On first inspection, Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators looks like a typical space-exploration, combat, and trading game, only a lot more colorful. Your job is to zip around the galaxy in your vessel, buying and selling goods on the open market, battling pirates, and transporting McGuffins from one planet to another. But it doesn't take too long to realize that this fun and engaging game from Cinemaware Marquee and developer Elemental Games is far more than that. It's when you're thrown into prison and have to serve out your time in a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of way ("Do I work out in the gym today and bulk up for the inevitable prison brawl?"), or after you encounter the bizarre intelligence tests and pizza-making challenges, that you realize you're in a madly inspired cornucopia of a game. Not everything works in Space Rangers 2, but it's so varied and random that you find yourself having fun regardless of it.
As its title suggests, this is the sequel to 2002's Space Rangers, though American consumers never had a chance to play it, because it wasn't released in North America. (Not to worry, though, because the US version of Space Rangers 2 packages the original game.) Space Rangers fans know that this is a gem of a series--it feels sort of like a space-age version of Sid Meier's Pirates!, only one created by madmen with far too much time on their hands.
Your job as a space ranger is to serve as an interstellar cop, tasked with stamping out piracy and battling the dominators, which are powerful robots out to conquer the galaxy. However, you also need to make a living on the side, and you can do so by carrying out missions for various planetary governments, or by buying and trading various goods and resources as a merchant, or by becoming a pirate yourself and extorting protection money out of civilian vessels. You can then use your money to purchase a dizzying assortment of upgrades and vessels, which allow you to tackle some of the more difficult missions later on in the game.
The galaxy of Space Rangers 2 is a dynamic one, as hundreds of ships travel between the dozens of planetary systems conducting trade, warfare, and more. More importantly, everything you do affects your reputation with the various factions in the game, and so doing a favor for one side might mean hacking off another, which may result in finding a bunch of battleships on your tail or having to bribe your way back into a planet's good graces. Combat in the game is surprisingly deep, but also fast-paced. Space Rangers 2 is a turn-based game, but it feels like real time. That's because it uses a simultaneous resolution phase, which means that everyone plots out moves for the turn, and then all the moves are resolved simultaneously.
Everything described to this point would be enough for most games, and indeed, you can wring hours of enjoyment out of Space Rangers 2 if all you did was this. There are endless amounts of replayability as well, since the game randomly generates a galaxy each time you start a new game, meaning that no two games will play the same way. But if you want to do more, you can do so, thanks to the optional gameplay modes. For instance, you may be asked to represent a planetary government in a foncer race (think podraces from Star Wars); however, instead of a racing game, you're presented with a Zork-like text adventure where you have to choose your moves at crucial points in the race. Or you may get thrown in prison, where you'll have to figure out how to pass the time each day. Or you'll be asked to turn a floundering alien ski resort into a profitable one by managing it effectively. Many of these side missions are presented in an old-school, text adventure sort of way, and they're made both charming and frustrating thanks to the strange English translation, which may or may not be on purpose--it's hard to tell.
Then there's the real-time strategy mode in the game, which is, once again, completely optional. For instance, you may be asked to wipe out an enemy base on the ground, and if you accept the mission, you'll get dropped down to a 3D real-time strategy battlefield, where your job is to design and build robotic war machines and crush the other side. This isn't designed to be a full-scale real-time strategy game, though, as most of the strategy is in designing the robots, after which it's all about outproducing and wiping out the enemy. While the mode is colorful, there's simply not a lot of depth here, and the slow pace of the battles detract from the game's otherwise addictive pace. Still, this mode is there if you're looking for a change of pace or some variety.
Space Rangers 2 is by no means a cutting-edge game in terms of graphics, but don't make the mistake of equating low-end graphics with "ugly." This is a colorful, offbeat game, and the highly abstracted visuals are perfect for the subject matter and allow for an incredibly fast pace. It also means that the game runs well on a wide variety of systems, even older ones. Meanwhile, the audio consists of techno pleasing tunes, though the other sound effects are fairly rudimentary.
There's so much to do and see in Space Rangers 2 that you might find it overwhelming, but the opposite is true. Aside from a slightly sharp learning curve (it'll take you a little while to get the gist of the game), you'll find yourself caught up in an incredibly vibrant and dynamic universe, looking to do just one more thing before you call it a night, whether it's delivering the Peleng's top-secret pizza recipe to Mars before you run out of time or liberating yet another system from those insidious dominator robots.