Out of all the character archetypes one regularly encounters in sci-fi, I have to say that one of my absolute favorites is the space smuggler/trader. From Han Solo to Malcolm Reynolds, I’m automatically on their side. The whole underdog, wing-and-a-prayer, murky ethical waters, and shooting from the hip thing just wins me over.
Back in the day, I used to live out my space captain fantasies with BBS (Bulletin Board System) door games like TradeWars 2002 and Solar Realms Elite. In more recent years, trader games have moved to two extremes. On the hardcore end you’ve got EVE Online, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, there are the simple pirate trader games like Tradewinds. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to sink into EVE, and the more casual offerings just don’t offer enough depth to keep me engaged for long.
Enter Warpgate for the iPhone. When I heard that Freeverse had launched a game that could possibly hit that happy medium for me, I immediately bought the game to see if the porridge was just right. 20+ hours of single-player handheld gaming later, I’m happy to report that playing it induced a relaxed experience – one might call it a sense of Serenity.
The core mechanics of any good trading game are present here in Warpgate. You pilot a starter ship with a finite cargo space and a core group of star systems to navigate through. Different commodities are available on different worlds for varying prices, and the success in the beginning of the game will be dependent on the player’s economic shrewdness. The ‘buy low, sell high’ mantra remains the name of the game here, and detail oriented players will advance more quickly by finding the trade routes with the highest potential for profit.
More money means being able to invest in more expensive goods which have a higher profit margin, as well as being able to purchase new ships or weapons. New ships come in all shapes and sizes, offering more cargo space, stronger shields, or more slots for weaponry. Some ship and weapon types can only be found on one planet, so if you want to be flying and firing the very best, you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled wherever you land. It’s an added incentive to explore the galaxy map.
Traversal in Warpgate is handled beautifully. When travelling through a star system, players have the option of swiping in the direction they want their ship to travel, or by tapping screen icons to take you to your planet or local warpgate of choice. An auto-course function makes travelling across multiple star-systems bearable. Once you’ve set your destination, there are always visual cues on the screen to guide you to the proper warpgate for the next leg of your trip.
Sometimes travel can be time-consuming when going from one end of the galaxy to another, especially once you start commanding the larger but slower ship available in the later game. However, a great soundtrack helps the time fly by, and players who are thinking ahead can make lucrative trading stops along the way to break up the monotony.
While the HD iPad version offers a naturally better looking game overall, the visuals in Warpgate for the iPhone were appealing just the same. The variety and detail in the stars and planets added a great deal to the game. I was very much impressed by the strength of the visual presentation.
Now, a game based solely on even an excellent trading gameplay mechanic would get dull before too long. While EVE Online has the benefit of other players collaborating to create a narrative through their actions and struggles, single-player trading games have traditionally relied on some form of mission/story content to keep players interested in the game. The problem is that most single-player offerings run out of story missions in short order.
Warpgate avoids this content shortfall in grand fashion; while I did some economic grinding at a few points to upgrade ships, the vast majority of my time was spent completing missions and participating in the story. Players can take on missions for 5 different factions in the game, which creates an interesting dynamic since most of the factions are at odds with one another.
It’s a great challenge to try and keep all the sides happy, as the more main story missions you complete, the more warpgates are opened up for you, which grants you access to new systems with new commodities, ships/weapons, and ports of sale to explore. Most missions are easily completed in short 5-10 minute bursts, making this a great game for playing on the go.
Once I had access to most of the map, there were one or two factions that I went out of my way to antagonize because I really didn’t like their attitudes, which was great fun. At varying points in the story, you will make enemies with different factions despite any pacifistic tendencies you might possess, which makes combat an eventuality. While fun in many ways, the ship-to-ship combat in Warpgate was the weakest part of the experience for me. This is a shame because it’s obvious that some care went into creating the system.
Different weapon types are available in the game, which are more or less effective depending on range and angle, among other factors. However, these tactical distinctions are quickly hamstrung by the poor combat controls. The game provides options for both touchscreen swipe maneuvering and accelerometer tilt controls, and both are equally clunky. By the time you’ve gotten your ship moving the way you want, you’re often on the brink of death.
This means your best option is usually to just spam your weapons and achieve victory through attrition. At the end, I found myself equipping solely beam weapons as they auto-targeted no matter which way my ship was facing or how far away I was.
While the combat controls don’t make the fighting entirely unsatisfying, they do force you to ensure you’re always bringing a bigger stick to the playground. Combat is somewhat fun when you’ve used your resources wisely to fly in fully kitted out and just juggernaut your way through encounters, but it does impact the variety I feel the developers intended. This is a point worth making, but I also feel compelled to say that it’s also not one worth dwelling on too much, as the game overall was still very enjoyable.
Freeverse’s lighthearted approach to the writing fits right at home with the humorous undertones present in most space smuggler stories. While you as the protagonist remain silent, the characters you interact with are fun and usually portrayed in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion; it works really well. For example, I encountered a planet on the fringes of one star system that was literally flat. It turns out that the planet was terraformed by Flat Earth society types who couldn’t take being proven wrong when space travel became normal and everyone could see for themselves that Earth was round.
I would be remiss in reviewing a space trader game without addressing the level of value present in a potential purchase, especially considering that Warpgate comes with a higher price tag than most iPhone offerings ($4.99). While the price for entry might make some wary, you should know that there’s easily enough on offer here to justify the purchase price.
I spent over 20 hours on my first playthrough of the story, and gameplay continues even after the plot is concluded. That’s a lot of content for the money, and the ride is thoroughly entertaining. Warpgate straddles the fine line between tedious and simplistic with great aplomb, and keeps a grin on your face the whole time. A recommended purchase – just don’t forget to pay Jabba back his money in a timely fashion, okay?
Gamer Limit gives Warpgate for the iPhone an 8.5/10.