Indie Wonderland: Space Run

Happy Steam Summer Sale, everyone! To celebrate, I’m reviewing a game that, even though it came out very recently, is already surfing the sale waves as we speak: Space Run, by Passtech Games. It looked neat on the Steam store page, hence. Plus, the name intrigues me a little. ‘Space Run’? How does one run space? Or run in space? Or maybe, maybe, space is the thing that’s doing the running? The seemingly-simple name hides a great deal of potentially cool video game ideas, and I intend to find out which one Passtech Games actually ran with.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, Low. Mechanical, Medium-to-high.)

Opening

“Make a profile!” Alright, alright, Space Run, geez. No need to yell. Can I just get my bearing for óne second, here? It’s not every day I run space, you know.

And do I have to call myself ‘Buck Mann’, or can I pick a name that’s non-stupid?

Space Run’s actual opening menu is colourfully busy. A spacecraft of sorts, made seemingly of hexagonal tiles and filled to the brim with containers, force-field bubbles and an impressive array or lasers, is streaking through the eternal void. The constantly changing backdrop of stars, planets and asteroids, accompanied by a subdued, hauntingly simple soundtrack and the whispering roar of the space-engines, is almost enough to distract me from the fact that this menu doesn’t seem to have any options to speak of.

*Almost*.

Well. I guess if Space Run doesn’t care enough about me to provide the endlessly tweakable options my latent madness requires, I’ll… keep playing, probably. I’ll try my best to look extra grumpy while doing it, if that makes the decision seem less internally inconsistent. But then again, I guess you guys can’t see the faces I make while playing games anyway. Just imagine I look real grumpy right now, okay.

Actually, I guess most of you don’t even know what I look like, period. For those people, I provide this substitute face.

Anyway, on with the show. New Game launches Space Run into an animated-slide-show introduction. A gruff, manly voice-over informs me that the current year is 2525, immediately answering the most pertinent question that raises by virtue of the voice-over itself.

Yes, man *is* still alive.

Mankind has spread to the farthest reaches of space! Some of them have decided to dress up like silly space-themed pirates while doing so!

Space is like Halloween! Except all the time!

Okay, but for real: we’re looking at a standard Interstellar Human Empire scenario here, and yes, it is telling about the state of modern fiction that I can introduce it like that and have that introduction work. Even in this modern space era, goods needs to be schlepped from one place to another… and that’s the job of gruff voice-over slash game protagonist Buck ‘Sue’ Mann, the biggest cliché in the galaxy!

“Then, I participated in the Space Olympics. That… didn’t go so well.”

No, but seriously: get a hit of these choice dialogues over here. Here’s the scene: Buck is broke, so he’s started working as a ‘space runner’, basically a space long-haul trucker. Buck’s co-pilot, the robotic-sounding-is-probably-a-robot Addam-12, informs him that some transport company or another is looking to hire space runners, like this:

“Captain, I have found you the exact kind of work you signed up for when you took this moniker.”

To which Buck replies:

“That’s exactly the kind of work I don’t want to do!”

So Buck Mann is a lone wolf maverick gunman, but he’s also a space runner? He makes his living by transporting packages from Space-A to Space-B, but he doesn’t like working with the exact kinds of companies that need a lot of packages delivered? Also, where exactly does the android co-pilot come in? Already, the setup rings less like ‘one lone hero against the vastness of space’ and more like ‘one’s a self-perceived hardass, one’s an android, they run space’.

Anyway, Addam-12 (‘Addam’) is expressing doubts about Buck-me’s ability to fly this weird, flat arrangement of hexagons that they call ‘a ship’. He’s actually dumping me straight into the tutorial, so I guess that’s what I’m doing next.

Initial impressions

I guess I appreciate the sentiment.

Alright, Addam, what am I looking at? My ship is made up of seven selectable hexagons. Most of them are empty, but I see one thing that’s probably an engine and one thing that’s… ah, that’s the command bridge, i.e. the ‘one point of catastrophic failure on this glued-together-spaceboat’. Better keep that clear from space-dust and asteroids, I guess.

As the ship happily zooms through space, I learn some controls. The screen can be panned by way of mouse, which is an awful way of doing it, or by way of the arrow keys, which is better. Not that there seems to be a lot of see in any of the four directions, mind. I can also zoom in and out, and refocus the camera on the ship, that sort of basic stuff. You can all guess the drill.

At the bottom of the screen is the only bit of UI I can identify so far. I can see my mission/tutorial objectives on the right side… on the left side, three icons I can’t parse yet — reticule, shield, gear — and two equally mysterious numbers — a nut of some kind, and what I assume is a representation of my engine’s space-exhaust flame.

Before I find myself too confused, Addam suggests adding another engine to the ship. The gear icon lights up green: clicking it reveals a sub-menu, allowing me to build… well, an extra engine, no surprise there. The aforementioned nut symbol is apparently our currency du jour, Nuts. ‘Hexnuts’, if you want to stay in-character.

It’s not the size of your thruster, etcetera.

I can place the engine anywhere on the right of my ship. The engine occupies two hexagonal spaces: one actually on-board the ship, and one hypothetical space-space for its exhaust.

Similarly, the reticule menu hides a small laser weapon, one that Addam suggests is probably a better idea re: asteroids than my current plan of ‘just bumping them out of the way’. The laser takes up one real hex and one space-hex as well, but I’m more free regarding its orientation: mousewheel rotates the laser into one of six different hex orientations.

I consider placing my laser this way, because who *really* needs to defend against oncoming asteroids?

The laser has to be placed on the edge of the ship, with its barrel aiming towards space, so I can’t hide it behind my engine or command pod. Interestingly, it seems that even in allowed-but-suboptimal situations, its aiming range can be reduced.

In other words, don’t do it this way.

Laser placed, I’m flying through space at the speed of thrust, automatically shooting down asteroids with my laser and collecting the hexnuts that drop from them.

I’m still not over ‘hexnuts’, to be honest, so I’m not even gonna question why they drop from destroyed asteroids.

Some weird red-and-black mini-fighters show up behind my ship and shoot my engine half to death, but the game and Addam don’t seem to think this is weird. Rather, Addam uses it as a way of introducing the — what else — hexagonal context-dependent menu, where I can repair constructions, recycle them, and probably do some other stuff too, later down the line.

Because why else would you have this giant hex menu in your game?

I fly some more, build some more engines and lasers, and finally arrive safe and sound in my destination space-dock.

“Wow, I can’t believe we’re alive”? Thanks for the vote of confidence, *Addam*.

Space Run launches into the tried-and-true format of the ‘talking heads’ style of cutscene. The summary: the ‘beautiful but cold’ Susana Siren, CEO of ‘Big Cargo’, is hiring me to transport some packages. It’s about this level, except for way longer than one screenshot.

[Innuendo]. [‘Suave’ reply]. [More innuendo]. [Addam says something android-y].

And it’s only after all of that, the cutscenes and the tutorial and the more cutscenes, that I get to something approximating a main menu. With options, no less! But it’s too late for that, Space Run: if you liked your options, you should have put a ring on them. And by that I mean, but them in the actual game-opening menu.

Anyway, the gist of my new arrangement is this: I’m going to fly cargo containers for BC. This first mission has me transporting two of them. On my tiny ship, space is kind of a premium: the difficult nature of my job is reflected by the cargo containers taking up one precious hex each.

Before mission start, I’m allowed to customize my ship’s starting layout. Which sounds fancier than it is: it just means I get to place the two containers, and one engine, anywhere I want on my suddenly-somewhat-larger vessel.

I don’t remember signing off on these extra hexes. Who paid for this extravagance?

And then we’re off!

Punch the non-hyperdrive, Addam!

The actual-mission UI is slightly different from the tutorial one. The bottom right of the bar now no longer holds mission objectives, but instead shows my progress as a function of time and distance.

It goes a little like this: I have a temporal deadline, a set amount of time in which I’m to cross this little region of space. Fail to make it in that time, and I… well, fail. But next to the deadline, I also have two other temporal markers: ‘Express Delivery’ and ‘Lightspeed Delivery’. Visually marked as moving lines on the bottom bar, I’m assuming these monikers represent optional objectives.

Initially, the deadline and its small stopwatch icon are green, while the two stars of Express and Lightspeed are red. As I build more engines, though, they both turn green in colour. My ship hasn’t overtaken them yet, but this is a neat visual indicator that — ceteris paribus — it will.

Right now I’m on ‘Express’, which means I need even more engines. MORE ENGINES.

Incoming enemies are now displayed off-map, with a timer indicating their eventual arrival. Their paths are tracked by way of dotted lines, showing me where to place my lasers and which asteroids I can safely ignore.

And… well, that’s it. This first mission isn’t altogether harder than the tutorial. I build some engines, I build some angled lasers, and I make it across the boundless reaches of space in a little over three minutes. I run across a bunch of asteroids, and there’s a few of those red-and-black pirate vessels that come bother me, but it’s really nothing to write home about.

Safe inside the destination space-dock, my performance is tallied. I transported two cargo containers, at a bounty of 250 Space Credits each, meaning I get 500 SC. But because I made Lightspeed time — the best possible benchmark — that money score is tripled. Bank!

Yes, they’re actually called ‘Space Credits’.

Completing the delivery also nets me reputation stars. One for successfully completing it, two more for getting 50% and 100% of the cargo there and back again, and two even more for making Express and Lightspeed time, for a total of five. Addam informs me that my growing reputation — positive, this time! — will unlock access to new modules for my ship, as well as new missions with more valuable kinds of cargo.

In the Engineering section, I see the truth behind Addam’s wise words. Using my Space Credits, I can unlock new modules to use on my ship, and/or upgrade existing ones. However, upgrades are gated… both by my available money, and by my reputation. Which, you know, it’s good, but it’s not that good yet.

“Yeah, I’m just going to go ahead and *not* trust you with this magnificent turbo-laser.”

All modules have three upgrades, in order: two active ones and one passive one. These abilities cost Hexnuts to use, and also tie into an auxiliary ‘power’ system, but listen: I can’t be bothered with that right now. I have space to run!

Weeeee!

After another successful mission for Big Cargo, I’m contacted by a legitimate businessman from a company called Nuclear Star. Long story short: they want me to transport nuclear waste. That may explode. It might not, but hey! It’s a factor.

Risks of the job.

More to the point: I can clearly see that next to Big Cargo and Nuclear Star, there’ll be three more companies to run missions for in the future. And if the two I’ve already seen are any indication, I’m guessing these three companies will all have different kinds of cargo, with different difficulties and different prerequisites vis-à-vis getting it there.

I’m going to run some more space. Be back when I have stories to tell!

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