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Will There Ever Be A Space Game I Want To Play?

Is There Space In My Heart?

I have always wanted a space game to play. The boundless stretches, galaxies to explore, the awe-inspiring magic of flying a spaceship - the concept sings to me like a siren. And yet, as I wade gleefully into the waters to follow the source of that melody, I drown every single time. Every single time the game is a mad mess of fiddling and worrying and menus and doing taxes and buying ore and achingly annoying combat of flying in crazed circles trying to get to an angle from which I can shoot spaceships that seem always able to shoot at me. Every single time it's a chore, not a pleasure. It's space shopping. I flat-out don't want space shopping.

Yesterday Graham said I should look at last November's Rebel Galaxy [official site], because it was from some of the Torchlight team. I remind myself of the screenshots, and say to him, "Is it strategy, Graham? IS IT?" He promises me it isn't. So, is this the space game for me?

One hour in:

Okay, this is nothing like Torchlight. Which isn't a very good critical remark about the game, I admit, but Graham brought it up during a discussion of ARPGs. Graham cannot be trusted.

It's a weird start. There's no opening at all, you're just dumped in space in a spaceship, and then told by some guy that your aunt is missing. Who you are, who she is, why you own a spaceship, what your plans were before finding out about Aunt Someone, are entirely untouched. It's about the important business of flying from mission marker to mission marker, plot be damned.

And I've already seen worrying signs. Flying about is on a 2D plane, but other ships seem to be able to go up and down. That seems a bit unfair. And I've seen a list of purchasable commodities, certainly including ores, that I can buy from space stations. Argh. It's going to be space shopping, isn't it? I've also flown in tiresome circles around enemy ships that can always attack me. This isn't going well so far.

Four hours in:

I'm genuinely surprised that I'm still here. I'd seen spreadsheets, been blown out of the space-sky by enemies it says shouldn't be a problem whose ships I cannot even dent, and had so very little of what's going on explained to me. And I've been really, really annoyed by how the enemies seem to have a whole other axis in their dimensions, flying out of my reach above and below. Oh, and I forgot to mention, it won't let me use anything other than the 360 controller once the game's started - there's no option to switch to mouse/keyboard. You have to quit out. Madness.

But I'm still here, four hours in. I've completed a good few missions, some optional, some plot-critical. I've even realised that I've been flying around with thousands of Spacepounds worth of salvage on my ship that I could have sold and bought better stuff. Then I sold it, and bought better stuff, which makes it horribly apparent that there's some degree of commitment from me here.

The music certainly isn't hurting. Throaty rock, wailing blues guitars, and Firefly-ish cowboy twangs. I've had to hold myself back from booming out that you can't take the sky from meeeeee. It's quite the soundtrack, superbly chosen, and rather splendidly thematic to the occasions.

Five hours in:

I just renamed my ship. "Simon Westbury" it's now called. Am I... am I enjoying this?

Seven hours in:

I'm not sure if I'm enjoying this. I was definitely into it, definitely found a groove. And that groove became significantly deeper when I found the tutorial screens hidden in the ludicrous muddle of menus, and learned how to aim broadside missiles properly. But even being able to actually play the game hasn't changed battles I'm warned will be too difficult being easily won, and those I'm told have a threat level of "low" exploding me from seventeen different directions before I've realised it's started.

I've wandered off the main mission track - because the game kept suggesting I do so - to beef up my ship/buy a new one before taking them on, via non-story missions. But this has pushed me into a world of busywork, zooming back and forth across this first solar system to repeat the same few actions in the hope of making some cash.

I also tried mining, and if you knew me, and my feelings about space shopping games, you'd likely have to read that again to be sure. I bought a mining laser, and even an enormously expensive extra piece of equipment that's supposed to show me where to target space rocks for the best yields. It doesn't do anything at all, which is really bloody annoying, and with the scant instructions I've no clue what I should have done, or if the game's just broken. So I've lasered up rocks, which is far more frustrating than it sounds - even the sodding rocks get to operate on the Z axis, while I'm stranded in SpaceFlatland. Aiming the laser requires that they not be too far above or below you, which are positions I can only resent rather than work around. And I would say the yield from firing this laser, that overheats in literally three seconds (meaning you have to keep stopping and starting - what fun), is about 5%. 5% of the time it drops something. And when it does, it's not all obvious for you to grab - you have to use the awful "pulse" thing, which rather than being a button press away is idiotically kept in a menu. It sends out a wave in a circle around your ship, and highlights spilled ore in the area. For a couple of seconds. Seriously - highlighted ore drops just fade off the screen in two seconds. Gee, that makes it so much fun to fly toward them to gather them, through a dense field of rocks, with a ship that keeps speeding itself up against your wishes. Argh! I have never doubted my belief that space mining is the worst way a human can spend time playing video games, and good grief has this mess affirmed that for me.

I feel like I'm talking myself out of anything I'd liked about it so far.

Eight hours in:

Okay, I'm coming back around again. I've given up on mining, because it's a tortuous waste of time. Even now I've realised I can scan spacerocks to see if they have ore first, but for no bloody reason only if I have the mining laser pre-selected. The thing I don't know if I need until the scanning's done. Clever. But a successful fight against a big bunch of baddies has made me feel much better about things, and I've improved my broadside weapons so the fights are getting fairer. But I'm also a little under-motivated to dig any deeper. The mindless work of zipping about and getting richer is certainly attractive, but there's a lot less immediate reward here than in the mindless work of hack-n-slashing around a dungeon.

So then:

I think this process has helped me better analyse what it is I do want from a space game. It sure as hell isn't shopping and spreadsheets. I think what I want is the basics here, minus the trading, and with one hell of a dose of story. The narrative in Rebel Galaxy is some absolute dross about a missing aunt, a mysterious object containing an AI who's lost her memory (FFS), and it pretends that your replies make a difference. The idea of having something like a Mass Effect plot, but where my primary roll isn't trotting about on the ground and hiding behind waist-high walls, but flying about in my Firefly-class ship, blowing up baddies (or goodies) and looting the crap out of the universe. But with some motivation! Some reason for doing it, beyond a feeble nothingness like here, or the "freeform, open world" excuse used by so many other space shopping games.

And without a single fucking spreadsheet, thankyouverymuch. I'm putting off doing my real life taxes just fine on my own.

As for Rebel Galaxy, well, you'd do well to read Brendy's review of it from a couple of months back, and I largely agree with his complaints (other than the music, the darned fool). Although I think the game he'd prefer would be wildly different than the one I'm after. I'm in no way interested in the ludicrous complexity and anonymity of Elite. Perhaps, maybe, one day someone will create a story-driven space game with fighty-fighty ships. But I fear if they do, they'll fill it full of spreadsheets, because bloody hell, they always do.

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