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We Review: Rebel Galaxy

Hands up those of you wanted a game that felt like Firefly and played like a cross between Star Control II, the original Elite, with bits of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag’s naval combat and Mass Effect’s star system navigation. Well then! Have I got a game for you. Read on and find out why Rebel Galaxy is one of the best things to happen to space since the Hubble Telescope.

When I was a youngster, two of my favourite games ever were Elite and Star Control II (affectionately called StarCon 2). They both had a strong feature of being a trader in space, meeting aliens, and battling off hordes of foes intent on destroying you. In fact, there hasn’t quite been a game that captured my imagination quite like StarCon 2, and I’ve not enjoyed space trading as much as I did in Elite. I must have downed many hours into learning how to dock at a coriolis station in Elite (and reveling in the glory that is buying your first automated docking computer!) and just as many hours into solving the mysteries of hyperspace in StarCon 2. Ah, nostalgia!

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Double Damage Games is helmed by two of the most recognizable names in the gaming industry: Erich Schaefer and Travis Baldree. Even if you don’t know their names, you know their games: Diablo, Fate, Hellgate: London, Torchlight. So naturally, you’d expect great things to come from their new studio. Well…you’d be right. Rebel Galaxy is in the same line of game as Elite and StarCon 2, with a fairly heavy emphasis on ferrying cargo between planets, but built in a universe that feels so strongly of Firefly that at one point I was singing the theme song. From the opening guitar riffs when you fire up the game to the entire look and feel of the game, Rebel Galaxy is an explorer’s delight. In fact, I’m trying to hurry up writing this review so I can get back to shooting down pirates. I’m not kidding about the feel of Firefly or even Star Wars: watch the trailer below to see what I mean.

The game’s story hinges on you having inherited a spaceship from your aunt, whom you are now in search of. It eventually turns out that your aunt was involved in less than spotless dealings, and now you have to travel around the galaxy sorting things out. As stories go, it’s not terribly exciting, but it gives you some narrative to explore as you fly around. In fact, it’s almost impossible to go from one main story mission to the next without flying some side missions of your own, because the story ramps up in difficulty so quickly. You’re better off hitting up a few stations for goods, and taking them back to other stations to make a quick buck.

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It’s difficult to give you an impression of just how big these ships are. Apparently even the small one you start with has a crew of at least a hundred people, and the capital class ships you can buy later on can have thousands of crew members. You never see or hear these crew members, though, but you start to get a feel for their effects in battle as “AI-controlled” gunners. You’re not piloting the Millennium Falcon here: it’s much closer to being a small Enterprise on a mission to trade and destroy space pirates. Or destroy traders and militia and align with space pirates if that’s how you want to do things. The bulk of the thing comes over in the way it controls, too. It’s no swift, sleek, maneuverable beauty, but closer to being a small battleship on the waters.

The game doesn’t allow you to move in a full three dimensional field, but rather–again, like a ship on the seas–in two dimensions. This reduces the complexity of space flight and navigation, but also space battles. Personally, I feel that 3D space battles were best done in the old LucasArts game Tie Fighter, but that’s not really here or there. If you’ve played the naval battles in Assassin’s Creed: Blag Flag you’ll be immediately familiar with battles in Rebel Galaxy. Your main cannons are broadsides, so you’ll be doing a lot of circling other ships to get in place to line your broadside cannons up. Thankfully, once your cannons are locked, they’ll home in on the other craft, no matter whether they’re higher or lower than you. On the other hand, if you prefer more control over things, you can let the AI handle the broadsides and rather take control of one of the other guns on your ship. And of course, the bigger the ship, the more firepower you’ll pack. Be prepared to do a lot of trading/fighting/scavenging to get the necessary money to upgrade your ship. There are a LOT of upgrades, and a lot of ships to aim for. In fact, some systems will have ships that others won’t, so it helps to explore.

Speaking of trading, one of the nice features is a trend chart within each star system for the prices of the various goods. If you enjoy trading, you’ll find the chart deadly useful, which shows the lowest price of goods, it’s highest price, and its average. You’ll also often hear about specific stations or planets that will have a glut of goods, lowering the prices, or a dearth thereof, raising the prices. You’ll see news about relief vessels going to impoverished planets. You could beat the ships there and take advantage of the higher buying prices, or destroy the relief vessels and take the cargo for yourself, ensuring that the prices remain high. There are ways to game the markets if you know what you’re doing, but you run the risk of angering the militia. Then again, deal enough in illicit cargo and you’ll tick off the militia anyhow. It’s either that or tick off the pirates. The military have firepower on their side, but the pirates have numbers. Your choice of who to make an enemy out of.

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One of the downsides of trading is that the game doesn’t track how much you bought goods for, and if you buy things at close to average prices, you’re never sure if you’re getting a good deal or making a decent profit. I had to dredge out my trusty notebook and start writing down the prices of goods in my hold. It would have been awesome if this sort of accounting were done automatically for me.

It’s not just the trading though. There’s the thrill of exploration, too. There are countless nebulae, minefields, asteroid fields, and stellar junk fields to find, map, and scavenge for cargo. In fact, if you don’t feel like trading for ores, you could mine the stuff from the asteroids yourself, meaning that everything is a profit, even if prices are low. Rebel Galaxy has a lot of stuff to do. Navigation is fairly easy once you’ve got it figured out. Flying around isn’t just a matter of setting coordinates and sitting back, either. Once your ship hits warp (and oh, how satisfying it is to hear the warp engines kick in! Some exemplary sound design in this game!) you should be on the alert for distress signals, asteroids, or even enemy ships. A large enough mass in space pulls you out of warp, and you have to deal with whatever is there. Just hope it’s not a capital class pirate dreadnaught.

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The thing is, until you actually get into a fight, there’s no telling whether it’s something that will kill you or not. Your ship computer tells you the danger levels, but sometimes you’re committed to the middle of a fight you can’t win before you can figure out how to get out. And of course, the ship is bulky enough that a simple blast of the boosters won’t always be enough to get away fast enough. And of course, in the middle of a fight, there’s too much mass around you to warp away quickly. Thankfully, the game autosaves at every station, but if you trek around a lot between stations, you’re going to have a bad time.

Overall, though, I love it. I’ve always loved space fighting/trading/sandbox games, and this is quickly becoming one of my favourites. There’s something to be said for the way the music, the sound, and the graphics pull together to make this experience that makes me feel like Captain Mal of the good ship Serenity. (Seriously…the music is REALLY good!) The only way the game could be made way better would be if you could actually disembark and explore the station Mass Effect style, but that’s probably something for another day. Until then…Captain out.

Final Score: 8.5 Spacefaring prawns out of 10

Detailed information:
Developer: Double Damage Games
Publisher: Double Damage Games
Platform: Steam (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Age Rating: 13+ or so
Release date: 20 October 2015