Premature Evaluation: Galactic Junk League

Every Monday, we send Brendan into the early access hangar with only a spanner and some big ideas. This week, the build-your-own-spaceship battler Galactic Junk League [official site].

Let’s see, we’ll strap on an uber cannon there… and another one there… paint this red and this bit black… plop another thruster or two back here… hide the shield generator in this alcove… plaster some armour plating here and here and, oh, here… yes! It looks like my new ship is ready to go. Sharkey the Shite is a giant destroyer-class cannon-platform. He’s not very fast and he turns slower than a bicycle wheel with a stick in it. But he’ll probably be better than my last ship, a rusting block of junk with ten missile batteries stuck to every side. I called that one the Barge of Rats.

But when it comes down to it, Sharkey isn’t great in a fight either. He’s got the power and the range but he hasn’t got the speed to get to a fight in good time. I could go back to the menu and try to fix that with more thrusters and less armour… maybe swap out my blink drive for a speed boost? But then how will I warp away when I’m in trouble? These are the trade-offs and decisions you’ll be making in the hangar of Galactic Junk League. You come here to craft your ship and micromanage every little building block, from the lasers to the batteries to the special blocks that power your in-game abilities – damage absorbing shields, rays that freeze an enemy ship in place. When you’re finished, off you pop for a 7v7 deathmatch. First to 20 kills wins. That sounds great – it’s Minecraft’s creative freedom meets a small-scale EVE brawl.

And yet, I’m not having that much fun. It’s odd, there seems to be a perfect mix of creation and destruction, and I am enjoying picky Sharkey apart and tinkering with his metal guts to see how I can optimise him in a fight. But there’s a couple of things nagging me about it all: the deathmatch itself and the shop.

Let’s start with the in-game shop. A few months ago we looked at a similar free-to-play game of vehicular mayhem called Crossout. You built your own Mad Max-style war car and then drove about dusty arenas trying to explode everything around you, watching chunks fall off your motor only to expose your weak and vulnerable engine. It was an excellent idea marred irrecoverably by the grindy, poor-value business model. Now, I’m floating into the spaceship-piloting equivalent, which I’ll admit is much better than Crossout in some ways, but just as bad in others.

Firstly, the grind is not so bad. There’s no crafting bits out of other junked bits, or rolling the dice of battle to get a good shotgun. Your basic currency, junk, is awarded at an OK rate and once you unlock a piece it’s available to use whenever, wherever and however much you want. All the bits and bobs used by your opponent can soon be researched and used yourself. It’s only if you want to look better, or speed up that initial climb, that you’ll have to throw in money. This is where the usual psychological chicanery comes into play.

$11 will get you a starter pack which will double your junk rewards from battle and provide you with XP boosting “whiskeys”. I want to talk about these because they are, from a vicious monetizer’s perspective wickedly clever, while also being psychologically vile. Whiskeys are horrible little items that you “drink” in the pre-match lobby (I got some to use from the press code – thanks!) They boost XP for everyone in the match and stack in a way that makes multiple people use them. For instance, if I drink the first whiskey, everyone gets a 25% boost to XP. I can’t drink another but don’t worry, because if someone else drinks a whiskey of their own, we all get a 50% XP boost. Yeeeeee-haw! But don’t stop there chums. Who has the third whiskey? The fourth whiskey? The fifth and sixth? Come on, I know you’ve all got some. There it is, the final slammer! A 225% XP boost.

This is one of the crassest manipulations in a free-to-play game I’ve seen. It essentially peer-pressures players into consuming the things they have bought at a faster rate, and makes anything less than the full 225% increase feel like a wasted opportunity. “You’d better have your whiskeys ready boys!” says the game. “It’s good for everyone!”

Anyway, I wanted to get that out of the way before we consider the game itself, which is really composed of two sides – an interesting and fun kind of space LEGO, and a completely throwaway multiplayer arena fight. The creative side in the hangar lacks some visual variety without all the skins and decorative parts, but even with the junkiest pieces I have seen some fun designs. In fact, the best part of the game might be the pre-game lobby (bar the soaking of each other in whiskeys), because that’s the time you get to click on everybody’s name and see what they’ve made. There’s a lot of strange ships out there. Borg-like cubes covered in gatling guns…

Long and phallic glass cannons…

Terrifying threshing machines…

And, of course, Slave 1…

I had to up my game by making a frog-shaped ship which I christened Toady McGee.

When this was not powerful enough, I bulked up with a mohawk-sporting block of death called Missiles What.

When this was not agile enough, I stripped everything out but the bare essentials, put a huge thruster on the back, plugged in a ray that disrupted all of a single enemy’s movement, and painted this annoying harassment vessel yellow and black. It is called the Dick Hornet.

So you see, the process of both discovering the oddities of others and building your own is quite joyful. It’s only when you go into battle (even if you go in with a more serious build) that you discover the combat – the core game itself – isn’t anything special: a team deathmatch, first to twenty kills or until the time runs out. You spend most of it just trying to get in the right range, trying to pick off ships that are far from others, trying to avoid any ganged-up enemies, taking pot-shots, killing, dying, respawning, using your skills with their lengthy cooldowns to affect the battle in some unseen direction. But essentially, you’re just racing your foe’s kill count.

I couldn’t help comparing the battles to those of Fractured Space – another free-to-play game which forgoes the creativity for set ships with MOBA rules of engagement across multiple 3D “lanes”. There’s none of that game’s tactical cohesion or teamplay here, no complimenting your ally ships. Tactically speaking, you just need to kill and kill fast. If you want to make an off-beat ship like the Dick Hornet, that nips around too fast to hit and slows enemies to a halt, but can’t do any damage itself, then it feels like a waste of all your creative efforts. That ship is just not viable. And many players seem to be realising this, because there are an obscene amount of long-range destroyers on these fields, sniping everything they can with huge cannons from afar.

That’s my biggest gripe with GalJunk. The whiskeys – horrible as they are – I maybe could have ignored as this game’s necessary free-to-play evil, an exception I couldn’t make for the gross and grindy Crossout. But if your “sport” is limited to a single rule (kill the enemy) it almost nullifies any creativity in the hangar. There’s no need for specialist vessels that do one thing really well and everything else poorly, for example. It’s better if as many people as possible focus on damage dealing. Other abilities will always take a back seat. The Dick Hornet may be my favourite vessel. But he’ll always lose a fight to the Barge of Rats.

Galactic Junk League is available on Steam as free-to-play

12 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    This has been my feeling in basically all of these “Build something then go blow up things” games. See also robocraft I think it was called.

    Basically I suck at building interesting things, and I suck at building optimized things, so I just drive my little jeep around and get sniped.

    Also gross, that freemium whiskey thing sounds pretty bad.

  2. Someoldguy says:

    Disappointing to hear that the pay-to-win is excessively strong on this one. I don’t think I’ll be using ship lego to make juvenile shapes with silly names any time soon.

    On your last para, I would just note that World of Tanks (and similar) do manage to have variety while sticking to the kill the enemy format. Of course they do this by carefully balancing the need for fast scouts, mobile mediums and durable heavies with the glass cannon artillery. I’ve spent some money on that but never felt really pressured to do so. It’s always been possible to do ok f2p once you’ve grasped the strengths and weaknesses of your vehicle and have some idea what the map layouts are.

  3. Gothnak says:

    You really really need to play Robot Arena 2 from the mists of time. That is the best building game i ever played, at the end of it, really felt as if you were taking part in Robot Wars. My best design was a dustbin of death that span around at high speed with 4 sledgehammers both as an offensive weapon and a self righting mechanism.

    The problem with games like these are that they are vs, gimme a good single player or co-op with these mechanics and i’d have a lot of fun, but facing off against those monstrosities would turn me off pretty quick.

    • Baines says:

      Co-op against a stronger AI force, with a good variety in AI builds, could shake up the “best builds” formula a bit.

      Everyone starts bringing long range snipers to battle? Deploy an AI force composed of a swarm of small ships that can spread out and rush those snipers.

      You might could get some mileage out of player-created enemy forces, which are then controlled by the AI. Something like building your automated system defense, while you actively raid other systems. (Doesn’t have to be raiding, it could just be considered challenges or something.) Maybe even allow some measure of ship behavior scripting.

      The team deathmatch stuff just doesn’t seem interesting, particularly not as the only option.

    • Pigswillfly says:

      I’ve been trying out the Dreadnaught game that popped up with beta keys recently and although the vs mode is more typical ship combat (big is better/sniper kills big etc), I feel the vs AI mode is more enjoyable as if I remember correctly the enemy ship spawns will change depending on what you have deployed which can make it a good challenge choosing what you respawn as yourself or how to position yourself around the map.
      Also DN makes reasonably good use of support roles so if you would rather not blow others up but help your own you can do quite well in just a support role.

  4. SHolmes says:

    I’m trying to remember the name of a “customize and destroy” game I played years ago. The premise was that you were a bunch of bored scientists on Io, and you spent your time building robots to fight each other. The neat thing was that they were completely autonomous – the robot drove in a straight line and you had to program its sensors to detect walls and opponents. It was really fun.

    • Ayasano says:

      Carnage Heart? I loved that as a kid but I could never get my head around the tile-based programming language.

  5. KDR_11k says:

    That sounds like what I expected and what a lot of these games suffer from: Customization without a gameplay concept that really uses it.

    And ultimately if it’s just “stick some guns on an inert hull” then how much creativity is there really? It probably doesn’t have to be as complex as shipbuilding in From The Depths where you need to place every cylinder on your engine’s crank shaft but there’s a huge range between FTD and this. Many of these F2P vehicle builders seem less advanced than Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts though that also challenges you with much more varied mission goals.

    • Premium User Badge

      BlueTemplar says:

      I feel that it gets better when multiple units are involved, like in Istrolid :
      link to istrolid.com

      Then the composition of your fleet is another level arggh edit time up

  6. Vedharta says:

    Some of those ships look very….Orky.

    That is to say, awesome!

  7. Alberto says:

    Just logged in to say that there’s this weird, ugly, obscure game From The Depths (www.fromthedepthsgame.com) where you’ve got modular building of -mostly- sea ships that you can’t even control by yourself (you give general instructions to their IA).

    I’m 50 hours in and still have trouble to get a motorized viable raft with a potato gun.

  8. NOPper says:

    I’ve played every one of these custom robot/spacecraft games, and by far my favorite is Avorion. It was a kickstarter a while back and has 4 years of development on it so far, and was recently put up on Steam as early access.

    It’s basically Elite/X/Freelancer but you place individual components freeform to build out a vessel, and materials matter. Thin armor plate is a thing, weapons are loot drops Diablo style, and if you get bored with one ship you can pay AI captains to fly others you make or buy. You even have some basic crew management as of now. Fighter bays, shield generators, computer cores for more equipment slots, owning asteroid mines…there’s a lot going on already.