Wednesday, June 27, 2007

SpaceForce: Rogue Universe Review

SpaceForce: Rogue Universe, developed by Provox Games and published by DreamCatcher Games.
The Good: Beautiful graphics, multiple professions and races with diplomacy, lots of side missions, numerous tradable items, RPG-like ship upgrades, useful alternatives to combat, two game modes
The Not So Good: No tutorial and the first mission is exceedingly difficult, incredibly lengthy battles, dreadful voice acting
What say you? A generally enjoyable space adventure, but the game is extremely hard on beginners: 6/8

After a period of absence, the space adventure game is making quite a comeback. Once a staple of the PC, flying through space, blowing stuff up, and trading items is now pretty popular again with plenty of releases recently: DarkStar One, Arvoch Conflict, and Starshatter to name a few. I can always go for a good space saga and SpaceForce: Rogue Universe hopes to fill that need, with its overt spaceness, forceness, and rogueness (with a dash of universeness). In fact, there have been so many space game recently that I’ve run out of things to say in this introduction, so on with the review!

Clearly the highlight of the game, SpaceForce: Rogue Universe has some really awesome graphics. Everything in the game looks absolutely spectacular. The ships and stations in the game are finely detailed. Planets are actually massive and to scale, unlike Star Trek: Legacy. The space of SpaceForce is full of dust and asteroids that fly by (although there are maybe too many asteroids). Even the interior of your ship has some nice touches, from glowing buttons to sun glare curving on the concave window (can’t say I’ve seen that before). HDR lighting is very impressive as well, especially with the singular star source and reflective surfaces present on many of the objects in the game. Battles are equally impressive, with wonderful weapon and explosion effects. And the game runs very smoothly: I was able to crank everything up and still run at a buttery-smooth 60 frames per second. I usually don’t put a lot of emphasis on the graphics, but the graphics of SpaceForce are quite impressive. The sound is not as remarkable, though. While the battle effects are fine enough, the voice acting is really annoying. Not only is the voice acting not that good, but during battles hackneyed phrases are repeated by your enemies over and over and over again. It’s very irritating. The background music, while tolerable, defaults at a very high volume, so you’ll need to turn it down before your ears bleed. But the graphics are really good, so you’ll quickly forget about the sound, at least until the next battle.

SpaceForce features a story mode in the shoes of Jim Anderson, stereotypical Earth dweller searching for his lost sister after his dad’s death as a member of the EMD against the pirates and the nefarious UF. Any game where UF is evil is fine with me. You can also play in free mode, although it’s not very different: you get the same 2,000 side missions to choose from (not available all at the same time, of course), although you can start as any of the eleven races in the game (which is more of a cosmetic change than anything). When you start, you can pick one of ten professions that grant some small bonuses: scientist, trader, hacker, headhunter, engineer, soldier, pirate, policeman, spy, and adventurer. SpaceForce is very unkind to new players. Usually, the first mission in a game is used to ease you into it, but no! The game lacks a tutorial as your guide says you can do certain things, but does not say how to do those things. The first mission in the story mode is actually one of the hardest missions in the game. This is flabbergasting. Why would you frustrate potential players right out of the box by putting you up against two superior foes with no backup? Download the demo and you’ll see what I mean. It’s made even worse by giving absolutely no useful instructions to the player; if you haven’t played other space combat games, you’ll be completely lost. I died on the first mission eight times before I won it by luck. This is really too bad since the remainder of the game is actually quite entertaining.

There are a number of quest types available in the game, both along the linear main story and ones you can pick up at space stations. There are the usual “kill somebody” missions, but you can also turn on satellites and hack into buildings for a bit of variety. You can also hire wingmen for a price to assist on missions. The interface is OK, although it is less intuitive than it could be. The game likes to make selecting things and finding information very difficult. As some examples, there isn’t a “target closest enemy” button, you need to be disturbingly close to ships to dock with them, and your inventory can’t be selected during combat (which means you can’t restock missiles even if you have 50 in storage). I used mouse control during the game and it’s generally good, and our good friends WASD allows you to strafe, albeit very slowly. SpaceForce could learn a few interface tips from Independence War 2 (still my favorite space adventure game), which was released six years ago.

SpaceForce features a large amount of goods to trade, more than really any other game I can remember. They are mostly interchangeable, but it’s still nice to have more than 10 or so goods to acquire. News services in the game can give information about rising and falling prices, and the game gives a good indication of whether a price is higher or lower than the average. Special items can be offered by a trader for a price to see what they are. If you run out of space in your ship, you can use a repository like public storage. One really neat aspect of the game is the ability to craft ship upgrades from goods. You can make upgrades in eight areas (weaponry, maneuverability, armor, shield, speed, energy cells, jammer, target system) from traded cargo, and the requirements for each upgrade is clearly displayed in the game. You can also acquire goods from destroyed ships and use mining tools to extract components from the plentiful asteroids in each sector. Crafting is a nice little endeavor that improves your ship no matter how you go about getting the goods: mining, trading, or combat.

SpaceForce has a dynamic relations system, and you can improve relations with other races by completing side quests for them or using good, old-fashioned bribes. Good relations will allow you to access their space stations while poor relations might result in instant combat. Unfortunately, a major part of any space game, combat, is frustrating in SpaceForce. You have the usual primary and secondary weapons: lasers and missiles. Missiles to about the same amount of damage as lasers (at least in the beginning) and they run out very quickly. Maybe missiles do more damage to the ship once their shields are down, but, of course, the game never says either way. Since you can’t access your inventory during combat, you can’t reload, so most of the combat is done with lasers. This makes battles agonizingly slow. SpaceForce has the most drawn out combat between fighters I can remember (Star Trek: Legacy was at least between really big ships). It’s required to have nanobots on your ship to repair your hull during combat (at least you can do this). When you die (and you will, frequently), you lose all of your cargo and respawn in a sector of your choosing. This makes death really unfortunate for traders, as you lose all of that money and don’t get it back. This can really screw you over if you have most of your money invested in goods, and since you can’t manually save the game, you are stuck in your sad state once you are defeated.

Other than the first mission, SpaceForce is quite enjoyable. The game has interesting mining and hacking that breaks up the drawn out combat. I like the ship upgrades that can be done through crafting or money and the graphics are fantastic. But man, is SpaceForce hard on new players. It frustrates me when games have easily fixed problems like SpaceForce: just make it easier in the beginning and make combat happen faster and the game becomes much more appetizing. People who like space adventures will be able to get past the first mission and see that there are some good, innovative parts to the game. And then you’ll be embroiled in another fifteen minute long one-on-one battle and want to quit the game in frustration. But maybe these simple problems will be fixed in a patch (and maybe they have if you’re reading this in the future). SpaceForce executes poorly in a couple of key areas, but it is generally an entertaining game that should appeal to fans of the genre.