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The games industry has never exactly been original. As soon as a new type of game has proved popular, then endless clones, tributes and outright rip-offs start to appear. The iPhone has proved a particularly fertile ground for this with developers dusting off old titles and "re-imagining" them for today's technology.
Galaxy on Fire is one such title. The plot, music, graphics and gameplay instantly bring classic space combat game Wing Commander to mind. This is no bad thing, though, since the original Commander was one of my favourite 90s games, right up there with the Star Wars titles when it came to space combat adventures.
Galaxy on Fire sees you playing as unlikely monikered hero Keith (!) a crack space pilot who makes money flying various missions in his spacecraft. Invariably, these involve hunting down enemies, escorting ships safely to their destination and doing a bit of trading on the side to earn some much needed cash that can be used to upgrade your ship.
Sitting as a cross between the afore-mentioned Wing Commander and classic space trading game Elite, it offers little new from a gameplay perspective, but what it does, it does well. The game progresses via a series of missions. Each one requires you to accomplish a specific goal before you can progress to the next. Although the missions are all quite similar (fly to a particular place and destroy any enemies you encounter on the way), they are well structured and, thanks to the range of characters you encounter, feel different.
The mission-based game structure gives a real feeling of a narrative progression. The missions don't feel like individual missions, but like actual parts of Keith's life that you are in control of. Big Fish Labs have created a strong storyline which sucks you in, keeps you playing and provides an emotional hook that's interesting. You actually care for (or hate) the various characters you come across, so it becomes more than a simple space trading/shooting game. When fate catches up with some characters, you gloat or mourn their deaths.
This sense of actually "being there" is further enhanced by the effective use of manga-style cut-scenes between missions. These are well-written and add a surprising amount of atmosphere. Add in some in-flight banter with your allies or exchanges of abuse with your enemies and you start to become hooked into the action. The dialogue displays a gentle, tongue in cheek humour, which off-sets some of the more serious aspects of the game.
Of course, the slightly gameplay does cause problems. Since you can't choose your next mission (or reject those offered to you) if you get stuck on one, then you can't progress. There were several missions that I had to replay until I was sick to the back teeth of them; but I had little alternative if I wanted to progress. Worse still, several of the missions are multi-stage affairs, but if you fail you have to re-play the whole mission from the start. It's very frustrating to die on section 3 of a three stage mission and then endlessly have to repeat stages 1 and 2 until you finally succeed with 3. It's a shame that the game couldn't have adopted a more sophisticated structure, giving you the opportunity to reject missions you didn't like the look of (perhaps inflicting some damage on your reputation to prevent you from rejecting too many).
The game has a reasonable learning curve which at least helps to offset this a little. Initial missions are relatively straightforward and draw you into thinking "this is too easy. Rest assured, things get tougher and Galaxy on Fire is no pushover! There are occasional sudden spikes in difficulty which can frustrate but Galaxy on Fire gets it right more often than it gets it wrong.
Graphically, it's not anything particularly special. Spaceships are fairly rudimentary and unimaginative in their design; there's nothing here you haven't seen in dozens of other space exploration games or in sci-fi films. Certainly, the game doesn't push any technical boundaries and there is nothing that you couldn't have seen on your PC circa 1994. Still, they are good enough to create a believable environment. In any case, it's a space exploration game, so there's not a lot you can do with stars on a black background and the odd planet! The lack of advanced graphics doesn't really impact on this type of game - after all look how "basic" (by today's standards) Elite was, but it's still a cracking game.
The sound is surprisingly good. The game features a number of suitably stirring, bombastic tunes which add atmosphere. Sounds effects are slightly weaker - your ship's laser sounds rather feeble, and the game lacks the roar of engines as other spaceships power past within inches of yours. Still, a lot of iPhone games suffer from this and it's partly the iPhone's rather weak speakers that are to blame.
Controls work well, on the whole. I usually switch from the default option (which uses the phone's accelerometer to move your ship) around because I find it's tricky to know how far you need to tilt your phone to effect a manoeuvre. Also, if you need to bank sharply to escape an enemy you sometime need to tip the phone so far that you can no longer see the screen, which is a bit of an issue when in the heat of battle! The alternative of the virtual joystick makes the ship much easier to control and seems more responsive to quick movements.
Shooting is done by means of a fire button which can be operated manually or tapped twice to engage autofire (again, my preferred option). If you think this will make the game too easy, think again: it still offers plenty of challenges thanks to its numerous missions.
If you're a fan of space combat games, then Galaxy of Fire is well worth downloading. It's especially good value for money because since the sequel came out, you can now download the basic version for free. Extra in-game cash (for upgrades) can be bought using in-app purchases, but these are not essential to progress since you also earn money via the missions you complete. Sure, progress might be a little slower, but it's cheaper and gives you a bigger feeling of achievement! It's easy to see why Galaxy on Fire was successful enough to warrant a sequel. A strong combination of old-fashioned gameplay, good story and interesting mission-based gameplay make for another great iPhone game.
© Copyright SWSt 2012