Over the years, the space exploration and trading genre has become more and more simulation heavy, with games that let you slowly fly and appreciate the grandeur of space while you gaze at beautiful planets and complex space stations. Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators won't be mistaken for one of those games, but that's apparently part of its charm in Europe, where it has been available for a while now. Cinemaware Marquee is bringing Space Rangers 2 to the US next month, and we got our hands on the game to check out its mix of adventure, space trading, and exploration.
You can best think of Space Rangers 2 as a blend of Star Control (the classic space exploration game from the early 90s) and Sid Meier's Pirates! with some real-time strategy and role-playing thrown in. Your job will be to create your own space ranger--a sort of an elite interplanetary mercenary--and fly about the galaxy, hunting down criminals, delivering vital supplies, and pretty much going where you want and doing what you want. You can live the life of a trader, be a pirate or mercenary, or just explore the unknown sectors of the galaxy. But wait, there's more. The game also features a lightweight real-time strategy mode where you design and build robotic war machines to conquer planets. Clearly, the designers were going for a kitchen-sink approach to game design, but it's also apparent that they wanted to keep all these things light and simple, so as not to confuse the player.
Space Rangers 2 randomly generates a galaxy each time you start a new game, so you'll never have the same game twice. After you create a character by choosing a race and a profession (there are five races and five professions, such as merchant and pirate), you're dropped into your starship and what's next is entirely up to you. This galaxy is a busy and dangerous place, though, and there are all sorts of hazards floating around, from stray asteroids that can damage your ship, to pirates, hostile factions, planetary governments that you've managed to offend, to the dominators, a dread race of robots that is slowly conquering the galaxy. Your ultimate goal is to stop the dominators by locating and dealing with the three dominator command units, which are located somewhere in the galaxy. To do that, you'll need to explore uncharted space, earn enough money to buy the latest charts, and hunt them down.
When you start a game, you'll be given the choice of undergoing the tutorial missions, which walk you through the basics, or plunging straight in. You set course for the nearest planet or station to land, and there you can talk to the planetary government to ask for information or for a mission. You can also buy and sell wares at the market (these wares may range from minerals recovered from a stray asteroid you destroyed to parts that you scavenged from other ships to goods that you bought on another planet); purchase upgrades for your craft, as well as repair and refuel; and check in on the galactic news network for clues as to where to go next. Then it's time to take off and zip into outer space to chase down a mission or travel to the next planet.
This is all fairly standard for the space-trading genre, but the pace at which things happen makes Space Rangers 2 feel like it has a lot in common with Sid Meier's Pirates! in that you're always off doing something that only takes a few minutes to accomplish. The space scenes take place from a top-down, 2D view of the galaxy that's very reminiscent of Star Control, and your little spacecraft can scoot from planet to planet in mere seconds, and from solar system to solar system in about a minute. (In truth, the game is turn-based, with the turns representing a single day. However, unless you're in combat or you pause the game to give an order, Space Rangers 2 unfolds pretty seamlessly in real-time.) But, like in Sid Meier's Pirates!, this fast pace can be pretty deceptive, because weeks and months will tick by if you're not careful, and your ranger will have a limited career, so managing your time will be important.
Combat is fairly simple. When you come across a hostile ship (or a neutral ship that you want to extort for cash), simply target it and select which weapons you want to use. When you hit the turn button, the game resolves all moves in real-time, so you won't be able to affect things much while the turn unfolds. Your chances of success depend on a variety of factors, from the skill of your pilot to the quality of your weapons to the maneuverability of your ship, and these are all factors that you can upgrade over time as you gain experience and get better equipment. You'll also be able to "hire" wingmen, such as other space rangers, to fly with you in battle. If the battle is won, you can recover the floating parts of your opponents and use them to either upgrade your own vessel or to sell them for a profit. This will also come into play later in the game, as you can take dominator parts and return them to research facilities so that they can discover new antidominator technologies that you'll need to win the game, which is reminiscent of the research system in X-Com.
On occasion, you may need to take the fight planetside, in which case, you can tinker around with a very streamlined real-time strategy game. You won't build bases or harvest resources, though you can "capture" key buildings that automatically generate resources that you'll need to build robots, which are your ground units. These robots are custom-designed by you, mainly be selecting body and chassis types and then mixing and matching various weapons to them. And it goes without saying that the more powerful the weapons, the more expensive the robots. Once you're finished, you can churn out a production run of them and send them toward the enemy. The strategy comes mainly in designing your robots, as you'll want some robots to stand off and shell long-range weaponry safely from a distance, while other robots are designed to mix it up on the front lines. And if you've got an urge to blow stuff up yourself, you can take manual control of a robot, at which point the game switches to a third-person action mode. You control the robot by using the traditional W, A, S, and D keys while using the mouse to aim and shoot weapons. These land battles do take up quite a bit of time, though, and they detract from the fast-paced nature of the game. The good news, however, is that they're mostly optional.
There's so much to do in Space Rangers 2 that it might almost seem overwhelming, but it's an incredibly fast-paced and easy game to play. Once again, Space Rangers 2 recalls Sid Meier's Pirates! and Star Control, because those games do the same thing: Take a lot of mini-goals and tie them into a much larger narrative, and then watch the player spend hours playing the game because it's hard to put down. If you're a fan of this kind of gameplay, then Space Rangers 2 definitely looks like something you'll want to check out.