Friday, July 22, 2011

Space Trader: Merchant Marine

One of the other game genres I enjoy is economic trading games. I own and enjoy Patrician 3: Rise of the Hanse, Darkstar One, X3: Terran Conflict, and X3: Reunion. I also own Port Royale, but I haven't actually tried it yet. All of these games involve running your own goods transport business. You purchase a ship or fleet of ships (seafaring or spacefaring), buy goods at low prices, and transport them to other places where you can sell them for high prices. Most of these games offer modes that set up specific challenges for you to meet, usually with a time limit. Each of these games also has something unique that sets it apart from the others, but for now I'm going to focus on my latest acquisition, which is Space Trader: Merchant Marine.

The campaign begins with you as a new, unknown person with no money and no ship. In the first chapter, you have to find someone willing to loan you the capital you need to get started, then earn that money back in a certain time limit. In this first chapter, you're limited to only two ports to trade between (Earth and the Moon), which is expanded more and more in each chapter. As you make more money, you can upgrade your ship to carry more cargo, and you can also afford to buy the more expensive wares that return a much larger profit than the cheaper items that take up the same amount of space.

I bought this during the latest Steam summer sale, when it was cheap enough to take a chance on, especially since I'd never heard of it, and it showed very mediocre reviews. The trailer, which was an unusually helpful trailer showing actual gameplay rather than a pre-rendered cinematic, showed that this game includes one thing that's missing from every other game in this genre that I've ever seen, and it's one that I've really wished would be included: the ability to leave your ship and walk around in all these locations you visit. In X3, you never leave your ship, which must smell pretty bad after a while. In DS1, your character leaves the ship only in cutscenes, and never under your control. In Patrician and probably Port Royale, you don't really have a noticeable presence at all, and just exist as an omniscient overseer of your operations, able to see any town where you have an office or a ship in port.

Space Trader sort of reverses this setup. Here, you don't actually experience the travel parts of the game. You mark where you want to travel to, and you get a summary screen showing what's changed in the time during your travel, and then you arrive! This sacrifices the freedom and scenic starscapes of the X series, for certain, but travel in the X series is, for the most part, extremely slow and tedious, so this is a very welcome change.

The campaign

Once you've arrived, you're free to walk around the place, talking to people, making new contacts, buying/selling, picking up side jobs, and following the main quest. Bartenders offer bounty missions, various NPCs offer story-type missions or want specific items (with familiar yellow question marks and exclamation points over their heads), and random events (such as famines or plagues) on different planets can provide opportunities for extra profit.

Boxes of free cargo are also scattered around all over these maps, sometimes hidden, and sometimes placed in locations that require careful jumping. Of course, you can get along without any of this free stuff, but you can take it as part of the challenge of the game, too, if you like, since the percentage of boxes you found is one of the things that's tracked in the summary screen whenever you leave a location.

Another feature that eliminates the tedium of travelling (in this case, walking from one trader to another while you're in port) is the option to instantly teleport to any other trader on your contact list for that location. This makes it easy to check prices, since they each carry different wares, and can also be used as a shortcut to teleport to a different section of the port for cargo-collecting purposes. Don't do this exclusively, though, because there are usually a couple of extra traders in each location that don't appear on your contact list until you find them in person.

There's also a bank system that allows you to either put money into your account to gain interest while you travel, or to take out money as a loan with interest if you happen across a very profitable opportunity. The bank is always instantly available, and there seems to be no penalty for transactions aside from the interest, so there's no reason not to put all your spare cash into the bank every time you travel.

Taxation seems to be a random event in Chapter 5, and it can be pretty outrageous. It goes along well with the general corruption and dirty dealings that take place throughout that chapter. If you like, you can choose to resist the taxes, in which case you enter combat with the Ministry of Accounts soldiers who board your ship. If you do, however, you gain a criminal record, and attacks will become more frequent and more difficult to overcome.


Speaking of combat, this is the part that's really different about this game from the others. The other games involve ship-to-ship combat (space flight combat in X3 and DS1, and cannon-based sea combat in Patrician), but this game never actually has you visibly travelling in your ship, so the combat here is first-person shooter combat!

The movement and gameplay of these missions remind me of Quake 3 Arena (or OpenArena), or Unreal Tournament. Fast-paced, with health, shield, and weapon pickups, automatic doors and lifts, and a bunch of bots running around the map looking for you. A handy minimap shows the items and enemies around you, as well as the free cargo lying around for you to take. Enemies drop money, and bosses drop money and a good amount of cargo.

You get three chances to beat such an instance, respawning with the default pistol each time, but any enemies you killed are still dead, and the boss seems to retain whatever damage you did to it before dying.

No matter how rich you are, however, you start every FPS encounter with no shields and a default pistol, and have to scavenge your gear from the level pickups. I can forgive this mechanic, though, because if your money influenced your loadout, then it would add several problems. First, the missions would be too easy against simple bounties. Second, the money should also influence your enemy's loadout, so well-connected targets that are much richer than you would be almost impossible to beat.

One of them did seem to be impossible for me, at first, and that was the final boss of chapter 3. Even with three respawns, I failed the scenario twice, and had to wait before being allowed to try again. I was getting dangerously close to the time limit for the chapter, as well, which made it rather tense. What made it especially difficult was that several times I was respawned in the same room as the boss, who immediately began shooting at me before I could even orient myself, let alone find a better weapon! Luckily, I did succeed on the third try, and completed that chapter to unlock more locations to trade with.

These combat missions are offered by various NPCs at various times, but the bartenders at each of the ports usually have at least one available. Strategically, it seems like it's best to take as many combat missions as you can find as soon as you've sold off your cargo when you arrive at a new location, and before you start picking up free cargo around the port or buying anything, so that you'll have as much free cargo space as possible to pick up all the loot in these combat missions.

Non-campaign challenges

There are three challenges outside of the campaign, which isn't very many. They need to be played in order, since you have to unlock the second and third by beating the previous challenge. The first one is a beginner's challenge, and in some ways it's just as much of a tutorial as the first chapter of the campaign, though it includes several things that the campaign didn't mention. It seems that a beginner to this game should play the first challenge here first, and then go on to the first chapter of the campaign.

There are numerous conditions and mechanics that exist in one challenge or chapter, but not in others. In the campaign, there seems to be absolutely no disadvantage to dealing in black market goods, but in the challenges there are some legitimate vendors who refuse to do business with you if you're carrying certain kinds of contraband. The Ministry of Accounts is also said to do raids and crackdowns randomly during travel between planets if you're carrying any contraband, but it's apparently only in the challenges, and not in the campaign. The campaign's 5th chapter, on the other hand, requires you to set up a trade office and hire some merchants of your own, which doesn't happen in any of the other challenges.


The 3rd chapter of the campaign throws an unexpected twist into the gameplay -- that being that if you start doing jobs for the leaders of any of the trade conglomerates, you'll suddenly find that members of rival conglomerates will start refusing to do business with you. I've read about that kind of underhanded anti-competitive dealing in Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential, but never saw that sort of thing in a trading game.

The impact it has on your trading is that although you can still sell any items you're carrying, you lose the ability to buy anything at that location that only those merchant sell. This also means you can't compare those prices to the market value, since it's shown in their inventory screens, so you'd be selling without knowing if it's a good deal or not.

This mechanic was only in Chapter 3, though, and not in the later ones, and doesn't seem to be in any of the challenges, either.


There's plenty of comedy in this game's dialogues, and it adds a great deal of enjoyment to the experience. Much of it is self-aware or self-referential, with the game poking fun at itself, such as in a dance club on Venus, where the bartender says "This place is pretty dead. Everyone's just standing around!" Robots tend to use internet acronyms in their vocal greetings, such as "OMG 1337", and one of them is named XKCD, likely named after the webcomic of the same name.

I think one of the voice sets was supposed to be comedic, as well, but it rather comes off as annoying. I'm speaking here of the whiny, lisping, mush-mouthed voice that really stands out from the others in its campiness.

The story missions have a lot of whimsical and goofy situations, and even some dark comedy on occasion, which is really good for a laugh. One NPC claims to be turning into a werewolf, and demands some silver to prevent it. A technician in a water treatment plant mentions that one of the job perks is getting to swim whenever he wants to. Your dialogue responses are usually amusingly sarcastic or snarky, too.

Graphics and music

The graphics are nothing special. They pretty much resemble the graphics from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, actually. Rather low-poly, with interesting but basic texture work. The plus side is that it plays quickly and smoothly with the resolution and graphics settings maxed out, and graphics aren't the draw of this game anyway.

The music is light electronic music. Inoffensive, but unremarkable and repetitive. I turned the music off and played my own music in the background after a while.


I like this game! I had a great time playing the campaign, and was sad to see it was over, with only the challenge modes left to play. There are also still numerous Steam achievements I can shoot for, which is more or less equivalent to another challenge mode condition. The game was exactly as the trailer made it out to be, and I'm quite satisfied with it.

I do wish it had a longer campaign, and that the FPS parts would always respawn me in a safe location. I also wish there were more locations to travel between, with a more developed supply/demand mechanic. Patrician 3, for instance, has 24 cities that you can sail between, and most of those cities have certain items that they produce, so it's best to buy those items from those places, and never try to sell those items there. The other games have many more locations than that! Space Trader, on the other hand, has only five locations in the biggest part of the campaign. More locations would certainly help with its scope.

In what turned out to be the last chapter, some NPCs started dropping some hints that another faction-based challenge was coming up, and the ending text of that chapter also sounded like I was in for a difficult time, but it unexpectedly ended there, which was a bit disappointing. Perhaps more was planned, but cut out.

I'm not sure how much replay value it has, aside from the two times I had to repeat a chapter due to running out of time. After figuring out what I needed to do in those chapters, time was really not much of an issue. This is the kind of game that should be easy to write new challenges for, and it would be nice if there were some community-written ones, but I'm afraid it's too small of a niche game, and those bad reviews are certainly not helping.

I had fun, though, and it brought me smiles, so I'm satisfied.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I made a comment, but wanted to take more time to reply to this - the short of it is, it's great to see someone else who enjoyed our game! :)

    2. I'm glad to show that the game was appreciated, and glad that someone on the team knows it. :)