidious fire-control duty and the captain’s chair, and it certainly delivers on that front.

While sporting a rousing operatic score, Star Hammer’s big letdown is the weapon rapport. I had the same issue on the PC, and it remains somewhat of a missed opportunity here. The tinny, stock sound undermines the scale. Maybe it’s the leveling, maybe the high-frequency PEW PEW, but when sweeping the camera close to the glowing engine stacks is greeted with a deep, low-bass fusion hum, the emaciated battery trills feel even more glaring. This shouldn’t worry the grognards, but the punch and power of science-fiction is sold as much in sound as it is visually. Star Hammer certainly nails it in the graphics department, but is left wanting when the turrets open up.

Aural nitpicking aside, and despite a distinct lack of multiplayer, Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy is a quiet gem. Earnest narrative setup bolstering layered tactical combat, it’s a solid strategy serving with fine controls and breadth of options. With greater crew development, multiplayer and a touch more ambition in the sound department, it’d be a Victory. There’s no shame, however, in sailing Royal Sovereign.

Played on an iPad Mini 2. 

Star Hammer: The Vanguard Legacy is available for PC/Mac and iPad.

This article originally appeared at Pocket Tactics.



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