It was hard to miss Rebel Galaxy at Sony's recent digital showcase. Amid the pixel art and platformers that have become so common over the past few years, its impressive 3D starships immediately stood out.
"Two guys did all of that," a Sony employee told me at one point during the event, a slight note of incredulity in their voice.
Those "two guys" are Travid Baldree and Erich Schaefer — late of Runic Games, and before that, Blizzard North. Both are veteran developers, having worked on such well-known titles as Diablo, Fate, and Torchlight. They describe their latest project as a mix of Privateer and Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, with a bit of Star Control 2 and Sid Meier's Pirates thrown in for good measure.
"We just wanted to make something other than a fantasy games for a change," Baldree laughed as he took me on a tour of the world that he and Schaefer had created.
For a low-priced downloadable game ("We're probably going to sell it for around $20," Schaefer said non-chalantly), Rebel Galaxy's scope is quite impressive. Given command of your own starship, you are free to wander the cosmos taking on quests, battling space pirates, or becoming a scoundrel yourself. Thought strictly single-player, its scale is in some ways reminiscent of last year's Elite: Dangerous, and even includes a similar sort of interdiction minigame for chasing bounties.
Compared to Elite: Dangerous, though, you have a much larger ship at your disposal. The ships in Rebel Galaxy are full-blown cruisers, capable of delivering devastating broadsides as they slowly circle the battlefield. As a result, it has a much different flavor than Elite: Dangerous, which puts a heavy emphasis on individual skill as a pilot. Customization is the name of the game in Rebel Galaxy, requiring you to carefully consider how to outfit your ship. Do you want to drop some early cash on shields, or do you want a tractor unit that will allow you to pick up cargo and take on different kinds of missions? Rebel Galaxy appears to support several styles of play.
Combat takes place from a third-person perspective, though it is generally limited to a 2D plane. Enemy fighters can fly over you, below you, and around you, but otherwise the Z-axis is off-limits. This was a deliberate decision, Schaefer told me. The pair want the ships to feel like heavy naval vessels. Generally speaking, it works. The turrets track enemy fighters pretty well, so I never felt overly limited by being stuck on a flat plane. It also works better with the PlayStation 4 controller — one less axis of movement means more buttons for other functions.
In the meantime, moving between combat and travel is seamless, leaving you to wander the galaxy at your leisure. There are stations to visit, distress signals to investigate, and if you are so inclined, bounties to hunt. When docked at a station, you are offered a handful of shops to visit, as well as a mission board with sidequests. Primary quest givers await in the bar, the first-person perspective and the accompanying dialogue tree being strongly reminiscent of Star Control II.
You wouldn't know it by looking at it, but Rebel Galaxy is based on the same engine that served as the foundation of Torchlight. When the pair left Runic Games, Schaefer told me, they licensed the tools because they were already familiar with them. Given that, it's hard not to be impressed by the power and flexilibility of Runic's tools, especially given how big Rebel Galaxy is and how good it looks.
What stuck out to me the most when see Rebel Galaxy, though, was how nonchalant Baldree and Schaefer were about their ambitions. Make a full-blown open-world space game using the Torchlight tools? Sure, why not. Sell it for $20? We'll be just fine. I guess I'm not surprised, though. After all, Schaefer is one of the team of three who founded Blizzard North, and he and Baldree were part of the small team that started Runic Games. In many ways, this is old hat for them.
I half-joking told them that I was glad that they were making their dream game rather than going to the dark side and reaping the benefits of working in mobile. When veteran developers like Schaefer and Baldree apply their expertise to a project as enticing as Rebel Galaxy, we're all winners. And though I've only seen maybe a tenth of what Rebel Galaxy has to offer, I'm quite confident that they'll be able to make good on their ambitions.
Rebel Galaxy is a pleasant surprise, and along with Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, I'm sure it will do its part to contribute to the ongoing space combat renaissance. I can't wait to play it.