Space Combat Archive

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Game Review: Rebel Galaxy

During the summer I had a chance to play with a preview build of Rebel Galaxy. Amid those halcyon days, I was coming off months of playing nothing but Elite Dangerous. Because of that, the slow moving, naval-inspired starship combat Rebel Galaxy stood out as an absolute delight. In its final form, Double Damage Games has only improved on their initial offering. They’ve produced a space-combat game with the sensibilities and scope of Wing Commander: Privateer and the tone of Firefly.

It’s hard to miss the gaming pedigree encoded in the very DNA of Rebel Galaxy. Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer, the power behind Double Damage Games, previously founded Runic Games, which gave us the likes of Torchlight and Torchlight 2. Before Torchlight, Schaefer was lead designer on Diablo and Diablo 2. While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t boast the same hack/slash/loot aesthetic as Torchlight and Diablo, it does convey the same freedom to explore.

Rebel Galaxy’s story is reasonably typical of the open-world space combat genre. Players inherit a piece-of-crap ship from a mysterious relative – in this case, their Aunt Juno. The quest to find Juno leads to encounters with AIs, pirates, and the slightly less-than-upstanding forces of law and order. Without giving too much of the story away, I found it struck the exact right tone for this sort of experience. It captures the best feeling of old-school space opera, banking on a player’s willingness to suspend disbelief in the areas of extraterrestrial carbon-based life forms, FTL engines, and space battles that play out at extreme close range. Sufficed to say, the emphasis is most certainly on the fiction side of science fiction, but that’s just fine with this critic.

Though a person can engage with all the usual suspects of an open-world space game (e.g. mining, trading, cargo hauling) the real fun is found in the combat. Corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and other capital ships lay into each other with massive fusillades of energy weapons. Smaller turrets tend to blast away at the myriad of fighters and small attack craft that populate a battle. The combat is at once filled with urgency, but also slow and methodical. Killing another starship is as much about positioning and timing as it is disgorging hot tachyons at the enemy.

In terms of making money, trade and/or combat are the way to go, at least within my experience. Fetch quest cargo missions are okay, but who wants to be peaceful when they are flying a ship with fourteen broadside plasma cannons? It’s also fairly easy to build up to more impressive starships and better arsenals. Granted, a player will find it hard to go from one story mission to the next without ever stopping to do some work on the side. However, taking the time to hunt bounty or run freight is rarely so arduous as to feel like a grind.

On the subject of trading, I’ll give Double Damage kudos for having more in-game trade data available than what appears in Elite Dangerous. I’m always astonished at games that expect me to believe my computer can plot an FTL-jump but not remember how much I paid for 10 tons of self-sealing stembolts at the previous space station. Though the game could benefit from a bit more trade data, I don’t think anybody will need to have Excel running in the background to ensure they stay profitable.

The only real mark against the game was the odd bit of janky AI. This was particularly apparent on escort missions. Note my use of the past tense. However, Double Damage has proven to be incredibly responsive to feedback, releasing patches very quickly after issues are identified. Playing the game now is pretty much a seamless experience. No frame rate drops. No glitches. No crashes.

While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of the open-world space combat game, its strength is in its ability to skillfully borrow and fuse the things that do work from within the sub-genre. There’s a little bit of Privateer, mixed with a dash of Starfleet Command, with just a splash of Freelancer for good measure. Everything the game does, it does very well. For someone looking for a space game that will let them jump in and feel like Han Solo without twenty hours of prep work, Rebel Galaxy is a sound investment.

Note: I reviewed the PC version of this game using a mouse and keyboard.


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My Preview of Rebel Galaxy

Over the weekend I had a chance to play with a preview build of Rebel Galaxy, Double Damage Games’ upcoming space combat/sandbox homage to the glory days of space opera. Though the preview wasn’t quite what I anticipated from the press release, it still feels like a potentially splendid entry into the world of free form space adventuring and starship combat.

Reading about Rebel Galaxy’s roots in naval combat games instantly put me in the mindset of Taldren’s old Starfleet Command series of tactical space shooters. As well, the notion of flying about the galaxy and charting my own path to glory, or infamy, elicited fond memories of Wing Commander: Privateer and, to a lesser extent, Freelancer. Rebel Galaxy exists soundly at the intersection of both game styles.

Though these points of inspiration are clear in Rebel Galaxy’s preview build, it’s also quite obvious the game isn’t looking to stand on the shoulders of giants. The game’s combat model pairs the raw firepower of capital ship battles with the fast-paced intensity of an arcade-style dog fight. Initially, it was all too easy to forget to navigate my ship while taking my time to aim a broadside. However,  I quickly picked up the nuances to “sailing”, bombarding capital ships, and flaking enemy fighters as they buzzed about my frigate.

For those less inclined to battle, though I can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t want to stand on the bridge of a space dreadnought and fire volley after volley into their enemy, Rebel Galaxy looks to offer all the usual suspects in terms of missions for a would-be space captain. I experimented with cargo runs, a few fetch quests, and some assassination missions. Along the way I also decided to play hero and respond to a distress signal. Thereupon, I learned a valuable lesson: when the ship’s computer says one is out-classed by the enemies, one should run. Failure to do so might leave a player with their shields torn away like so much tissue paper, this as a prelude to a destroyer laying a massive broadside into their unprotected hull.

In terms of its visuals Rebel Galaxy is no Elite: Dangerous. However, it’s still pretty impressive to look at – more so when a person considers the game as the product of a two-man team. The ship designs pay little attention to the necessities or requirements of space travel. Instead, the art focuses on conveying the size and aesthetic of what we imagined the battleships of the future might look like in the 1960s and 70s. Purists may find themselves put off by this choice, likewise by the non-Newtonian flight model; I, for one, enjoy the classic space opera appeal this game is offering.

I didn’t bother getting more than two missions into the preview’s campaign. Considering the game isn’t done, I’d rather wait and see what the story has to offer when I can review the whole thing. What I did discover while wading about in the shallow end of space is a good introduction to the world of Rebel Galaxy and helpful tutorial. Completing these story missions offered bonus cash, some new components for the starter ship, and a look at some of the various in-game aliens. Everything on those fronts gives me reason to believe I will be in for an engaging experience when the game drops.

The only part of Rebel Galaxy that gave me some slight pause for concern was its control system. Double Damage is developing Rebel Galaxy for both consoles and PCs. Everything about the controls seems fine for my mouse and keyboard setup. Of course, my ship isn’t particularly well kitted. My worry is if more kit leads to more complicated controls, then the fast paced nature of the game might prove to be something of a liability. I suspect, however, I’m worrying over nothing.

Overall, I think it’s fair to say that Rebel Galaxy is officially on my radar. While it might not give me the fix that Starfleet Command 2 has left me jonesing for, it certainly gives every impression of being a game that will scratch my space combat itch.

Rebel Galaxy drops later this year.


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Video Game Review: Stellar Impact

Summary Judgement: A perfect fit for anybody who loves strategic starship or naval combat.

Space combat games are few and far between these days. So when the good folks at Tindalos Interactive, Headup Games, and Meridian4 gave me a chance to review Stellar Impact, I jumped at the opportunity. The easiest comparison, but not quite the most accurate, would be to say that Stellar Impact is a space battle analogue to Defence of the Ancients or League of Legends.

As an exclusively multi-player game, Stellar Impact sees two opposing fleets battle to control resource points on a map, before blowing up the other team’s starbase.

Each battle begins at the ship yard screen. From there players can review their ships, the various experience points attached to those vessels, and any loot that they earned in previous battles. Believe me when I say that ship customization is at the core of this title. Each of the game’s five core ship classes (eight if you buy the two dollar DLC pack) have twenty-five active abilities. Each ship can have five abilities selected at a given time, and the class of the ship dictates how many abilities can be loaded from specific sub-categories. For example, a destroyer can equip a maximum of three “attack” abilities where a corvette can only have one.

A boy and his destroyer

If that’s not enough modification, each completed battle awards loot in the form of hull, weapon, ammunition, and crew upgrades. The crew upgrades alone add another twenty-five passive buffs to a given ship. Then there are all the in-game buffs you can give to your weapons, armour and NPC units as your fleet collects command points and collectively levels up. So if you’re the sort that likes to tinker, then you’re probably going to find a lot of room for experimentation with this game. At the same time, none of these options feel too overwhelming. On the complexity scale, Stellar Impact falls somewhere between Wing Commander: Privateer and an Armoured Core game. There’s just enough customization to make tactical load outs a matter of some thought, but no real way to break your ship and subsequently ruin the game.

At present, Stellar Impact offers two game play modes, “conquest”, which is the DOTA-esque action I’ve been talking about thus far, and “battlefield” scenarios that focus on ship-to-ship combat without any capturing or base defense. Conquest boasts ten maps to choose from, all of which support 6v6 competition, and Battlefield offers four. The game play itself, in either mode, is quite good. The sound quality is great. The visuals are slick. I’ve yet to notice a serious frame rate drop.

If only immersion were a guarantee of success in battle, I’d be a much better commander. It took me about four or five battles before I really learned the finer points of ship handling and weapons management. It’s not that either are particularly difficult; the game’s tutorial offers an effective overview of commands, navigation, and the UI. The thing of it is that even the smallest ship in Stellar Impact manoeuvres like the massive weapon of war that it is.

Navigating hazards, maintaining formation, and keeping turrets directed on the enemy of choice can be a little challenging to a newbie captain. Even now when I’m piloting a corvette or frigate, I occasionally misjudge the distance I will need for a turning arc and ram into an asteroid. Yet those moments are trumped many times over with the sublime pleasure that comes in tearing through an opponent’s shields with a missile salvo before laying into them with a full broadside from my plasma cannons. It is so rare to see a game that makes capital ship combat feel like the methodical dance that it ought to be, while retaining a level of accessibility that is challenging without being punishing.

One of the reasons I was reticent to immediately lump Stellar Impact in with the likes of DOTA is that where the latter is filled with dickbags and trolls, the people who play Stellar Impact are about as helpful and friendly as can be. Even folks on the opposing team were offering my hapless captaining a bit of constructive advice during my first couple of battles. The game’s general chat room offers a maturity that is almost impossible to find in today’s online gaming world.

We're going to need a bigger boat...

While my overall experience has been a positive one, I can see some room for improvement. Stellar Impacts match making system is almost painfully primitive. Once a player joins a game, they are taken to a fleet screen where they select the ship they want to command. Problems occur in that there’s nothing to stop the opposing force from picking a fleet of heavy ships to meet your team’s mixed unit fleet. Lighter ships are great for ninja capturing control points, but other than firing a few pot shots before running away, there’s not a lot they can do against a destroyer or cruiser. On a few occasions my team has readily surrendered once it became obvious that our fleet was simply out gunned. Arguably, sound tactics could get around that problem. However, I would love to see an option that limited fleet values so not everybody could have a dreadnaught. Further, a forced auto-balance between the teams in the pre-battle lounge would seem like a natural thing to include given Stellar Impact’s impressive player ranking system.

I’d also like to see some better descriptions on the loot. Other than looking at the trade in value, the colour coded ship parts don’t do a great job of differentiating between common/uncommon/rare/epic items.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, Stellar Impact offers a DLC bundle that adds three additional classes of starship to the game: the carrier, the support ship, and the artillery ship. Now don’t freak out on me here; none of these ships are essential to enjoying the main game. I repeat, you lose nothing by deciding not to buy the DLC package. However, the DLC ships are unique enough to add some significant tactical options to your combat experience. On that note, I would deem them a good investment. There’s also the fact that the difference between Stellar Impact and Stellar Impact + DLC is a measly two dollars. Consider the DLC good karma toward indie devs, if nothing else.

Overall, I expect that Stellar Impact is going to find greater appeal with a certain type of gamer rather than among the general gaming public. If you’re the sort of person who enjoyed the Starfleet Command series, the Renegade Legion: Leviathan tabletop game, or any sort of naval combat RTS, then you are likely among the target audience. Still, there’s nothing in this game that would alienate people from outside that demographic. What Stellar Impact lacks in game play variety, it makes up for in ship customization. While the community playing this game is small, they are very dedicated and the exact opposite of every negative gamer stereotype in the book.

If you love starship or naval combat, then this game is a definite buy.

Stellar Impact is currently available on Steam for $9.99 or $11.99 with the DLC bundle.