This system is crawling with Federation ships. That’s a welcome sight when pirates are on your six, but not when your cargo hold is full of illegal body mods. You’ll be stopped for sure, forced to give up your shipment or die in a hail of laser fire and missiles. Going back isn’t an option, because Zerkers overran the last system and you only just made it out alive.
It’s then that pirates warp in from the opposite side of the system, swarming the Federation ships, giving you that precious window of opportunity to land and make that shady delivery, rewarding you with the cash needed to keep yourself in the sky.
Such is the merchant life in Star Nomad 2, a completely open-world sandbox game set in space. Don’t want to be a merchant? Maybe you want to be one of the bloodthirsty pirates that swarmed the system? That’s fine. You’ll be hated by everyone, fired upon in every law abiding sector, but you can make a very shiny living robbing merchants and killing bounty hunters. Or perhaps you want to be the one to take down the pirate scum and make a living collecting their bounties? Go for the game’s final option and become a hunter.
There’s no real story on offer here, instead focusing on the emergent gameplay experience to help players tell their own unique tales of surviving in space. It is rare to find a sandbox game that is truly open-ended, there is usually some kind of story and ending to aim for, but Star Nomad 2 is as open as you can get. There’s an incredibly deep lore to the game, with a number of factions vying for control of each corner of the galaxy, not to mention the likes of the Zerkers that will attack anyone on sight. All of this will happen dynamically around you, even when it’s happening at the opposite end of the galaxy.
The galaxy has an incredibly detailed economy, with certain systems being rich in food but requiring minerals and ores that can be mined from asteroids. A system may be in the grip of a full on war between pirates and the Omni Collective, making deliveries a seriously risky choice in your rusting merchant ship. Viral outbreaks will mean that medical supplies are in demand, or some systems just fancy some, erm…fun, and will pay a high price for some synthetic ladies – but are you comfortable dealing with the trade of sex robots? That may depend on how much you need the money, when the chips are down and you’re struggling just to afford the landing fees of each system.
Of course, some of these problems will be turned on their head if you’re playing a different class. A war torn system means big bucks for a good hunter, if you can help repel the invading force, and especially if you can pick up any ejected lifepods. These can be sold at ports for a little extra cash, increasing/decreasing your standing with the relevant factions. Any class can pick up lifepods too, meaning that a savvy merchant can still reap the rewards of battle, even if it’s one fought by others. A pirate in a tooled-up ship will want to keep an eye on the Sector-Net, for news of civil wars or a Zerker presence, in order to take advantage of those distracted by battle. Miners are ripe for new pirates, as they’re usually poorly equipped for a fight and can be easy pickings – you can even hail fleeing pilots and threaten them, causing them to panic and dump their cargo!
Playing like a twin-stick shooter, the top-down gameplay consists of using the traditional WASD control method for moving your ship around, and the mouse will act as an aiming reticle. This may sound like it would be easy to aim and you’d technically be correct, as it does offer pixel-perfect shots, but just you try to hit a swift little pirate ship as it zips around you. Combat is as tough as the likes of Elite: Dangerous despite the lack of 3D dogfights, because the AI is extremely clever and will use its strengths (and your weaknesses) to its advantage. This means that a small ship may not have the strongest shields but it will move much quicker, whereas a slower cruiser will easily survive a barrage of missiles and lasers, only to return fire with its superior weapons and inflict massive damage on your tiny little merchant vessel.
The sounds of battle are incredibly meaty, with each laser blast and missile explosion sounding threatening and dangerous, or satisfyingly sweet if you’re the one with the upper hand. When a full scale war erupts and a fleet of Federation ships goes toe-to-toe with a Zerker force, the resulting display of AI, sights and sounds is amazing. With the catchy, synthy music kicking in during combat, it turns Star Nomad 2 into a real spectacle – a potentially dangerous spectacle.
Upgrading your ship is essential to survival in that dangerously crowded sky, whether it be by strengthening your hull or shields, strapping giant cannons to your craft or even buying an entirely new ship. Chances are, if you see a hulking cruiser with room for multiple cannons and missile launchers, you can buy it somewhere in the galaxy, for the right price. This will depend on your standing with the faction currently occupying that system, which can be a bit of a pain for merchants as you actively avoid combat – seemingly the main method for improving relationships with each faction.
This does highlight one particular gripe with Star Nomad 2: its lack of hand-holding. It’s at once a good and bad thing, as it forces the player to adapt and survive in a dog-eat-dog galaxy, but it also means that some players will be turned off by its initial difficulty. You can press F1 at any time for an explanation of the controls, and a press of the space bar will activate the ‘active pause’ feature. Similar to FTL, the active pause allows you to take stock of a situation and make decisions without the pressure of being shot at while you think. Normal difficulty does take away the consequences of death though, simply dropping you on a friendly planet and allowing you to keep your ship and cargo via some incredibly good insurance. Hard difficulty will punish you by taking credits and cargo from you upon the destruction of your ship, but hardcore players may want to test themselves to the absolute limit by going for the rogue-like setting, meaning that the destruction of your ship will mean you lose everything. Definitely a choice for veterans of the game, and only then if you want to experience tension in every aspect of the game.
The best experience by far, however, is the merchant route. Despite the issues with faction standings making it difficult to buy bigger ships, the game feels at its smoothest and most fun as you explore each system and take advantage of the economy. Exploration allows you to take in the views of each planetary system, the 2D visuals depicting stunningly detailed planets and distant suns, and every port has its own unique backdrop. These ports range from picturesque, green lands and silver spires, to dark, cyberpunk marketplaces and cities bathed in neon. Some ports contain groups you can join, for a fee, and offer rewards such as the merchant’s ability to see any system’s current buying rates for goods (though it doesn’t take into account the situation of the system at the time, e.g. war). You can even hire mercenaries to escort you to your next destination, which is useful if your next destination happens to require travelling through a system under attack from Zerkers or pirates.
Random events, much like those in FTL when you discover an abandoned ship, add yet another layer to the already deep gameplay of Star Nomad 2. An exclamation mark on the radar will denote an area you may wish to explore, but you may regret it if you do. Just another example of the game’s effective risk/reward mechanic, especially when played on a higher difficulty and the exclamation mark just happens to be a pirate sending out a false signal, luring you into its deadly trap.
With its simple-but-deep control scheme, combined with its complex economy and dynamic factions, Star Nomad 2 is the kind of space exploration sandbox that you may not have realised you needed in your life.
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