Now that’s how you start a game.
Boom! Drop out of warp speed right in front a space station, dock your rust bucket ship and 5 seconds later you’re in the bar making a shady deal with some weird tentacle-faced alien. No screwing around.
Meanwhile, if you couldn’t already tell the soundtrack clues you in that this is one of those grungy space cowboy universes where everything needs a new paint job and you’re the kind of guy who definitely shoots first. Sort of like Sons of Anarchy with spaceships.
Where do you even begin?
There’s a main story, of course, but you can pretty much do whatever you want right out of the gate. Trade goods from station to station. Mine asteroids. Hunt bounties. Run missions. Pirate unsuspecting merchant ships. Join a couple of factions and run even more missions.
Everything tends to orbit around the economy in games like this. Even though you’re supposed to be involved with matters of galactic importance, mostly you’re just scrounging for money to buy cooler stuff. They made an interesting design choice there, in that the sell price for ships and gear is the same as the buy price; and so there’s zero downside to buying whatever you want and taking it for a spin. You can always trade it back in at no loss if you don’t like it or you just plain get bored.
In some ways that was really nice. You’re not constrained by depreciation losses to stick with your first choice, which frees you up to experiment with different ships and weapons. It does create a big incentive for some pretty sketchy behavior, though.
At first everything moves along pretty smoothly. You’re in the starter system running story missions like usual, checking out the stations, maybe doing some side missions. So far so good.
Eventually the story sends you to the next system and more missions start rolling in, at which point you observe that the threat level is now an alarming red color. Then you open up the sector map to look for something easier and see that every other system is rated “Extreme,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The only way to make things less Extreme is to upgrade your equipment, which takes way more money than you have.
Problem is, for all the variety on the menu the money-making opportunites really aren’t so great early on. The prices of goods seem to be random from station to station, and so there’s no sensible way to establish a decent trade route; not that you can haul enough in your small ship to make it worthwhile anyway. Meanwhile, missions don’t pay out very much relative to the cost of new upgrades. What else are you supposed to do? Mine asteroids like some mithril-grubbing Dwarf?
The writing was on the wall: I had a lot of grinding in my future. Things were looking desperate.
That’s why I didn’t have any qualms about doing what I did next.
While you’re running missions you can’t help but notice that there are these dust clouds and junk fields just lying around absolutely everywhere. Explore them, and you can usually find a few cargo containers full of free stuff. Sometimes you even find ship components! As you might expect, when you get to the second system the stuff gets correspondingly more valuable.
Then it dawned on me: there’s nothing actually preventing you from taking off and flying wherever you want. Like, all the way to most remote systems where the free loot is probably the best. The jump gates aren’t locked or guarded, and most of the dust clouds are devoid of hostiles; and in any case your little ship is pretty fast and the one thing it’s actually good at is running away from things.
Remember that part about how you can sell ship equipment back to the shops at full price? Including those top shelf components that cost millions?
It was like that scene in 2001 where the monkey picks up the leg bone and puts two and two together. Things were never the same after that.
Thus began my brief but prosperous career as a Space Dirtbag.
Don’t look at me like that! You would have done the same thing. I mean, it was either that or spend God knows how many hours running missions. Hey, it’s supposed to be a wild west sort of universe full of mercenaries and pirates and lowlifes, so I figure it was in-character.
Well, even though it made the game a little silly I had no regrets, mainly because as an “open world” experience it’s really pretty thin. The wide array of features sounds good on paper, but in reality there’s not much behind the facade to pull you into the world very deeply.
Privateer had the whole Wing Commander universe, and at least Freelancer had some lore of its own to set the stage. The aliens here are just a bunch of miscellaneous jerks; and the stations, systems and cultures have no history behind them to give them personality or distinguish them from one another. As for the main story, it’s serviceable, but won’t exactly keep you on the edge of your seat and motivate you find out what happens next.
Same with the factions, which are only there to offer you more random missions. There’s no story behind them or meaningful interaction with one another. You can hunt pirates out in space or answer distress calls from merchants, but again it’s just random and disconnected from any larger picture. You can’t find any quest chains or unique locations that would make you feel like you’re exploring and participating in a living universe. They all just boil down to more ways to earn money.
So why not take the shortcut and get right to the good stuff.
For all its shortcomings, what redeems this game is the combat. It helps that the controls are really simple and intuitive and they mercifully restrict movement to two dimensions, which is all I’m usually prepared to handle. Beyond that, though, they take a really distinctive angle here that makes it stand out from any other space game I’ve played.
The main difference is that while you do have turrets and such, you deal a good chunk of your damage by actually pulling up along side other ships and cutting loose with your cannons–they even call them broadsides–like something out of a Patrick O’Brian novel in the Age of Sail.
It’s great! When you’re right next to some gargantuan ship it gives the battle an up close and personal feel that you don’t get when your targets are anonymous little specks far off in space that you lock with a computer and mechanically eliminate.
Every enemy you engage is like a duel. Mano a mano. Your lasers tear into their hulls right before your eyes, sending metal flying off into space and leaving glowing scars in their wake until your foes explode into huge fireballs that fill your whole screen.
Even the ships themselves have character, hulking, ungainly beasts that seem to carry a real weight, all aggressive angles and big engines like futuristic muscle cars. You expect to hear the rumble of a V8 and see a cloud of smoke from the tires peeling out every time you launch into warp. Together with the soundtrack, it’s all so concrete and visceral; and in that sense it delivers on the promise of that dynamic opening moment. At its heart this is a game that really does make you want to hit the gas, fly around space like it’s some wild country backroad and just tear @%$# up.
Still, the fun of the combat can only last so long; and once you’ve finished the story, visited all the systems, each one much like the last, and exhausted the limited possibilities for carving out your little niche in space there’s not much left to do but more of the same.
It’s really a shame, because they were on the right track here and this game’s main weaknesses probably just come down to lack of resources. I think there’s just so much stuff that’s necessary to build a truly convincing open world at this point that it’s hard for a relatively small team to pull off.
So I guess it’s kind of like Witch Hunt in that respect, except at least when I flew around randomly here I actually found something besides exhaustion and murderous dogs.