Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Space Trader Review

Space Trader, developed and published by HermitWorks Entertainment.
The Good: Great user interface makes profitable trading easy, fast pace, legal and illegal paths, helpful tutorial, LAN play, shockingly not bad FPS mode, challenging
The Not So Good: Small scenario sizes with only a couple of planets each, multiplayer limited to LANs
What say you? A well-designed trading game: 6/8

O Canada! Home of Ice Road Truckers AND Alex Trebek, the Frozen White North has seen its fair share of quality exports. This extends to the world of computer games, where several big name publishers have significant operations ongoing. Like in the U.S., Canada is also home to many (several?) independent studios hoping for a stake in the PC gaming market. One of these is Space Trader, a (surprise!) space trading game made by a bunch of hermits. When a game is being funded by the federal government, then it must be somewhat worthy of consideration. We will certainly find out, and I’ll even try to refrain from using any “eh” jokes, eh? That one doesn’t count.

One of the biggest challenges when being a small studio is overcoming the graphical hurdle: you don’t have nearly the same influx of cold, hard cash as the massive studios do (and there’s the exchange rate to consider as well). That said, the graphics of Space Trader are good, although they won’t win any awards for outstanding visual splendor. The planets and ships you will visit actually look pretty good in 3-D with some nice attention to detail. The environments are quite reminiscent of Parkan II: slightly repetitive but not terrible. The character models are much more detailed than I would have expected with some realistic animations. The weapons models are where Space Trader lags behind, as the various guns in the game aren’t impressive at all. Space Trader is not the smoothest game in the world: I experienced some hiccups in performance on a system that shouldn’t be experiencing them. The planetary view looks good, with the planets in the solar system represented nicely. The best aspect of the graphics is the quality user interface that makes effective trading very straightforward and navigating between each of the NPCs a snap: once you meet someone, you just need to click on them in a list to jump to their location. There is no more running around like in so many role-playing games. The sound is typical for this kind of game: repetitive voice clips when you meet a character and pretty standard weapon effects and background music. Nothing about the sound is impressive, but it doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all, so that’s good. In all, Space Trader has higher production values than I would have thought: while it can’t obviously compete with big budget titles in terms of graphics and sound, it does hold its own and compare favorably against similar titles.

As you might guess, Space Trader involves trading…in space! The game comes with a quick tutorial that teaches the basics of the interface (it’s well designed so there isn’t much of a learning curve) and a series of three scenarios that will unlock as you reach a level of trade profit in the previous missions. All of the missions take place in our solar system, which adds an air of plausibility to the game, and you must attain a specified level of cash before time runs out. Three missions might not sound like many (and it’s not), but it will take a number of tries (and some luck) to beat each level. There is some replay value with the missions as the planets revolve around the Sun (changing travel times) and random events affect prices, but the side missions and characters stay the same. An interesting addition in the game is LAN play, where you can compete against other human players. This is fairly unique in the space trading genre and a nice feature, though unfortunately Space Trader lacks an online mode where you can challenge people over the Internet.

The game is turn-based, so you can spend as much time in each port as you’d like, searching for goods that are carelessly scattered around each level or accepting bounty hunter missions against other traders. You’ll start out in each port with a handful of known contacts, but you’ll need to explore once to find all of the other merchants. Thankfully, each level is small and finding everyone only takes a couple of minutes. Each port could have benefited from a minimap to reduce the confusion of getting lost and backtracking. Helpful icons are displayed over each character to indicate their role, but I would like the game to indicate merchants or individuals you haven’t talked to previously. There are a good number of merchants; they all offer the same prices for each good, but may have different goods in stock to sell. As I stated earlier, the game allows you to instantly transport to any merchant in a port once you meet them; this is a great feature that reduces a lot of the tedium that could have been present in Space Trader. The user interface also indicates how much money you stand to gain or lose with each transaction and the price fluctuations from median value. There is no writing of prices down or trying to remember how much cotton costs on Earth because the interface does it all for you. While this may take some of the “skill” associated with trading games away, I really like this design decision and make the gameplay more concerned with careful planning to minimize travel time rather than remembering arbitrary prices. Space Trader will clearly indicate with stars good buys or sells, and it’s just a matter of building yourself up from lower-priced to higher-priced goods. Since your ship only holds a certain number of goods (everything weighs the same in the future), you will need to deliver more expensive goods in order to reach the goal of each level. You can use mechanics to increase your cargo space, but it’s way more expensive than it’s worth. There are a number of goods in the game, from gold to food to the curiously-named “bananabis” (no doubt a cross between a banana and the North American Brain Injury Society). Disasters and other random events will alter supplies and demand, making Space Trader one part skill and the other part luck: a good combination for a computer game.

In order to maximize your profits, you will need to accept jobs to eliminate the competition…literally. The first person shooter mode of Space Trader is actually not that bad. You are given a minimap (why here and not in the stations I don’t know) that shows the locations of weapons, health, shields, goods, and enemies. You have a generic arrangement of weapons: an assault rifle, a shotgun, and the like. The AI is actually respectable: you can sneak up on them, but they will actively shoot you and they look like they attempt to use cover, or at least just go around a corner. You have three lives in each encounter to eliminate the target, and if you do, then you get money and a whole bunch of free goods. Sweet! You will also get periodically stopped by the trade administration to pay taxes, and you can choose to pay them or fight them. If they board your ship and you defeat them, you won’t pay the taxes but more backup will arrive next time. If you lose (and you only get once chance here), then you have to pay the taxes plus a boarding fee plus a soldier replacement fee. So that’s an interesting decision to make. Most of the difficulty of the FPS mode results from being ambushed by a number of enemies at once, but that’s OK in a game that focuses on trade rather than combat. The game as a whole is a good challenge: you have to plan trips to minimize down time and read the news for goods information. It took me a couple of tries at each level to each the goal, and the game features enough replay value through planetary movement and random events to make successive tries less annoying.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with Space Trader. While most space adventure games focus on flashy graphics or intense combat, Space Trader actually makes trading fun and not a chore. I usually detest trade in games since it is typically handled poorly, but Space Trader simplifies the process through its outstanding user interface. Space Trader feels like you are playing a game instead of playing a spreadsheet. While the characters remain the same, the planetary movement (something a lot of games don’t get right) and random events keep successive play fresh. The inclusion of LAN play is something even big budget titles lack. The limited scope and small amount of content (there are only a few planets in each of the game’s three scenarios) will restrict the potential audience somewhat, but for fans of trading games Space Trader is quite entertaining. Those wacky Canadians are on to something.