Review: Space Trader: Merchant Marine (PC)

Space Trader: Merchant Marine
Genre: Trading/FPS/Adventure
Developer: HermitWorks
Publisher: Meridian4
Release Date: 11/03/08

I’ve gone back and forth asking myself how I should review this game. Space Trader is an game created by independent developer HermitWorks Entertainment. Whether you purchase the game through Steam or order it off of Amazon the game is offered at a pretty low price. Since it is a budget title from an indie developer is it fair to compare the title to larger budget mainstream titles? Should I just restrict comparison to other indie games?

In the end I’ve decided to just try and give as much information as possible about the game that I can. While I will grade the game at the end of the review I leave it up to those reading this to determine whether the game sounds worth their money or not.

Let’s get this started.

In Space Trader you get to play the role of a Trader. In the future the Ministry of Accounts, an organization that tracks the daily life and spending of every citizen, governs everything. In the beginning of the game you start of as just some regular Joe who decides to try and get into the Space Trading business for fun and profit. Only problem is that he doesn’t have a ship. Oops. The game revolved around three activities, Exploring, Trading, and Combat.

Exploring is just wandering around in whatever world you are currently on. Much like an RPG game you can wander around each area and speak to the residents, which will sometimes gain you useful information or unlock new people to trade with. The entire game is modeled in 3D, and looks surprisingly well for an independent game with a smaller budget. Make no mistake, the graphics don’t really come near the average FPS from a company with cash to throw around, but the graphics in Space Trader are decent and everything has a pretty smooth look to it. Every planet area looks different and the areas you explore all are well detailed with posters and graffiti on the walls. The characters you interact with have a reasonable amount of detail to their character models, and the only real gripe I have is how often the character models are reused. Use a different color palette on the characters at least. Also, here’s a problem I have with a lot of 3D games where you can wander around talking to townspeople, they all animate like robots.

The voice acting is just not very good, and is probably the worst part of talking to any of the characters in the game. The sound effects are just fun though, and the voice parts are so brief it’s not as if the voice acting in anyway really hurts the experience. I did keep getting an odd audio glitch where the voice’s of characters kept stuttering and that was annoying.

While exploring you get to interact with the different characters and either meet contacts from which you can buy and sell goods to, or people you can get jobs from. Some of these offer different conversation options, and some of the truly unique moments that are in Space Trader generally come from these conversations. There are times when you will be asked to make a moral decision that could influence the price of a product to make some quick money, or you can occasionally use different conversation paths as a way of completing a quest without violence. How these situations turn out are occasionally surprising as well. My only problem with these parts is that there aren’t nearly enough of them. Trying to decide between factions, whether or not to do something evil for money, or to use violence or talk my way out of a situation where my favorite parts of this game, and I sort of wish that more of the game revolved around these situations.

Since the name of the game is Space Trader, of course trading goods is a large part of the game. In fact the different levels/challenges that make up the game are based around earning a certain amount of money within a specific amount of time. This is all backed up with an extremely easy to use interface for buying and selling products that let’s you quickly see the demand for the product, and if you have the product how much profit you will get from selling the item. Unfortunately the whole thing is just too simple. Making money from trades in the game is boiled down to looking at the demand for a product on its line graph and if it’s at the bottom, buy as much of it as possible, the pricier the item the better. Then travel from one planet to another and BAM! instant profit. That’s all you really need to do and soon enough you’ll be raking in millions at a time. The hardest thing to decide is what to buy and trade and which planet you should go to next. The planets keep moving during the game so the planet your next mission is on might be far away. Since each challenge has a time requirement and time only really speed ahead when traveling from planet to planet you have to make sure that you aren’t spending so much time on travel that you miss the deadline.

I enjoyed the interface but there’s a difference between simplifying things and making them so simple that it takes all of the challenge away. There are stars next to some items to help you figure out what are good buys. Cargo hold space can apparently be purchased like any other commodity, and while we’re talking about cargo space what’s up with everything weighing the same? Why does gold take up the same amount of space as stem cells or cotton?

Finally there’s combat in the game. When not exploring or trading on different planets you can ask the local bartender about local bounties. These bounty missions are a throwback to older FPS titles. Generally these are set in a few arenas, and you always start with a pistol. There are power-ups, weapons, and items floating in the air to collect and use. During a bounty mission you must kill off a couple of goons before the person you are hunting will appear, then you off them and you’ve succeeded. However you only get 3 chances to complete the mission, if you die or if the bounty gets away then it’s over.

The bounty parts are a small part of the game and do a good job providing a break from the exploring and the trading parts, but it also has a lot of flaws. There are very few arenas that these take place in and you’ll see the same couple of areas over and over again making the bounty missions feel like carbon copies of each other. The first few times it’s cool, but it wears thin quickly. The AI for the enemies is weird; when you’ve attracted their attention they’ll bunny hop while strafing around. I can understand that in an online match, but the AI bunny hopping all over the place? It’s odd to go after someone with a bounty and watch them make like Frogger.

That’s not the only area of the game that you will use combat in, there are times when your ship will be stopped and you will be asked to pay taxes or fight, and in these situations there are no 3 chances, there’s just one, and the fines for failing are pretty steep. There are also specific missions that will occasionally ask you to take out a person that follow the same format as the bounty missions.

When you take all three of these aspects together you get Space Trader. There are certainly good ideas presented in Space Trader, it’s just none of the ideas ever seem to be fully realized. The game mixes all of the different modes together well; it’s just that taken on their own none of them are very good. If you want first person combat, adventure, or a trading game you can find other games that concentrate on these areas fully and provide a much better experience. If you want all of them together and can get over the repetitive combat and easy trading system then you will probably enjoy what Space Trader has to offer.

Also, why is there no save system? The game automatically save progress if you travel from one planet to another, but then you can’t really save your progress unless you choose to travel to another planet. A simple save button would’ve solved this, and this is probably the first PC game I’ve ever played without one that wasn’t a quick flash game. There are achievements in the game, but no place I can find to actually view these achievements after they’ve been unlocked.

Other than the single player game, Space Trader also offers a multiplayer mode that allows you to compete against up to eight other players to try and reach the monetary goal the quickest. There’s very little feeling that you’re playing against other people if you do this though.

The Scores:
Game Modes/Story: Below Average
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Poor
Control/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Below Average
Balance: Great
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Above Average
Final Score: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Space Trader: Merchant Marine is a really good effort from indie developers HermitWorks. By independent standards it’s great, for a game with a smaller budget it still manages to pack in some interesting gameplay ideas. Unfortunately I personally thought as a trading game it was far too simplistic, and the first person action parts were too repetitive. The adventure parts were by far my favorite, and I’d love to see HermitWorks develop something along those lines in the future. If this game sounds interesting at all, it’s going for $9.99 on Steam and you can check out the demo at the official homepage for the game

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