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They Made What Now?
Space Rangers. Ever heard of it? I don't blame you. Released in 2004, Space Rangers was a critically acclaimed but publicly ignored title made by Russian developer Element Games. In fact, I had never played it before I purchased Space Rangers 2. I had heard, however, the Space Rangers 2 was a classic sequel to a classic original, and that anyone who enjoys open-ended games (and I really, really do) would be living an incomplete life without it.
That is a heck of a spin. So does Space Rangers 2 live up to its reputation as an indie gaming superstar?
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The gameplay in Space Rangers 2 is well, schizophrenic - but in an amusing, challenging, and sometimes dangerous way. It is, for the most part, a silky-smooth turn-based space-adventure game presented to the player from a 2D overhead perspective. The game's world is entirely open to the player, allowing you to engage in all kinds of activities, from piracy to trading. The primary threat of the game, as indicated by the game's sub-title, is the Dominators, a machine race the threatens to wipe all biological life from the galaxy. There are no forced story missions however, so engaging the Dominators is entirely your choice. In fact, it is entirely possible that the galaxy will manage to fight back the Dominators without any help from the player, although getting yourself involved will, depending on your skill in combat, have a major impact on the course of the war.
The space-age core of Space Ranger's 2 is excellent. Navigating in space is a treat, thanks to a robust turn-based/real-time hybrid interface and wonderful controls. Ships respond with crisp, precise motions, and Dominator ships are challenging enough to inspire intense dog-fights. There is much more to the game than flying around shooting pew-pew at evil machines or innocent bystanders, however. The game also includes numerous mini-games which put you on the ground, and this is where the schizophrenia comes in. Besides fighting the Dominators in the skies, you can also fight them on the ground in a 3D RTS mini-game. Meanwhile, certain quests send you out on various adventures, such as competing in races, baking pizzas, or embarking on diplomatic missions, which are all played out in the form of text-based puzzles.
The quality of the side-tracks tends to vary wildly. The text-based adventures are often fun, but they can also be extraordinarily difficult. Expect to be kept spending some time getting re-acquainted with your calculator. The RTS mini-game is also difficult, but unlike the text-based segments, it is also numbingly boring. The gameplay centers around customizing robots which act as your only units, but the customization is kiddie-pool deep, as the more expensive parts are clearly better in every situation, and the AI is so slack-jawed that exploiting it is always the best strategy.
But ultimately, the less entertaining mini-games are no more distracting then the moles on Scarlet Johansson's cheek. Yea, its an imperfection. But if she asked out for dinner, you wouldn't much care.
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Technically, the graphics of Space Rangers 2 are nothing special. It is mostly 2D, with the exception of the land battles against Dominator robots, which are rendered in blocky, poorly-textured 3D. But there is more to graphics than polygon counts. Space Rangers 2 is easily one of the best looking 2D games ever made, thanks to a color pallet with more choices than a Chinese buffet. Worlds, nebula, and ships are all great to look at. Better yet, there is an unmistakable consistency in the game's graphical style. For example, you can tell what race a vessel belongs to simply by looking at it.
Aging has not treated Space Rangers 2 well however, because as beautiful and creative as the basic visuals are, the game's highest supported resolution is 1024x768. Stretching that across a modern 20"+ monitor does not look good, and downsizing the game into a windowed mode isn't an attractive option either. The upside to this is that the system requirements of Space Rangers 2 are very low. If you were looking for a game you can play on your laptop, or perhaps even netbook, here you go.
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In a time of games that seem to be largely disposable, lasting only a few weeks before they are beaten and then forgotten, longevity is an important. Longevity equals value, it equals attachment, it equals more fun. An outstanding game which lasts only two hours may leave a serious impression, but most people won't pay much for it, and it will probably be more easily forgotten then a good game that lasts forty.
But no worries. Space Rangers 2 is easily one of the best games money can buy when it comes to longevity. Like other open world games, such as Fallout 3, there is a lot of stuff to do in Space Rangers 2. You can focus on becoming the most feared pirate in the galaxy, and one you've accomplished that, you can transition into becoming a black market trader, and once you're finished with that, you can go out and try to stomp out the Dominators. This flexibility is reinforced by the lack of any sort of "standard" galactic map. Space Rangers 2 may owe a lot to open-world games, but it also owes a lot to 4X space-strategy games like Masters Of Orion 2. Before starting a game you can adjust all sorts of things, like the strength of the Dominators, the rate at which technological advances will become available, and the layout of the map. There are just as many places to play the game as their are ways to play it.
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Value And Verdict
I've had very little bad to say about Space Rangers 2. I think it is a great game, marred only by the text adventures, which are sometimes frustrating to solve, and the half-baked 3D RTS mode used to resolve planetary invasions. And these are nit-picks really, compared to the vast gameplay offered by Space Rangers 2. There is a lot to do, and almost all of it is great fun. The combat by itself is good enough to flesh out the entire game, but trading, adventuring, and exploring are all rewarding pursuits.
These qualities would be enough to earn the game four stars. But given that Space Rangers 2 can be purchased on Impulse for $19.99, the game earns itself another star for being a great value. I have only one word of warning. Some retail versions of Space Rangers 2 come with Starforce copyright protection, which can be a huge pain in the rear. The Impulse digital download does not include Starforce however, so I recommend purchasing from Impulse.