Executive summary: the space sim (video game) Rebel Galaxy is amazing and you need it in your life. Find out why below!
PROS+ Fun and engaging atmosphere+ Arcadey gameplay+ Over-the-top visuals+ Doesn't take itself too seriously"CONS"- If you're looking for a space SIMULATOR, as in X or EVE or something, go somewhere else and quit your whining
CORE (COMBAT) GAMEPLAY
In a nutshell, Rebel Galaxy is a combination of two of my favorite things in the world: Firefly/Serenity and Space Empires: Star Fury. You probably know the former and not the latter, and that's fine. Star Fury was, as its name suggests, a spinoff of the Space Empires turn-based 4X franchise. It relied for longevity on a modding scene that never really emerged, and hence many players found it underwhelming in terms of depth and variation (and its short campaign), but I enjoyed its combat mechanics, and there are many similarities to Rebel Galaxy in terms of the combat. Rebel Galaxy, like Star Fury, features a focus on capital ship combat (as opposed to the usual fighter-class starting craft in space simulators), with the player starting off in a capital ship straight off the bat; even though smaller, exclusively AI-piloted craft do exist and are commonly encountered in the game. Similarly, ship positioning and weapon firing arcs are at the core of decision-making in combat; and also, the player's ship moves only along the plane of the ecliptic (i.e. on a 2D plane).
This last element, the limitation of flying along a plane, seems rather silly for a game set in space, but as soon as you play it, you realize that it makes perfect sense. The tactical decisions regarding planning out your flight path and positioning your firing arcs are more manageable (and fun) in 2D. Obviously "in reality," if space combat were real, there'd be far more to it; but in that case, you'd have a whole crew handling the details of piloting and obtaining firing solutions and managing shields and so on, with the captain making only the higher-level decisions. Given that this game has a single player who is piloting and managing the whole ship, that's obviously not practical for normal mortals. Constricting capital ship movement to one plane makes the combat immediately accessible and intuitive, giving you free rein in terms of tactical planning without being too demanding in the negative and overcomplicated sense. You do need to consider some 3D elements, though: your turrets are positioned on all sides of your ship, including above and below. Since fighters and bombers and the like travel in 3D, and since the asteroids that you can mine (with a specialized turret type that has limited value as a weapon) can be both above and below you, you need to make some decisions regarding how you will allocate your available turret mount points.
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that this game features broadsides, as per antiquated aquatic ship combat. By default, you manually fire broadsides while your turrets fire automatically, though you can manually aim and fire turrets and neglect broadsides as the needs of combat dictate. I don't like the broadside element much, but it is quite possible to specialize your ship's loadout in a way that doesn't require you to use broadsides that often, only employing them at close range to deliver a satisfying killing blow. There are even some ship types built completely around this idea, with multiple turret mount points and minimal broadside cannons. So even if (like me) you don't quite appreciate this element of the game, rest assured it won't make or break anything. As soon as you get some money to properly customize your vessel, it's quite possible to circumvent or ignore this element of combat most of the time, though at the very beginning you do need to acquire some skill in using broadsides due to your default ship's loadout.
If you think this all sounds too simplified compared to more serious space sims, and you can't get over the fact that traveling on a plane or firing broadsides like an old-timey sailing ship can't be explained or excused by anything within the setting, and you can't sustain your immersion and/or enjoyment in the face of such obvious gameplay conceits, then that is completely fine and I understand. This game is very arcadey and silly in its way, and if you want the next X-series game or the next EVE, this is not it. In fact, this game quite shamelessly embraces its fun and intuitive gameplay, reflecting it in the design of the universe itself, with quirky aliens, an overly colorful universe to fly around in, plenty of fireworks-like explosions and lens flares, chunky and impactful designs (both audio and visual), and a rock music soundtrack.
This fun, less serious atmosphere is where the oft-cited comparisons to Firefly come in.
The universe of Rebel Galaxy is quite definitely gritty but simultaneously fun in a way I can only describe as Firefly-esque (the more serious elements of that franchise notwithstanding). The setting is definitely a "used future" a la the original Star Wars trilogy, but not in a depressing or dystopian WH40K way. Rather, it feels like everyone in the galaxy tied booster rockets and laser guns to their oversized second-hand trucks and went to town painting the universe red. The abundance of recognizably Southern accents (even to these non-American ears) helps in that regard. (Perhaps the "Rebel" in the title is meant to evoke this as well?) The extremely American rock soundtrack adds to this feeling of blasting through the universe with wild abandon, and although my own musical preferences lean further in the direction of metal both black/death and symphonic, I found that the music fit and complemented the overall aesthetic perfectly. However, if the music is not to your taste (or once it eventually gets repetitive), the game allows you to either switch it off or to provide your own tracks.
PROGRESSION / LIFESPAN / REPLAYABILITY
The one thing I can't comment on yet is replayability and/or the length of rewarding gameplay. According to Rock Paper Shotgun, the game apparently procedurally generates the galaxy, and so the extent is theoretically infinite; but whether this translates to gameplay depth is something I can't tell you yet. A lot will depend on how deep the rabbit-hole goes in terms of ship and equipment types, and possibly event and mission types if (unlike me) you're the kind of person to quickly get bored with standard mission templates. I'll withhold judgment on that point until I've played more, but I have to say that at the price they're asking for this game, I'd already be quite happy with the purchase, even if I've already seen the full extent or the gist of what there is to be seen after a real-time day of playing. Even if this is where the variation ends, there's enough fun to be had within that playing field to keep me going for quite a while, if my experience so far is any indication.
In terms of replayability, the variation of possible builds is definitely there. It seems like some effort was made to reward replaying the game as opposed to respeccing to a completely different build on the go, since your components transfer to any new ship you buy; so switching over to a completely different build, though not technically more expensive, certainly requires you to have a lot more cash in hand than simply improving incrementally on your current build. Added to this, not only your ship and weapons types, but almost every ship component you could mention ties in to your build; from your shield and deflector types to your booster and optional extra components. So if you want to try out something completely different, your shopping list is going to be very long. As well, as a part of the storyline, you periodically unlock ship upgrades which (if I understand the system correctly) persist for the length of the game and can't be switched out. This further serves to dedicate you to a given build and reward replays if you want to try out something completely different.
This emphasis on providing incentives for dedicated builds at the expense of ongoing experimentation / vacillation might be a little bad for your flexibility over the course of a single game, but would seem to incentivize replays, which is always good, especially since the game lacks any formal skill / class systems. Right now I focus on traveling fast, hitting hard at point-blank range, and getting the hell out of Dodge before anyone has a chance to react, with the aim being to divide and conquer; but maybe next time I'll build more around turning my ship into a barely mobile fortress of doom, spitting death from long range at anyone foolish enough to approach. Maybe I'll even learn to enjoy using broadsides. Anything is possible!
MISSIONS AND ACTIVITIES
Where mission and activity types are concerned, the standard space sim templates apply. You can trade (mission-based or by keeping tabs on commodity prices), fly combat missions, mine asteroids, etc., and missions will often influence how you are regarded by various factions.
One element I did find interesting, however, is a strong focus on your ability to pick up missions in unconventional ways. Apart from the genre-standard, inexplicably pirate-friendly missions boards and omniscient bartenders, you can get leads on missions while you're out and about in space. There are several ways to do this: you can answer distress signals (which can be legitimate, but are often traps by pirates - potentially lucrative either way!), find random salvage, hack signal transmitters to get a lead on good mining sites and outlaw dead drop locations and the like, find bounty targets (and be immediately rewarded on termination, without requiring Freelancer-like round-trips to stations), and so further. You can also be interdicted and taken out of warp (think "cruise disruption" in terms of Freelancer) by hostiles of various kinds; but this is rarely irritating as it usually isn't too difficult to escape or avoid, and doesn't happen so often as to be grating. In this way, even if your primary mission is far away, it's not necessarily a bad time investment involving a long and boring trip. You can even make some impressive money along the way - often even more than the primary mission itself would give you, depending on how easily distracted you are. The lack of time constraints (at least in all the missions I've received so far) goes a long way towards contributing to the feeling of freedom and flexibility of decision-making that this quest system affords.
Apart from this, there's also a random events system which will influence the prices and availability of goods and ship components at the different space stations. A station might go to war, or receive a large shipment, or have a famine, or have a research breakthrough, all of which will have an impact on the economic situation. Stations are also often besieged by pirates, making an approach hazardous if you're limping in to port from a fight that didn't go your way. Keeping your eyes on these events at all times is not required, so you can just take it as it comes if you want to, but being at the right time and place can make all the difference in the world where your profit margin is concerned.
And of course, there's the all-important question: escort missions. They don't exist (maybe in the storyline later; hopefully not), but if you answer a distress call, presumably you won't get paid if the ship you're responding to dies. However, ships in distress are not made of toilet paper and will survive if you eliminate the attackers within a reasonable amount of time after arriving on the scene (and they seem to survive indefinitely as long as you're still in transit towards them), so it doesn't get annoying. There's some pressure to perform well in combat, as there should be, but the would-be rescuees won't pointlessly kill themselves and leave you without any reward in spite of your best efforts.
In terms of stability and performance, I will add the caveat that in about 8-10 hours of play I encountered two CTDs, which caused me to lose progress (in one case considerably). However, the autosave system is quite good and the stability isn't that bad for a game that was only released about a week ago. If you're particularly unforgiving of glitches, just wait a bit and I'm sure it will be patched. You might also want to render using DX9 rather than DX11, which I did and which seems to be a good idea for stability and performance, at least on my system with its slightly antiquated GTX 550 Ti. The game still looks impressive nonetheless and seems very scalable; with toggleable AA, SSAO, bloom, lens flares, depth-of-field, distortion effects, shadow detail, object detail, borderless fullscreen window, and so on. (The incomparable TotalBiscuit would be pleased, perhaps despite the notable lack of FOV sliders.) I can leave most of the taxing settings on even with my card, and the result (as we say in South Africa) looks shweet, bru.
In summary, I'd say this game feels like it was made for me personally. The gameplay is a punchier and more immediate form of Star Fury. The atmosphere and feel of the game is along the lines of Firefly, or maybe you could say that it's what the Star Wars galaxy would be like if every ship's captain in the universe (even the aliens) was Corellian. The quest and progression systems are intuitive and dynamic. It's fun as hell and while it might be too light on the simulation angle for some, if you're not bothered by the non-serious tone and the concessions that are made to gameplay (with zero attempt to justify them in terms of realism), you'll probably have a grand old time with it. I know I'm having a blast so far.