Galaxy On Fire 2 is fantastic, but we already knew that.
In my opinion, it's the best game on the App store: a full-fat Elite-style space sim featuring an enormous universe to explore over dozens of hours, thirty ships to acquire and customise, an infinite number of missions and real-time 3D combat. The sheer scope of Fishlabs' ambition took our breath away us when Galaxy On Fire 2 released on iPhones and iPads, followed up by a gorgeous HD version for Retina displays. After porting it to the Mac with yet more graphical polish and a weighty expansion pack, the independent studio has conquered the last remain frontier. The PC.
But can an app - even a brilliant one - survive in the spiritual home of the space sim?
Players assume the role of heroic, hammy (no, not Hamill) and pleasingly British space buccaneer Keith T. Maxwell; all-round fighter jock and laser death merchant extraordinaire. Thrown decades into the future, the once-celebrated hero has to start from scratch and claw his way back into the big leagues, uncovering an intergalactic invasion in the process. Self improvement and exploration is, as always, the core focus of Galaxy On Fire 2; when you're not pursuing the weighty campaign storyline, you'll trawl the galaxy's bars for bounty hunting missions, transport goods, play the stock market and simply explore an enormous universe of pure potential. The thrill of going from an nobody in a glorified garbage scow to an ace piloting a bristling battleship capable of wiping out all opposition is as inexorably compelling as ever, bolstered by a versatile range of ships, weapons and upgrades to equip in a modular customisation menu.
Interestingly, Galaxy On Fire 2 approaches resource collection in a different way to many space sims. Surprisingly tight commodity price variations between systems means that playing the stock market won't make you anything approaching a decent salary, while asteroid mining becomes useless about three to five hours in. This puts the focus firmly on hunting pirates and undertaking missions as the primary way of affording the biggest starships, which many players railed against after the iOS launch. I'm inclined to side with Fishlabs on this one, though - since Maxwell is a gung-ho pilot and general lad-about-space, incentivising players to take up a day job in the mid-game wouldn't have made sense in this context.
The combat has to be good, then, and I'm delighted to report that Galaxy On Fire 2 Full HD makes numerous improvements to the controls. Freed from the touchscreen's limited V-Pad, we're now able to independently pitch and roll our fighter, and directly control its velocity rather than being locked into a single speed. Better yet, we can strafe using lateral thrusters and stop dead; perfect for collecting cargo, jinking past incoming fire or confusing foes. Piloting feels natural on a mouse and keyboard, and is even more intuitive on an Xbox 360 controller. I know it's heresy to even suggest that a space sim can be controlled on a console peripheral, but there it is. Deal with it.
That said, our newfound three-dimensional mastery does serve to highlight just how predictable the enemy AI is. Opposing vessels simply charge straight at you, retreat in a looping arc and then charge straight back once they've gained enough distance. This worked well enough when players were contstrained to a virtual pad, but individual enemies now feel limp and useless. Fishlabs' only option to increase the level of challenge was to vastly rack up their numbers, leading to some stupidly one-sided engagements against entire flotillas in the late game. The thrill of emerging triumphant from one of these furballs is admittedly intensely satisfying, but the potential for some exciting dogfights was unfortunately squandered. Targeting specific foes is also a bit of a pain, especially when your navigational computer rejoices in locking onto asteroids instead.
Chances are that you'll be too busy to care. Galaxy On Fire 2 Full HD contains a whopping amount of content: dozens of systems, huge numbers of different primary and secondary weapons, modules to equip and even - gasp - a decent storyline. The voice acting definitely errs on the hammy side of competent, still, it's head and shoulders above numerous other contenders (Kayron Jarvis, anyone?) and lends the experience a fun Dan Dare-style quality. £/minute value is extremely high, though for the premium price, I'm disappointed that the Valkyrie expansion wasn't included at the very least.
Seeing as Galaxy On Fire 2 Full HD proudly trumpets its graphical prowess in its own title, I should probably mention that it looks the business. Diffuse and specular maps for each ship? Completely rebuilt 3D models? Crisp, sumptuous textures and spaceboxes? Exquisite lighting effects and muzzle flare? Yes please. The Abyss Engine has never looked so good.
So Galaxy On Fire 2 Full HD is just as compelling and enjoyable as ever... but there's a problem. A big, fat Super Score Destroyer of a problem.
Galaxy On Fire 2 dominates on the App Store and Mac for a couple of reasons. It's ambitious and gorgeous, sure. And it also has no real competition unless you count Warpgate HD, which is a very different game in terms of mechanics. On the PC, however, things are very different. Despite the space sim scene being depressingly dormant as of late, we have to compare Fishlabs' creation to the likes of the X series, Freelancer and DarkStar One. In such glowing company, Galaxy On Fire 2 doesn't fail outright, but you'll start to slowly notice things we took for granted on an iPhone or iPad.
For example, you'll realise that the galaxy is a lot smaller than the sprawling map screen suggests. Each system may have a different skybox, but they're all functionally identical, constrained to a small area and incredibly sparse. One space station. A small asteroid field. A handful of meandering neutral vessels. A pirate or two if you're unlucky. And that's your lot. You'll quickly lose any real sense of being part of a living, breathing galaxy, and instead gradually fall into repetition and a lack of genuinely new things to explore. Missions, beyond a couple of standout essential story objectives, all become incredibly samey and limited in scope (destroy a bit of space debris, kill five pirates, ship goods from one system to another... and repeat) - even in comparison to other space sims.
Most importantly of all, you'll notice that Galaxy On Fire 2 is an app that had to make sacrifices - not limited to the streamlined stock market, predictable enemy AI and incredibly finicky targeting mechanics - in order to release on portable platforms and touchscreens. These compromises make it great on a tablet. They make it work, especially for more casual play sessions during commutes or watching the telly out of the corner of your eye. But on the PC, they make Galaxy On Fire 2 feel lightweight and flimsy, pared-back instead of ruthlessly ambitious. Fishlabs really needed to add more variety, more exciting missions (even the final campaign mission is shockingly anticlimactic, for the record) and more engaging combat before locking onto the PC, and sadly they opted to deliver broadly the same experience on a totally different platform.
Ultimately, I still enjoyed Galaxy On Fire 2 (again!) - even as a diehard fan of PC space sims. It's a decent antidote to the near-death of the genre, while also proving to be approachable and accessible to new players who would understandably flounder when racked up against the compexities of X2 or EVE Online. By dishing out a light and moreish space sim experience in palatable chunks, Galaxy On Fire 2 is a great gateway game, but one that still arguably is best left in the ecosystem for which it was perfectly designed.
That's enough ports please, Fishlabs. I'd love to throw my money at a fully-realised sequel instead.
- Classic freeform space sim action with a strong storyline
- Loads of ships, systems and upgrades
- Relatively limited in scope, repetitive, gameplay not expanded for the PC
- Combat fails to thrill due to predictable AI
- Lack of expansion content for the premium price
The Short Version: Galaxy On Fire 2 Full HD is an approachable and addictive space sim. Despite being somewhat lightweight and repetitive compared to the PC sims we're used to, it's still a worthwhile investment for genre fans and a great way in for newcomers. Plus, hey, it's an Elite-style space sim. There aren't anywhere near enough of those.
The King of the App Store really needed to be adapted to the PC platform with more than just a new control scheme and retooled visuals. While we wait for a sequel announcement or the next X game, this (or the iOS version) will tide us over.