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.