Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators Review

How do you begin to describe a game that defies description? I’ve played Space Rangers 2 for the better part of the last month and every time My Fair Lady figured I was playing one of the many games on my shelf. When I later clarified that this one game was not only a text-based adventure, but also a turn-based space combat adventure and a role-playing game and several more she just looked at me and asked how all that worked together.

Upon reflection, I honestly have no idea. But Space Rangers 2 is moment for moment one of the greatest, most imaginative, deepest, most involving and overall spectacular computer games I have ever played.

There is not a single second wasted in the entirety of the game and there is no mistaking it for a small game. Space Rangers 2 is epic in scope, gargantuan in size, and goes so far beyond fun it borders on ridiculous. I am absolutely drunk in love with this magnificent title and have forced myself to finish this review just so I can get back to saving the universe – with a little pillaging on the side.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the universe of Space Rangers 2 is gorgeous. All of the space backdrops vary from extremely pretty to staggering. Imagine images taken straight from the Hubble and used as backgrounds and that should give you an idea of the amount of detail that went into crafting each one. Flying past galaxies, suns, and nebulas has rarely felt so wonderous. There is beauty beyond description in the artistry on display and I’ve spent plenty of time just flying around looking at everything.

As impressive as the stellar backdrops are, the minute details that are everywhere continue to amaze me. A player flying to an advanced planet might find an artificial ring around it that runs an advertisement and the image of a local newscaster at the same time. This is while the planet is circled by its two moons both of which rotate at different speeds. While controlling robots during the RTS segments, watch in amazement as leaves are burned off of trees and grass is killed after bombs go off. The terrain may not be deformable, but players will be amazed at how the environments react to damage. Take a look at the back of the robots while in third-person mode and you’ll notice just how exact everything is. Small gears and steam whir and hiss while the robots move around, and it is very easy to find one’s self lost in the minutia. I find it unbelievable that the design team spent this much time and energy on the tiniest of details that some gamers might never notice.

When My Fair Lady first watched me play Space Rangers 2, she commented that the game looked archaic next to my other, more recent, titles. So why then does the score rank as high as it does if it pales in comparison to, say, Morrowind? The amount of love that went into the design of everything in this game from the galaxies to the individual planets to the way equipment moves on the load out screen and on and on is utterly staggering. I won’t hold this up to Half-Life 2 or even Morrowind as an example of how to tax a video card, but I will say the difference between this game and the others is that the look and feel of the universe give it the sense of being hand-made by people who care about making the best game they could. I love how this universe looks, and will continue to remain immersed in it for possibly years to come.

One of the hallmarks of a quality soundtrack is whether or not it sticks in your head and refuses to let go. The music of Space Rangers 2 sounds like an orchestra filtered through electronica and it is surprisingly addictive to listen to. I’ve whistled one piece in particular every day for the last two weeks and I get excited every time it queues up in the soundtrack. The music during the space sequences changes whenever you land on either a space station or a planet, so if you enjoy any part of the music you could find yourself making liberal use of turn-based feature. I also loved the tempo and beats of the terrestrial-based soundtrack, though the RTS segments feature only one track and it does get old after listening to it for an hour.

The sound effects are equally fun to listen to, but nowhere near as infectiously addictive as the music despite their throw-back nature. It’s almost like they were created with yester-year in mind because there are no sonic booms, no deafening explosions when a capital ship goes down in flames. All of the combat sounds remind one of early to mid-90’s space games like the Privateer series (slight digression – I liked part two more than part one if only because Clive Owen, John Hurt and Christopher Walken rule) where beam weapons and ion canons all sounded like someone making sound effects in their basement then turning them into midi files. It might be a little strange at first, but it compliments the game world in a very unique way.

There is absolutely no way Space Rangers 2 would pull off the delicate balancing act it does without a streamlined interface that was immediately intuitive. To control your ship, simply click where you want to go in the system and your ship will move there. If you want to attack another ship, simply click on it up to three times to cycle through the available combat options. Hitting the space bar will advance the turn to the next day, or simply double-clicking where you want to go will automatically cycle through the required number of turns to get to your destination.

At the bottom of the screen is a taskbar along which messages will appear while in-system. These come from ships requesting assistance against pirates, or reports from the interstellar news agency, among others. While on any of the different worlds, players will notice an information button during some of the menus. Clicking on this will automatically put a small I on the taskbar so that when you scroll over it you will receive the latest updates on goods and prices for that world. This makes the trading portion infinitely easier than guessing whether weapons are considered contraband on Earth or Mars.

There are key commands that any keyboard jockey will immediately take to. The M button brings up the galactic map, the H button takes player to their hanger, the F button lifts off from the hanger, and the G button goes to the governmental offices for tasks. There isn’t an option to remap these (at least that I found) but they all make sense. Since players will primarily use the mouse, the key commands are simply a bonus to have. Everything is accessible through the taskbar at the bottom which, I cannot stress enough, is as sleek and unobtrusive a command interface as any I’ve ever seen. Considering the massive amount of depth and information available and required by this game, the interface is nothing short of a miracle.

Christ, where do I start? There are more different gameplay forms in this one game than in a dozen others. Mini-games by themselves have almost become expected from modern games, but how many titles can you point to where each mini-game is completely different than the one that preceded it? The core of Space Rangers 2 is a turn-based space combat/trade game where players fly between planets and star systems either running cargo, engaging in combat with pirates, or joining star fleets en route to liberate entire systems from invading robots called Dominators.

Everything in space is turn-based which can be a little disorienting during your first time in combat. Hitting the space bar will pause between turns allowing the player to switch targets, flee, or go pick up dropped items while everyone else slugs it out. There are huge battles that players will take part in complete with capital ships exploding, missiles flying, fellow Rangers requesting backup before they’re blown to bits, and beam weapons galore. Once players start actively participating in the galactic liberation from the Dominators, the game becomes epic so much so that you feel like you’re taking part in a great crusade with nothing short of the galaxy at stake. No amount of hyperbole can put into words how much fun it is to survive a massive fight against the Dominators and be one of two or three ships to pull through.

That right there is where other games would call it a day. Not Space Rangers 2 by a long shot.

Say you pick up a mission from one planet that calls for you to hunt down and destroy a pirate whose ship doesn’t conform to EPA emissions standards. After taking care of business, complete with picking up your pay, you find out that he was a favored son of a particularly violent race. The next time you land on one of their planets, the governor immediately throws you in jail for the next 90 days with no hope of trial or even parole. This kicks off a text adventure straight out of the 1980s mainstay Choose Your Own Adventure novels, which were things I grew up with. Players can work out, train cockroaches to compete in races, throw parties in the galley, steal a fork and spoon to dig a tunnel to freedom, or become a snitch to curry favor with the guards. There are dozens of choices that affect your standing with the populace, your health, strength, intelligence, and medical needs. Players can shake down prisoners or even join in fights.

Players can also take investigative missions such as the one where you find yourself trapped on a planet and need to accumulate X amount of wealth to buy freedom for a woman’s husband. He’s been captured by a rival gang, and the only things you have going for you are limited fuel, a running clock, and a lot of enemies all out to kill you. All of this is yet another text-based adventure and these are both seriously addictive and insanely tough. Some of them are complex riddles, others are math-based logic problems, while yet others are nothing more than glorified rock-paper-scissors with mechs and guns. But the commonality among all of them is that you never know what you’ll find, and that just makes the adventure all the more exciting to take.

Oh, on occasion players might notice on the galactic starmap what looks like a black hole next to a system. When they check it out, they’ll find that they can fly into the black hole to uncover, yup, yet another mini-game. The best description I can think of for this is if you crossed the classic game Maelstrom with a pinball machine. There are some stellar artifacts to be found in black holes and it’s wild, addictive, and deceptively tough – which is the best way to describe Space Rangers 2 on the whole.

If players are into customization options then they’ll be drunk on this game. There are hundreds of different ship designs, each with their own pros and cons, and every single piece of equipment in the entire game can be modded. There are hundreds of modules that add functionality to equipment, but some of them are race-specific. If the Maloqs made a gun you really want but the module in your hold only works with Peleng-made equipment, then you have to make a tough decision. Of course, there are plenty of other gems to find in the most random places. For example, I flew out of a black hole mini-game and found an artifact in my hold that lets me create a new black hole anywhere I want.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is also a real-time strategy section of the game which is ground-based robot-on-robot combat. This portion has hotly divided fans online into two camps: Those who hate it and those who love it. I fall into the second camp because while it quickly becomes all about head-faking the AI, which is dirt stupid on both sides by the way, I have rarely had this much fun with any RTS game. The ground battles pit the player against up to three types of Dominators at a time and you can customize your robots right down to the weapons they wield and what type of chassis and legs they have. Do you prefer anti-grav or tracks? Would you like missile turrets or laser guns protecting your base and power plants? Would it make you happier if your robots had should-mounted mortars, or advanced armor shielding? If you want to take command of a robot, just click on it then hit the space bar and you’re now behind the wheels heading into combat. Doing this is a good way to take out an advance force without your own robots bungling their way right into the line of fire thereby annihilating both forces and leaving the player without any backup.

I also forgot to mention the pizza making contest that involves thickness, fish, and bribery. Buy the game if you want to know more. Heck, just buy this game and kick back for one of the wildest and most fun rides you will have all year on the PC.

There is literally something for everyone in Space Rangers 2. I have been absolutely addicted to it since buying it on a lark a few weeks ago. This monster is beyond huge, and the very best part is something I’ve left out. The starting conditions and galaxy are completely randomized so if you’re getting attacked by Dominators right from the start, then just restart and you might get a better galaxy. This combined with different starting conditions and abilities for each of the five races could lead to literally years worth of replayability. The DVD-only game also ships with the original Space Rangers just in case you can’t get enough of the sequel.

What more could anyone ask for?

One of the great boons of the internet is the ability to globally share information almost instantly. Courtesy of Bill Harris’s blog Dubious Quality, I unearthed this gem which now stands as my PC Game of the Year. For that I extend my heartfelt thanks to Bill for directing me to a game so alive and bursting with energy and creativity that I’ve sat still for hours on end utterly engrossed. Most recently The Movies has come closest to hitting my gaming sweet spot, but nothing else has pounded on it in the last few years quite like Space Rangers 2 has.

As I’ve grown older, I look back and smile at those all-night gaming marathons of my youth where I’d pass out on the couch at 5:30 a.m. bleary eyed from too much Final Fantasy. Space Rangers 2 has made me want to return to those days and that’s saying a lot since spare time is at a premium in my life. To return to My Fair Lady’s comment about how the game looks archaic compared to what I normally play, I told her it took me back to the days when developers focused on the game instead of the graphics. Imagination will always substitute for visual splendor if a story is told in a genius way, and Space Rangers 2 does exactly that. This is one for the record books, and simply must be played. To not do so would be a disservice to all those who consider themselves gamers. It will soon be available in the US but until then it can be purchased through the GoGamer link on the Gaming Trend homepage or at Fry’s Electronics. Go forth and enjoy one of the best examples of what computer gaming has to offer.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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