Impressions: Space Run

By Adam Smith on July 3rd, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

Space! It isn’t just about commanding gleaming armadas and piloting sleek starships. No, sir. There’s plenty of time for all that, young cadet, but in a place so vast (space really is quite large) there’s a lot of demand for workers. Janitors and miners have been hot business for a while but it’s couriers we’re after now. Space Truckers, like in that one Dennis Hopper movie that hardly anybody remembers. Space Run is about a delivery man who is constantly on the edge of annihilation and it’s brilliant.

Blue collar space is adventures are my favourite sort. The love affair probably began with early 2000AD comics, which featured one-off Future Shock tales that often placed ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Sure, they owned spaceships, but they were recognisably crusty and British. Those descriptors apply to the ships as well as the people who crewed them. They shared the pages of the comic with the exaggerated heroics of Dan Dare, a man who didn’t spend a single issue enjoying downtime. If he wasn’t flying into one Forbidden Zone or another, he was too embarrassed to show his face, nattily plucked eyebrows and all.

My thrills came from the inhabitants of Mega City One and the often unnamed heroes/victims of the Future Shocks. Dredd’s business often brought him into contact with ordinary people who were trying to survive in extraordinarily harsh times. They were the comic book characters I identified with – factory workers, grifters, salesmen who died and dreamed in neon cubicles beneath concrete skies. Suits, ties and overalls spoke to me in a way that spandex never could.

Enter Space Run. I almost ignored the game, which was constructed by a single developer, because the descriptions contained the dread term ‘tower defence’. It’s not that I don’t like tower defence games but I certainly feel like I’ve had enough of them for one lifetime. Swapping out the customary space colony or fantasy kingdom theme for a single spaceship didn’t seem like enough of a change to pull me back in.

Let’s shunt the term to one side then. No more tower defence because it doesn’t do Space Run justice. Let’s talk about Space Alert instead.

Space Alert is the cooperative boardgame in which your idiot friends will kill you if you don’t kill yourself first. It’s one of the rare boardgame designs that simply wouldn’t work on a PC at all. There are many physical games that lose something in the transition to a digital format – particularly if the multiplayer no longer involves a group gathered around a single entity, be it board or screen – but Space Alert simply cannot exist on your computer. It’s a sad truth.

It’s a game that simulates panic and incompetence as shared experiences. Space Run is not that game – FTL is a closer fit – but there is something of Space Alert’s onslaught of doom in the many threats that lurk between point A and point B of each of the game’s delivery routes. As you fly through the cosmos, in an efficient straight line, arrows appear at the edge of the screen, warning of some new destructive force. Maybe it’ll be a cluster of rocks, maybe it’ll be a pirate raider – whatever it is, your job is to react and survive.

Your ship, which varies in size and shape depending on the task ahead, is made up of blocks, each of which can contain one feature. At the beginning of each job you’ll have to place the cargo and a single thruster to propel you toward you from the pickup point to your destination and all the deadly dangerous things in between. Early jobs don’t weigh you down with anything complicated – containers that are best placed at the centre of the ship so that other components can shield them. Later, those simple cargo containers are replaced by explosive nuclear supplies and other fragile entities, including passenger pods.

If Space Run has taught me one thing it’s that tourists are idiots. The simple rule for any item being transported through hazardous systems is to surround it with shields and other bulky items. If you’re trudging through mud, you don’t wear your finest pantaloons – you wear waterproofs that make you look like a deranged rambler. Appearances don’t matter. Protecting the pantaloons does. Tourists are all about appearances.

They don’t want to be shuttered up at the centre of the ship, hidden where no missile can penetrate. They want to watch the fiery trail of the missiles against the inky blackness of space. They want to see the fires a-burnin’ as the tail of the ship crumples and collapses. They have a thing for debris. Tourists are the fancy pantaloons that crave the mud. They’re idiots but they’re also a perfect demonstration of why Space Run works so bloody well.

First of all, it’s about construction and building things is fun. Slapping guns and thrusters onto your ship when it gathers enough resources is immensely satisfying. The latter warm up and then cause the screen to shudder and the vast backdrop of space to tremble past just a little more urgently. Every job has a timer as well as markers for higher ranks, which unlock more fame, which unlocks more equipment and missions. Thrusters are the thing that you build when you can spare the resources, a default option in times of plenty.

Mostly, you’ll be constructing defences though, often in the form of weaponry. Guns have a visible arc, showing the approaches that they cover, and an early upgrade allows them to be rotated at will, although this takes precious time. The game cannot be paused – or at least adjustments and construction cannot take place while it is paused – and it’s the frantic attempts to cover every angle as the game tells you precisely what it’s plan of attack is that initially brought Space Alert to my mind.

If ever a game cackled gleefully as I attempted to survive its onslaught, Space Run would be that game. Everything is signalled – the direction of attack, the type of attack and the number of assailants. Nothing is left to chance, which means that when an entire bank of guns prove ineffective, unable to protect the ship’s delicate rear-end, it is absolutely your fault. When a hunk of rock obliterates a pod of idiot tourists, you’re to blame.

I was confused when the first level began because I couldn’t work out how to control my ship. Pressing the arrow keys moved the screen so that I could scan the surroundings, but I couldn’t dodge all the crap that was flying toward me. When I realised that the ship only moves in one direction – the fastest route between two points – everything clicked into place.

I am ultra-delivery man, so determined to arrive on time that I don’t care all that much about arriving in one piece. I am the postman who wades through lava and arrives at your door walking on splintered charred kneecaps to make sure you receive your Graze box in time to chow down the cranberries before heading to the spa. I am the Tom Hanks who drew a face on a basketball and cut a hole in its rear-end to pass the time, but still delivered your parcels when the whales carried me home.

Nothing can stop me. The route may be dangerous, the journey may be frantic but I always (usually) survive by the skin of my teeth and the final centimetre of steel that makes up my battered hull. Space Run is a blue collar game but it makes me bite my nails and punch my fist in the air as much as any Big War Game I’ve played in recent times. It’s clever, devious and constructed in a pleasingly chunky fashion.

If, like me, you’ve come to think that all tower defence games are alike, Space Run may be the voyage that reinvigorates your interest. It’s a game about narrowly averting catastrophe several times a minute and behind it all is the pleasant satisfaction of building spaceships with blocks. A brilliant piece of design and a polished experience. What a pleasure when such a thing arrives with little fanfare (not that I heard, at least). The linearity of the job uptake might prevent me from finishing the game once the going gets too tough – how I’d love a dynamic campaign with persistent ship design rather than prepared shells – but the choices presented when new abilities are unlocked provide enough hope that a second attempt might see me through.

For now, Space Run is the game that will take up the minutes between other games, and between writing about other games. At least that’s how it began. Last night, a few minutes of filler became a two hour session. It’s a dangerous job, this space truckin’, in more ways than one.

Space Run is available now.

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32 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    If you’re gonna compare this to board games, Galaxy Trucker would seem a pretty close match

    • Benkyo says:

      Yup, can’t believe that of two games by the same designer, even sharing some very similar art, Space Alert was picked over Galaxy Trucker as a reference. I mean, it’s a game about trucking, through space, as asteroids and pirate attacks blow up chunks of your ship. A ship that you have little to no control over after you launch, that pretty much goes in a straight line to its destination regardless of the threats and danger in the way, or at least until an asteroid splits it in half and slavers pick up your remaining crew.

      Well, I suppose not everyone owns every game by Vlaada Chvatil they can get their hands on.

      • Adam Smith says:

        This initial barrage of comments is like a belt of asteroids punching through my knowledge. I am undone!

        • Benkyo says:

          I really didn’t expect the game to be fun or well made, given that it describes itself as “tower defence” and looks like a rip-off of a game that works better with 4 players, so thanks for the review setting me straight. I may have to check it out, but I’d feel better about it if the Space Run developer saw fit to give some credit to Vlaada, or at least a name-check. Seems a bit rude not to, really.

        • Premium User Badge

          Wisq says:

          To be fair, I would say this is actually a mix between the two. It has the “fixed threats coming in”** + “strict timeline” + “no pausing” aspects of Space Alert (but leaves out the “plan your actions” + “resolve at end” aspects), and it has the “build your ship” + “carry cargo” + “deal with threats” + “ship falls apart” + trucking theme aspects of Galaxy Trucker (but leaves out the calm turn-based combat and the random threats).

          ** Or at least, that’s my understanding from watching TB cover this a few weeks back, that each run is a fixed set of threats coming from fixed angles.

  2. Scythe says:

    (On steam).

    And yep, Galaxy Trucker is a much closer comparison. Watch SUSD’s brilliant review!

    • Adam Smith says:

      Haven’t played it! Now I want to!

      • The First Door says:

        If you’ve not played it, I can heartily recommend it, Adam! It’s a delightfully silly game, where you only realise that you built your spaceship like a bit of a pillock 15 minutes later as half of it (usually the half with most of your crew, cargo and the batteries that used to power your shields) is floating off into space. It’s also one of the few games where I often honestly don’t care who wins, I’m just willing all of our broken, battered ships to get home!

        Anyway, if you like Space Alert, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Truckers too. Both of them have created long lasting, silly anecdotes in my gaming group. One friend still gets teased because he got left and right mixed up, ran into a wall, and got our ship destroyed by an asteroid!

  3. Geoff Leopard says:

    You’re wrong about Space Alert not translating to PC – behold (and please review) Artemis: http://www.artemis.eochu.com/

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I dunno. I’m in accord with my learned colleague Mr. Smith on this. I’d definitely call FTL closer to Space Alert than I would Artemis.

      • Adam Smith says:

        FTL lacks the multiplayer that is an integral part, I guess. Also, I should add that my claim that Space Alert cannot be replicated on a computer should be considered a challenge rather than a fact.

        SPACE GAUNTLET THROWN

        • Premium User Badge

          frymaster says:

          It sounds like the kind of game that’d work well in a living room with each person having a smartphone/tablet/fancy controller

          • Premium User Badge

            Harlander says:

            Like Spaceteam!

            (Actually, Artemis has an android version now)

  4. Premium User Badge

    melnificent says:

    Asteroids, pirates, and other package damaging things. Sounds like Yodel except that you get to your destination instead of pretending and giving the package to someone else, on a different street…. with a different house number.

  5. frightlever says:

    ” The love affair probably began with early 2000AD comics, which featured one-off Future Shock tales that often placed ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”

    Um, also, Ace Garp of Ace Trucking.

    Oh, just realised this is the game I read about on QT3 forum last week. Sounds kinda frantic at later levels. There were a bunch of people on the Steam forum asking for a pause button, which would seem to be a bit of a design 180.

    • Urthman says:

      Sigh. This looked and it sounded so great until I saw the part about no pausing. Because I’m an old man that can’t keep up. To me, “real-time strategy” is an oxymoron.

      (Sure would be cool if single-player games like this would include a “for babies” difficulty level that just let you pause but made it clear you weren’t playing the “real” game with properly-balanced difficulty.)

  6. filsd says:

    And they are working on a Linux version! :D

  7. Syphus says:

    I’m so glad this review happened. I think it was at some point maybe mentioned on this site in the past? And I made a mental note of “Oh, I’d love to play Galaxy Trucker on PC” then promptly forgot about it forever.

  8. trjp says:

    At first glance I assumed this was a bit like Aeon Command (a bundle regular – out on Steam this week I believe?) but that’s a bit more ‘Swords and Soldiers’ with spaceships??

    Anyone tried both care to comment?

  9. Premium User Badge

    LordBilisknir says:

    I would have thought Space Alert would work perfectly on a PC. Now to find the time to go get it made!

    • The First Door says:

      I don’t think I agree! At least I think it’d be quite difficult. Half the fun of Space Alert is being around a table with 3 panicking friends. The fact that even one of you bumping the table, knocking something over, or moving a single wooden piece to the wrong place can scupper your run means the physicality of it is important!

  10. Premium User Badge

    Chaz says:

    I’m constantly on the edge of annihilation. I could be run over by a bus tomorrow.

    No one’s made a game about my life.

  11. Skabooga says:

    I am the Tom Hanks who drew a face on a basketball and cut a hole in its rear-end to pass the time,

    Ha! This part was hilarious.

  12. Dances to Podcasts says:

    The description reminds me of Gratuitous Space Battles.

  13. racccoon says:

    Another Hex game..bahh! :( …Set with parallax scrolling, basically for those who aren’t computer minded, your not moving at all, the background moves. bit boring, but smart and added the space theme to get funds in the coffers. lol

    • GHudston says:

      I don’t really see how there’s any distinction between you moving and the background moving around you. Surely that can be said about any game where the camera is permanently fixed on one character or thing?

  14. Thrippy says:

    Despite having a linear canned campaign, Space Run has a ton of replayability through different ship designs. Do I glom on more engines and just go really fast, or go slow and heavily defensive with shields, or build a missile boat, or ramp up the wattage on lasers? Replaying levels, grinding for upgrades, is a pleasure. What a surprise hit. Pains me to say, but it is stealing some thunder from Defense Grid 2.