Often, I can't get into games that have a space aesthetic. I look at them, and I see yet another game that looks like a watered-down Freelancer, and some opera lady is singing in the background. Many try to capture the vast, grandiose nature of space and spin it into an epic yard that the gameplay just can't seem to match. Imagine my relief when I found that Rebel Galaxy suffers from none of those tired clichés.
Rebel Galaxy feels like a completely different animal that eschews the sanitary trappings of what is considered a normal space games. This isn't about some opera lady wailing as clinical lasers find their marks; it's about grime and slide guitars and futuristic broadsides raining hellfire into enemy hulls. It's a game that doesn't just reference the idea of space cowboys but dons that mantle like a well-loved jacket.
I tooled around in our preview build for a while, and admittedly, I didn't initially know what to make of it. The first thing that struck me is that the game takes place on a fully two-dimensional plane, and that felt weird when I undocked my clunky corvette for the first time and found that I couldn't pitch her nose up or down. A space game that doesn't let you wander in all three dimensions is certainly an unfamiliar notion, and it felt constricting as I pulled away from the station in search of some action and a few credits.
I didn't have a lot of time to mull over my three-dimensional dilemma before I got into combat and had to use my weapons systems to fend off a few enemy fighters and a chunky frigate that was bearing down on me. Though the game was described as a take on old-school naval combat, it didn't click for me until I was in the middle of the first skirmish. This isn't a game about frantic 3-D maneuvering; instead, you captain your spaceship like you would an ancient seafaring vessel. Your primary weapons are fired from ports on the sides of your ship, and they do the most damage but require you to keep your broadsides pointed more or less toward the enemy. Meanwhile, your secondary weapons serve as a form of swivel guns and are better suited for the smaller ships that buzz by and other relatively soft targets.
Firing your broadsides is a matter of aiming your weapon in their firing arc and holding your fire to focus its aim before releasing the barrage. Different weapons have different accuracy and firing times as well as a variety of other characteristics. It's possible to outfit your vessel with long-range guns that hit hard at a distance, or you can equip a set that does colossal damage at relatively close range. Meanwhile, the secondary turrets can either be manually controlled or smartly set to automatically engage targets. It's possible to set your flak cannon to only hit enemy fighters, your shield-breaker rockets to only hit your current target, and then the rest to fire at anything that's dumb enough to close in on you.
Your ship is pretty resilient to enemy fire, but it requires a fair amount of captaining skill to get the most out of it. Your ship's defenses are split into four quadrants: forward, aft, port, and starboard. Your shields and armor have their own values, so it's important to not let enemies pound on one side for too long. Shields regenerate, but armor does not, and with both down, you start taking damage to ship components.
This damage affects your subsystems individually, such as knocking out some of your broadside guns on one side or reducing your ship's maneuverability. It also leaves wicked scars on your ship's hull, signifying that you've taken a few licks in the fight. Your trump card can be the deflector system, which is an impenetrable shield but can only be used for a short time to ward off some of the worst incoming damage. However, knowing when to use it effectively can be just as important, since you cannot fire while it is engaged.
With all of these systems in play, I completely forgot about the lack of a third dimension. Just managing your throttle as you circle a target while engaging the deflectors is enough to keep a seasoned captain busy. The game doesn't feel limited once you dig into it, but it feels like it was freed up to have the combat style it wanted. It's naval combat in the 1700s sense, and damn if it doesn't really work when applied to a few hundred or so years into the future. It's a bold departure that trades realism for fun, and it certainly pays off here.
The plot involves you trying to locate your long-lost aunt after receiving one of her artifacts and instructions to meet up with her. Once you arrive in the area, you find that she has essentially gone missing, and you must work with some of her contacts to pick up her trail. From the get-go, you don't have to stick to the story's rails; you can pick up missions from stations or engage in trade. You can choose to go mining, which is a boring but safe way to scratch together some coin. The missions you can pick up are rated in their difficulty, and they rarely deviate from, "Go here and kill every red blip on your radar." Still, the combat even makes those clichéd missions entertaining since you'll be far too engrossed in landing some difficult shots to care.
It doesn't hurt that the game has all the grit of an old Western movie. You encounter traders with thick southern drawls, space around stations is filled with spinning bits of plate metal and debris, and everything that's still functioning seems to be covered in grime. What absolutely steals the show is the soundtrack, which is a licensed mix of some relatively unknown but absolutely fantastic blues artists. Songs have both instrumental and vocal versions that are used for different purposes, and it adds to the mood of the game like little else can. I felt like I wanted to go pour myself a whiskey before I unloaded some hell on some pirates that were agitating the local population.
There is some incredibly solid gameplay within Rebel Galaxy that defies the more common takes on space games. The choice to focus the game into two dimensions to facilitate its combat style is a bold one, but it has certainly paid off. Between the combat system and the soundtrack, there's a lot going on, and it's not quite like anything else. I'm curious to see what the final game is like, but I haven't had this much fun with a preview build in a long time.
Previewed on: Intel i7 4970k, 16 GB RAM, nVidia GTX 660 Ti
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