Back in 2003, a little game called Freelancer came out of a small studio called Digital Anvil aaaaaaand…kinda set the space gaming world ablaze. It’s combination of accessible mouse-based controls, viscerally fast-paced combat, vibrant open world and lovely graphics gave it plenty of fans (myself included), plus its moddability still gives it plenty of legs, as people still mod and play it to this day.
Enter the Galaxy of Fire games, which began as mobile games I would term “Freelancer Lite”. I played the first one on an iPhone 3G a few years ago and enjoyed it, so when I heard the sequel — Galaxy on Fire II HD — was coming to the PC, I jumped at the chance to play it. Several hours later, I’m confident in my opinion that not only does this game stand well on its own, but in many ways is BETTER than the game it’ll be endlessly compared to.
We find ourselves in the role of Keith T. Maxwell, war hero and pirate/bounty hunter. After dispatching a couple of rascally scoundrels, Keith finds his ship damaged. The pirates must’ve hit the Flux Capacitor because shortly thereafter, Keith finds himself not only across the galaxy from where he was, but also thirty-five years in the future. Thankfully, the fella that finds Keith is nice enough to loan him a spaceship in return for some basic work like mining (mining? YAY!) and pirate cleanup.
Eventually Keith is given this ship, Betty — a real rustbucket if ever there was one — and allowed to start on his new life. This sets off the game’s main story, which you can follow or ignore as you like. I actually followed it closely because it’s very entertaining, exciting and sadly ends too abruptly, as I was really enjoying it (it took around 5 hours to complete, all told). The story should be played regardless, as it also serves as something of a tutorial on its own, introducing the player to trading, looting, weapon usage, building items from blueprints and so on. I won’t give more details except that working for scientists is damned fun.
The real star of this game, however, is its gameplay, which is exciting, fun and well-varied. Let me first apologize for the comparisons to Freelancer, they can’t be helped, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum. ;) Galaxy on Fire II HD (GoF2 from now on) sports a mouse/keyboard control scheme similar to aforementioned other game with a few notable differences (though it can also support a gamepad, apparently), such as being able to buy components to make your ship even more maneuverable. Some ships were then VERY sensitive and needed to be flown with care, which is a nice touch I enjoyed. Weapon controls are also fairly similar to Freelancer, but with some differences in how they’re utilized.
For example, here, the LMB simply fires all of your guns, no matter what you have equipped. Your RMB fires whichever missile you have selected (some ships can carry two types, handy for switching between regular missiles and, say, EMP missiles), which you can select from a simple menu. This sacrifice control is made up with blessed simplicity, as all you really need to do is point and shoot without worrying about weapon groups and the like.
One major difference in how GoF2 handles things is targeting, and it took me a bit of getting used to. In other games, you hit a button to scroll through a target list, or hit a button to target the closest enemy, for example. Here, you have to hover your crosshair over a target for a moment to actually target it, be it friendly or foe, ship or planet even (more on that in a second). While such a simplistic targeting method might piss me off in other games, here since you’re only asked to target other ships, it works just fine. The radar is also a bit different, taking up much of your forward viewscreen rather than a small separate display. Again, it works well after adapting to it, which doesn’t take long.
This is good because combat in the game is fast, furious and a near constant. Most of the time you’ll be attacked by pirates (along with some story-based aliens), and while these bouts of combat are fun, it does display one of the game’s few flaws, ship AI. The other ships in GoF2 aren’t particularly smart, nor do they engage in any tricky maneuvers to avoid your fire. They nearly all do the same thing: attack head first, run away when they get damaged enough to scare ’em, then attack head first again. The only advantage they have — besides numerical — is that EVERY FIGHTER IN THE GAME IS FASTER THAN YOURS (at least it feels that way when you can’t catch up to ANY ship…).
This wonky AI behavior is a crime many space games are guilty of, however, so I can’t fault GoF2 TOO much for this, but it needs to be noted. Another crime many games commit that GoF2 does to an extent is that nearly EVERY ENEMY SHIP attacks you and you alone. This doesn’t happen 100% of the time, more like 70% maybe, but it is noticeable. Regardless of these issues, however, I still had a blast shooting up other ships in GoF2. Combat is fast paced and visceral, and ships blow up real good.
Getting into these combat situations is also pretty easy. Either through story-based missions or random missions gathered in space lounges (of which there are several different types, from combat to rescue to ferrying passengers), you’ll never be out of combat for long if you so choose. The game also makes navigation pretty simple, though it’s a bit funky at first. In most games, with in-system flight, you select a destination from a list or map, or dock at a trade lane or some such. Here, you target the planet and hit the Dock button, which warps you over there. This took a bit betting used to, but worked fine overall. Jumping from system to system, as well as docking at stations and such, works as one would expect and is very straightforward.
Now, let’s move onto one of my favorite parts of the game, the ships. GoF2 has around thirty different ships to choose from, from tiny fighters to missile bombers, freighters and high-tech heavy fighters. I’ve only flown a few of these so far, but they’re all nicely varied and can be used in different situations. Some fighters have a turret, for example, which is good when all you wanna do is dock without fighting some pirates, so you hit the autopilot and blast away at ’em. Ships also have variations in how many pieces of equipment they can install, how many primary and secondary weapons, cargo space as well as differences in maneuverability.
There are also TONS of different weapons types to choose from, from lasers to heat cannons to slug cannons and so on, which allows you to play according to the style you want. This goes along with the very wide variety of equipment options, from scanners and tractor beams to boosters to crew cabins and everything in between. This further allows you to customize your ship for the task at hand. If you want to be a pirate, equip some EMP missiles and a powerful tractor beam to pull cargo out of disabled ships. If you want to be a trader, get a freighter with a bunch of turrets. If you want to be a miner, get a fighter with a big cargo bay and accurate mining laser.
And it’s here where I discuss the main reason why I think GoF2 is better than Freelancer…it’s because there’s simply more to do! I never even considered trading or mining in Freelancer (could you even mine in the game? I don’t recall, which is bad because I LOVE mining) because it didn’t have any kind of dynamic economy, so it barely mattered. I’ve dabbled a little with trading, and the economy does seem to be dynamic, but I’m not 100% on that, but mining…oh lord, mining. Mining is a minigame unto itself. When you dock with an asteroid, you have to keep your cursor within the mining circle, which gets smaller and smaller the more you drill. It’s a fun exercise that makes mining those valuable cores in the center of some asteroids even more challenging and worthwhile.
There’s also more variety in mission type as well. In Freelancer it was always “go here and kill this person”, which is fun, but gets dull after a while. In GoF2, other pilots will challenge you to kill more pirates than them, some folks will want you to expose an informant but not pay you if you shoot down any other ship, and others will want you to disable a ship and steal some cargo for them, for example. The mission variety has kept things very exciting. One thing that also adds to the excitement are Steam achievements, which I usually don’t care about, but I LOVE them here. ;)
The universe doesn’t feel as alive as that other game, but it’s close, the only thing lacking is radio traffic. Freighters come to and fro, patrols hound pirates around their stations and pirates jump out of nowhere to attack you. The universe feels quite alive, and it’s also quite pretty, thanks to some lovely graphics. For an indie game born in the mobile market, this is one fine looking game.
Even better is the sound. The music is appropriately techno-esque, which works well in a space setting, but the thunderous bass used in explosions and weapons fire made my desk shake, and wonderfully so. Presentation-wise, there is nothing here to complain about.
Overall, while the game has some issues, they’re neither annoying nor glaring enough to have gotten in the way of the sheer FUN I had playing this game. I am really, REALLY enjoying my time with GoF2, and even though the story is now over, I’ve been making my own story thanks to a stream of fun and varied missions. I’d say if you enjoyed Freelancer in any way shape or form, you need this game. Hell, even if you just enjoy space combat, Galaxy on Fire II HD will deliver in spades. Highly recommended.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my review, and I hope you enjoy the game as much as I am. Finally, please enjoy the gallery of all the screenshots I took for the game below (FYI, these can be a TINY bit spoilery for the main plot, so if you care about that sort of thing, you’ve been warned ;). Thanks for reading!