Spaceforce: Rogue Universe (also know as Spaceforce 2) is another in the long line of space exploration/combat/trading games that stretch all the way back to the original Elite. It's fair to say that every space game since Elite has been trying to capture the indefinable something that made Elite so special. A few games have come close - Freespace and Freelancer spring immediately to mind - but none of these contenders have ever really stolen the crown. Sure, Elite benefits hugely from rose-coloured nostalgia, but it really did set the gold standard for space sims many years ago.
Initial impressions of Spaceforce can be summed up in two phrases. Firstly, "It's so pretty!" And secondly, "What the heck is going on?" In fact, those two phrases combined provide a reasonable summary of the whole Spaceforce experience, only with the initial bewilderment gradually giving way to drowsy familiarity.
Let's start with the prettiness. As gorgeous as the screenshots are, it all looks so much better in motion. Everything sparkles and glows, the starscapes you travel through are varied and interesting and there's always something new to look at. The game is packed full of abandoned space stations, asteroid belts, anomalies and a hugely varied collection of wonderfully designed spaceships. As you flit about the universe, you'll enter territories controlled by different species and the look of everything changes to match, from angular and industrial to bizzare and sprouty. Things are equally as impressive when the plasma bolts start flying. Ships explode with screen-filling ferocity and the various guns and missiles at your disposal let you deal death in a most attractive manner. Spaceforce is, without doubt, the best looking space sim to date, and it manages it all without requiring a high-end system.
But what of the actual game? As hinted at earlier, expect the first few hours with the game to be spent in a confused and frustrated state. The manual is practically useless, functioning as little more than a general overview of the game. We've spent countless hours with the game and still have no idea what some of the numbers and icons on the HUD mean. Even the "tutorial" that greets you when you first fire up the game is worthless. It happily informs you that you can, for example, teleport abandoned cargo aboard your ship but neglects to tell you which keys you need to press to make that happen. Trial and error is your best option and for a game as expansive and detailed as Spaceforce, that's a huge negative. A quick look at the game's official forums will reveal a community collectively scratching their heads and trying to work it all out. This all results in a needlessly steep learning curve for a game that is, once you get to grips with it, not particularly complicated.
Sooner or later the clouds begin to part and Spaceforce reveals itself to be a solid but familiar space sim. Your first choice is whether you want to play in Story Mode or Free Mode. Story Mode casts you as generic space hero Jim Anderson and presents a series of missions that guide you through a hunt for your kidnapped sister. It's neither involving nor particularly well-written and serves up some truly awful voice acting, even when set against the abysmally low standards we've all come to expect. You're much better off going for Free Mode, which lets you do whatever you want in Spaceforce's universe. Free Mode also gives you more choices in setting up your character, rather than insisting you play as Spaceman Jim. Choose to be one of ten professions - soldier, miner, trader and so on - and you'll get a boost to your stats in relevant areas.
And off you go, to do... what, exactly? Initially, you'll need to get some cash in the bank, and the easiest way to do this is to get some mining tools and head out to the nearest asteroid belt. This should get the ball rolling and you'll quickly have enough money to start upgrading your ship and be able to take on some of the more lucrative quests that are on offer at every space station. These quests involve reactivating satellites, killing pirates, destroying buildings or capital ships, protecting convoys and generally acting like a space cop (or space villain, if you prefer). You can ignore the quests altogether and spend your time searching for profitable trade routes and mining asteroids, then taking advantage of a crafting system that lets you convert your stash of minerals into power-ups for your ship.
Once you've scaled the learning curve and settled into the game, Spaceforce becomes a reasonably pleasant way to spend an evening. The brilliant graphical presentation certainly helps to draw you in and the gradual buffing up of your ship is a mildly addictive pursuit. Once your coffers have filled up, you'll be able to employ wingmen, maybe buy a whole new ship, get your hands on some high-end weaponry and pop back to visit those pirates who gave you so much trouble early on. The combat works well. It's the standard loop-and-swoop, as you try to get a bead on the bad guy, wear down his shields and chuck the odd missile or two up his tailpipe. The shielding system has a touch of the old Lucasarts X-Wing and Tie Fighter games about it, in that you can flick between full fore or aft shields, or a balance between the two. That's about as complicated as it gets, though. It's not groundbreaking, but it works. Mouse and keyboard control is fine, and you can use a gamepad or joystick if you prefer.
It's diverting enough, then, to just bumble about in Spaceforce's universe for a while. Your ship can move freely in all directions - even backwards, if you fancy - so it's easy to get a good look at whatever you find floating about in space. It feels right, as much as that can be said of piloting fictional craft around a fictional universe. Everything you need to do, be it docking, mining, hacking or just blowing stuff up, is (once you've figured out the details) easily accomplished. The game's developer's, Provox, have also put a lot of effort into the political background of the game. Eleven different factions and/or species populate Spaceforce, and their attitudes to you will change throughout the game. Help them out and they're less likely to attack you on sight and will let you dock at their stations. Or, if you fancy, unleash a personal vendetta on a faction and watch your diplomacy rating plunge.
Sadly, despite the many things that Spaceforce gets right, the game never really takes off. More than anything, it all becomes very familiar far too quickly - much sooner than you'd expect from a game that makes you work so hard to gain entry. There are 2000 quests to be completed but they just aren't varied enough to avoid that dreaded "Here we go again..." feeling. There are no multiplayer options either, so you won't be able to extend the game beyond the single-player experience.
Spaceforce is cursed with some confounding design decisions that do nothing but obstruct and irritate. For example, you won't know if your weaponry skill is high enough to use a new set of guns until after you've bought them. Why not colour all unusable items red, or at the very least mention the required skill level in the item summary? But no, short of keeping copious notes beside your keyboard, every purchase is blind. Inter-system travel is also pointlessly annoying early on in the game - connections between systems aren't marked until a system is actually visited, and there's no guarantee that there's a connection between neighbouring systems. Cue lots of dead ends and some tediously long and circuitous journeys as you pick your way across the galaxy. Road maps, it seems, are a lost art in the far flung future.
Finally, the save game system is a little odd, to say the least. There's no actual "save game" option, instead you have to "store profile" after each session. The game will automatically save for you if you forget to do this on exiting, but it all just seems so wilfully obscure. A saved game also only saves changes to your inventory, stats and quests, but not your position in a system. Reloading will see you dropped at an apparently random position in the system of your choice. It's baffling and, of course, there's absolutely no description of the save game system in the manual.
Spaceforce: Rogue Universe is currently a breathtaking graphical engine in desperate need of more imaginative, enduring and clearly explained gameplay. The developers are actively supporting the game (this review is based on the 1.1 patch - don't even try to play the dreadful 1.0 version) and are encouraging a modding community to get stuck in. It's possible that six months from now, Spaceforce will be the space sim of choice. An engaging Story Mode and more varied quests would make a world of difference. For the moment, though, it remains another addition to the growing pile of Elite wannabes that value spectacular eyecandy over great gameplay.