Galaxy on Fire 2: Freelancer By Any Other Name Would Be As Awesome.
Space sims are one of my favourite game genres. Indeed my go to title whenever I find myself without an Internet connection is Microsoft’s Freelancer, a game released way back in 2003 that still manages to be home to a lively modding community who’ve extended the games’ life considerably. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something of that calibre though with many recent titles like DarkStar One and Sol Exodus not managing to capture me in the same way. Eve Online got close though I’m hesitant to make comparisons between a MMORPG and a single player game as the experience is wildly different. On the surface Galaxy on Fire 2 would be in another world yet again however it really did feel like Freelancer all over again, and that’s a good thing.
Galaxy on Fire 2 isn’t a PC platform native. Whilst its original versions were released for Java (something I’m having trouble finding out if that meant it was actually keyboard/mouse) I was first introduced it as a title that I could use to stress my then shiny new Samsung Galaxy S2 with. After fiddling around with ChainFire3D for a while and eventually getting the Tegra emulation to work properly I was able to play Galaxy on Fire 2 without a problem and really quite enjoyed it. However holding an ever warming handset for more than 20 minutes was a tiresome experience so I never got around to finishing it. You can then imagine my excitement when I saw the title was coming to Steam in all its spacey glory.
You play as space fighter pilot Keith T. Maxwell, out on a routine mission to hunt down pirates and then head back to collect your reward. Unfortunately during the fire fight your hyperdrive is damaged causing your ship to begin malfunctioning. The malfunction then propels Keith forward in time 35 years and far across the galaxy where he finds himself among a newly formed confederation that’s severed all contact from the rest of the galaxy. At the same time a new threat in the form of a wormhole capable species begins attacking at random which Keith, of course, gets roped into helping out with.
I feel like just commenting on how the graphics look on PC would be doing Galaxy on Fire 2 something of an injustice. Taken in the context that the above pictures are a pretty similar quality to what you see on a phone says something about how powerful today’s smart phones really are and just how good Galaxy on Fire 2 looks on them. For a PC sure they’re not that fantastic (the screenshots are done with all the settings on absolute maximum) but in comparison to other recent titles in the same genre they’re actually not that bad and in light of their origins they’re actually quite impressive.
Just like any true space simulator there are a few core components that make up Galaxy on Fire 2′s game play. There’s the full 3D space combat where you’ll battle other enemies in space ships, a commodity trading market (including everyone’s favourite mini-game: mining!) and a set of storyline missions that functions as both a tutorial in the beginning as well as a way to give you game changing pieces of technology in an organic fashion. This level of detail is undoubtedly the reason why I feel that Galaxy on Fire 2 is well above its recent competitors as others would do away with one or more of the aspects which meant a good section of the expect game play in the genre was gone with nothing left to fill the void.
The combat in Galaxy on Fire 2 is pretty decent although its mobile roots do show in its simplicity. In essence most dogfights are the exact same encounter: you’ll get shot at from a distance, find the enemy that was shooting at you then proceed to chase them as you wear them down. The AI isn’t particularly smart and will react in pretty much the same way every time and thus the only real increase in challenge comes from either tougher enemies or by throwing large numbers of them at you. In essence it’s challenging right up until you figure out how to cheat the AI (hint: they can only seem to predict motion in 1 plane of movement) and then after that you’re pretty much just burning time until they all go boom.
There were 2 issues with the combat that I need to mention. The first is the lack of any trajectory compensating reticle, I.E. a little targeting thing that shows you were to aim in order to hit the target that’s moving in front of you. It’s pretty much a given in any space sim (and pretty much anything with a flying component these days) so its absence feels more like laziness than something that adds challenge. Indeed initially it forced me to choose a different weapon type in order to make aiming easier (read: rapid fire) which I felt was extremely limiting. The second issue is the motion of enemies when they’re close to static obstacles. Instead of flying around them enemies will instead hit them, stick to them, and then track along them; that is if they don’t just fly directly through them first. Collision avoidance in space sims isn’t particularly difficult so I can only hope its absence is deliberate for one reason or another.
The trading section is pretty interesting as reading about it on some of the Galaxy on Fire 2 forums shows that it has supply and demand curves so you can create demands in areas and then fill them later on for a huge profit. I personally didn’t bother much with it until I got the blueprint for the Khador drive which requires about $40K worth of materials but retails for about 6 times that which sent me on a trading rampage to try and find the cheapest places so I could start churning these things out. I only ended up building 2 of them in the end and that was enough to get me a ship (a Groza, if you’re interested) that was more than capable of handling pretty much everything that was thrown at me, despite what the forums said to the contrary.
The missions, both the story line and I assume procedurally generated space lounge ones, are pretty simplistic in nature with most of them being not much more than a variation of the “Go here, kill that, repeat” kind of deal. They do mix it up a bit with some of them being disable, capture or raiding pirate base type affairs which helps to keep it interesting for a while but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get repetitive after a while. Indeed I think this is a problem with most space simulators as the grind of working up to better ships and weapons often sees you repeating the same missions unless you find a shortcut of some description (like selling Khador drives).
The story of Galaxy on Fire 2 certainly isn’t bad but if you’re looking for something akin to a space opera like Battlestar Galactica you’re going to be left wanting. It’s fully voice acted with the actors doing a good job of making the dialogue lively but there really isn’t much to it apart from the wry humour and half assed romance plot. It’s enough to carry the game along and I did genuinely want to see Keith and his love interest get together but there was no lasting emotional impact which is usually how I judge a good quality story.
After saying all that you’d get the impression that I didn’t really enjoy Galaxy on Fire 2 but actually I quite did. Sure the graphics and gameplay are somewhat simplistic and the combat gets repetitive but Galaxy on Fire 2 is the closest thing I’ve had to Freelancer in a long, long time. That’s saying a lot as Freelancer was a game made with (I assume) a much bigger budget and was built for the PC from the ground up rather than coming to it after finding wild success on the mobile market. As a mobile game Galaxy on Fire 2 is an incredible demonstration of what the smart phone platform is capable of. On the PC its a great experience for those of us who cut our teeth on other space sims and hopefully Fishlabs will continue to release their titles (and expansion packs) for the platform.
Galaxy on Fire 2 is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $5.49, $4.99 and $19.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Hard difficulty with 7 hours of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.