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From Torchlight to the stars: a morning with Rebel Galaxy

Cowboys versus Aliens.

Jim Raynor would be proud. Not only does Rebel Galaxy's starting ship cut a distinctly Hyperion-styled silhouette against huge starboxes whose bloomy nebulae serve as a reminder that gaming's love affair with Hubble is far from over, but StarCraft's heroic good-ol'-boy would presumably approve of the audio, too, which eschews synth and strings for what sounds like a couple of meatheads whacking away at Fenders in the kind of bar that has chicken wire across the stage. That's a pretty long sentence, and you have my apologies, but Rebel Galaxy earns that approach. It is a simple game at heart, but a breathless one as well, a scamper across empty space from one mission to the next, shootin', lootin', tradin' and enjoying the butt-rock. It is Elite, if Elite weren't the product of Cambridge grads who spend their spare time pondering neutrinos, but rather the people who make Budweiser commercials.

It's exploration and blasting with gentle conversation tree pruning as you chat to wonderfully rubbery SyFy channel aliens in the bars that inevitably litter any space ports you come across. There's an engagingly off-tilt narrative that starts with you trying to track down your aunt - I like to think of her as a space aunt - who's gone missing, and seems like rather a shadowy character, and there's also a lovely sense of a universe ticking over all around you, with miners, pirates, and various other factions all eking out a living and offering you work.

Rebel Galaxy provides a very comfortable trajectory as you take on missions, upgrade ship parts, buy new craft and eventually venture further out. If this sounds familiar, it should. Rebel Galaxy's being made by Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer of Double Damage Games. It's just the two of them here, with a few contractors, but they have a lineage that goes back to titles like Fate and Diablo, by way of Torchlight and Torchlight 2. Set aside the ships and the warping about, and this offers the same welcoming, unchallenging quest structure of a dungeon crawler - and the same cumulative energy too, as you get bigger and stronger and the particle effects get wilder.

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Attack ships on fire...

You see these particle effects at their best in combat. This is Star Trek-ish naval-styled combat, meaning that positioning and understanding your turning circle are enormously important. Luckily, although Rebel Galaxy pitches you into a 3D starscape, your craft is actually fixed to a horizontal plane. Enemies may loop up and overhead as they buzz you with lasers, but you remain rigidly set in what could very well work as a top-down universe. It's a blessing in disguise, as simplified navigation provides one less thing to think about, one less thing to get in the way of shooting people to pieces.

And when it comes to that stuff, there is still quite a lot to think about anyway. Alongside lining up broadsides, you're able to switch to a more mobile scatter turret and also unleash flak at just the right moment to take out incoming missiles. Deflectors, meanwhile, absorb damage but stop you from firing, and enemies tend to be enormously speedy, space gnats picking away at you until you touch them off into one of the game's truly glorious Technicolor explosions.

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What has my aunt been up to, eh?

Between battling, there's empty space, wonderfully bright and sharply realised, and crossed at warp speed once you've goosed your engines up to the appropriate rate in 25 per cent increments. It's going to be interesting to see what Double Damage does to fill these stately warp cruises, but the indications from the current build are promising. Halfway between objective markers, I'll get a distress beacon or a strange signal. Powering down, I can send out a ping to look for anything interesting that might be lurking nearby. We're back in Diablo and Torchlight territory again even here, as what you often find is a simple side-quest or a bunch of space loot to bring into the hold once you've bought and installed a tractor beam, and which you may then be able to shift for a profit next time you dock.

It's a congregation of time-worn elements, then, but that is the pleasure of Rebel Galaxy, a space opera that is designed around a control pad, and which introduces you to its denimy pleasures by sending you out on your first mission cast in the role of a whiskey runner. Despite the backwoods charm, there are moments of interstellar beauty, too, as you bust out of warp speed into a little nimbus of wreckage, spars and struts of a long-dead craft twisting past in the vacuum, waiting for you to pick them clean. Space games often have an oceanic feel, and it's not just the naval combat that provides it here. There's something wonderfully sub-aquatic about Rebel Galaxy's deadly exploratory world, and for all the Budweiser atmosphere, you'll actually feel like a shark, constantly moving and scattering minnows in your wake.

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