Talking to computers aboard a spaceship has been a sci-fi dream for decades. From Captain’s Logs in Star Trek to Cortana in Halo, as humans we’ve done a remarkable job of personifying the non-human objects that populate popular fiction. But until very recently, that was just a dream in TV shows, movies, and video games.
Now we’ve got smart home assistants that carry entire conversations with us and features that let us do things like cast spells in Skyrim and speak to our crew members aboard the Starship Enterprise. In the case of Starship Commander though, is an entire game based around that single novel concept.
Starship Commander: Arcade from Human Interact appears to be the new name for what was originally just Starship Commander, which was announced almost two years ago. That appeared to be a larger, more full-fledged VR game, but instead what we’ve got is a trimmed-down experience designed specifically for VR arcades powered by Springboard VR and Private Label VR arcades. It releases at multiple locations in less than two weeks on December 10th, 2018. I played it on an Oculus Rift at home through Steam though, so maybe it will get released widely for consumers as well, similar to Haunted Graveyard. It’s unclear whether or not a longer, more feature-rich VR game is still in the works.
Since this is an arcade experience and is just about 10-minutes in length, I didn’t come in with high expectations in terms of world building or depth. This is designed to be easy to sit down and play without any prior knowledge or VR experience and for that purpose it excels wonderfully.
You don’t need Touch controllers, a keyboard, a gamepad, or anything at all. Just a headset, chair, and microphone. There is no main menu and there are no options to fiddle with. As soon as I boot it up, I’m presented with a prompt to say aloud, “Open the hatch,” and then it begins.
Visually it looks really nice in the headset. Textures are sharp and the effects are good with solid sound design. On-screen at this point is Sgt. Pearson, who is there to walk me through procedures and tag along for my mission to blow up some bad guys in space. She attempts to make some jokes every now and then, but most of them suffer from poor timing or awkward pauses due to what I can only assume is the voice recognition loading in the background. Her delivery feels a little flat as well.
Honestly, despite the minor clunkiness, these interactions with her before you actually leave on your mission are probably the best parts of the game. She does a good job of responding to commands promptly and gives off a decent illusion of carrying a conversation as long as you stick to responding accurately and not drifting off-topic. Apparently the game uses Microsoft’s “Cognitive Services” and tests your microphone levels before launching. The developers tell me the word error rate is less than 5.9%, which is better than an actual human professional typist.
However, even though it understood what I was saying every time without issue, the depth of interaction was the main problem. Other than asking basic questions from a list of options, repeating phrases I’m told, or responding to simple statements, you don’t have any freedom. I can’t decide to branch off on my own to go explore, ask her about other topics, or actually command the ship as the game’s title implies. In reality, this is just an on-rails experience that plays itself and asks you for permission to continue at a handful of junctures. The developers describe it as a “cinematic virtual reality experience” in their latest trailer’s description and cite inspirations like Telltale’s Walking Dead and other adventure games.
Space combat is relegated to simply looking around with your face and staring at enemies until they explode (you don’t even press a button to shoot, it does that on its own) or leaning side-to-side to dodge laser blasts. These exchanges are mostly boring and just as things start to get more exciting, it’s all over. There are a handful of branching moments and some dialogue bits you can skip or dig into more if you want, but other than that there isn’t a ton of replayability. It actually reminded me a bit of the old Dragon’s Lair arcade cabinets.
If Starship Commander had released back in early 2017 when it was first announced, within a year of VR headsets hitting the mass market, it’d likely have been more impressive. Despite that though, honestly, it will probably do well in an arcade setup for people that are new to VR. But as a product in late 2018 the content itself isn’t that impressive on its own. You’d likely be better off playing Elite: Dangerous in VR with a HOTAS and Voice Attack mods.
There is a patch due out before release that will address some audio mix issues, but what I saw is described as 99% complete. We will update this story with a final verdict when we’re able.
Starship Commander: Arcade launches at Springboard VR locations and Private Label VR arcades on December 10th, 2018.