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