Hit iOS/Android space shooter Galaxy on Fire 2 comes to the PC with mixed results. Developer Fishlabs has made few changes to the HD version of the game that has been selling well on tablets and phones since its release. The game features an addictive career path spiced up with lots of ways to upgrade your ship and gear, tons of random and story-based missions, and many hot-and-heavy moments in dogfights with enemies. But there is a lot of repetition in the missions. Combat is predictable and shallow due to poor enemy AI and a lack of options when in the cockpit. And the interface is both bland and somewhat confusing. In the end, the pluses and minuses add up to a passable space shooter that hooks you for a good time, but not a long time.
You could do worse than describing Galaxy on Fire 2 as a poor man's Freelancer (or, if you're a real old-timer, Elite). The story sees you step into the space boots of Keith T. Maxwell, who might have the name of a chiropodist but who has the guts of a kick-ass mercenary. Maxwell does something of a Buck Rogers at the start of the action, as an engine malfunction hurtles him from the year 3589 to 3624. Being displaced from his own time by 35 years doesn't impact much on the plot, though. The time warp is rarely referred to as the game chugs along, although Maxwell does regularly run into buddies who knew him many years ago. Things have changed in the galaxy, however. New alliances have been formed, and everybody is being threatened by wormhole raids from a mysterious alien race dubbed the Void. And poor Maxwell is now flat broke. The Rip Van Winkle thing has left him a pauper, with only a beat-up old ship to his name, given to him at the start of the game as a reward for helping a space miner.
So what's a poor boy to do but sell himself to the highest bidder to make a few bucks. The single-player-only gameplay sticks closely to space-trader/space-flight sim traditions. This means that you spend all of your time zipping around between a lot of planets spread through a lot of star systems, looking for the best way to make enough money to buy new ships, weapons, shields and armor, other nifty upgrades, and commodities that can then be flogged around the galaxy in the usual "buy low, sell high" fashion.
You can stick close to the campaign storyline dealing with the Void, or you can go off on your own and visit space-station lounges to see what odd jobs are available from the barflies. Another option is mining asteroids for various precious metals. Mining is handled with a minigame where you keep a drill bit centered in an ever-shrinking target. Mess up for more than a few seconds, and the bit can go haywire, blowing up the asteroid and leaving you with nothing. Touchy controls make mining more difficult than it sounds. You can get right to the end of a drilling job and screw up, blasting the asteroid to rubble and leaving you with nothing to show for your work.
At first glance, there seems to be a lot to do in Galaxy on Fire 2. Story missions run for some time and move you through a fairly interesting story. Dialogue is terrible, though, and the voice acting is amateurish at best. This is one of the rare cases when it would have been better to handle the conversations with text and skip out on the vocals altogether. At least the visuals somewhat compensate for the poor audio. Every system in the game comes dressed up with sparkling nebulae, tumbling asteroids, carnival-colored gas giants off in the distance, huge space stations, and other eye-pleasing details. All of these systems also offer a lot of random jobs courtesy of the aforementioned lowlifes hanging out in space-station lounges. Money can be earned in a very speedy fashion because of this, and every mission offers a good rate of pay that lets you quickly increase your bank account.
Socking away cash ties in perfectly with an upgrade tree loaded with fruit. There are tons of options here to make Maxwell a better mercenary. You can buy new hull armor, shields, cannons, missiles, defensive gun turrets, mining drills, cabins that increase your person-hauling capacity, commodities that can be sold to eager buyers, and so on. The cash reward and upgrade systems create a positive feedback loop in which you are always just a few bucks away from some cool new gun or armor. This can keep you pulling one more job for some time, just to see what you can purchase with your earnings. A wide variety of new ships are available, too. Most are quite pricey, although there are more reasonable models for sale if you want to move up early to something better than the clunker you're saddled with at the start of the game.
Lack of depth becomes a problem after the first few hours, though. Missions get tedious fast. Most of what is on offer comes up again and again. You shoot down some pirates. You deliver passengers to a far-off system. You take on challenges to see who can shoot down the most enemies. You blast space junk. You hunt down a traitor. And so on. Things are spiced up a little bit with the option to buy blueprints that can make gear like fantastic blasters, and the ability to hire wingmen, but the game still gets predictable all too soon. The lure of easy money and nifty upgrades helps you ignore this for a while, at least.
Combat is another issue. There is no proper HUD with ship info, and the controls (either mouse/keyboard or the much preferred gamepad) are extremely basic. You do little but fly and shoot. You don't play with shields, monitor energy levels, or do any of those other little things that make you feel like you are really flying a spaceship in other PC space sims. This limited approach works fairly well on a tablet or a phone touch screen without more tangible control options or heightened expectations, but here it's harder to forgive. Battles wind up as simplistic arcade affairs where foes generally hit you head on and then loop around lazily for another attack run, leaving themselves wide open for a counterattack. Survive the first assault, and you can blast away at the flanks of enemy vessels until they go boom. This is more of a carnival shooting gallery running partly on rails than a space shooter in the tradition of the aforementioned Freelancer and the late, great Wing Commander.
With that said, there is some challenge here. You can't be suicidal and charge right into enemy fire. You have to be smart with ship upgrades, which means boosting your armor and shields as soon as possible. If you fail to get a good set of shields around your ride early on, pirates will blast you to bits in system after system. Dealing with multiple enemy bogeys can also be tough, because foes often attack in a sequence that doesn't give you time to home in on baddies who are lazily looping around to come at you again. The game compensates for the poor enemy AI by steadily increasing ship numbers as the campaign rolls along. It isn't often that you get to take on just a couple of foes after the first few minutes of play, so the predictable attack runs criticized above aren't quite as big of a sore point as they could be. One good aspect of the dogfights is how quickly they fly by. You can usually blast through them in no more than a few minutes, so at least you're not stuck in interminable spinning contests where you just zip around and around one another getting in the odd potshot.
A number of design quirks make the interface somewhat confusing and clumsy to navigate. The developers seem to have adopted a less-is-more philosophy, which results in a lot of mostly blank screens at higher resolutions and tiny text. Everything is so minimalist that it takes some time to figure out basic things like how to warp to another system, how to equip gear on your ship, and so on. Once you get it, you've got it for good, but a number of little tweaks would have helped immensely when it comes to user-friendliness. Being able to travel between systems more efficiently would be a huge help, for instance, as would having a model ship on the hangar screen depicting where equipment is installed.
Galaxy on Fire 2 will keep you hooked for a few hours, as you can easily get sucked into the sheer number of missions on offer and the way that you can so quickly earn the cash needed to buy new ships and upgrade old ones. But the shallowness of combat and the repetition of everything eventually become wearying. This is a decent game, but it doesn't measure up to the great games from years gone by that clearly inspired it.