Saturday, October 28, 2006

Review: Space Cowboy Online

Space Cowboy Online has one real marketing hook: It is free to download and play. And, I supposed that's a good thing, because I certainly cannot see myself paying for it.


This game is a Massively Multiplayer Online game, but I hesitate to call it an RPG. It's more like Privateer meets Starfox. You fly around, shoot stuff down, maybe do a "mission", go back to base, sell the crap you picked off whatever you shot down, buy better stuff for yourself and go back out to do it again.

When you get right down to the brass tacks of the game, the controls are very simple. You move your mouse, and your ship turns the way you point. You click, and you shoot. Left click fires guns, right click fires missiles. Your guns will only hit what you have targeted in your reticle, though your missiles can be fired at most anything you have a lock on, so long as it's reasonably in front of you. As far as this much of the game goes, the design and impelementation are good. The method by which you target enemies takes some getting used to (you automatically target and keep targeted on the first thing your attack reticle drags over, and you hit "shift" to discard that target, then you'll target the NEXT thing your reticle will drag over).

Where we start to get into trouble is predictable to anybody who's played an MMO fresh from the orient. While there is a basic tutorial that does well at teaching you to handle your craft, there's precious little help for figuring out anything else in the game. After finishing the tutorial, you are dumped, naked, helpless, clueless and confused in the middle of the spaceport with no idea of how anything works. What happened to my ship? How do I get back in it? How do I sell items I collect, and where do I buy new ones? What do these stats do in my stat window? How do I outfit my ship and what should I look for while doing it? How do I know if I've leveled up? What do I do once I have? All these questions you are left to answer for yourself, or make an ass of yourself asking 900 noobie questions in the open chat channel.

Add into that the mission system, which is drab, linear, and about as exciting as a day old corned beef sandwich, never gives you any way to actually track down what it is you are supposed to be doing. If you're lucky, often it will at least instantly fly you to the right ZONE, but from there, you're on your own buddy. Go find that hypermoth somewhere in this 30-square-mile area and shoot it down.

All in all, while the actual flying and shooting is ok and fairly quick to master, a lot of people will get frustrated with the sink-or-swim learning curve after blundering, blasting, tree-scraping and ditch-gouging their bewildered way through their first 10 levels or so. It may be eight or so levels before some players actually realize that they have an inventory, as nothing ever points it out to you. You just kind of accidentally stumble on it while you're clicking around in the menus wondering what all is there. Then, when you find it, it is most likely full of crap you've picked up, and you have no idea where to go to sell it. Another 20 minutes of floundering in the spaceport will find you the merchants, and figure out how to buy and sell things.

The game has two forms of currency, one is the regular you get from doing stuff in game, and the other is a special currency called a "Gpotato" that you get by sending them real money on their website. Regular currency will do for repairs, refueling, normal items and whatnot, but the game makes sure that whenever you go looking for something, the first thing you see are the big fancy pretty items that cost Gpotato. I suppose that's to be expected, they *are* trying to get you to spend money while you play their free game. And by "play their game" I mean stagger around running into walls, not quite sure what you doing exactly, but somehow still managing to gain experience and finish missions.

I suggest reading up on the Online Player Guide to avoid most of the frustration.


The graphics are suitably pretty and look about what you'd expect from a game of east-asian design. The ship models are lovingly crafted, but everything is done in the tried-and-true bigeyed anime style, using chestnutted stereotypes of such familiarity as to invoke an almost crushing sense of ennui. As is with most games of this geographic origin, individuality and customization take a faaaar backseat to the standard grind-to-increase-stats portion of the game. There are but a handful of pilot appearances, a shortcoming made all the more painfully apparent every time you go into the spaceport to hit the shops. All the pilot models are the same handful, and there's no customization of them at all that I could see. But then, I guess that's a cultural thing, now isn't it? It does seem to plague a lot of the Asian fare.


The sound is standard. Just what is needed to make it a game. The background music is decent as well.


After you reach level 10, you'll have to choose either the Army or the Rebels to join. Outside of the newbie zones, these two factions are perpetually at war with each other. Population imbalances are addressed by the larger side having to pay more for goods and services (called a "tax." There's a lot of content dealing with the fight between these two "nations," particularly something called the "Nation War." Like most of the game, you'll end up joining one side or the other and coming into conflict with the enemy nation without really having a conscious realization of exactly what is going on here.

In Summary

Few games have left me as conflicted in my reviewing as this one. It's hard to compare it to fancier games you have to pay for because it is free... so I find myself comparing it more to games like Urban Dead or Kingdom of Loathing. It certainly has as much, if not more, to offer than those games... but if you've been spoiled on the kind of content that requires payment, or even moreso, a monthly fee, then you will probably not find much enjoyment in this game. If you are a starving student who can barely afford ramen, this is probably the best game you can find for free.

If I had to sum up the feeling of playing this game, I would say it matches the feeling of skateboarding backwards down a hill. You aren't really sure of what's ahead of you, though you seem to be able to stay up... for now. The queasy mixture of confused progression and unintuitive character management may appeal to those who like a challenge, have a masochistic streak, or plain old don't care what the hell is going on so long as they get to shoot stuff.

And hey, it's free, after all. Rating: C.

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