Publisher: Cinemaware Marquee
Developer: Elemental Games
Release Date: March 27, 2006
Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators displays a gleeful irreverence for genre conventions, throwing different gameplay styles into a mix that turns out to be bursting with random variety and imagination. Vladivostok-based Elemental Games and Cinemaware Marquee have released a title that is equal parts real-time and turn-based strategy, trading simulator, and even text adventure. It could best be described as the accidental creative byproduct of a collision between Elite and Sid Meier's Pirates! , yet Space Rangers 2 strains against such attempts at categorization and has a habit of constantly surprising you with the unexpected. The creative daring involved in this design strategy is refreshing and works well for the most part, but the lack of focus and over-ambitious reach could irk some gamers.
Space Rangers 2 is the sequel to a critically acclaimed 2002 game that was never released in the United States. The hallmark themes of freeform space exploration, trade, and open-ended questing are carried on and augmented in the second game, with one or two new genres being thrown in for good measure. As an added bonus, the North American package includes the first game.
Your role in the game is as the eponymous space ranger, a protector of the inter-galactic peace whose job it is to wipe out pirate scum and police criminal activity. No small task, especially when you consider that a race of cybernetic warmongers, named the dominators, is bent on conquering every known civilization. This familiar struggle of good versus evil constitutes the main plot thread. However, your primary in-game aim is to make money, and this can be accomplished in an astounding number of inventively scripted ways. You can, for example, take on government jobs, ferry around passengers, escort precious cargos, deliver much-needed medicine to plague-infested planets, scan uninhabited planets for valuable debris, or simply trade your way to the top. Alternatively, you could become a pirate yourself, terrorizing the shipping lanes, hijacking cargo and selling it off for hefty profits at pirate bases. The choice is yours, and the game makes no attempt to steer you towards any particular course, making it a hugely open-ended endeavor.
Like most space simulators, money can be invested into improving your ship and purchasing a whole variety of paraphernalia and upgrades. So far, so ordinary. Yet Space Rangers 2 starts to show how it stands out from the crowd of similar games by giving you a wide array of ways to spend, including buying life insurance, depositing it in a bank, buying market reports, and bribing government officials to improve your reputation. The game excels in having a seemingly infinite and original ways to both earn and spend your money.
For those of you with ample free time, Space Rangers 2 features practically infinite replayability with four default difficulty levels, the ability to fine-tune nearly every aspect of gameplay challenge, and a randomly-generated universe with every new game. Among its many genres, Space Rangers 2 features a basic role-playing system involving the selection of one of five playable races, and one of five different occupations to pursue, ranging from the heroic to the highly illegitimate. There isn't a wealth of explanation as to what differentiates one from the other, and like many aspects of the game, a lot is left to trial and error and self-discovery. Experience points can be allocated towards various skills, but the improvements are too overtly quantitative, which removes some of the human interest from the activity of self-improvement.
The game universe runs autonomously in the background, with non-player ships going about their daily business of trading, extorting and pillaging. Market prices change dynamically from day to day and in response to the latest news, meaning a shrewd and resourceful trader with his eye on current affairs could make a monetary killing. Your performance as a ranger and relation with other races and governments is constantly evaluated, and it affects your ability to trade and find new jobs.
Space combat is turn-based, and thanks to some innovative design, it doesn't feel slow or time-consuming. Then again, there isn't a great deal of depth to these two-dimensional dogfights, which essentially involve a busy behind-the-scene random number generator grinding combinations of statistics. You simply set up the fight, hit go, and hope for the best.
Occasionally, you will land a job that requires planetary invasion, at which point the game switches to top-down, 3D real-time strategy engine, where you create battle robots from a range of different modules to battle other bots and take over enemy bases. This is a fine example of how the game strives to be inclusive of all genres. However, the engine for this portion is pared down and over-simplified, so while it may be real-time, there isn't a great deal of strategy. A nice addition is the ability to personally pilot a robot droid, at which point the game practically becomes a first-person shooter. It's also at about this point that you realize the true depth of aspiration behind Space Rangers 2, but while the RTS gameplay is an ambitious addition, it isn't exactly outstanding, merely adequate, and it functions more as a mini-game than an integral part of the overall structure.
The graphics are unique, colorful and imaginative. Space is a lively sketched environment filled with gaseous nebulae, shooting stars and multi-colored meteorites, while planets are beautifully drawn stills. You could complain about over-simplicity, and how it sometimes feels like you're playing an interactive PowerPoint presentation, but in fairness, the graphics do the job and allow for fast load times on a range of machines. At times, background scenes for planets are heavily recycled, which is unfortunate given the immense variety that exists in other parts of the game.
The score of cyber-punk tunes and space-age synthesized beats is perfectly chosen to match this quirky, frenetic game. A somewhat depressing oversight is the lack of voice acting, which does nothing to alleviate the feeling of isolation in a depopulated universe. Whether by accident or design, the alien dialogue is poorly translated from Russian into English in places and this, combined with a lack of clear explication, can sometimes lead to confusion as to what exactly you're supposed to be doing in your latest mission. For those who love to take the time to read, however, Space Rangers 2 will reward you with well-written, wryly humorous dialogue.
Clearly, a lot of work, passion and thinking have been invested in this game but for all its imaginativeness, Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators is the jack of all trades, and master of none. Despite its vast and seemingly bottomless variety, it feels like many mini-games of varying quality threaded together loosely around a hollow core. It aims high, but falls short and doesn't really excel in any of its many genres. It rewards patience and exploration with unique blends of gameplay and enjoyable Easter eggs, but at times lacks any coherent sense of direction and focus. The same open-endedness that some players will cherish, others might dislike, as the game veers towards the extreme end of de-structured gameplay. This also curiously results in a relative apathy towards the fate of the universe. You could save alien-kind from the latest wave of dominator attacks, but beyond the cash incentive, you know it's not going to make much of a difference whether you do or not – the universe can wait until the next turn. Space Rangers 2 is ultimately a game that not everyone will enjoy but many, and especially fans of retro gaming, will certainly appreciate for its originality and policy of equal opportunity employment for all genres.