In the year 2249, the known galaxy is split into 4 factions vying for control. The Earth based Federation, recently accused by the Outer Rim Alliance of exploitation, now sees itself in a struggle with not only the rebels, but also two other factions that have arisen amongst the chaos. The ruthless Trader Coalition which seeks to avoid conflict where practicable, yet still aspires to profit from the wars of others, and the anarchic Syndicate, whose motto ďtake or be takenĒ advocates preying on the weak and undefended; pirating the spoils of war for their own cause. The diplomatic situation is balanced on a knife edge, and any of the factions may attack any other at a whim, the situation oscillating between war and peace on a frequent basis.
The player may choose to ally themselves to a particular faction and fight for their respective causes, gaining combat medals and promotions along the way as well as directly influencing the state of the galaxy through their actions. Alternatively, carving out a fortune as a freelancer through trading, bounty hunting or pirating are all options, as well as a combination of these; the choices presented to the player are immense. Indeed, Smugglers 4 delivers a staggeringly freeform and dynamic galaxy through which the player is invited to role play their alter-ego.
The economic model is robust and relies on the influences of supply and demand to dictate prices and availability of trade goods in all locations. By specialising their character by the use of awarded non-combat abilities (which might allow them access to higher amounts of goods than normally available, or a sneak peek at prices in the next star system) the player can influence the wars by completing trading missions and even through a war bond system, supporting the front lines and keeping the home front rolling. Players who desire a more direct way to influence their faction's standing in the galaxy will use brute force and firepower. Their awarded combat abilities might enable special manoeuvres and talents in battle to turn the skirmish their way. The way that players are able to specialise each character as they see fit gives the game some great replay value, and itís just impossible for me to list all the missions, customisation features and strategies available to amass staggeringly huge amounts of cash.
Sounds great so far for a space trader/combat game, right? Well, let me run through a few things that I donít like about Smugglers 4. Combat is turn based and is resolved through a menu click-fest. Itís not an entirely bad design, it just means that the game is totally devoid of action elements, period. The whole game is just clicking on stuff to buy, sell, explore, fight and upgrade. While I just love the concept and mechanics of Smugglers 4, unfortunately, for me, itís just not that much fun to play. A battle sequence such as the one in Strange Adventures in Infinite Space would be what took this game into Gold Star territory.
Adding to this is a lazy design feature that sees combat opponentís levels scaled to the player. Upgrade your ship and, seemingly magically, nearly all opponents you now face are in the same class of ship that you now own. Not only does this destroy the immersion of the game, it also denies the player a sense of progression as the character is levelled up. Some battles are slightly tougher, some are slightly easier, but all are scaled to the player level.
The net effect of these features is a bit of a casualisation of a game that I seriously doubt will draw in the casual gamer. Failure is not an option, with unlimited saves available at any point in the game so that you can backtrack after a bad decision at will. Even death in the game holds little consequence, with an instant respawn for every promotion and award won, and of these there are plenty. I have toyed with the veteran mode in the options menu but this seems only to affect combat probabilities, though my research was far from extensive.
The game runs in a smallish portion of my display with a border of a star field around it. A little unattractive, but not ugly. I can find no options to change the resolution. The graphics are certainly nothing to get excited about and there is no animation apart from the very basic combat sequences. The player character portraits are great, but thereís only 3 to choose from and these are common to all factions. Background music is orchestral, dramatic and suits the game nicely, and good sound effects do their best to bring life to an otherwise static environment.
Smugglers 4 has so much scope, so much potential that really it should be a game that resides on your hard drive for a long time to come. Thereís nothing in it that you havenít seen in other games in the genre, yet all the internal mechanics affecting the state of the galaxy are handled exceptionally well - brilliantly, perhaps. There are so many ways to play and be successful that the series has become a defining point in freeform games, yet a couple of poor design decisions and an interface that sees the player clicking through mission after mission just sap the enjoyment of the game for me.
Fans of the series might want to pick up the newest version of Smugglers for the improvements and tweaks in rules, as well as a slab of new mission types. If youíve never played before, then definitely grab the demo and take a look. One manís trash is another manís treasure, and although Smugglers 4 is not exactly my idea of a rip-roaring time, you may disagree...
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