Plenty of great PC games pay homage to the classic Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients, but until now none have dared stray beyond the thematic bounds of high fantasy.

Stellar Impact is a French indie game that goes where no DotA clone has gone before, mixing traditional DotA gameplay with a dash of hard sci-fi to create a challenging fast-paced tactical combat game. It’s the first title developed by Tindalos Interactive, and you can download the client and play ten full matches for free before coughing up 10€ (£8.80) to keep going.

It’s an intriguing way for an indie developer to get people playing, and I hope it pays off as matches are currently hard to find on the sparsely-populated Stellar Impact server. In more than a week of playing the English version I never saw more than ten players online at any given time, a serious problem for this multiplayer-only game.

When you do manage to get a match going, you may be flustered by the amount of micro-management required to keep your spaceship from careening into an asteroid, much less destroy another player or capture their starbase. Stick with it, because while the lack of unit AI may seem like a weakness, it’s actually the most exciting challenge of playing Stellar Impact.

See, your vessel will always go directly where you order it, even if that means flying right into a deadly asteroid field. To navigate Stellar Impact’s hazardous battlefields you’ll need to constantly micro-manage your ship’s heading and thrust, a frustrating challenge that trains you to think tactically about the most efficient way to skirt a plasma cloud, capture that next base or get the drop on an enemy starship.

Stellar Impact

Competently controlling your vessel’s movement is doubly critical because each of the five ship classes in Stellar Impact bristle with cannons that can only fire in limited arcs, and they never fire at will. Instead it’s your responsibility to target enemy vessels and manually fire one salvo after another by hammering on the fire button.

Thus Stellar Impact forces you to think tactically about ship-to-ship combat, but rewards skill with big experience point bonuses for player kills and permanent ship upgrades you can carry from one match to the next. The average match is long enough to allow for multiple pitched battles and come-from-behind moments of triumph, yet short enough that you can convince yourself it's possible to squeeze one in on your lunch break.

And you should squeeze in a few matches, because Stellar Impact is the first space combat game to competently emulate the sort of lane-based strategic gameplay that defined the original insanely popular Warcraft 3 map Defense of the Ancients. During every match small fleets of AI-controlled escort ships spawn at your stronghold and charge the enemy base, attacking any enemy in their path.

You can and should destroy the enemy escorts for experience points, which can be spent to upgrade your personal vessel or your team’s escort ships. These upgrades add another layer of strategy and allow new players to contribute meaningfully to a team victory by upgrading their AI-controlled cannon fodder, but the best part of any Stellar Impact match is still that moment you swing your ship around, bring all cannons to bear on an enemy and blast them to smithereens.

Unfortunately there’s no matchmaking system beyond a simple server browser, and since some upgrades carry over from match to match there’s no easy way for new players to avoid being matched up against experienced players with high level ships and special abilities. This problem discourages newbies from jumping into the game, and will only grow worse as more players attain maximum level. 

OUR VERDICT

If Tindalos Interactive can attract more players and implement a more stringent matchmaking system, Stellar Impact may follow in the footsteps of Frozen Synapse and become an indie strategy star.