Reviewed: December 30, 2008
Released: October 15, 2008
Nowadays, I try to avoid any news about the real life stock market or my tanking 401K. So it came as a surprise how much I enjoyed Space Trader: Merchant Marine, which at heart is a trading game. In this new Sci Fi title by independent developer Hermitworks and publisher Meridian4, players travel the galaxy as a starship captain, buying goods for cheap on Earth and selling them at a huge mark-up to outlying colonies on Jupiter and Mars.
This gameís cyberpunk setting really began to grow on me, as did the amoral theme. You can make your fortune as an honest trader, or work in the shadows as a black market smuggler. Either way youíll need to stay one step ahead of the Ministry of Accounts, the evil overlords who hold an iron grip on Earthís economy.
Space Trader is also the first business sim Iíve played thatís also a first person shooter. To break up the monotony of trading fuel cells and purified water, you can undertake combat missions where you capture pirates or eliminate corporate rivals. Best of all, you can loot extra cargo that you can sell on your next trading run to Venus. Granted, the combat in Space Trader has more in common with Doom than Far Cry 2, but itís still offers a fun addition to the gameís simulation and role-playing aspects.
In the single player campaign, you begin the game with little more than a pistol and a few creds to your name. Your first order of business is getting a ship, and the corrupt Crimson Syndicate is all too willing to offer you one with a ďrent to ownĒ plan. Youíll need to raise over a million creds by making runs between Earth and the Moon, or else the Syndicate will repo more than just your starship. Since the game lacks a save feature, so youíll need to start over if you canít raise the Syndicateís money in time. The good news is the gameís trading system makes it very easy to raise money.
When you go to trade a commodity, the game offers easy-to-read charts showing whether that item is overpriced or a bargain basement steal. If you spend a few minutes browsing, itís easy to buy energy cells for cheap on Earth and sell them for a big profit on Mars. The gameís AI will also give you suggestions of what to buy, which comes in handy if youíre looking to buy a few items to fill out your cargo hold. I will say that Space Traderís economic system is fun and challenging, but I never felt like I needed an MBA to win, which is more than I can say for other business sim games Iíve played. Certain merchants will also offer you trade missions, which is another way to make money fast.
When you arrive on a new planet, youíll quickly discover that certain shady individuals are willing to sell you smuggled guns, narcotics, and even dark matter. Playing as a smuggler will make you a lot of money quickly, but the Ministry of Accounts will come down hard if you get caught with contraband. The good news is your ship is rarely searched by authorities, which makes smuggling very attractive. If you befriend certain members of the underworld, youíll discover that you can actually fix the market. For example, one black marketer approached me about spiking the water supply on Mars. All I needed to do was smuggle some poisonous Shara Pods past the Ministryís guards, and suddenly water prices on the planet quadrupled.
After a few successful trading runs between the Earth and the Moon, you discover the Syndicate has no intention of letting you go. Rather, theyíve planted bombs aboard your freighter and expect you to be their gopher for years to come. The only way out is to make friends with even more powerful intergalactic corporations, which will mean youíll need to be both a savvy trader and handy with a pistol. Your contacts will assign you corporate rivals or pirate thugs to eliminate, and then you have three tries to complete your mission in FPS mode.
Iíll warn hardcore shooter fans up front Ė the combat in Space Trader is not the most exciting in the world. Youíll be running around abandoned railway stations, military bases, and underground tunnels, killing the same goon body guards to get to your target. Worst of all, youíll always start with a weak pistol and have to scavenge better weapons. Iím perplexed at how you can upgrade everything else in the game except your personal gear. But thereís a certain old-school charm to the gameís simplistic combat, and the AI is competent enough to put up a decent fight. In many scenarios, you must race to catch the boss before he escapes, which adds an extra level of difficulty. All in all, the combat system succeeds at giving players a welcome change of pace from building their galactic fortunes.
When youíre finished with the campaign, you can also play through the challenge mode either alone or with friends. Since the game is available on Steam, you can also wrack up various achievements for playing either a good guy or underhanded pirate/smuggler.
The gameís graphics are better than Iíve seen for many indie games and mods, and Iím willing to grade Space Trader on a curve considering itís not a major title. Having played business sims that were little more than a series of spreadsheets, I appreciated being able to do business in nicely detailed 3-D space stations. Each station also offers a slightly unique background depending on the planet.
Unfortunately, character models are a bit weak, with scrunched features and stiff animations. The combat levels are decent looking but the maps become very repetitive. Also, the bots all look the same, whether youíre fighting pirates, Ministry commandos, or even rampaging mutants. In terms of sound, thereís not much to talk about. Thereís hardly any voice acting, and the techno music gets old very quickly. On the plus side, the gameís sound effects are well done.
If youíre a hardcore shooter who enjoys a game with bleeding edge graphics and ruthless AI, then Space Trader is not for you. However, this game will appeal to Sci Fi fans, indie game lovers, and wannabe business tycoons. Space Trader offers something very different than your cookie cutter FPS or sim games. In some ways, the game also recaptures some of the glory of cyberpunk classics like Deus Ex or Syndicate. And at a price of less than $10, this trading game is an economical way to forget about real world money woes.