Space Trader: Merchant Marine Review
By Jimmy Goldstein |
As the gaming industry has matured (well, let's just say "aged"), more than a few of the PC catalog's genres have fallen by the wayside. Puzzle games, flight simulators, space combat games, and economic trading games have all become sad casualties to the hit-driven mentality that encourages lots of game publishers to pop out clone after clone of the latest FPS, RTS, or MMO. So it's gratifying that independent developers Hermitworks Entertainment Corporation have decided to revive the classic economic trading game with Space Trader: Merchant Marine.
The game itself is a throwback in more ways than one. Not only does it offer up a type of game that we rarely see anymore, but its presentation values and overall design philosophy reach back to the mid-1990s and some of the games we were playing back then. While there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, it does make Space Trader feel a bit like an antique or relic of an earlier generation of gaming. Those gamers who are more accustomed to more modern games may find themselves either amused or aggravated by some of Space Trader's features. Even those gamers who find the outdated approach charming will likely be put off by the thin narrative and repetitive gameplay.
The graphics, like the game design, are a throwback.Things begin predictably enough. You've just acquired a trading license and are seeking a wealthy benefactor who will provide you with a ship to launch your trading career. At first, you'll be restricted to running goods back and forth between Earth and the moon, but once you've proven you can make a profit (and paid off your initial loan), the solar system will begin to open up. You'll soon be running a wide range of commodities among a large network of traders located on different planets.
The catch is that there's a time limit for each of the campaign's five chapters, so if you can't accomplish the goals within that time, then you'll have to restart the whole chapter. This is particularly obnoxious because you can't manually save your progress. Any missteps or delays you encounter along the way become a permanent part of your balance sheet. Thankfully, the game is saved every time you exit, so you don't have to complete a chapter in a single sitting.
The good news is that it's almost impossible to lose money. Each trader not only lists their price for a given item, but they also show you that item's average price so you know whether you're getting a good deal or not. Certain news reports and missions will even clue you in to unique opportunities, so you'll know, for instance, when to start running platinum to a planet that's having a raw material shortage or guns to planet that's experiencing a crime wave. There are even a few missions where you can get involved in creating crises that will drive prices of certain goods up or down.
You can take advantage of random events to boost your profits.The game makes some distinction between legal and illegal goods, but it amounts to nothing. You can freely trade legal goods with legal merchants and then turn right around and sell the contraband to the black market. And since you can jump from trader to trader without even having to walk, selling legal and illegal goods has no moral distinction whatsoever.
The campaign itself includes some small story elements, but there's really not enough to keep you going. Yes, there's the twist in your relationship with your initial benefactor and, yes, there's some intriguing complications with the Ministry of Accounts, but the story is fairly thin and really only serves to give the most tenuous context to the planet-hopping trading. While that's bad enough, it's made even worse by the resets that occur between the chapters. We've inexplicably lost millions of dollars and dozen of cargo slots this way with no real explanation.
The trading game is broken up with a number of 1990s-style shooter missions. Some of these are part of the progression of the main campaign story, and others are mere side quests that you can undertake to gain extra cash and cargo. In any case, they look, feel and play remarkably like the first generation versions of Unreal or Doom. There are glowing shield picks ups, puffs of blood and plenty of enemies that literally appear out of nowhere. While it makes a nice diversion from the trading, the shooter aspect of the game isn't really strong enough to stand on its own.