Hybrid theory

But before I get caught up in my own drinking anecdotes, terribly amusing though they may be, I’d better get on with it. I am after all in the business of assigning words and eventually numbers to subjective experiences such as this particular piece of entertainment, and it’s not often that I get to rant about a game quite like this one. You know all those times you imagined yourself as a game designer, thinking “why doesn’t anyone combine many genres into one immersive, omnipotent package?”

Well, mostly because games of this type tend to become awfully bland, because none of the elements really work. Rockstar might have achieved something like it with their GTA franchise, but even though that may be free-form gaming at its finest, GTA is not nearly as much of a hybrid experience as Space Rangers way back then. It’s like the design philosophy of the Russian guys at Elemental Games involved ignoring all the warning signs, and then happily driving right off the old cliff. You’d think this would result in an awful lot of crashing and burning, but it really doesn’t. Space Rangers is a charming, deep game, and what it doesn’t do right, it makes up for in sheer charisma.

Choose your destiny

Right, that’s an awful lot of words without even scratching the surface of the game itself. I hope you’re with me thus far, but Space Rangers really is the kind of game that you just cannot describe within a few paragraphs. Conversely, it’s also the kind of game that you can spoil by writing too much, so I’m walking a fine line here.

You see, like Elite, this is a game of owning your own space ship, and taking it for a spin round the Galaxy, in search of fame, fortune and sheer adventure. You play as a so-called space ranger, who travels among the stars. The setting has five different races, and you can choose to play as either one of them at the onset of your career. It’s up to you to maintain good relations with the different factions, and you can do so by performing missions for the local governments, by being a peaceful trader, or by defending transports against evil space pirates.

But those are only a few of the choices available to you. As a space ranger, you’re part of a force that keeps the Galaxy safe, but it’s entirely up to you how you want to do it. You can even ditch your responsibilities and make a fortune trading drugs, alcohol and weaponry, or you can play as a marauder, attacking innocent ships and stealing their money, or simply blast them to bits and sell… well, the bits.

You can’t take the sky from me

As a rookie space ranger, you will take of from your home planet, which was Earth in my case, since I played as a human. The game is turn-based, with each turn taking one day, and this is the first thing you learn once you take off. You can choose a few helpful tutorial missions, or you can dive headfirst into the universe, in search of fame, money and adventure. But you’re likely to get overwhelmed at first, because of the wealth of destinations available to you.

Each of the numerous star systems on your map has several planets, and most of them are usually colonised. Every planet has a government that you can talk to and get jobs from, a trading station, a shop with parts for your ship, a galactic information centre that gives you news about interesting events from all over the place, and a hangar where you can refuel your ship and repair any damage to the hull. Usually, once you touch down on a planet, you will check the trade centre and see if the current prices are higher than what you paid for your goods. There are hefty profits to be made from trading, and you should always carry something to sell.

The information centre will sometimes tell you where goods are needed, and you can then go there and make a bundle. Some races ban different substances such as drugs or weapons, so selling these commodities can make you a wanted criminal in different systems, but a wealthy hero in others. It’s all up to your sense of morality, and your need for cash. The Galaxy is a hard place to survive in, and everyone must do whatever it takes to make a living. In this regard, Space Rangers bears an uncanny resemblance to the TV series Firefly, if anyone is familiar with it.

Set phasers to maximum

But trading is not everything; you will need to get jobs from the various governments to make money and gain experience and ranking. Experience can be used to improve any of your six ranger skills, which range from leadership to skill in battle, and your ranger ranking signifies how well you stack up to the fifty or so other rangers that roam the Galaxy. The jobs can be anything from simple fetch and deliver quests to escorting ships, and fighting 3D real-time strategy battles using different robots that you can construct in the game’s simple, but functional ground battle engine.

It’s not the next Command & Conquer, that’s for sure, but for a minor part of the game, it’s surprisingly well done, and it looks the part too. You can even take control of one of your robots and fire its weapons yourself. The strategy is limited to building lots of robots and then assaulting the enemy more or less head-on, but frankly, that’s more or less what every RTS is about in my mind anyway. I don’t like the genre in general, but the sweet thing here is that it’s only one of many possible activities, and that it’s entirely optional if you want to play it or not.

And if this wasn’t enough, some jobs require you to complete planet-based text adventures, which can be fairly extensive, and are certainly fun, if you can decipher the poor spelling and grammar which plague the game a bit. But have a look inside the manual. Here, it’s explained that the game uses “Future-Speak,” because English from a thousand years in the future sounds a bit odd to us now. It’s the lamest excuse I ever heard. It’s also the most charming one.

When you’re not trading, doing jobs, or looking for good floating in space, you can choose to pick fights with anyone you don’t like, such as pirates. Fighting is also a turn-based affair, where you select your weapons and your enemy, and then go at it. You can speak with any ships in the vicinity and request help. And help you’ll need, because taking other ships down on your own is quite hard, especially in the beginning of the game. They also have a nasty tendency to land on planets and repair themselves, just when you thought you had won. What happened to old-fashioned duels to the death?

We are the Borg… Err… Dominators

Okay, let’s rewind time a bit. I had just left Earth as a rookie ranger, I had learned the ropes, made some money and my ship now had some decent equipment and weaponry. I’d been in a few skirmishes and lived to tell the tale, I’d seen planetary battle and I’d even ventured into a black hole and seen the Beyond. In short, I felt pretty good about myself and my abilities. I knew that the high-tech cyborg Dominator race was on the loose in the Galaxy, and that is was my job as a Ranger to stop them from assimilating everything. So I ventured to a Dominator system to see what I could do. To my surprise, I found that I could do absolutely nothing. After two days, the Dominator ships had reduced my vessel to space dust, and my life was over. From beyond the grave, I felt awfully unheroic.

See, this is my only real gripe with Space Rangers, it’s not fair. Sometimes it just turns on you and kills you. The odds can be stacked against you in ways that will make you tear your hair out, such as when you’re running close to a deadline on a really sweet delivery deal and the Dominators suddenly invade the system you need to jump through to get to your destination, or when some pirate and his friends show up and demand all of your money or he will blow you away.

But speaking of the Dominators, they’re what the game is really about. We’re talking a race of cybernetic organisms that are hell-bent on taking over the entire Galaxy. And you can’t stop them alone. Apart from the different planets, you also come across different space bases, that offer various means of help against your enemies. On some bases you can do research on the Dominators, and on others you can acquire modules for taking them down. And lots of other things. Lots and lots of other things.

By now, It’s becoming apparent that no matter how many words I use, I cannot describe this game fully, and yet in essence, it really is so simple. Just you and your ship going around the Galaxy doing whatever pleases you. There is no need to go into detail with the 15 types of weapons, the unknown ships, the black holes, the 250+ planets across 60+ star systems, the way the AI ships communicate among themselves, the research probes for unexplored planets, the asteroids, the special equipment, the joint assaults and the way the world is persistent in such away that you can follow specific ships all the way across the Galaxy and monitor their individual actions. No, you should explore it all for yourself. That’s what this is all about.

Oldschool presentation

Apart from the quite nicely rendered (and poorly voiced) introductory CGI sequence and the 3D planetary battles, this is 2D goodness all the way. But in spite of its oldschool sensibilities, Space Rangers both looks and sounds remarkably good.in a very nice retro way. All the 2D sprites are expertly done, and the galactic background looks quite astonishing.

As you move, planets revolve around the suns, other ships fly back and forth, and meteor showers and asteroids flourish. The sprites move in different planes from the background, in the fashion I believe was once referred to as parallax. But no matter what the word is, it looks surprisingly much better in action than it does on sceenshots. Planetary 2D graphics are also well done, and remind me of Master of Orion II and Galactic Civilizations, which is not a bad thing, actually.

And as for the music, I’m pretty much in heaven… we get synthesised music that bring the Amiga days to mind – catchy little tunes with that rare musical flair that games such as Lotus II and Turrican II had. There’s not that much of it, mind, and my opinion is definitely biased by nostalgia, but it does fit the game very well indeed. Sound effects, although a little sparse, do their job, and luckily, the only voice-over I heard was found in the intro. As a whole, the game comes across as a very cohesive and fresh package, in spite of the many retro elements and genres involved.

There are problems, though. The interface can get awfully clunky at times, and locating your enemies in relation to your own position gets a little fiddly. Furthermore, every time you wish to jump from a system, you have to watch many days pass before you get to the jump point on the outskirts of the system. I can see why this must be so, because what if something happened on the way to the jump point? But still, it gets a little old.

Battle is also a little cumbersome, and often takes an awful amount of turns. You can set your ship to auto-battle, but this doesn’t always work. The first time I tried, my ship actually flew into the sun and burned up. I was not impressed. And lastly, the balance does get a little odd, and you can die very suddenly if you’re not aware of what’s happening. And sometimes you won’t be. The game’s manual is very thin, and although there is an extensive in-game manual, that too doesn’t seem to explain everything in detail. A bit like this review. Only much more so.

But if you’re ready to forgive a somewhat steep learning curve and some curious mutilations of the English language (for instance, when you’re quitting, the prompt asks you if you care to “Finish the game?” But yeah, I guess I do want to finish the game at some point… ), this game has a lot to offer. It’s a huge space-based sandbox with a lot of charm, you can pick it up fairly cheap, and it will last for ages. What’s not to like?

Oh, and just to clarify one thing: the release we get over here is actually Space Rangers 2: Dominators. The package also contains the original in its entirety. It’s basically a simpler version of this, and you get to battle a race known as the Klissans. But it’s added value to an already hugely valuable package. It might not be for everyone, but if anything in this review has piqued your interest, go pick it up. It really is quite refreshing to see something like this in a world of fast-paced fancy shooters with huge hardware demands and indecipherable online RPGs. And furthermore, it runs well even on low-end systems.