Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Smugglers 4 Review

Smugglers 4, developed and published by Niels Bauer Games.
The Good: Large variety of mission types, numerous ship upgrades, character growth with new abilities, actions influence game world
The Not So Good: Low resolution interface hinders core gameplay, slow growth relying on trade, uninteresting early game
What say you? A simple space trading adventure game with a couple of nice features but average gameplay: 5/8

In space, no one can hear you scream, but everybody can hear you trade. Yes, space trading games sure are popular (meaning I've reviewed at least one of them): these economic simulations don't seem to appear in many other settings apart from the final frontier. The fourth in the series, Smugglers 4 offers up more buy-low, sell-high action amongst the stars. While almost all space adventure games have some sort of trading component, Smugglers 4 starts with trade and then expands out from there, offering up the usual assortment of missions and combat along with the business-inclined core gameplay. How does Smugglers 4 stack up against the rest?

When a majority of the graphics consist of 2-D JPEGs, then you know you are not in for a graphical treat. The graphics of Smugglers 4 are simply functional, putting only the necessary information on-screen in a no-frills presentation. The combat effects are basic, space is boring, and the character portraits are few. Now, I'm not one to slam a game for poor graphics: in my opinion (which, clearly, is all that matters), if the gameplay is decent, then who cares what it looks like? The problem with Smugglers 4 is the game's fixed low resolution does not allow for a lot of information on the screen at once. The game plays in full-screen mode, but a majority of the screen is blank space, confining the useful information to a small portion of the center. When the limitations of the graphics start to negatively impact the gameplay, I then have a problem. The trade screen obscures your view of the prices at local planets; while it can be shifted from side to side, there is a whole bunch of unused space that could be utilized by computers with higher-resolution monitors (which is, probably, everyone). This can range from annoying to very annoying, and all that needs to be done is increasing the amount of space you can use. If you're going to lock people at full-screen, you might as well use all of the available space. As for the sound, you get somewhat decent music with basic effects. The simple presentation does not necessarily look bad, but it does obstruct your view and impact the gameplay in a negative fashion.

Smugglers 4 offers up an open-ended (and non-random) universe in which to trade your way to the top. Now, trade isn't the only avenue to domination, as the game features six starting professions that vary your starting abilities: trader, combat trader, mercenary, bounty hunter, smuggler, and pirate. The tutorial covers the basics of the first ten-or-so minutes of the game and does a decent, but not spectacular, job explaining how Smugglers 4 works. The game eases in new players by making enemies less powerful the first 200 turns of the game to give you time to level up and upgrade your ship. Since there is no difficulty setting, it's nice that you are much less likely to die early on. You will initially align with one of four factions, each of which has different abilities and ships to choose from. Your character will gain awards and promotions over time through combat experience and new abilities will become unlocked that allow you to further customize your approach to the game. There are a lot of abilities to choose from that are arranged like a technology tree, although some are just more powerful versions of previous iterations.

Like I noted earlier, my major issue with Smugglers 4 is the low resolution display that doesn't allow for enough information to be displayed on the screen at one time. Aside from that, the remainder of the interface is very average. You'll double-left-click to go to a planet and right-click pretty much anything for more detailed information. Pressing “escape” surprisingly does nothing, as the game only allows you to access the options menu with the mouse. The icons at the bottom are initially misleading: I would consistently click on the dollar signs icon thinking it was “trade” when it was actually “missions” (trade is a building...who knew?). Trade is actually very difficult, as prices fluctuate significantly and the difference between a “low” price and a “high” price, at least within the same system, is so small that it takes a considerable amount of time to turn a profit. Each planet produces a specific good (based on its planet type) that are obviously cheaper to buy, but the game doesn't indicate the cheapest goods at a particular location or even list the produced goods in-game (you'll have to constantly refer to the manual). Because of this, the trade profession is actually quite a poor choice for a new career, since it takes so long to turn a significant profit.

A better way to earn money is by undertaking missions. There is a large variety of mission types to undertake in Smugglers 4; most of them center around trading specific goods, killing someone, or taking part in a war. More “advanced” missions are unlocked along the way, but the difficulty does not seem to scale very well with your character's progress. For example, most of the early cargo missions instruct you to transport 500 units of a given item to a particular planet. Using your default ship, this would take twenty-five trips of going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Not exactly exhilarating gameplay. You can wait to do these missions until you get a more respectable ship (there are six to choose from), but making the missions more appropriate for your current rank would be appreciated. Governors present on each planet, in addition to granting missions, can bestow amnesty for wanted criminals (if you've done something against a rival faction). Additional crewmen for fleet battles can be hired for a steep price at bars, and ships near a planet can be plundered for precious cargo.

The main reason to earn money is to upgrade your ship. You'll need at least a corvette class ship to leave your initial star system and corvettes are quite expensive, so you'll be stuck visiting around three planets for a good part of the initial game. Eventually, you can unlock freighters and battleships for your trading and killing needs. In addition, individual components of your ship can be upgraded: cannons, missiles, ECM, targeting systems, engines, and the cargo bay. You'll need to do this because Smugglers 4 features almost constant enemy encounters. Now, I'm all for an action-oriented game, but it borders on ridiculous how frequently you'll be engaging the enemy, even in the beginning of the game in supposedly friendly territory. Of course, this is intentional, to make leveling up your character easier, but I'd rather gain more experience in a single battle than deal with the generally bland turn-based combat in Smugglers 4.

Each turn in the combat phase, you are alloted a number of action points that can be used to fire guns, missiles, counter-measures, or a special ability. There are a number of abilities that can be learned over time; most of them either grant you an attack advantage or impose a disadvantage on your enemy. If are are battling in friendly space, reinforcements will eventually arrive and cause constant damage to enemy ships. Starting out, you generally have enough time for a couple of abilities and shots during a single turn. There is more luck involved than actual skill or strategy, although having some of the higher-level skills will introduce some more variety into your approaches. Still, you don't have much influence on a single battle: rather, the result is the sum of your overall experience level, so those wanting sophisticated tactical battles will be left wanting still. If you are fortunate enough to have some allies in tow, you can assign them to engage weak opponents to remove some of the drudgery. There could definitely be more variety or advanced features in the combat of Smugglers 4.

The main motivation of playing Smugglers 4 is to watch your character grow over time, but there are many core aspects of the game that could be better. The limitations of the trading interface and bland nature of the combat offset the large mission variety and ship upgrades present in the game. Smugglers 4 is tedious to play when it's at its worst: making money through trade is a long and drawn-out process and the combat could be much more entertaining. But there are a number of bright spots: there are a lot of new abilities to learn and the ship upgrades and customization options are many. Your actions do, in a small way, influence the progress of the galactic war, especially if you start to get involved in military operations. The game can be won: the first faction to control 18 of the galaxy's systems is declared “super awesome” (my term). Sadly, I doubt many people will make it this far, as the initial tedium will wear on most. While there are better games in the genre, Smugglers 4 has well-rounded features that, for some of you, may overshadow the game's shortcomings.