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  • Telling Lies Review - Deceiving Ourselves
    by Phil Hornshaw on August 21, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    There's an intrinsically guilty draw about looking into the private lives of others--a burgeoning curiosity that pulls humans to tell stories, to gossip, to spy on one another. The psychology of that feeling is at the heart of Telling Lies, a game that really isn't about much more than watching the intimate communications of other people. The game leverages a human desire to pry into others' lives, and that feeling that we're doing something wrong helps to make the draw even more powerful.That feeling is how Telling Lies gets away with being a video game that doesn't really contain much of a "game," per se. As with its predecessor, Her Story, director and writer Sam Barlow lets the idea of uncovering the sordid details of someone else's life lead you through the experience. Where Her Story was something of an experiment with the idea--you skim through a database of unordered full-motion video clips that slowly expose a mystery concerning a woman who was questioned by police--Telling Lies is the larger-scale execution. There are more characters, more videos, and more details to uncover. The question of how much you'll enjoy Telling Lies is very much linked to how far your curiosity will carry you.To that end, there's no good way to explain what Telling Lies is about without ruining it. The game starts with a clip of a woman returning to her apartment and plugging a hard drive into a computer, which gives her access to a secret National Security Agency database of videos snaked from the Internet; essentially, a series of Skype or FaceTime calls made or received by a man named David. As with Her Story, the reason those videos are worth perusing, and why the privacy of these people is worth invading, is something you have to glean for yourself. As the title suggests, not everybody is fully honest with each other, and much of the game is a meditation on the deceptions humans employ every day in all their interactions. The face we show one person is different from the one we wear for another--and even what we tell ourselves is potentially suspect.Uncovering the lies and the reasoning behind them will likely keep you pretty well enraptured through the game's eight or so hours of video, especially in the early and middle portions when there are plenty of revelations waiting for you to unearth them. Nuanced performances help in that regard as well, even though the actors are mostly just staring into cameras and emoting. You'll probably recognize the members of the strong cast, led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus, Upload), Alexandra Shipp (Dark Phoenix, Love, Simon), Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire, Narcos), and Angela Sarafyan (Westworld, American Horror Story). It's not hard to imagine Telling Lies as a Netflix show if it were presented a little differently. The game part of watching all those videos--and there are a lot of them, upwards of 160--usually is found in figuring out what you're not seeing or hearing in each one.All of Telling Lies takes place on a computer screen, where you can dig around on the stolen hard drive for additional context (or even play Solitaire), and poking around a bit gives some handy facts about what you're viewing. In order to make sure this particular NSA Big Brother program passes Constitutional muster, the videos can't be watched chronologically. You can only search for a clip using keywords, and when you uncover a conversation, you can only see one side of it at a time. Watching each clip is a chance to learn more about the people in it--but you'll also need to pay close enough attention to figure out what words to try next that will help you uncover more of the story, or what words the other person might be using so you can track down their side of the interaction.That system is nearly identical to the one in Her Story, with a few improvements. In Telling Lies, you can scrub through videos at various speeds by dragging your mouse to the sides of the screen. You'll start each video at the keyword with which you found it, so discovering context requires you to dig further into every video. Each selection also includes subtitles, and you can click any subtitled word while watching to use it as a keyword, making searching around a little easier--or allowing you to chase down a thread as soon as you see it.As noted, Telling Lies is an expansion of the ideas inherent to Her Story, and so it includes a lot of the same high points--and drawbacks. It's very much a title in which you need to make your own fun. Uncovering interesting tidbits about the characters or finally drawing a connection between one event and another is satisfying, but that also means that the "game" part of Telling Lies largely exists in your own mind. There's little to push you forward other than your own desire to know more, and you'll largely create your own objectives and climaxes in the form of "Aha!" moments along the way.The disjointed nature of the story also means that it's up to you to impose your own structure on it. Telling Lies doesn't have easy-to-follow traditional storytelling elements like a rising action or climax. It's possible (although really unlikely) to spot the final video in the sequence immediately after watching the first. Filling in the gaps is part of solving the mystery, but at the same time, Telling Lies pretty much ends when you get bored of searching or hit a wall and can't come up with any fresh keywords. A timer running on the screen lets you know how much of the in-game night you've wiled away with your inquiries. The game implies you've only got until dawn to find everything you can before you're inevitably snapped up by the authorities for stealing the database. But come 5:45 a.m., the timer stalls (or at least, it did after I hit the button ending the story once and then loaded an earlier save to dig around some more). That allows you infinite opportunities to keep searching, but it also seems the ticking clock is more a contrivance than an actual system, so again, you're not actually working toward anything other than your own satisfaction.That's never more true than when you trigger Telling Lies' ending, essentially by clicking an "I'm done" button as dawn approaches. Though you've dug through what is (seemingly) an illegal NSA database and your arrest is likely imminent, you get only a vague sense of what the information is for and what you're doing with it now that you have it. A final report that gives you a sense of how much of the game you completed and what most often drew your interest gives some suggestion of your character's final actions, but you're not compiling the raw data into a clear story, nor are you really leveraging it against the powers that be that are hunting you. Depending on which of the characters' videos you saw the most of, you'll get one of three endings that explains the aftermath of the two years of events you've just witnessed--but that's it, and it's unsatisfying to just see one conclusion of several intertwining narratives. And in the end, you're just watching videos, making connections, and then turning the game off.It's in the ending that Telling Lies feels a bit undercooked. The mechanics, writing, and performances create a real feeling of peering into someone else's private world all the way through, but the game doesn't give you much in the way of agency, especially if you endeavor to uncover every single video. Telling Lies never really answers a fundamental question raised by its very nature and structure: So what? The game's final report seems to suggest that you're taking part in crafting a narrative as a viewer, as if the act of uncovering and watching these videos creates a complete, subjective narrative for whoever sees them next--but you're only a passive part of that process, and you don't know you're taking part in it until it's over. The game might be telling you that you've had an effect on what someone else might see, but you don't get a chance to actually make any decisions in that process, or to separate truths from deceptions; you only get to watch.The mechanics, writing, and performances create a real feeling of peering into someone else's private world all the way through, but the game doesn't give you much in the way of agency.Telling Lies offers you the opportunity to delve into the intimate connections between people, to uncover who they are possibly to a deeper extent than even they realize. The production values and performances in particular make Telling Lies feel true and immediate, elevating the game's conceit that you're taking part in something forbidden and possibly sinister, even as you work as a digital detective. In that way, it's contemporary and meaningful as a game that uses interactivity in a unique way to explore how we relate to one another. But Telling Lies struggles to find meaning in that exploration. Its interactivity is only skin deep, like the lies its characters tell one another. As a further expansion of Barlow's ideas about what games can be, Telling Lies is a success. It's unfortunate that, in the end, it doesn't further embrace its interactive possibilities. […]

  • Rad Review - Welcome To The New Age
    by Justin Clark on August 16, 2019 at 10:43 pm

    It's a tale as old as time: The maniacs have blown it all up, and the few unlucky survivors are forced to pick up the pieces and begin civilization anew. Double Fine's Rad, however, takes it one step further. A second apocalypse has happened, and according to the omnipresent narrator, the survivors' one-word reaction is actually the correct and logical one: “Seriously?”From the second pile of ashes, however, a new hero arises. You, the Remade, a blunt weapon-wielding child of the endtimes who has been tasked by the Menders--the new architects of the age--with going forth into the treacherous radioactive hellscape armed with nothing more than a baseball bat and a host of ungodly but powerful bodily mutations to find a new source of power for humankind.On paper, that sounds dreadfully serious. In practice, however, it's Double Fine, a developer that seems physically incapable of making a game that's a downer. The Menders give the Remade their powers using a magical keytar, for crying out loud. Indeed, right off the bat, the most striking and engaging thing about Rad is the look of the apocalypse. Earth is most certainly ruined, nuclear-blasted several times over, but it's reached a point of being overgrown with luminescent plants, snaking, sentient vines, and neon shocks of pinks, greens, and purples. This is less the dead worlds of Fallout or Rage and more like a bizarre Saturday morning cartoon of Alex Garland's Annihilation.Rad, however, is a double entendre of a title for the game referring not just to the irradiated nuclear landscape, but to the overwhelming 1980s nostalgia. The booming narrator could be ripped out of any number of classic action movies. The hub world where the last humans make their home is an oddball microcosm of early '80s bric-a-brac, right down to the humorous, smart-alecky characters all bearing the names of famous characters from '80s movies (Biff, Lorraine, Sloan, etc.). The soundtrack is full of incredibly catchy off-brand riffs on famous tunes like Van Halen's Jump, Michael Jackson's Beat It, and Stan Bush's The Touch. You can push the '80s vibe even further with some of the CRT filters in options, but It makes an already busy aesthetic look nearly indiscernible.And best you believe, you need all the advantages and awareness you can get. As cool and fun and inviting as Rad appears on the surface, it becomes clear very early on that Rad is, above all else, aggravatingly hard. It's a roguelike, so the levels are all randomly laid out, but it's otherwise a deceptively simple old-school, top-down action game. When you first make your way into the wasteland, you can jump, hit stuff with a bat, and dodge. There are some unique tricks you can employ that can help, like a jump kick, an aerial smash attack, and a distance-closing lunge, but the game doesn't tell you about any of this at the outset. There's no real tutorial or in-game hint system. Instead it just drops occasional new tips during its extensive loading screens. It was hours into my playthrough before the tip came up informing me about the lunge attack, and it felt like hours prior had been wasted not knowing it was there.A mild learning curve would be fine if the wastelands weren't so unforgiving, but despite a wide variety of enemies, with fairly predictable attack patterns, you're just far too fragile for far too long in this game. When things kick off, you get three hearts. Enemy hits strip away half a heart generally, and once they're gone, you're starting over. There are power-ups you get after every boss that grant extra hearts and/or split one of your hearts into thirds instead of a half, but you'll be surprised how little a difference that makes. If there's more than one enemy onscreen at any given moment, cheap hits are a constant danger, and no matter how well you're doing on your run, walking into the wrong area and into the wrong group of enemies all striking at the wrong time means it could be game over in seconds. In the instances where it's not, health is such a frustratingly rare commodity that even taking extra care from then on means possibly going for quite some time with only half a heart, bleeding to death all over the cracked pavement. Yes, that's a staple of the genre at this point, but in the best examples of it there's a level of preparation you're able to have where you at least feel like you have a fighting chance. That doesn't happen often in Rad.What you do get is this: Every enemy you kill generates a certain amount of radiation that you can soak up, essentially acting as XP. Once you've leveled up, your body gains a random new freaky mutant power. This is Rad's biggest hook. The powers themselves are wildly imaginative and wonderfully animated. You could wind up with something as simple as a set of bat wings, allowing you to essentially gain a double jump and glide ability, or being able to throw your arm like a boomerang. Or you could end up with something just bonkers, like having a deformed twin grow out of your weapon arm to extend your range and attack power or the ability to give birth to two spider-baby versions of you who'll run into combat and attack enemies. When you go back to the hub world with them, the NPCs' reactions are some of the most hilarious dialogue in the game. As conceptually imaginative as those powers are, some are vastly more useful than others, and given how swift death comes for you in this game, getting a lame one at the outset basically means your entire run is doomed.That's generally the case for just about everything meant to help you in Rad: A bit too much of your success is dependent on sheer luck more than skill. You can collect cassette tapes--the game's currency--and either deposit them at the bank between stages or spend them on items with some of the scattered merchants around, but not knowing what new creatures to expect in an area or what attacks the boss will throw at you means running the risk of spending money on a powerup that's essentially worthless during your current run. There are on-the-fly powerups called exo-mutations you can find in some of the underground areas of the game, and while they're generally helpful at first, you can wind up drawing a handicap like extra vulnerability to attacks or a distorted screen, and that, too, can spell the end of a good run faster than it should.The good news is that the longer you play, the better your chances of finally earning permanent upgrades that make the early stages more of a breeze. There's a completely separate pool of permanent XP that you earn after you die that unlocks new characters, game variants, and upgrades. You earn the ability to buy items on credit after you've deposited enough tapes into the bank, and the local shopkeep gets better and better stuff the more you buy. There are just so many blind, stupid, aggravating deaths to be had to get to that point, though, and it's not hard to imagine throwing in the towel long before then.There are certainly things that make fighting the good fight worth it. The story does take some subtle twists and turns as the largely teenage population of the hub world starts wondering about the point of all these legends. The boss fights get increasingly audacious in design as you go along. I'm still discovering new mutations even on the first upgrade after playing for hours. And despite an element of visual clutter, this is a compellingly colorful world to hang out in for a while. It's just that the joys of Rad require more work than necessary to obtain, and that work can feel awfully thankless at times. Double Fine's hyper-colorful take on an '80s synthpop apocalypse makes for some gratifying nostalgia at the best of times, but there's a reason why, eventually, we all moved on to grunge. […]

  • Darq Review - Beast Under Your Bed
    by Alessandro Barbosa on August 15, 2019 at 11:30 pm

    Sleep is meant to be a rejuvenating and relaxing part of your daily routine, but in Darq, it’s a gauntlet of danger that repeats night after night. Taking place in the lucid dreams of its main character, Lloyd, Darq is eerie and unsettling, its contorted world home to shocking figures of pure body horror. But it’s also a world held together by some intriguing puzzles, each of which delicately builds upon another to provide satisfying solutions to uncover.Darq’s main mechanic is the ability to manipulate gravity. When pressed against a flat surface, you can shift gravity towards it, flipping whole rooms onto their side and letting you explore a familiar space from a whole new perspective. Obscure passageways and interactable objects are hidden from certain angles, which makes getting around a puzzle in itself. Exploration is at the heart of Darq, as you hunt down items you’ll need to solve specific puzzles throughout its seven chapters.Your progress through a chapter is inhibited by your ability to find the right item for the job. There aren’t obscure solutions for the most part, either, allowing you to focus instead on the challenge of finding ways to change your perspective. A cog, for instance, is used on machines where it is evident that they are missing, while a key will be labelled for the object it’s meant to unlock. Given the dream setting, there are a few instances where the items you need to solve a puzzle don't make sense--a wristwatch grows and bridges a gap in the floor, or a snake is used to mend a broken electrical circuit--but given that you never hold more than just a handful of items at a time, it's easy enough to eliminate ones that won’t work and experiment with the rest without getting frustrated.Each of Darq’s chapters is themed around a new mechanic, which is then carried through to subsequent levels. You start by only having to worry about shifting gravity, but it’s not long before you have to consider levers that rotate whole rooms or switches that throw you backwards and forwards through an otherwise 2D plane. Each of these is introduced with well-constructed puzzles that gently show you the possibilities, eventually culminating in later levels where all of them are used together to create tricky conundrums. A just-out-of-reach gear suggests to you that there must be a new mechanic that allows you to reach it, for example, eventually teaching you that you can walk on walls without the need for tutorialized text. Darq isn’t incredibly challenging, but after learning the ins and outs of different mechanics over the course of the game, it's satisfying to solve a puzzle that combines the principles you've mastered.Navigating levels and figuring out their multiple routes is a joy, but exploration is occasionally tripped up by enemy encounters. The few monsters in Darq are shocking figures with contorted appendages and bizarre experimentations that are quick to attack, tearing you apart violently should you get too close. Stealth is your only option in these instances, but it's limited in execution. Most of the time you simply wait for an enemy to pass an obvious hiding spot before darting into it and waiting for them to pass back around, stripping you of any creativity to your approach. These sections are little more than forced frustrations, some of which you’ll have to repeatedly engage with when backtracking through levels. In contrast to the thoughtful puzzles that surround it, Darq’s stealth is underwhelming.The haunting monsters present a real threat in what is otherwise an entirely made-up world, with the underlying premise of lucid dreams allowing for all the otherworldly mechanics that Darq offers. Its vision of the subconscious can easily be compared to classic Tim Burton films. Your character features stick-like appendages and empty black eyes which match well with the gloomy, dreary world filled with oppressive grey hues and a pervasive industrial revolution theme. The variety in levels, from an abandoned hospital to a coal-drenched locomotive, does a lot to flesh out the world. Darq runs the gamut on cliché spooky spaces, but it realizes them so well in its visual style that they feel fresh rather than cheesy.Part of what makes each of these spaces stand out is the exceptional sound design. Darq can be terrifyingly silent at times, with only your footsteps echoing into the distance for long stretches at a time. But the silence only accentuates the quality of a creaking wheelchair moving slowly towards you or the sharp screams of enemies alerted to your presence when entering a room. Interactions with puzzle elements are often accompanied with loud, sharp sound effects that pierce through the quiet halls of the levels they’re in, always instilling a sense of unease when you’re poking around Darq’s dreary world.It’s a shame then that with all this delightfully spooky atmosphere, there’s not much else to do once Darq’s seven chapters are over, which took me just over two hours. Each stage barring the finale contains a single collectible to find if you’re itching for an additional challenge, which can make return visits mildly rewarding. The brevity of Darq is, however, disappointing because of the potential left on the table. The beginning chapters are too short and the finale breaks the structure of every chapter before it, leaving most of Darq's most compelling pieces in its middle. On top of that, each level isn't given enough time to really explore the breadth of its unique puzzle mechanics, bringing about the end just as it feels like momentum is starting to form.As brief as it is, Darq does offer well-designed puzzles that are incredibly satisfying to solve on your first playthrough, each one building upon the last in intelligent ways. Darq never fully stumbles into frustration, even if it is tripped up slightly by underwhelming stealth sections. But its gloomy atmosphere and exceptional sound design enrapture you in its dreary world of dreams. Darq is full of great ideas that contribute to a tight and brief package, but it’s hard not to want for more once it’s done. […]

  • Metal Wolf Chaos Review - Mindless Mayhem
    by Peter Brown on August 15, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    From Software wasn't always the renowned developer it is today, but by and large it still produced interesting, worthwhile games in the early PlayStation and Xbox days. The studio's rich history is absolutely worth exploring, and once you start down that rabbit hole, 2004's Metal Wolf Chaos is sure to catch your eye. A game starring the fictional President of the United States is an intriguing setup. The fact that he pilots a mech stuffed to the gills with an arsenal of giant weapons is a near-irresistible premise. Metal Wolf Chaos is one big schlocky joke at the US' expense delivered in the form of an action game, and because there aren't many nations or cultures that are fit to be mocked with such gusto, it feels like a rare opportunity that warrants investigation.Perhaps for obvious reasons, Metal Wolf Chaos never completed its planned journey westward back when Bush was in office and the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put us on more international shitlists than usual. Fifteen years later, amid very different (though arguably worse) political and cultural climates, From Software's tongue-in-cheek parody of US stereotypes is finally open to widespread interpretation. There are aspects of its bombastic campaign that coincidentally bring to mind the worst of our current predicament, but the Metal Wolf President Michael Wilson, his secretary Jody, and the main villain, Vice President Richard Hawk, never let you forget that this is first and foremost a series of surface-level jokes played up with B-grade voice acting."Jody: Mr. President, I haven't been this happy since...Since that supermarket going-out-of-business sale, when I was searching for my favorite candy and...I found the last bar all covered in dust at the back of the rack! And the expiration date was still good!Michael Wilson: I know the feeling, Jody."Once you dive into missions, any goodwill earned by these ludicrous exchanges--in the face of a coup d'etat--eventually fades. The Metal Wolf mech is a bullet-belching powerhouse that carries four weapons on each side (from a wide range of pistols, bazookas, flamethrowers, you name it), and cycling through its arsenal quickly becomes second nature as you need to contend with limited ammo and a small variety of enemy types. Wreaking havok and causing massive explosions is gratifying for a while, and the only argument for actually playing the game versus watching a recap of the cutscenes online.Otherwise, the missions you face are largely rote and devoid of merit. Optional tasks like rescuing hostages--by destroying cages with small-arms fire--and poking around levels for unlockable weapons aren't much of a draw either. Perhaps they would be for a completionist looking for an excuse to get more out of the experience, but the net gain from these activities never makes them feel essential or worth deviating from your path of destruction. The variety of locales and scenery is appreciated and does help renew some curiosity, but the look of a stage only takes you so far, and a new map layout doesn't mean a whole lot without clever moments to make it shine.Some stages try harder than others, but seemingly without the intended results. Heading into the mission based in Arizona puts you in the middle of a dense Old West town with streets just big enough for some happy-go-lucky mech action. It's also one of the few missions that puts you toe-to-toe with another mech--three at once, in this case. Doing battle in the confined corridors is more interesting than fighting out in the open (as experienced in other missions), but it also means that you can find ways to trick the shallow AI into getting stuck on the corner of a building. It's easy pickings at that point as you fire away on your hapless foes. It's neither challenging nor enjoyable, perfectly illustrating the fact that gunplay and explosions alone can't resolve Metal Wolf Chaos' consistently mediocre designs.A lot of time has passed since the original release, and there's reason to expect that certain aspects could have been ironed out in preparation for Metal Wolf's formal reintroduction. That's not to say the entire game should have been reconsidered, but there's definitely room for less-intense changes that could make a major impact, such as adding mid-level checkpoints. Simple as they are, Metal Wolf's levels can be very long and drawn-out, coming close to the 15-minute mark in many cases. So often there are either surprise difficulty spikes or threats of instant death, and if you fail to survive because of a momentary lapse of judgment, you will have to play the entire level from the beginning. Fall off a dock mere meters from the shore? You're dead. Accidentally cause collateral damage at the wrong time? You're back at square one. When death can come in a flash, to have to go back to the beginning of a long level that's achingly routine feels like a great excuse to put the controller down and walk away.Metal Wolf Chaos is an old game with a wild reputation, and though it lives up to it in some ways, it's not good in general. At best, it's a curio that helps inform the story of From Software's trajectory over the years. At worst, it's a frustratingly shallow experience that fails to capitalize on it's best qualities. The From Software of yore deserves applause for punching up so confidently, and in style, to a degree, but Metal Wolf Chaos doesn't live up to the hype that's been building for well over a decade. […]

  • Rebel Galaxy Outlaw Review - Space Truckers
    by James Swinbanks on August 13, 2019 at 8:45 pm

    Rebel Galaxy Outlaw sits at a crossroads somewhere between American Truck Simulator's slice of trucking Americana and the iconic combat of Freespace 2. It's a highly competent, single-player space combat sim complete with warring factions, pirates, corrupt cops, and dubious sectors filled with all manner of undesirables, a nicely detailed trading system, and stellar combat. While intense difficulty spikes and lacking mission information leaves some scarring on the hull, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw delivers a worthy payload.You play as Juno Markev, a pilot stuck between the search for her husband's killer, her need to make cash to cover the debt of replacing her recently junked ship, and her shady past. Told largely through comms messages and cutscenes between missions, many of the characters you meet are fairly archetypal, but share a sense of relatability and groundedness that lends them a lot of their charm. Character animation in story cutscenes can feel quite stiff, lending them an uncanny valley vibe, but these moments are short and don't distract from the wider storytelling. Juno herself is a big highlight; her endearingly grounded sense of self-belief and her inability to suffer the fools she finds herself constantly dealing with always makes for fiery dialogue.Story threads are easy to lose track of due to the sheer number of things to do. When it's just you and your ship, it's all about surviving the hustle of being a space trucker; trading and smuggling goods, taking mercenary jobs, mining and selling resources--anything you can do to keep those credits rolling in so you can upgrade or outright replace the colossal junker of a ship you're given at the game's outset. In the opening hours, your travel is limited to one system and a handful of local missions, but once you get your hands on a jump drive you can start making your way across the galaxy, and things start to open up some more.There are five ships you can purchase from various stations, each with traits that make them suitable as freighters or as fighters. While some ships are better suited for certain tasks than others, you're not locked into a playstyle because of your choice. Fighters can add cargo bays to move more items, and you can take a freighter fully kitted out with advanced weapons pirate-hunting and it'll still feel pretty good.The beautifully detailed cockpit is the default view, and it is daunting at first--though you can also play in third-person--which seems weird given that you play an experienced pilot; the numerous switches, lights and dials each flicker away, and you're not really sure what they do at first. There's no tutorial to help with this, so it can feel like you're being thrown in the deep end. But while it takes some time to understand what the ship systems are telling you, it's not long before you're fluent in reading the controls and gaining a better grasp on any given situation. There is support for a flight stick and a HOTAS, but I found it best with a gamepad as everything you need is right at your fingertips.Stations are where everything outside of combat happens, although you don't hop out of your ship and wander around. Instead you browse a handful of menus to get what you need before setting off on your next journey. This is where you make repairs or ship upgrades, handle commodities trading, sign up to one of the guilds that offer side missions, or browse the standard side missions for that station. It's an elegant way of handling station traversal, and the nice visual shots and animations of the station internals give you a sense of what type of station you're in and the kinds of things you might find there. You can bother the local bartender for helpful gameplay tips, sector news, or other information or play one of the handful of trite but fun mini-games like slots, 8-ball, or Star-Venger, a simple take on an Asteroids-based sprite shooter.Missions are either picked up from stations or, in the case of story missions, given through dialogue. They generally amount to going to a waypoint and finding or killing something for varying factions. Some of these have an effect on your standing with different factions, which can change who treats you as hostile when out amongst the stars as well as the stations you can land at. Missions also show a level of risk from mild to extreme, but these aren't a great benchmark, as countless times I warped into a mission zone of mild-to-low risk only to be completely overwhelmed within 10 seconds of my arrival. At least a reload after death is super fast, returning you to the last jumpgate you took or station you'd left and allowing you to do something else for a while before coming back to try again. But this is also a huge source of frustration as the only way to push through these difficulty spikes is to grind for credits and ship upgrades.The tension in a good firefight is wonderful. When you're not tuned in to one of the seven different radio stations that broadcast throughout the galaxy, the game's southern hard rock soundtrack kicks into overdrive as the lasers start flying. Firefights will sometimes offer up instant rewards, either as bounty credits or loose cargo that's been freed from the breached hull, and you can freely engage the tractor beam to suck these up in order to sell on yourself and reap the benefits. In some cases you may also find an ejected pilot who you can haul in for detention, or you can enslave them and sell them on the black market, though doing so will put you on the wrong side of the space cops, which can make life in the outer rims much harder than it needs to be.The cockpit views on each of the game's crafts are tight, and there's no option to move your head around, so you rely heavily on your radar to know where to go and what's around you. It's invaluable when in the thick of the action, which can very quickly get overwhelming unless you act decisively. Power management is a big part of this, and it's a system that adds a nice slice of tactical thinking to the visual feast of the combat. Weapons fire has two modes, linked and staggered, and while linked fire will unleash the full power of your hardpoints, it'll drain your available power quickly and severely limit your ship's capabilities. Staggered fire only fires one hardpoint at a time, meaning it uses less power overall, but can be sustained for longer. You can also quickly reroute power between the engines, weapons and your shields, but as there's only so much to go around you're always settling on a compromise between offense and defense, so the system as a whole works wonderfully well as a test of situational awareness.Rebel Galaxy Outlaw's gorgeous visual design is one of its biggest strengths. There's a huge assortment of stations, ships, planets and other things to see while out in the vastness of space. From the huge casinos of the Nevada sector to the glass-capped atriums of Hobbes Station, there are postcard moments to be found almost everywhere in the galaxy. There's also a wildly in-depth and excellent ship painter that lets you completely redesign the paint job of your ship, so you can customize to your craft's look down to minute details. That extends to the combat, too, with under fire shields flashing in protest and hull plating falling apart as its struck by cannon fire before bursting into a flaming wreck in front of you. Distant firefights look like a laser light show.There is a lot to do in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, so much so that it's easy to lose yourself among the myriad of activities beyond flying around and shooting things. Juno is a great character despite her sometimes jarring movements, as are much of the rest of the charming cast. The combat is fast, frenetic and consistently challenging, although that challenge can sometimes feel impossible without stepping back and grinding out some progress elsewhere, which quickly gets frustrating. Thankfully the core of the game--its combat, trading, and space flight--are all superb and had me launching into the stars for many hours of galactic trading and explosive firefights. […]