As with Wing Commander Prophecy, the pilot's flying ability is the only metric by which success and failure is measured, though Starlancer does not feature branching mission paths. As in Wing Commander I the pilot may be promoted throughout the course of the campaign; unlike WCI, their rank determines which fighters and missiles they may choose to employ during each mission. The game provides a "virtual carrier" through which to navigate, including nearby crewmembers whose reaction to you depends on your current rank and standing. However, the true gem of the game lies in its textual and video news broadcasts, which keep the player informed as to the status of the rest of the war, which seems to be progressing just over the horizon. Players frequently find themselves flying alongside squadrons and pilots they have heard about on the news just recently, providing a dose of 'celebrity exposure' and also increasing the sensation that they are just one part of a much larger war effort.

Gameplay is standard flight-simulator fare, with afterburners, a gun-energy pool and power system allotments; but several features stand out. For one, the player can choose between a 1st-person, in-the-cockpit view or a 3rd-person chase-plane view. Secondly, all fighters are designed to provide daunting barrages of rapid-fire weapons, returning to a WW2 paradigm but resulting in one-sided dogfights as the enemy prefers to evade than shoot back. Finally, the game plays far more similarly to, for instance, the Star Fox franchise, in that it includes the so-called "Superman Syndrome": the player is held responsible for accomplishing any and all mission objectives by themselves, often several at once, and without assistance from wingmen. With a lack of experience, certain missions can be nearly impossible to complete, a problem exacerbated by the inability to change difficulty settings in-game, a lack of a mid-mission save feature, and a truly insufficient targeting/navigation system. (This particularly applies to missions where the player must protect friendlies from torpedo bombers.) Finally, it features an entertaining but hard-to-access multiplayer mode through Microsoft's networking systems, supporting both head-to-head deathmatches and cooperative campaign-mission modes (this latter being the obvious answer to some of the game's more intensive missions).

Starlancer was also available on the Dreamcast console. GameSpy hosted its online play with up to six players at once. It is still online, one of the few games for Dreamcast which still has functional online play. Although most of the graphics and frame rate were intact, the game did not include the intricate menu system and options that the PC had.