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PC Review - 'SpaceForce: Rogue Universe'

by Alan Butterworth on June 5, 2007 @ 12:58 a.m. PDT

SpaceForce: Rogue Universe is a 3D space experience set you on your path through a yet unknown universe, where you can fight, trade or smuggle to earn respect, wealth and fame. In the end, your reputation is all that counts – your goal is to become the best-known pilot in space.

Genre: RPG/Space Simulation
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Developer: Provox Games
Release Date: June 5, 2007

Few things are as satisfying as piloting a spacecraft through the murky abyss of space, gunning down pirate foes in heated dog-fights, and freelancing your way through star systems both hostile and friendly. The open-ended space sim exploration provides a sense of freedom and adventure that's unmatched in games from other genres. It's just a shame that such titles are so few and far between. Provox Games Space Force: Rogue Universe is a welcome break in the long fast that fans of the open-ended space exploration RPG have been experiencing since Egosoft's 2005 X3: Reunion.

Space Force's RPG element kicks in from the character creation screen, where you can choose from one of a range of different professions, each conferring advantages and disadvantages. You can choose from soldier, adventurer, engineer, spy, headhunter, policeman, hacker, pirate, and trader. Some of these professions simply provide upgrades that are pretty inexpensive anyway once you get in the game, such as minor improvements to your shield, or the number of missiles or repair nanobots you carry at the start. Others provide some permanent adjustments, such as the maximum number of wingmen you can have so it pays to choose wisely. Hampering your choice is the fact that there are no tips or help prompts available, which means until you've experimented a bit and become familiar, much of the benefits will appear mystifying to you. A lot of the profession bonuses also occur as behind-the-scenes number generation, so you won't actually know what benefit your profession brings you. For example, adventurers will get 10 percent more from mining activities than other professions.

Space Force offers you two game modes: the open sandbox, where you can assume any race and generally do whatever you like; and the story mode, where you assume the role of slick-side parted Jim Anderson on a quest to find his sister. Space Force's story universe sees a future in which climate change on earth created a new world order headed by military governments, which forced a mass exodus and global civil war between the EMD (Earth Military Directorate) and the UF (Union Forces). Your character is a member of the EMD on the verge of qualifying for his flight training exam when pirates rudely interrupt with lasers blasting. The story is, unfortunately, mostly uninteresting, and is told with such bad dialogue and cheesy voice acting that you almost don't want to follow it.

For example:
"Tell me where he is — or else!"
"I'm shaking in my boots."

The good news is you don't have to follow this. Instead, you are free to roam around the Space Force universe hacking, destroying and fighting your way up the food chain and picking up the main storyline as, and when, you please. In fact, this route is almost obligatory since you'll find your starting ship and character skills are pitifully inadequate to deal with the foes and obstacles thrown in your way by the story.

What's really nice about Space Force's control system is that it is fairly self-explanatory. You won't need to dive into the manual to understand how to operate your craft, especially if you've sat behind the joystick of any other space sim game. Instead of a light show of buttons, switches and complex autopilot navigator systems, you have simple thrust and maneuver controls. Landing a ship in a space station is as painfully simple as flying close enough to the station and pressing the "Enter" key. The 3D cockpit overlaid with a 2D HUD is well thought-out with a lack of clutter and simple symbols that let you know where objects are relative to your craft. For an even less fettered view of things, you can change the camera to view your ship from third-person perspective, which some players might find suits their style of play better, especially during combat. This pared-down simplicity sometimes works against Space Force because of the lack of access to detailed target information, and absence of autopilot features means you are often left in the dark and have to guess your way around, or are else forced to babysit your ship on long-distance voyages.

You start off predictably humbly in a tiny gnat of a ship — the EMD interceptor. You'd better get used to it, too, because Space Force is not the type of game which lets you upgrade on a whim. You'll have to work your way up slowly because money doesn't come easily. Early on, you'll get most of your easy money flying long distances to activate remote satellites, earning 2,500 each time. The problem for impatient combat-oriented types is that you won't really stand much of a chance in a dog-fight until you've flown a few profitable trade runs or satellite repair missions to be able to upgrade your ship.

The Space Force universe features 10 different races, including pirates and each of them, while not breathtakingly original, are fairly imaginatively realized. You have to work to manage your diplomatic relations with each of these races, which go from hostile to neutral to friendly. Attacking and hacking their buildings and generally being a nuisance will not endear you to them, but accepting quests on their behalf or taking down their enemies will have the opposite effect. You can also directly buy their favor by paying tribute. Your relations with another race will affect how easy it is to deal with them, trade at their ports and land at their space stations. You can also purchase fake ID cards, which give you a percentage chance of fooling another race into thinking you're one of them.

The ship models also look gorgeous, having been designed to reflect the characteristics of each race, and the insect-like cocoon bombers of the Collective are particularly well done. There are a total of 14 flyable spacecrafts in Space Force, but they're pretty pricey, and you'll have to hunt and search for different ships which are only available in certain star systems.

Space Force's visuals literally shine from the glare of gassy giants to the colorful mélange of clouds, dust and debris strewn all over the space canvas. As you zoom through space, debris flits past, and distant nebulae pulse gently. The rusty silhouettes of long-deserted gigantic space hulks do a lot to evoke a great space environment. Although you can't land on them, vast planets loom in the distance in every space system. What's even better is that these graphics won't hog your system or force you to work nights in order to pay for an upgrade. The designers have assured gamers that the Space Force engine is very flexible and will run on a minimum spec machine of 1.4 GHz with a 128MB DirectX 9 graphics card. What's less good is that the game is not totally stable, and I experienced periodic crashing to desktop followed by brief moments of keyboard abuse. At least it's considerably less buggy than the initial release of X3.

Space Force possesses an outstanding soundtrack which alternates between fitting sci-fi themed mood music, dog-fight tunes with frantic thumping bass-lines, and heroic fanfares. One particularly memorable opening track has synthesizer sounds phasing in and out on top of what could be a conversation about quantum physics between two whales. There isn't a great deal of voice conversation in the silence of space, but what is there is sadly unremarkable. Harmonia is the name of your typical female-voiced ship computer, while your own character sounds like a generic himbo reading lines straight off the page as he goes. The pirates sound comically like the scurvy-ridden pantalooned variety, freshly plucked from the helm of their galleons on the Spanish main, and they're so caricatured it's a wonder they don't actually yell, "yaaarrrrr!" in the heat of combat.

Space stations are where you can accomplish most of your micro management tasks, including trade. For the pacifists out there who prefer to buy and sell their way to the top, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that buying low and selling high is not as easy as it sounds. Although it's rumored to exist, a dynamic economic system with prices that fluctuate according to supply and demand isn't incredibly intuitive to use. Brief news items will inform you of events that will have increased, for example, the value of luxury items by 10 percent, but it's all a bit cryptic and will take you some time to figure out if it's something you should be hoarding or getting rid of. Small arrows next to the commodities indicate whether a good is priced above, below or at average price, which helps to a small extent but finding profitable trade routes is not immediately obvious. The good news is that beer, described as a "rich tasting beverage with a surprisingly complex character," has survived both space and time into the future, and sells for about 3.5 credits. The range of goods you can buy and sell is broad and inspired, and each is accompanied by a crude drawing. You can, for example, trade in genetically enhanced pets which look like a dog with an owl's head, which happens to be exactly what I wanted for Christmas.

Space stations are also where you can nurse your bruised ship back to health via expensive repairs, or enhance various statistics such as maneuverability, speed, or weaponry which will determine the complexity of weapon that you can possess. These upgrades can be very costly, and the alternative is to do it yourself. To accomplish this, you need to buy and equip some mining tools, then seek out the nearest asteroid and hit it with your mining laser. Sometimes the rock will simply disintegrate, leaving nothing, and at other times, it will explode to reveal a small cache of valuable minerals. You teleport these back onto your ship, and back at the base's tech lab, you can create upgrades if you have enough of the requisite raw materials. This is a slow way of upgrading your ship, and unless you're a game-playing saint, your patience may wear out before you manage to get many upgrades. In addition, some minerals can only be acquired from certain types of asteroids in distant sectors, so you'd better be in the mood for an Easter egg hunt. To slightly alleviate your frustration, the game includes a crude autopilot called the bookmark system, which involves marking a given location while you're there (i.e., a rich asteroid mining field), and then using the bookmark to return there on autopilot at a later time.

Space Force boasts over 2,000 side-quests, which sounds fantastic. The truth, however, is that most of these quests fall into one of nine categories, which usually involve either destroying a ship, group of ships, or a building. In truth, this destruction gets to be a bit monotonous and repetitive. There are no escort missions, or simple taxi ferry assignments like most other space-themed games possess, which might have added some variety. Missions come with a brief two- or three-sentence description, most of which also begin to be recycled after a while. The sad thing is the game ultimately begins to feel more like a job, or a household chore for which you are only getting paid virtual peanuts. Among the few less overtly destructive tasks is hacking into buildings, which requires a hacking module to be installed in your ship. Whilst hacking, some hidden number-rolling evidently goes on, but it's never clear what's going on, or what your chances are of being caught. All you do know is that if you are caught, you'd better have a fast ship to get out of there when the missiles start flying.

A lot of your time spent pursuing quests will be spent coasting through the depths of space from a station to a jump gate, or vice versa. The one major oversight is the lack of obvious accelerated time controls to make these long-distance odysseys less mind-numbing. One way to accomplish time compression is to switch to remote camera view, where you lose control of most of your ship's maneuvers but the fact that time is accelerated by a factor of two is buried obscurely in the manual. Another way to drastically cut the journey short is to use your ship's jump machine, which will either teleport you to the space station or the jump gate in any given sector. Unfortunately, this cannot be employed whilst in combat, and it takes a long time to recharge. There are well over 30 space systems in the Space Force universe, and it will take you a long while to explore them all. Jumping between them is accomplished by simple point-and-click from the space map. If you wish to skip systems and shortcut to your destination, you have to pay for the privilege.

Combat is the main focus of Space Force and because most of the quests require it, you'll be seeing a lot of hot laser, whether you like it or not. Fortunately, this is also one of the most well-honed aspects of the game, with the correct degree of challenge and playability. You can choose between a keyboard/mouse combination or keyboard/joystick solution. The designers have evidently blended realistic Newtonian physics with arcade-style physics to great effect, giving you a good balance of both worlds. The movement dynamics as you strafe, bank, barrel roll, and turbo-boost your way around the enemy in any given dog-fight feel convincing and satisfying to a degree that's rarely accomplished in most other space sim games. The AI is generally very good, reacting dynamically to your moves and pulling off clever stunts, such as taking off in the direction of the sun to blind you as you pursue them. Explosions light up the darkness of space with terrifying expression, and a well-designed physics system means all of the objects in its vicinity are affected by the blast.

To make combat easier, you can sign up wingmen of different skill levels for a cost, and they'll happily try to take out your target at your command. They perform their job adequately by using missiles and some reasonable AI. A group of wingmen is fairly easy to command using the top row number keys, although this ease means that anything more complex than either forming on your wing or attacking an enemy is left out of the game.

Of course, you won't survive every encounter, and when you die, you are thrown back automatically to the space sector you were in when you bought the farm, only minus the bad guys and any cargo you had. Your money and quests are restored as they were pre-death. The game has a somewhat questionable save and restore system, saving automatically over your one profile every time you dock, leave a space station, or jump through a gate. This automatic system means you cannot restore to an alternative or earlier save point and might be a source of frustration for some gamers.

In summary, Space Force is a mixed bag of a game with some things that work, and an almost equal number of things that fail. A graphically amazing, highly playable engine is let down by a fairly predictably storyline and repetitive mission structure. It's a fairly minimalist space sim RPG, with much of what usually makes games of this genre so complex and confusing taken out. This makes it more accessible to the mainstream gamer, at the cost of possibly upsetting the hardcore fans of the genre. What will irk nearly all potential gamers is the lack of help and guidance. A lot of getting used to the game is guesswork, and you'll have to waste of a lot of time figuring things out for yourself that might have been made clear through an online tutorial. This means that Space Force starts out as a fairly infuriating game and gradually becomes a playable, even mildly addicting experience. It has a lot less depth and variety compared to its closest comparison, X3, and there is probably an over-emphasis on combat versus other modes of gameplay. Like its older predecessor, you'll also need a lot of patience to scratch beneath the surface, figure things out, explore and really get the most out of the large and populated universe the designers have created here.

Score: 7.0/10

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