Space Cowboys From Hell
I’ve always been a sucker for games that allow me to get lost in the vastness of space. Ever since the first time I fired up Star Voyager on the NES, the appeal of exploring uncharted galaxies, dog-fighting ruthless space pirates and blazing my path through space’s inky black expanse has been undeniable. Since then, we’ve seen countless other games seek to capture the thrill of navigating perilous intergalactic frontiers, allowing armchair space jockeys to turn the cosmos into their own virtual playgrounds. Now, Double Damage Games, the studio headed by the creators of the infectious Torchlight and Diablo series, are trying their hands at capturing the thrill of space exploration with Rebel Galaxy. Wearing its Serenity-shaped heart on its sleeve, this epic space western promises players a world of freedom as they smuggle, mine and shoot their way through a star system teeming with adventure. The total package is certainly ambitious, but does it all come together into one cogent space opera experience, or is Rebel Galaxy merely lost in space?
Rebel Galaxy wastes little time with introductions, quickly throwing players into the role of a newly-minted adventurer on a mission to find your aunt, who just so happens to be aligned with some rather unsavory elements in the smuggling business. However, the game’s main story quickly falls to the wayside as you’re left off the leash to explore the cosmos to your heart’s content. It’s here that Rebel Galaxy really comes into its own, allowing players to embark on their journey as a fearsome spacefaring pirate, intergalactic smuggler, deep-space miner or deadly bounty hunter over the course of their adventure. As you begin undertaking missions, which run the gamut from mundane tasks such as harvesting precious space ore from asteroid belts to blasting hulking dreadnoughts to space dust, you’ll fill your coffers with credits which you can use to customize nearly every facet of your spacecraft. These upgrades include everything, right down to the number of gun emplacements on your ship, the power of its boosters and even the type of armor and shields you’ll use to absorb enemy fire. Of course, if you’re swimming in cash you can purchase bigger and badder ships as well, which offer a greater number of weapons platforms, mightier upgrades and more cargo space to haul all of the precious contraband you’ll be unloading on the game’s constantly fluctuating commodities market. Simply put, there’s no shortage of fun and exciting things to do in Rebel Galaxy, and the universe is your oyster.
As you make your way through the various procedurally-generated star systems, asteroid belts and backwater outposts that dot the game’s universe, you’ll come across numerous factions who make up the social tapestry Rebel Galaxy‘s lawless space frontier. These groups range from bands of space pirates to militias and merchant groups, each vying for control of various sectors. As you probably already guessed, taking on jobs to rid areas of criminal scum will make the various gangs lose faction with you, whereas being caught with illicit contraband one too many times will quickly make the authorities view you as a menace and target you on sight. While this system works just fine on a mechanical level, the factions themselves scarcely stand out apart from that, and come across as largely two dimensional entities. A little extra effort to bring these various factions to life would have gone a long way toward breathing some life into Rebel Galaxy‘s sterile stellar setting.
Of course, you’ll never make it too far in Rebel Galaxy without running into a fight. It’s here that the game does things a bit unconventionally, choosing a more methodical battle system than you might be expecting from other space shooters that ask you to “pew first, ask questions later.” Controlled in the second dimension, the Shipborne combat in Rebel Galaxy is more reminiscent of naval skirmishes than other space shooters, with a strong emphasis on outflanking your enemy and striking them with your heavy armament where they’re most vulnerable. If you happened to play Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, you’ll feel right at home with the game’s ship-based combat, which generally has players pelting an enemy’s shield with light energy weapons, then lining up a mighty shot from your vessel’s broadside cannons, which can quickly reduce an exposed hull to space dust. The enemy craft will do their best to outmaneuver you, and have the added luxury of full 3D flight, which can admittedly make battles feel a bit disorienting and unbalanced at times, as enemy craft can consistently peg you from any angle as you’re locked into a single plane. Even still, you learn to deal with it, and before long you’ll become an ace at targeting your foes, boosting to more advantageous positions and mitigating damage with your deflector shields. With so many things to manage, combat consistently feels like a tug of war, which, while great in theory, ends up becoming a bit tiresome when you realize most fights play out exactly the same way, with you slowly circling your enemy, pinging them with weightless fire until their shields eventually dissipate and their vulnerable hull is exposed. A greater variety in enemy ships and some weightier firepower would have gone a long way toward spicing up the game’s combat. It’s still perfectly serviceable, but it could have been much more.
In terms of presentation, Rebel Galaxy doesn’t do much to push the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One hardware, but it’s perfectly serviceable. The universe is vibrant and varied, with nebulae to explore, crystalline ice fields to navigate and various stars and gas giants dotting the vastness of space. There are a pretty diverse number of ships to choose from as well, with your starting vessel sharing more than a passing resemblance to Firefly’s Serenity, which makes acquiring new vessels satisfying, and you’ll never get tired of the sight of seeing an enemy ship explode into the side of an incoming asteroid, lighting up the horizon. The tunes that accompany the action are a whiskey-soaked blend of Molly Hatchet-inspired anthems that are a nice fit considering the whole “Space Western” theme the game has going for it, which you’ll either love or mute altogether depending on your personal tastes.
While Rebel Galaxy may be rough around the edges in some regards, these missteps never quit diminish the game’s ability to pull you into its universe. The game is certainly ambitious, and whether you’re living the space pirate life or tracking down the galaxy’s most nefarious scum to claim their bounties, there’s always something to keep you going. The thrill of purchasing a new ship to dock in your hangar, or decking out your current ride with the latest and greatest hardware is consistently satisfying, and is sure to scratch the itch of any completionists out there as they work up the cash to build the perfect vessel for their long journey through the cosmos. Sure, the underwhelming story is a drag, and combat never quite lives up to its potential, but these issues are easily overlooked by the game’s addicting mechanics and the wealth of freedom it affords the player. Rebel Galaxy may not be perfect, but it’s a great start, and with a little more refinement developer Double Damage could really do something special if they choose to revisit the property down the road. Despite its lack of polish, Rebel Galaxy is well worth the $20 price of admission, and an utterly engrossing experience that fans of the genre would do well to check out.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: Double Damage; Developer: Double Damage; Players: 1; Released: January 5, 2016; Genre: Space Sim/RPG; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Double Damage.