Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators Review

Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators, developed by Elemental Games and published by Cinemaware Marquee.
The Good: Different and varied gameplay elements, open-ended, dynamic universe, appealing graphics, potentially fun to play
The Not So Good: Not enough generated missions, ship components and upgrades are confusing, poor planetary battle AI, early game is trade-heavy since most military missions will result in death, action is too hectic, difficult to gauge appropriate competition
What say you? A distinctive space adventure game with some interesting embellishments but a number of deficiencies: 6/8

It seems that a lot of recent games cover the same two topics: World War II and space. I’m not quite sure why this is, but it’s a definite trend among computer games. I guess enough people are interested in World War II and space to warrant so many games covering World War II and space. Now if they could only have a World War II space game: that would sell! Here we have Space Rangers 2, a space adventure game that’s a sequel, although the first version was never published in the U.S., so it’s new as far as we’re concerned. Space Rangers 2 takes several different genre elements: role-playing character upgrades, real time strategy battles, trading, text-based adventure, piracy, and a pinch of paprika, and attempts to shape them into an appealing final product. Do too many cooks spoil the pot, or do they create the best dish ever? Either way, I’m sure it involves chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.

The graphics of Space Rangers 2 are pretty good, definitely on par with most of the real time strategy games that are currently on the market. The characters within the game have animated models (much like Galactic Civilizations II) and the planetary locations have believable vistas. The space areas have nicely detailed planets, stars, ships, and other objects floating around, and the planets even revolve around their sun (satisfying the astronomer in all of us). The planetary battles are also well detailed, full of stupendous explosions, realistic structures, and complete military units. A lot of work went into upgrading the graphics from the original game, and it shows: Space Rangers 2 features some great effects. Although none of the in-game text is audible, the sound is also pretty good: powerful explosions (especially the bombs in planetary battles; these caught me off guard and actually startled me, something that hasn’t happened during a game in quite a while) and other effects, although the background music is annoying (I turned it off). Space Rangers 2 will never be faulted for having sub-par graphics or sound, as it excels in both of these arenas.

Space Rangers 2 is a single player game where you assume the role of an independent space ranger, living your life through trade, exploration, and military action, and eventually joining the fight against the evil Dominators. At the beginning of each game, you choose a race (there are five, with some differences other than appearance) and occupation: fighter, mercenary, merchant, corsair, or pirate. The occupation you choose determines your initial relations with other races in the game, something that is quite unique. You can also customize the difficulty level and initial skills, which can improve your accuracy, maneuverability, repair skills, trading, charisma, or leadership of other vessels. The main part of Space Rangers 2 plays as a turn-based game, where you give orders to your ship (such as move, attack, or follow) and then all the actions for one day pass. It’s a strange mechanic where something can happen during the execution phase of a turn and you can’t really stop time until the day is complete, sometimes resulting in some bad effects. This is similar to the method used in the Combat Mission series, and it takes some getting used to.

Your ship is outfitted with some initial gear (depending on the class you selected) that can be upgraded, repaired, or replaced on planets. In general, your ship contains weapons, movement systems, tracking systems, and additional equipment for special needs. Your first ship is very underpowered, and engaging any enemy craft early on results in certain death. Because of this, most of the early game will be spend trading goods to make money so that you can afford better equipment. This makes trader classes desirable early on, but you’ll need to switch to a more military-inclined ship as the game nears the epic final battles.

Most of you time will be spent on planets, where you can engage in several activities. The government house can provide missions, buy maps of nearby star systems, or improve relationships through bribes. The missions in the game are not very well constructed. First, they don’t scale appropriately to your current skill level, and you can’t really tell how tough they will be until you die during them. You can ask for an easier mission, but the game gives no indication about which level of difficulty is most fitting. There is also a lack of available missions in the game. Unlike games such as Freelancer where each planets has 10-20 different missions you can embark on, in Space Rangers 2 you’ll likely encounter many locations where they just don’t have any work available. Without having any missions, the player is left to wonder what they’re supposed to do (trade, I guess). You can buy equipment upgrades for your ship on planets as well, and planets sell their particular race’s wares (some races make better stuff than others). The game doesn’t make this easy, however. First, the game doesn’t simply tell you which equipment pieces you could place on your vessel or which ones are upgrades to your current technology. In order to find this out, you need to look at the numerical rating, go to the shipyard, and find the numerical rating of the component you currently have installed. This is a waste of time and could be streamlined. Also, you can’t simply replace an existing component: you must sell the old one first (from the ship info screen), then buy the new one from the equipment store, then install it in the ship info screen. A one-click process would have worked much better. Trade, however, is well executed. The game clearly states which trades are good and which trades are bad according to the current prices, so there’s no writing down what medicine costs on some random planet. Why it would work so well in trading but not ship upgrades is a mystery to me. An interesting note: you can trade illegal goods in Space Rangers 2 (namely alcohol and “stimulants”). Illegal goods reap a bigger profit but can result in some jail time if you’re caught by the authorities. Each planet also keeps you informed of various goings-on in the galaxy, so that you can keep on the lookout for good business or military opportunities. Uninhabited planets don’t have all of these options, but you can place probes on them to find hidden bonuses.

While in space, you can issue context-sensitive commands to your vessel, such as attacking enemies, landing on planets, following other ships, jumping to other star systems, or simply moving to a specific point in space. There is a mini-map that shows all of the planets and ships within radar range in the current solar system. The planets are not labeled, so you’ll need to memorize which planet is which in each solar system or go through endless clicking trying to find the right one. Battles in space are straightforward enough: you can have the game play them out for you, or let you select the weapons to use. You can assign each weapon for a specific ship (in the case of 2 on 1 battles), so leaving these decisions up to you is needed for victory against the odds. Most of the battles are uninteresting and the person that has the better-equipped ship and better skills will win; they lack the excitement or drama seen in games such as Star Wars: Empire at War or even Galactic Civilizations II. There are also arcade battles in black holes where you control the weapons and flight path of your ship, in an interesting twist. In addition to attacking other ships, you can also scan them to find out what equipment and weapons they have, or talk to them to initiate trade, a cooperative mission, or threaten them for cold, hard cash.

Some missions given by the government involve planetary battles, and these are almost another strategy game in itself. They play like a watered-down version of Command and Conquer: you must build robots and attack the enemy bases, driving them off the map. You are given an arbitrary amount of initial resources you can spend on building the robots, and new resources are gained by claiming new bases. New bases are claimed by having a robot stand on a circle for a set of time while the base changes over, like in Battlefield 2 or Dawn of War. The robot customization options are pretty robust, as you can customize the hull, chassis, and weapons to produce you own unique combination. The game assigns a specific model number to each design you create so that you can reproduce more units later. There are also defensive turrets you can build to keep pesky enemy units away from your bases. In addition, reinforcement units can be called in to assist when things get hairy. The battles themselves are very quick: even skirmishes between 30 robots are over in a matter of 15 seconds. This mostly results from the inferior AI. Units under your control are very, very dumb: they will charge straight for enemy units in a single-file line, and will slowly get picked off one by one by enemy turrets. Spending a lot of resources on top-of-the-line robots and then having them stupidly mowed down is a frustrating experience. You can directly control one robot at a time in a first person shooter format (cool), but all of the other vessels will just wither and die and a heap of smoking metal. The robots never work as a team or stay together, and have some pathfinding issues: I gave an attack order against a building, and the robot fired one shot, backed up and then never fired again. Unacceptable. Because the battles are so quick, controlling a single robot isn’t enough to compensate for the lack of good AI.

I can see how Space Rangers 2 could potentially be a very enjoyable game, but there are just too many minor issues that make the game more frustrating than it should be. Space Rangers 2 certainly has many different modes of play that keeps the game fresh: planetary battles, trading, missions, ship upgrades, and the like. Space Rangers 2 takes several different ideas and gameplay mechanics and molds them into an interesting and fluid package. The problem is that each of the areas has one or two things that annoy the heck out of you: the poor AI in planetary battles, the complex ship upgrade system, and the inappropriately difficult missions. Unfortunately, you seem to remember the bad experiences in the game due to the minor issues rather than the entertaining aspects of the title. Space Rangers 2 should be a fun game to play, but the lasting impression is a great concept that falls short on complete execution.