Old Firm battles with Space Celtic ensue.
This review was meant to be in on Monday. Not this Monday, but two Mondays ago. There’s been as determined procrastination over writing the review as any game ever, with me attempting to distract Kristan by sending in lots of other work which isn’t due yet to avoid him asking where this Space Rangers review has got to. Thank God that Nintendo saw fit to release the most exciting gaming news of the year recently too.
Essentially, the game’s amazing, but I had to put myself in quarantine for a week to make sure it’s actually something I have to recommend to the world. Because it might be just because it’s precisely aimed at my soft spots – emergent situations, freeform universes, sheer quirkiness, and being constructed by an underdog developer in the middle of nowhere (Vladivostok, apparently). And it’s not that it doesn’t have enough flaws for a more sober minded reviewer to kick it down a little. But sober-minded reviewers give the latest merely competent game in a big franchise ninety percent because it exists, so to hell with them.
Space Rangers is, in the language of the illiterate, Teh Aw3s0m3.
It’s also the sort of game which makes me think that the tongue-in-cheek post-genre label I made up for the Darwinia review was actually onto something. This is a game made with absolute, brilliant disregard for the accepted conventions of gaming niches. It’s almost as if someone escaped from the Wario Ware design team, snuck off to Russia and performed a putsch at an unwary strategy game developer.
In terms of the structure, it’s essentially a more complicated turn-based Pirates set in Space. So Elite meets Pirates, basically.
You play an eponymous Space Ranger, looking down on a two-dimensional view of the solar system you’re currently in. Planets rotate around stars in perpetual motion. Meteors float along. Other space ships go about their daily business – Pirates, pirating, Traders, trading, Diplomats, diplomatting. Space Stations float silently. Dominators invade and destroy all life, but we’ll get to them a bit later.
You’re free to do whatever you want. Travel between solar-systems via your jump drive, exploring. Try a little trading, by buying high, selling low and swiftly going out of business. Take missions from planetary governors for cash rewards and honours. Either turn to intergalactic thievery or help innocent merchant vessels beat off attacks. Explore, laying down probes on uninhabited space areas. Mine space rocks. Join the war effort against the dominators, who, no, really, we’ll get to eventually.
This all accrues money, experience and honours. The former is used, like Elite, to increase your ship’s equipment, slowly climbing the long tech tree from utterly useless to the sort of firepower that makes the Death Star feel a little inadequate. The experience is used for the small role-playing aspect, skills able to boost your performance in combat or trading. The latter is the equivalent of the “Rating” in Elite, climbing the ranks in the army and your reputation among the Space Rangers of the galaxy. There’s also individual reputations with all the characters in the universe, with pirates holding grudges from previous attacks and individual planets declaring you a wanted man and launching police-vessels whenever you’re around. In other words, there’s lots of ways for your decisions to bounce back at you in positive and negative manners.
That’s the basic game – 2D turn-based space-adventuring. Pirates meets Elite.
So it’s a big game, an unusual game, but a game you can just about understand. You’re happily playing when – biff! Bang! Pow! – the game goes insane and does something you were never expecting. Now, Pirates has done this sort of subgame thing before, but is a much simpler and shallower game than Space Rangers. That the subgames were relatively light and the strategy games were similar in tone meant that it became easier to view as a single cloth. Not so here.
So, for example, when you go from an exploratory space game one minute to a Williams-arcade-game style shooter when you go down a Black Hole, it’s somewhat unexpected.
Or when you get a planetary mission where you’re placed in charge of a simple – but functionally complete – RTS with you commanding an army of robots whose components you choose from a lengthy list of options.
Or when you get thrown in prison or take certain missions, and it becomes an old-skool text based adventure, with you selecting multiple-choice options to progress. And not just a small questionnaire, then back in the game – an actual lengthy mini-game.
Or… well, one of the reasons why I wanted to continue playing this was the constant thought that Elemental Games may have hidden something else entirely unexpected in its crevices somewhere, and I didn’t want to miss anything.
What are the problems? Well, it’s a little shoddy around the edges. A couple of the subgames may not particularly appeal – the RTS isn’t exactly great, for example. However, you’re free to avoid these if you don’t want to get your fingers dirty. Particularly iffy is the level of the translation, which borders on gibberish at its worst. And I’d hammer down on that if it wasn’t for the small paragraph in the manual, which notes that you may notice a few errors in the text, but this is due to the game being written in the dialect of the far future, where the natural drift of meaning in language has lead to certain differences. They’re not errors. They’re local colour.
And you can almost imagine them trying to keep a straight face while writing it.
See – that level of shameless, balls-out audacity permeates every byte of the game.
It’s also a uniquely challenging game. It doesn’t pussy around with the player. In the first game I played, my merchant-man was a little over-aggressive in leaping to the aid of travellers being attacked by pirates. Hell – I’m a Space Ranger! I’m not going to slink by and let them hurt the fellow innocent travellers. But while I save some people, I’ve made enemies of all the local pirates, which leaves me being constantly harassed whenever I take to space. I end up spending a month on Neptune, waiting for them to move off. I just wasn’t capable enough yet to deal with them.
I restarted as a Mercenary, and used my improved array of fire-power to show them what time it was.
(I now realise that what I could have done was get as much fuel as possible and head to a distant corner of the galaxy, where my foes weren’t around. Also, I should have used my rocket boosters to outrun trouble. But only experience taught me that – the one thing I didn’t have back then).
You see… thinking. Not just going through the motions, but thinking.
I’d say that it’s another game to make this the year where non-sequels are where all the real action is, except it’s actually Space Rangers 2 and only called 'Space Rangers' as the first wasn’t properly available in the west. However, that’s also included on the CD as a freebie, meaning that it adds unbeatable value to its other attractive attributes.
Let’s finish with an anecdote which tries to sum up of how Space Rangers has charmed, frustrated and enthralled me for the last couple of weeks. It’s not even the best one.
I receive a mission from a planet towards the north end of the galaxy. They want me to get a rare medical ingredient from a few solar-system hyperspace leaps away, and return it to them in a time limit. The price is right. I head off, making the first leap.
I discover that the system I pass through has been taken over by the Dominators. Now, these are the central “plot” in the game, a group of invaders who want to take over the galaxy. They’ll appear in places, and try and annex them – with the computer military trying to defend. The ebb and flow means that the playing map for your adventure changes depending on the flow of the war, and even when you’re ignoring the ongoing fights – which you can do – they can get in the way of your misadventures. As it is, I’m the only non-Dominator craft in the solar system, so every single enemy ship homes in on me.
Activating the boosters, I pass through the system and make the leap away. Phew. I’ll have to come back another way.
Arriving on the planet, I pass through one of the text adventure sections where I have to hunt, kill and collect animal parts as part of a ritual of manhood or something. After clubbing a few beasts to death, I get the ingredient and start considering the route home. I see I still have over two months of game time to get back, so figure that I could actually take another task to do on the way back. I talk to this planet’s governors, and discover that they have a delivery they want make to a planetary system fairly near my destination. Great – I accept it, and head off.
Wanting to avoid the Dominators system, I head the slightly longer route back only to discover that a planet in this solar system wants to arrest me for some trifling previous misdemeanour, and launches military vessels after me. I try the engine boost, but my previous abuse left it on its last legs and it burns out, meaning I can’t jump and escape. I’m dead.
Reload to the autosave, and I consider my options. Now, I can’t go back that way. I can’t go back past the Dominators, as I’d have to use the engine burn to get through there too. So, I need to repair my engines. Problem is, I’ve got no money. That’s why I wanted to do the mission in the first place.
Only solution I can think of is to quickly mine a load of meteor rocks in the area and sell them to gain enough cash to do a quick patch-up job. However, this has taken up so much time that it’s clear that I won’t be able to satisfy both my mission contracts within their time-limits. Dilemma. However, I also notice that in the passing time the Dominators have invaded the solar system where I started, and taken over the entire place. I can’t complete that mission even if I wanted to, as the planet is in enemy clutches. Damn.
So, I head to the system for the second mission, passing through the place where I’m a wanted man at full burn. Time’s clicking down, and to have a chance of completing the mission, I end up burning through the next system too. I know that this will end up breaking the engine, but if I don’t, I’ll lose the money and have my reputation drop in another planet. I can’t have that. However, the engine gives out as I’m approaching the final destination. I pull into the nearest planet, and work out what to do.
Repairs, clearly. But I can’t mine, as there’s no time. I don’t want to pawn any of my equipment, as it’s all too vital. But I need cash, now. At which point I realise I have the rare medical item I was meant to get for the first mission still in my hold. Checking, I realise I can sell it for thirty credits more than it’ll cost to repair the engine.
Awesome. I burn across the remainder of space, and get to the destination one day before the deadline.
Drama, excitement, adventure, challenge, thought: these are the best reasons to play videogames.
And this is one of the best reasons this year for you to play videogames.
Play this videogame.