Smugglers 5 Review24 Oct 2013  by
We get inundated with PC review code here at IncGamers, and the sad fact is that we can’t look at all of it. If our writing staff were to be described by a dubious estate agent, they would probably toss around terms like “boutique” and “compact.” In other words, small. That means no matter how exciting your new title is, if it arrives when we’re all reviewing two other games it’s probably going to be overlooked.
Sometimes though, circumstances combine to give one of us a chance to look at something we may normally not have found time for. Right now I’m on semi-holiday, away from my main desktop. The only vaguely capable gaming machine within my range is a six year old laptop that just about manages to stutter its way through Fallout: New Vegas on low settings. Plainly, I won’t be reviewing any games with terms like “PhysX” or “High-res Textures” in their options menu.
Just before I departed, GOG won the laptop-friendly-review-code lottery by sending over a build of Smugglers V, a game that is entirely happy running on ancient hardware. In fact, it often looks like a lost Amiga title, so it’d probably sit happily on just about any technology from the last decade. I’m fairly confident a modern toaster would be able to run it after some gentle modifications.
I’ve not played one to four (or I to IV) in the series, but based on a spot of background reading it appears this series is fairly iterative. You can see a changelog featuring all the differences between this release and the previous one here.
Smugglers V is a turn-based space trading, questing and combat game where your selection of starting profession informs the kinds of activities you’ll be engaging in. Opt for a freelance trader, and you’ll spend most of your time weighing up prices in different systems. Choose to be a military officer in one of the game’s four factions and you’ll be patrolling the front lines, trying to sway galactic sieges and invasions one way or the other by executing dangerous combat missions. Each profession also has a different end goal; the traders may well end up owning a chain of factories, while scurrilous scallywags will aim to build a pirate empire throughout the stars.
Of course, you don’t have to follow those patterns. A profession’s given skill tree will nudge you in a particular direction, but Smugglers V is the type of game to let you fly around the 24 star systems doing pretty much whatever you like. Unalligned pilots can toss in their lot with a local planetary governor and embark on military quests, a localised ship scanner means you can partake in crimes or bounties of opportunity, and there’s nothing to stop a dastardly pirate gritting their teeth to do a bit of legitimate trading on the side.
This open-ended freedom is right at the game’s heart, though each profession and play-through will probably share a few similarities. Sure, you could stay in the fighter you’re (usually) given by default, but it’s far more likely that traders will graduate through the corvette to cruiser route in order to get larger cargo holds, and the military types will do the same to get hold of bigger guns and rewards.
The precise make-up of a player’s ship, however, will probably differ according to taste. Various equipment upgrades offer you a choice of weaponry (guns that either replenish a little of your shield with each shot, or have a chance to stun the enemy with EMP,) missiles (plus attendant defense systems) and options for your engines. Again, your choice of occupation will tend to inform the decisions here.
Travel between planets (and, once you have a powerful enough ship, systems) takes a number of in-game days, based on how quick your engines happen to be. Inevitably, there will come a time when your ship is attacked during one of these journeys; either through a choice of your own, or thanks to a random encounter with the ships of a rival faction or roaming pirates. When that occurs, the view switches to a side-on space-struggle.
There, the outcome is down to judicious use of special skills and (if the fight is a miss-match) a certain amount of luck. Players have five actions points to spend in a turn, which can be used for basic actions like launching missiles or firing weapons, as well as more specialised actions like improved targeting or a skill that can reduce the action points necessary for missile fire. Other factors, like the possibility of friendly fighter support in allied systems, or randomly occurring time distortion effects (everybody gets more action points) also influence the outcome. Aside from the (unseen) fighter support, space battles are always one on one.
While tactical awareness is necessary to triumph in a Smugglers V space battle, the slight problem is that once you’ve figured out a successful sequence of actions it’s possible to employ it in pretty much every fight against a ship of equivalent size. Against larger ships, your chances of success are far more down to the luck of the random number generator (which in fact makes them rather tense.) So while the turn-based combat system feels quite satisfying at first, once it falls into a repetitive pattern the shortcomings are a little clearer.
The game also suffers from the effects of war only seeming to occur in passing. When a faction is defending of besieging a nearby star system it has an impact in terms of goods prices and whether your face is welcome there, but systems change hands more often than a lower league journeyman footballer without any apparent lasting effects (unless, of course, you actually own said system.) Sometimes a galaxy will wrap up a war, only to be immediately plunged into another one. Possibly with the very same foe.
This endless conflict is handy for a freelance trader (such as yourself, perhaps) to make a quick profit on some weapons and engines, but it seems to lack proper, long-term consequences. As soon as a conflict comes to an end, the entire galaxy pretty much just goes back to normal. There’s no sign, for example, of brand new galactic owners having much of an impact. Nor of the perpetual warfare having any serious structural or human impact.
War in the game may be strangely lifeless and detached, but the mini (text) adventures offered on most planetary surfaces are quite the opposite. These short, choice-based dilemmas do a far better job of building a sense of a living, diverse universe than the somewhat two-dimensional clashes of the factions. You get a much greater sense of purpose when embroiled in a jailbreak from an AI dystopia, or risking exploration of a hostile planetary surface. It gives each world a sense of place that basic, numerical trade transactions can’t really provide.
Smugglers V doesn’t really deliver fully on the promise of being a turn-based Elite, but that’s a goal of such ambition that it’d defeat the majority of titles. It’s a game full of freedom of choice, allowing the player to make their way through the framework it provides in just about whatever manner they please. Not all of those choices and activities are thrilling, but enough of them are engaging. There’s a point, maybe eight or ten hours in, when you feel most of your options have been discovered and explored; but until that is reached, carving out your own unique journey in the Smugglers universe feels liberating.