Spaceforce: Rogue Universe PC Review

I must admit, despite being quite a fan of space-based shooters, I often find it pretty difficult to explain what makes some of them good, and some bad. What makes me play the original X: Beyond the Frontier over the much glossier X3? Why are internet forums still chock full of people claiming that the eight year-old Freespace 2 is the king of the genre? And, most pertinently of all, why have I recently been spending more time with Beyond the Red Line – an unfinished, home-made game based around the excellent Battlestar Galactica remake – than I have with Spaceforce: Rogue Universe?

Alright, so that’s not totally fair. Beyond the Red Line isn’t a ‘game’, per se – it’s a stand-alone modification for Freespace 2, and therefore takes the majority of its host’s finely tuned physics and the like that made it ‘feel’ right in the first place. Plus, it’s not actually finished yet. But the free demo shows a great of promise, and it speaks volumes that something put together by a bunch of nerds in their spare time can easily rival a ‘proper’ game, doesn’t it?

Spaceforce is a member of the increasingly popular space-flighty-tradey-shooty genre, and offers you two ways of tackling its vast universe. First up is ‘story mode’, that has you playing a young pilot trying to track down his missing sister whilst having some hang-up about his dead father. I can’t really tell you much more than that, not for fear of spoiling it, but because the plot was so badly written and acted that I completely lost interest in it after about ten minutes. Then there’s ‘free mode’, which is exactly what you’d imagine it to be. You pick your character’s race and the ship you want (you can only choose the most basic models, obviously), and you’re thrown into the universe to fend for yourself. Trouble is, both of these modes are flawed, just in different ways.

Story mode, the one you’ll want to dive into first in the hope that the addition of a structured narrative will help you ease into the game, is badly paced and pretty unforgiving. After some embarrassing FMV, you’re told to go and activate a bunch of satellites as your final training mission, at which point a bunch of pirates appear out of nowhere. “Steady on,” you think, “why is the game throwing me into life-or-death combat before I’ve had even the most basic controls explained to me?” – well, hey, don’t worry, because your ship’s computer will step in to help you out. If you want to fire your lasers, she says, you need to press the FIRE PRIMARY WEAPON button. Targeting, on the other hand, is handled by pressing the TARGET NEAREST ATTACKER button. Well, thanks a bunch. I’ll just spend the next twenty minutes hitting ESC and checking the unintuitive controls in the options screen every five seconds, thus more or less completely ruining the experience. Seriously – thanks. Dogfighting is, at first, a confusing and tedious affair – and once the confusion is out of the way, you’re just left with the tedium. The trouble with space is that there’s not a lot in it – if you’ve just got a couple of ships endlessly circling around each other, the fight won’t be very interesting. You need to populate the place if you want things to be exciting – make the player think they’re in a believable world, or give him more complicated objectives other than ‘shoot the other guy’. That’s not all that’s wrong with it, either. For a game that talks like it wants you to go wherever the hell you like and go exploring or trading, Spaceforce’s story mode spends an awful lot of time telling you to hop to the next sector and, um, shoot some more pirates to trigger another godawful cut-scene.

Free mode, on the other hand, suffers from being the exact opposite of this. While story mode seems intent on leading you by the hand every step of the way, free mode just drops you in the universe and says “There – off you go”. If there really was a decent game hiding away here, you could commend the developers for taking such a brave stance – after all, X: Beyond the Frontier pulled it off pretty well. As it is, you just find yourself struggling to even bother exploring the vacuous world the developers have created, as you’re given no real motivation or clue as to what you’re meant to be doing. You can get into the odd scrap with a space pirate, but really, why would you? They rarely seem to carry any decent cargo for you to steal, and fighting them certainly isn’t much fun.

Oh, and the RPG elements. The ones you won’t even realise are there until you buy a shiny new weapon, try to fit it to your ship, and are told that you can’t because your weapon proficiency isn’t high enough. What? Weapon proficiency? I’ve been pointing my old weapon at pirates and blasting the hell out of them for the last two hours, so you’ll forgive me for thinking that my weapon proficiency is just fine, thanks.

The main problem with Spaceforce is it doesn’t seem to want to show you what the game’s all about – and the stuff it’s eager to show you is all fairly dire. The game does look spectacular, mind – you can see that much from the screenshots – and if you think that’s enough to merit your twenty quid, then by all means go for it. Personally, I’m off to play the Beyond the Red Line demo, again. Cheerio!

Might be secretly really good – but if you’ve actually got the patience to find that out, you’re a better man than most.

4 out of 10
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