‘Starship Troopers: Terran Command’ review: not doing its part

Future nostalgia

Starship Troopers: Terran Command is the rare example of a game that perfectly nails its license: the retro aesthetic, the feeling of being overwhelmed by swarms of angry bugs and the feeling of achieving peace through superior firepower are all present and correct. It even, unfortunately, nails the feeling of being released in 1997.

Terran Command is a real-time strategy game that has you controlling the mobile infantry from the 1997 film Starship Troopers as they attempt to push back the bugs in a series of different missions. It has some interesting ideas, and even plays with the tropes presented in the Starship Troopers film in a satisfying way, but the whole experience is undermined by the act of actually playing the thing, which drops you into the sort of bland chokepoint-based combat that fell out of favour in the real-time strategy genre early in the ‘00s.

Published by wargaming outfit Slitherine, you expect Grognard – an affectionate term for those very into wargames – sensibilities to slip in, and it even makes narrative sense: the Arachnid foe in Starship Troopers have limitless numbers, while the mobile infantry have a huge technological advantage. So, you’ll put your rifle-toting grunts into any game that fits them and slowly shore them up with flamethrowers, turrets, snipers, radio operators and even a tiny squad of men toting a shoulder-mounted nuke launcher and try to weather the storm. You’ll occasionally play against human enemies too, but then the answer is to just shoot them with your longer-ranged troops, which often makes it so easy it’s barely an inconvenience.

Starship Troopers: Terran Command
Starship Troopers: Terran Command. Credit: The Artistocrats.

Resource gathering is pretty scant, there are optional supply points that you can gather from around the map which will let you field more troops. If these soldiers get stabbed / melted / eaten / ???? then you’ll get those points back, meaning you can instantly replenish your losses. Units gain veterancy with access to some powerful abilities when they are at max veterancy, but otherwise it’s okay to just treat your units like they’re in a meatgrinder.

When Terran Command gets it right you have tense stand-offs as your units are trying to hold the walls of a fortress against wave after wave of a lethal offensive, and individual units turning the tide with the clever use of individual abilities. However, most of the time it feels like you’re adventuring around a map trying to clear bug nests while also defending a home base location, with each of your armies feeling understrength and the player – that’s you – struggling to perform all of the fiddly actions in two places at once to stop yourself getting eviscerated, which happens with the same regularity as the films – often, far too often.

Actually, any time you have to encounter the bugs up front without preparation it’ll often go badly, as units in Terran Command can block each others firing line, meaning they’ll need to be smartly positioned – or elevated – to ensure you can bring their entire firepower to bear. Get this wrong, and you’ll often use a unit in the time it takes you to get everything lined up. It’s very fiddly and makes moving even less appealing. So you sit and kill some more bugs.

Starship Troopers: Terran Command.
Starship Troopers: Terran Command.

It’s a shame, because developers The Aristocrats have absolutely nailed the look and feel of the game. The video between missions is done in the faux television-style from the movie, and comes off like a propaganda video. The game’s tutorial takes place in Klendathu, where the narrator – the same chirpy narrator from the TV broadcasts – tries to keep a brave face as things go from bad to worse.

This is the Starship Troopers game you were kind of hoping for, and everything looks the part, even down to a level which has you recapture an escaped prisoner and then guarding the prison from a bug assault so that the fascist government can televise the prisoner’s execution are so on the nose with recent politics that it’s almost comedic, it’s just that the game itself doesn’t feel very dynamic. Outside of a very few circumstances, Terran Command just isn’t that much fun to play.

Part of this is what you’re fighting against. The bugs are an excellent enemy in cinema: made up entirely of sharp edges and with a relentless need to kill, let’s be honest – they’re basically xenomorphs. The threat is easily conveyed and they’re fairly simplistic. In a video game format this strength turns into a weakness because they’re often just slowly running towards your defensive line. If you’re holding the chokepoint well, you’ll kill them before they can do any damage. If you haven’t, you’ll be overwhelmed and slowly torn apart by what feels like an endless assault.

The enemy types are varied up slightly: bugs that can shoot you at range, bugs that are big and armoured, tiny little Chariot Bugs which seem to exist only so you have something to click on during boring story beats and even a huge arachnid that fires burning balls of blue plasma out of its arse all make an appearance, but at the end of the day the end result is that having enemies near you is bad, but having a clear line of fire and being stood still is good. Before you know it, you’re just standing still shooting bugs with no ability to progress and you have the same realisation as the war-hungry supercomputer at the heart of 1983’s WarGames: Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play.

Starship Troopers: Terran Command launches today (June 16) for PC.

The Verdict

Starship Troopers: Terran Command is an intricate RTS that would have set the world on fire 20 years ago. Now it’s a reminder of how far strategy games have come. Terran Command will scratch the itch for someone wanting a retro experience, and it sure looks the part, but god is it dull.

Pros

  • Looks like Starship Troopers
  • Last-stand defences are tense and fun
  • Bold, memorable use of licence

Cons

  • Choke-point oriented combat is boring
  • Lack of skirmish mode means limited replayability
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