Space: the final frontier... of capitalism. David Braben said as much himself when he described his influential space-trading Elite as reflecting the period in which it was produced – a time of laissez-faire economics, where moneyed individuals were sacred and the free market was god. In some ways, the period mirrored the historical “Age of Sail”, where Europeans sailed the globe playing spirited entrepreneurs and exploitative pirates simultaneously.
Twenty years on and it seems our view of space hasn't changed much. Little Green Men Games' third-person space-sim Starpoint Gemini 2 roughly reflects the same ideas and principles as Elite did back in 1984. Like the Wild West, space is an open and beautiful place, but it is also something for the individual to tame, a resource to tap and an opportunity for you to increase your personal wealth. You begin a game with very little: only a few space credits and a rusty old spaceship with limited weapon systems and a cargo hold cramped enough to give a claustrophobic panic attacks.
The Gemini System is completely open to your ambitions – provided it involves making money and levelling up. There's a certain three dimensionality to the game's space, although most points of interest are laid out in a fairly flat manner, orbiting the twin suns. There's also a lot of space to navigate, and all of it without a single loading screen, although there are slight hiccups as you move between sectors of space. You can fly from one end of the system to the next, lose yourself in wormholes, be propelled by streams of solar wind (riftways), or just pay a fee to use the network of stargates that will warp you across the black expanse.
Lasers in space
Freelance missions will appear in your local area depending on your faction allegiance, offering credits as reward. You can taxi VIPs about, ferry supplies or assassinate targets. Random encounters may also appear whilst you're in transit; deadly pirates who turn up and disrupt your engines as you fly through dangerous zones of space.
The combat plays out in real time, and seems best suited for keyboard and mouse control. Whilst you can lock on to targets with the click of a button, you'll also be using your mouse to pan furiously to keep up with the enemy combatants. An important element of combat is the Systems power. Whilst travelling you'll have all your ship's energy diverted towards the engines, but in combat you'll want to balance this alongside shields and weapons. If you're in an advantageous position, you can funnel maximum power towards your weapons, letting loose an intense barrage of plasma cannons and beam weapons. Alternatively, when you're in a tight spot you'll want to think about powering up your shields and increasing your manoeuvrability through the engines. It's a simple but clever system that requires just enough fiddling with to make you feel as though you're commanding a complex piece of machinery.
Your character class will also grant you a set of skills to use in combat. There's the Engineer, Gunner and Commander. The Commander is fleet based, granting boons to fellow ships – both hired mercenaries, and the fighter craft and interceptors that larger capital ships can carry and launch. Most interesting is the Engineer class who can use skills to hack into enemy ships' systems, reducing their effectiveness by draining or sabotaging certain areas. The Engineer can also energise and enforce their own ship's systems.
To add to all of this is ship equipment, single-use items that do very specific things; nanobots that will repair your hull mid-combat, deploy stationary defence systems or mines, or fire torpedoes which make mining more effective. There's even a chemical weapon that will reduce troop effectiveness when boarding an enemy ship. Piracy is one of the more lucrative options available to you. Sure, there's the hard graft of mining asteroid fields for minerals, or scavenging derelict ships, but like in real life, the system often rewards the most exploitative options. Targeting an enemy ship, you can concentrate fire on the engine, tearing through a ships shields, before sending a crew of troopers across to bring the ship under your command. Once you've captured the ship, you can tow it to the nearest planet or station. Not only will you get the cargo and some of the equipment that the ship was carrying, you can also scrap the whole thing for parts and make a ton of credits. There's even the option to send the captured ship to your garage and pilot it yourself.
Humanity needs no frontier
As cool as this may sound, commandeering enemy ships is disappointingly abstract. Piracy, as with trading, is minimally represented. There is no descriptive text – just numbers, tiny menus and graphs that fail to capture the moment with the sense of majesty and scale that situations in outer space beg for. It's great that the game allows for interesting things like piracy to take place, it's just a little soulless when it plays out in practice.
The less said about the storied campaign, which involves an evil Empire and rebels, the better. It has some of the worse voice acting in recent memory – particularly the protagonist, which is quite unfortunate, as it's his voice you'll be hearing most often. There are some decent scenarios throughout the campaign, but nothing that you cannot find yourself whilst freely roaming space. You can of course choose to play the game in “free-roam” mode, although even if you begin the campaign by accident, the story missions are optional so it will not tarnish the experience too considerably.
Fundamentally, Starpoint Gemini 2 is a space game about bettering yourself and improving your lot. You're impelled to do “better”, to purchase a bigger ship with more powerful systems and weapons and a larger cargo hold. Credits – that's your god, that's how things operate in Gemini's space. The game gives you the option to read the market; you can play commodity trader, buying low on one planet and selling high at the next. You can also smuggle illegal goods. It's riskier, as factions will police their sector of space and sometimes scan your ship, but there's always a greater demand for illegal goods. Honest work is of course for losers.
Most of the options available to you in Starpoint Gemini 2 will relate back in some way to the market and the economy. If there is an escape from its all-encompassing dullness, it can be found in restlessly wandering. Space in Gemini isn't just the work of calculative economists, it's also beautiful. The soundtrack is calm and serene in a way that the finicky mechanics and capitalist work ethic cannot hope to match. As well as the looming planetary bodies, there are satellites, stations, relays, asteroid and plasma fields, floating junk yards and gaseous clouds. I'm glad that Starpoint Gemini allows you to just forget about credits and explore the stars. You see, it wasn't the vacuum of space, but the economic elements and abstract systems involved that most often left me feeling cold. I don't like the idea that outer space will just be an extension of our selfish and petty, profit-driven civilization. I'd like to think we can aspire to be more in space than we are on Earth.
Solid and strategic combat, freedom to explore, space is diverse and beautiful, there's plenty of options and things to do, piracy can be fun.
You'll have to forget the campaign/story exists, some player options and the way things operate can be uninspiring or overly abstract, space deserves more than twenty year old ideas.