Star Crusader purports to be a non-linear game where you get to choose who's side you are on. At the start you are flying missions for the expanding Gorene empire whose noble goal is to assimilate other cultures, by liberating them from the own backwards ways and showing them the glorious life they can lead by joining you.
From the very outset, you can tell that your missions are somewhat dodgy - destroying freighters that you've promised peaceful passage to - under orders from an unhinged commander who locks up any dissidents. You know that it's all too much, but what are you going to do? It sounds like you've got loads of options, but frankly, you haven't. You end up reading screens of text, whispering mutinous thoughts to your comrades, but fly the nasty missions anyway. In the conversations your characters lines are spoken for you. So you might be thinking "So what, let's destroy the fools who oppose us, whilst we have them on their knees" and your character will be saying something like "Well, I know it's wrong, but what can we do?" Shoot the commander and become a benevolent dictator mate, that's what you could do.
Even later in the game, when you do get some command, your missions are pretty much set out for you and you don't get the opportunity to direct as much as you'd like to.
The plot is largely veneer. This is more or less a Wing Commander rip-off with a few adjustments. You have a base to explore, which turns out to be a few rooms with not much going on. But, heh, this is just the glue that sticks the missions you fly together. When you start out, you just obey orders, fly into space and do what you've got to do.
There are a variety of missions. Simple all out attack is mingled with the odd stealth mission. The latter can actually be the most engaging as you fly the intruder spacecraft deep into enemy territory trying to remain undetected so that you can launch a probe and scan their ships and databases. Unfortunately, the Intruder ship can be a bit crap and it gets detected all the time, meaning you end up doing a runner.
When you complete a mission - or fail it and turn tail - you get to engage your hyperjump engine. This means being at a complete standstill with shields lowered whilst the "Singularity Field" needed is generated. You guessed it - make yourself a sitting duck for the enemy to use as a target practice. You can end up getting blown to bits all too often when you try to make yours escape.
The actual gameplay of the dog fights isn't too bad. It gets a bit jerky on a standard A1200 when there's lots going on, but you can change the detail a bit to try and compensate. This brings us to the systems requirements of the game. It's a minimum of an A1200 with a hard drive, because you've got 10 disks to install. This seems a lot, but see the box for more details on these boring bits.
The game is mouse controlled and you can get to grips with manoeuvring the craft very easily. The real downer as far as gameplay is concerned is the lack of weapons. OK, you fly several different ships, with different payloads and speed capacities, but at the end of the day you're down to using lasers and a set of missiles. The missiles will miss unless they are locked exactly, which can be tricky. Even when fighting against enemy pilots with a poor ranking, it takes forever to kill them and their ships don't seem to get hit even when you're bearing down directly on them.
However, when compared to the original Wing Commander Amiga game, it's swings and roundabouts. There's no doubt that there are areas of the game where Wing Commander comes out on top. It has better mission planning with navigation points to use and the prospect of proper ranks. In Star Crusader you only get promoted in times of red alert when the commander has gone off his trolley.
The game plays better in space. The ships jump less across the screen as the computer tries to calculate where everyone is. They still jump a bit on a standard A1200 when there's lots going on, but it's good to be able to fly past one of your wingmen/women and see how they're fairing in fight when you're chasing someone else.
The game also has excellent sampled speech and some nifty rendered cinema scenes that hang everything together, explaining a bit more of what's going on. The animations are a little jerky, but it's surprising to hear the whole dialogue spoken to you.
At the end of the day, the graphics do look a bit dated and blocky, but the gameplay can become engaging. This is not a game that's going to enthral most people and doesn't touch the likes of Wing Commander 4 on the PC. But at least you don't need a £1500 Pentium and 4 CD-ROMs to play it. A better Starbase with more frills and tweaked gameplay using ships that didn't look so naff would have been better. But this is a portover and you don't expect them to do things like that. The basic engine for the game is reasonable and there were occasions where I got genuinely excited, but that tended to be more on the stealth missions than in the dog-fights.
Released at £30, you might as well stick with the budget WC, but we found the game being sold for only £13 in FutureZone, which is much more tempting. Especially since when you've finished with it, you've got ten spare floppy disks out of it.