In modern aerial combat, aircraft fight against blips on screens. Maybe — just maybe — they might fight against a speck far off in the sky. Conflict and technology has advanced in such a way that combatants stand farther and farther apart. From the bow to the gun to artillery to aircraft to ballistic missiles to remotely piloted drones. In future combat in the vacuum of space, combatants will stand even farther apart.
What’s an arcade space game to do? The best it can. Even then, you’re usually fighting specks far off in space. If you squint, you just might be able to make out a shape. Is that supposed to be a spaceship? Yes, it’s supposed to be a spaceship. Then when you get closer, spaceships are so fast and a monitor only affords so much screen real estate, that you’ll miss it if you blink. When things get really up close and personal, you can try to follow a reticle some distance in front of whatever you’re trying to shoot. Blips, specks, and reticles.
But Rebel Galaxy Outlaw made you some spaceships, and by golly, it’s not going to reduce them to blips, specks, or reticles. “Let me show you them,” it proclaims with the enthusiasm of a carnival barker, the conviction of a preacher, and the zeal of a mad scientist with a secret formula. It wants you to see these spaceships. It wants them to break apart before your very eyes as you pour on lead and, uh, tachyons or whatever. It wants you to be so close that when they explode, you will fly through the explosions. One of the least likely things to ever happen in modern distance-based combat is flying through the explosion of something you just blew up. That unfettered cinematic excess is the stuff of Hollywood at its goofiest and videogames at their most gleeful. So Rebel Galaxy Outlaw insists on the anachronistic intimacy of combatants being so close they fly through each other’s explosions. Sometimes they’re close enough to flip each other off through their windshields. You might not see the whites of their eyes, but you’ll damn sure see the glowing blue rims of their exhaust cones.
A lot of this is accomplished by just fudging range and distance. It reminds me of the original Wing Commander, which always managed to angle its sprites just so, letting you get a sense for the shape of its spaceships. It helped that no one cared about frame rates and therefore the speed of gameplay. The only frame of reference we had back then was the tick-tick-tick of the frames of flat-shaded polygons in Microsoft Flight Simulator. So in Wing Commander, it was tick-tick-tick, the flashed outline of a Kilrathi fighter!
But the real genius of Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is so simple, so obvious, and so smoothly implemented that it has pretty much obsoleted every other game about being in things that fly. It’s called autofollow, and it’s exactly what it says it is. Hold down the left trigger — games about being in things that fly will be played with controllers from now on — and your spaceship turns toward whatever you have targeted. You still have to do the fine-tuning to aim your guns, but the act of steering is gone.
Will you miss anything by not having to steer? Perhaps surprisingly, no. Not a thing. For so many years, we have had an implicit agreement with videogames that we’re going to keep turning to try to shoot at the other spaceship. But why not let the game do it for us so we can concentrate on the cool aiming and shooting part without having to also hold the stick to one side, much less having to figure out where the ship went when it flew off the edge of the screen?
Flight sims used to have lock-on views to represent the situational awareness a real pilot would have. Ironically, lock-on views introduced a layer of confusion because suddenly I was steering a plane without the visual convenience of looking ahead. Flying from a lock-on view was like backing up a truck and having no idea which way the trailer was going to cut, but with the added hassle of up and down thrown into the equation.
But Rebel Galaxy Outlaw’s autofollow is what lock-on view should have been doing all along. Forget the view. That’s not the issue. The issue is bringing my guns to bear. The issue is the steering. Instead of automatically turning my head, why not automatically turn my ship, which was the goal all along anyway? Rebel Galaxy Outlaw dispenses of busy work that we’ve assumed all along was gameplay. It’s probably George Lucas’ fault for how Star Wars used World War II dogfighting as the model for space combat. In World War II dogfighting, an aircraft’s turn radius is affected by its speed, and its speed determines its lift, and its lift resolves whether it’s flying or falling. The pilot manages the interplay of these factors, and combat is decided by how pilots manage the specs of their respective aircraft to shoot bullets at each other without falling. Turning as the deciding factor between life and death. The turning is all.
But why would you apply these factors to space? Why would you play at airplanes in a gravity agnostic situation? Why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to science fiction your space combat? Too few videogames asked those questions and those that did offered the wrong answer. I-War, for instance. There was nothing World War II in that combat model, and as a result, no one is pining for an I-War remake.
But Rebel Galaxy Outlaw’s answer is to concede that, okay, World War II turning combat makes space combat accessible. Thanks, Geroge Lucas. But the best way to implement it is to stop making it about turning. Instead, let an autopilot truly be an autopilot. It’s a revelation how little the struggle to turn mattered. I don’t miss the relentless banking and pitching and rolling — oh, god, the rolling! — one iota. I don’t miss jamming the stick to one side and holding it there and surmising, “Yep, this is gameplay…” The tyranny of steering has been deposed.
I don’t mean to suggest that the main appeal of Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is a rethinking of spaceship controls. That’s ultimately under the hood. You’ll stop thinking about it eventually, if you ever even notice it. But it exemplifies the design genius of Travis Baldree at Double Damage Games. His previous game was Rebel Galaxy, which imagined capital ship action as an easy-going controller-based arcade battle. Normally, big ships — in space or at sea — slamming weapons into each other is the tedious stuff of waiting to see who can hit whom the hardest while no one moves very much. But in Rebel Galaxy, Baldree took a page from accessible sailing ship games like Sid Meier’s Pirates or the naval battles in Ubisoft’s Assassin Creed games. Drift around, wait for your cannons to reload, use other little guns and powers to keep you busy, and let the game adorn your battle with plenty of lively action. Make the interface ice cream smooth, and then liberally apply sprinkles.
Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is also a smooth smooth smooth game, built to glide like a ship though a zero-G vacuum. It’s all inertia, baby, no resistance, no friction, zero drag, a quick cut and you’re at your waypoint, then a quick jump and you’re at the next system, then a quick sequence and you’re on a space station getting the next mission. Smooth smooth smooth. One side effect of this smoothness is that it can get a bit repetitive. There aren’t going to be a lot of paradigm shifts here, and the upgrades don’t have the pull of upgrades in a carefully engineered space RPG. Smoothness borders homogeneity.
But if I have to choose, I’ll take lively over varied. This is part of a new wave of colorful raucous sci-fi, with the same exuberance as Void Bastards, Planetfall, Star Control, or Space Pirates and Zombies. The cantina writ large, but brightly lit and full of weird creatures living on scintillating planets and freshly painted space stations, flying their cool spaceships. It’s not the grimdark space of a videogame, but the colorful lustrous space of Serenity, the Star Wars prequels (yeah, I went there), and Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets (yeah, I went there, too). It’s animated in all the right senses of the word.
When you launch, your character’s cartoon hands flip switches and press buttons while lights light up and screens boot and displays flicker on. It’s just a fast animation. It will be out of your way in no time. But it’s setting the stage efficiently and effectively. Even when it’s passive, switchology can be every bit as compelling as reloading a gun. It establishes that you are a dude in a cockpit. A chick, actually. During animations, lady space trucker/warrior Juno shows up as the main character as surely as the blue-haired guy in Wing Commander. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is a bit more preoccupied with its story than I am, but give it credit for putting a lot of work into characters who can stroll around space stations without introducing any layers of inconvenience. While Star Citizen faffs about with whatever slice-of-space-life it’s currently using to bait its whales, I can actually shoot pool in a planetside bar in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw.
Just as the switchology animation knows how to put you into the cockpit, the usual breaks know how to keep you in the cockpit. For instance, the obligatory hyperspace screen while the next area loads. It’s not just that it shows an animation of your ship — the cool ship you chose to fly — soaring through the hypergate. It’s more subtle than that. It’s how it keeps playing the song you were listening to. Not the background music of the game. Too many videogame soundtracks are stuck in the Hollywood school of “let me tell you how to feel!”. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is diegetic, which is the fancy way to say the music in the game is actually…music in the game. It’s not a score laid in after the fact by some omniscient musical narrator. It’s something the character in the game world is playing, something that exists in this reality, and not a layer between the spectator and the movie/game.
Furthermore, the music doesn’t cut off when you look at a map or call up your mission log or slow time to rejigger your energy settings or listen to story exposition on your commlink. And it’s music worth hearing, too. For an indie game, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw has quite the playlist of catchy tunes in different genres. It can’t afford anything famous, of course. But it can afford things that are good. And, perhaps more importantly, you can play your own songs from inside the game. Because among the many insights offered in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, it knows that if there’s one thing better than cruising around in a sweet ride blowing stuff up and flying through their explosions, it’s cruising around in a sweet ride blowing stuff up and flying through their explosions while listening to sweet tunes.
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The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2
1. Sunless Skies