A number of readers have questioned Space Rogue's RPG credentials. It is admittedly not a classic RPG: The PC doesn't gain in experience and levels, the combat is mostly action-oriented, and there's no "equipment" in the standard sense, making it fail my criteria for an RPG on the surface. However, Starflight has the same problems, and you all would have organized a DDoS attack on my site if I hadn't played it. You have to make certain allowances for the different nature of science fiction RPGs, and in this case those allowances come with recognizing the ship as part of the "character" and the equipment upgrades that come with the ship a part of "character development." Plus, the game has NPC dialogue with choices, which rarely occurs outside an RPG.
I confess that when I first heard the title, I imagined that it would be some version of Rogue, but set in space, which of course isn't anywhere close to what it is. Instead, it feels more like a science fiction version of Pirates! coupled with the the NPC dialogue system of 2400 A.D.
The game is set in a region of space called the "Far Arm"; a network of nine planetary systems linked through "Malir Gates," which allow access to hyperspace. The well-written back story (supplemented by a pre-game sequence) describes how the protagonist, the son of a jeweler, had always dreamed of traveling through space. When he came of age, he joined the merchant marines and was assigned to his first ship, Princess Blue. After a year experiencing the wonders of the universe and the ship's technology, the protagonist was assigned to board and investigate a derelict ship, the Jolly Roger, that the Princess Blue found floating in space. While he was aboard the empty vessel, a group of "Manchi" ships appeared and, without warning or provocation, destroyed the Princess Blue. Left alone in space, the protagonist takes possession of the Jolly Roger and heads towards the nearest starbase to start investigating what happened to his ship and friends.
Space Rogue has only a few gameplay mechanisms and dynamics. The first, and the one I explored the most during this opening session, is trade. It is unsophisticated. There are a number of outposts scattered about the nine systems, and each buys and sells various goods for different prices. The goods available to buy at specific outposts are randomized upon each visit, but there is hardly any variance (maybe 10%) in the prices from visit to visit. This means that, for instance, if you find dilithium for sale at Hiathra, it will always be around $50, and you can always sell it at MiCon for around $85. It's just a matter of taking notes. Pirates! had things like pirate raids, plagues, Indian attacks, and gold rushes that affected the price of goods at various ports over time, but there's nothing that complex here.
|"X-rated holos" sell for $90 on MiCron and $160 on Hiathra. It's not that I want to be a pornographer, but I can't resist those margins.|
A couple of logistical barriers keep you from getting too rich too quickly. First, you actually have to take the time to travel from one base to another. Even within a single system, the navigation and docking maneuvers can take a little while. Between systems, where you have to navigate Malir Gates, it takes a really long time and is prone to bad things happening. Second, you have very limited cargo capacity. You start with room for only three or four items at a time, and even maxing out on cargo pods at $150 each gives you room for only eight items. Trading eight units of dilithium between Hiathra and MiCon nets only about $280. You soon learn to look for the items that provide the best buying/selling ratios in terms of raw dollars.
|Keeping a log of prices at each station is the way to excel at trade.|
Occasionally, goods "spoil" between ports, ruining your investment for that haul. With all of these logistical barriers, it took me about three hours focusing solely on trade to make $5000, enough to buy decent weapons and shields for my ship.
Some of the items in which you can trade are contraband--risky because the authorities do a random check of your cargo every time you dock. A robot sold me some "forged cargo papers" to use in such instances, but I haven't tested them yet.
Space flight and combat make up the second major dynamic of the game. In flying, you can switch between "cockpit" mode, where you see things in 3D view and have to do all the flying yourself, and "navigation" mode, where you set a destination and let the ship plot the course and fly itself there. But when you arrive, you have to take over and go to "cockpit" mode to dock the ship, so there's no way to complete the entire game on autopilot.
|Flying on autopilot to the MiCon base. That "ALERT" notice is always on my screen, regardless of whether there's an actual alert.|
I find the "cockpit" mode navigation difficult and frustrating, and clearly intended for players with a joystick. On the numeric keypad, 4 and 6 adjust the yaw, 8 and 2 adjust the pitch, and 1 and 3 adjust the roll. The + and - keys adjust speed. The problem is, it's not a simple matter of holding the key the way you want to turn and then letting it go when you've turned enough. Instead, these keys control the speed at which you turn, so if you hold down the "4" key for a few seconds, you'll be in an uncontrolled counter-clockwise spin. Pressing "6" at this point doesn't cancel the spin; it just slows it. You have to hit "6" enough times to counter the effects of all the times (or seconds) you hit "4" before you finally slow down and then reverse direction. Fortunately, the "S" key stops all rotation; otherwise, I'd find the ship impossible control. As it is, it's quite difficult.
Docking with starports is a complex maneuver. You can't simply run right into them; that's "crashing." You have to identify the specific point where docking takes place, often signaled by nothing more than a different color, and aim directly for that.
|The drunk pilot flies into port. This is speeded up about 2-3X.|
|The top-down navigation in spaceport actually mimics the shape of the station from the exterior. Note how my "dock" is on the interior ring of the station.|
Combat in space is like maneuvering but with the added need to hit the SPACE bar to fire missiles or lasers. You can also enter "Newtonian" control mode during combat, allowing you to strafe enemies or suddenly turn on your axis (without affecting the direction of your thrust) to shoot at enemies behind you. I haven't had many reasons to engage in combat just yet--only a few random attacks by pirates--so I haven't fully mastered it.
|Attacking the underside of a ship within an asteroid field. I can't hit the "screen capture" button quick enough to get the laser shots in there. I'll have to take video later.|
Incidentally, I find it easy to accidentally hit SPACE and fire lasers while approaching a space port, at which point I get this message:
There are other objects in space. In an asteroid field, you have to shoot the asteroids to avoid losing your ship's armor. There are planets, but I don't think there's any way to productively interact with them; the manual specifically says that your ship can't take the stress of landing on them. There are stars, but you'd really have to try to fly into them.
|What happened when I tried to land on a planet.|
Curiously, the "Hawking Drives" on the Jolly Roger seem to require no fuel at all. There's no fuel meter nor any place to purchase fuel in the game. One logistical consideration that you don't have to worry about.
The third game dynamic involves exploring starbases in iconographic mode and talking with NPCs.
|Exploring a room on the Hiartha base. There's an NPC to my lower left and lots of empty suits and bookcases to search throughout the room, but the "key card" I found in this suit was the only thing I found on the entire base.|
The NPC dialogue system is not as advanced as in other Origin titles, but you do have some options, with consequences to the choices that you make.
In addition to pre-determined dialogue choices, you have an "Other" option with key NPCs, allowing you to ask about keywords given to you by other NPCs. There aren't many NPCs in the game, though--maybe four or five per station. There are a couple other things you can do while exploring stations, like interacting with shopkeepers (this is where you trade) and searching bookcases and chests and such. I hardly ever find anything. The interface here is very reminiscent of 2400 A.D. from a few years ago.
|I had to break into this storage area, but I didn't find a single thing in all the containers that I searched.|
In terms of the main storyline of the game, I started by getting my official "pilot's license" from the Imperium (the government that runs the Far Arm) from a functionary named Orellian on the Hiathra base (the first base you visit). Getting it involved answering some physics questions. If these ansers were anywhere in the documentation, I didn't find them, but fortunately I had Wikipedia. Getting the license allowed me to purchase equipment for my ship.
|How many people know this answer? The first question was the number of light years in a parsec; the second was the spectral type of the hottest star.|
On the MiCon base, an NPC named Sir Eld asked me to bring a statuette to Orellian. Once I'd done so, he gave me some trading advice ("buy low, sell high" was particularly welcome; I'd been doing it all wrong!) and a "stealth box" to help keep me hidden from pirates.
|To be fair, he also gave me more targeted advice.|
That seemed to exhaust my opportunities in the first sector, so I made my way to the Malir Gate to jump to the Deneb system and see if I could speak to Duchess Avenstar, whom everyone seems to adore. Navigating Malir Gates is tricky. You have to fly through a twisty wormhole. If you go outside the tunnel, the jump is rendered "faulty," and you end up back where you started but with decreased armor. And you have to navigate the tunnel quite quickly, because the "gasses" in the wormhole continually eat away at your armor. Go too slow, and your ship will be destroyed. It took me a few tries.
|Flying through the rings of a wormhole. It gets a lot twistier than this, but I was too busy during those moments to take screen shots.|
I found Avenstar on the Deneb Prime base, and the encounter was interesting. She made me hold a "Sphere of Truth" that she said would kill me instantly if I lied (but after the conversation, she admitted it was a hoax). After a few questions about my ship and how I got it...
...Avenstar told me that I was "the one" but she wouldn't elaborate. She sent me out the door and told me to return when I have "become a seasoned warrior."
According to the manual, my options for doing this are a) piracy and b) bounty hunting. I don't fully understand the mechanisms for either. I did destroy a pirate ship at one point (or maybe it was a Manchi ship), but no one hastened to give me a reward for it. By next time, I should know what I'm doing.
|I assume that becoming a successful pirate or bounty hunter affects your "repute" and your status with the various factions.|
Some other potentially-interesting plot threads and quests are developing. Some NPCs talk about a "Black Hand Cult," a group of psionic assassins, and there are rumors that Avenstar is under their spell. There is, of course, the Manchi threat; the Manchi are clearly aliens, but the game has given me no clues as to their motives or what they look like. A robot wants me to find his lost love, a maid robot, who's in danger of being reprogrammed into a trash compactor.
|"Interfaced perfectly" is more than I needed to know.|
The game seems to feature the right amount of difficulty. I've had some misfortune, but nothing game-breaking. You can only save in space, and there's no "load" option, which means that if you want to try different dialogue options with NPCs, you really have to want it, because you'll have to go through the process of killing the game, restarting, answering the copy protection question again, re-docking with the starport, and finding the NPC.
Finally, Space Rogue features a reasonably-complex minigame called HIVE which you can find at terminals in bars. HIVE casts you in the role of a pilot whose ship has crash-landed on an alien planet. He's immediately attacked by insects and has to blast them to escape. The gameplay is primitive--just face the enemy and shoot--but it's still a fun little diversion. I'm not sure if it serves any story purpose within the game; it feels like perhaps it was the result of an interface mechanic (planetary exploration) that never got implemented in the main game.
In general, Space Rogue feels like a minor game, with a few innovative elements, that I'll be happy to play to the end but that I hope doesn't last overly long.