Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The PC Game of the Year: Space Rangers 2

It’s a turn-based strategy game.

It’s a real-time strategy game.

It’s a role-playing game.

It’s a text-based adventure game.

It’s based in space.

It’s one of the best (and most fun) games I’ve played in the last twenty years.

The developers haven’t updated the front page of their website in over a year. The publishers have it listed seventh in a list of their games. Almost no one is even aware that the game is out, and where it’s officially been released, it’s almost impossible to find.

It is, quite simply, the most unlikely great game ever created. And make no mistake, it is great. It will go down as a legendary space exploration game, a crazy hybrid of Escape Velocity Nova, Star Control, Starflight, and Elite.

It is also going to be the PC Game of the Year. I know, there are a slew of AAA titles that haven’t been released yet, and it doesn’t matter. Nobody else is going to touch it. This is the best designed, best balanced, most imaginative, most fun game of the year.

Space Rangers 2.

Congratulations to Elemental Games, who have made exactly one other game in their history: the original Space Rangers. They are, in a word, geniuses. They designed a game with so many disparate gameplay elements that it couldn’t possibly work, but it does, and brilliantly.

Space has never been so alive.

So what do you do in this game? Well, what do you want to do, man? Because you can do almost anything you want, for as long as you want to, and you can succeed or get into trouble every step of the way.

You can be a merchant, a pirate, a ranger, or any combination of the three. You can trade, rob, destroy, save. You can fight the evil threatening the universe (the Dominators). If you ignore that evil, the battle will go on without you, and it unfolds in front of your eyes, planetary system by planetary system. The battle ebbs and flows, and you can take up arms at any time.

You can be aggressive. You can be sneaky. You can be brave or cowardly. You can, literally, be anything, and if you play well, you will be rewarded.

Here’s a description, and believe me, it is tough to describe a gigantic game like this concisely. It’s a free-roaming, dynamic universe, with sixty star systems and hundreds of planets, five different races, and thousands of NPC’s, all of whom pursue their own lives while you go about yours.

Of course you can talk to them all. As long as they like you, anyway, and they may not.

You start the game as a novice pilot, exploring the universe as you try to improve both your character and your ship. There are many paths you can take to do this: scavenging space minerals, planetary exploration, combat, or landing on inhabited planets and asking their leaders for missions.

The missions are the heart of the game, and the heart of its brilliance. First, you can’t even get a mission unless the race inhabiting that particular planet has cordial relations with you.

Of course, if you don’t, you can bribe them.

There are delivery missions. There are assassination missions. Both play out in space from your ship, and aren’t unlike other missions in other space games, although the detail around the missions is wonderfully written, and flying through space is absolutely stunning (the artwork in this game is striking and beautiful). Much of your time in the game is spent in space in this third-person view, a familiar view to anyone who’s played the classic space exploration games.

There are also planetary missions, which are played out in real-time and focused around giant robots. I thought these missions were a slog, at first, until I started looking more closely at the enormous number of options available when designing my robots--then it got very, very fun. There will be two other opponents on each map, and you must defeat both of them. You can also hop into first-person and command any of your robots personally, which comes in extremely handy at times. It’s not tremendously complicated (except when designing robots), and everything revolves around controlling more and more bases, but it’s just astonishing that this is part of a turn-based game and that it works so well.

Then it gets wacky. Occasionally, you’ll be given a text-based mission, and your objectives in these missions are unbelievably exotic. Basically, each adventure has a sizable number of screens (with very pleasant graphics to enhance the story), and on each screen you get to make one choice (from many). Each mission is a puzzle, in essence, but they are unbelievably varied and tremendous fun. Now if I tell you the objective of some of these missions, it will ruin the surprise, so let me just quote a few of my notes that I took while playing them (these are notes from multiple missions):
--Faeyan: vegetarian.
--Pelengs: seafood, vegetarian, exotic
--pizza must be less than twenty thick
--black boxes organized in a square 2x2 boxes in size.
--strings to guitar player on Long Street
--Cutter: wrestling
--Swamp games: crafty
--Ilke-Baana: I.Q. plus logical thinking
--a checker can jump to an empty square if…
--Prince Tarnym is skeptical, wife is dull
--punch in jaw
--lay the table to favor respected guests
--conversation: praise warrior first.
--time of gift: drinking
--humans: weaklings
--hiphops increase alcohol content
--absorblob increases transparency

If that gives you the idea that the text-adventure missions are incredibly varied, good, because they are. And they’re incredibly imaginative as well, along with the rest of this game.

Along the way, you find out that some of these missions aren’t what they appear to be, and your relations with other races will be harmed as a result. Make someone too angry and land on their planet, and you wind up in jail, which is—you guessed it—a text adventure.

Oh, and here’s something I forgot: it’s an arcade game, too. There are black holes in a few of the planetary systems, and entering the black hole transports you into an 80’s-type space arcade game, where you can win some exotic components for your ship and continue on to your destination—if you live.

It’s a huge game, obviously. And the number of things that you need to do and keep track of is sizable. This would be a problem if this game didn’t feature one of the best-designed and unobtrusive interfaces I’ve ever seen. Ever.

As you move through the universe, you have a small bar along the bottom of your screen which is informational and also serves as an e-mail notification area. That’s right—you’ve got mail, and you get it from people who need help and riff-raff and everyone you can imagine. It’s just enough to get a sense of what’s happening without being annoying. Double-click in space and a navigation path is drawn from your ship to the destination, and your ship will automatically proceed along its new course.

Here’s an example of the ingenious nature of the interface design: when you’re on a planet, there’s a news channel you can access that has information on all sorts of planetary and galactic happenings. You’ll get to know some pilots by name, and if you want to find one (or hunt one down), there’s a search function that screen that will tell you where someone is currently located.

This game was originally published in Russian. The translation is absolutely outstanding. The artwork is outstanding. The game interface is outstanding. The music is outstanding. There is an absolute sense of completeness about this game. It’s filled to the bursting and it’s complete. I’m sure there are at least a hundred hours of worthwhile gameplay here. I haven’t said that about a game in a long, long time.

Now, this game has three issues that might annoy you, and I’m going to list them now:
--it requires a DVD drive. However, the disc also includes the original Space Rangers, so you’re getting two games for the price of one.
--it uses Starforce copy protection. Nothing I can do about that, and I haven’t had any problems with it whatsoever.
--it’s very hard to find. In the U.S., I know that Fry’s has plenty of copies, but I don’t know of anyone else who has it, because I don’t think it’s officially been released here yet. I ordered my copy from www.gogamer.com – it’s listed under “Space Rangers DVD Edition.” And even though it’s been released in Europe, it’s not easy to find there, either.

I originally found out about this game because my good friend Andy Stingel e-mailed me with the heads up. He had been looking at a forum thread, and here are two long forum threads that will give you additional flavor and details about the game (and possibly some minor spoilers, so watch out):http://www.quartertothree.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=20267&sid=6e7146b2040a4b3663b5f8c193d97635.

It’s a masterpiece of creativity, design, and execution. It’s all the things that make games fun while being none of the things that make games suck. I have a ton of additional information about this game, and I’ll try to put it together for you over the next few days, but surely that’s enough for now.

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