One of the first iPhone games that made me realise the potential the platform had was the original Galaxy on Fire 3D. German developer Fishlabs had launched it successfully in other mobile devices and the iPhone port just felt right. Even if they have only two games listed on their App Store developer page, Fishlabs has extensive experience with sponsored games such as the Barclaycard Waterslide or Volkswagen games such as the Scirocco 24h Challenge.
After spending hours with the adventures with the first title, I could only wish for a sequel, which was announced with an awesome trailer in 2010 and launched in October. All the time waiting and despite some of the limitations of the first version of version 1.0, it did not disappoint. If you are not familiar with the saga, Galaxy on Fire 2 [iTunes Link] is an open-world space trader game were you forge the legend of the mercenary adventurer Keith T. Maxwell - the closer you get to Han Solo on the App Store. A malfunction on your hyperdrive has left you 35 years frozen in time only to be rescued by a colony miner. Once a renowned mercenary, you will need to learn the basics of drilling asteroids and fighting pirates on board of the cheapest ship ever until you earn your freedom.
If you choose to follow the main story, you will help the Terran alliance to fight a new alien menace, the Voids. This little-known race has the ability to create wormholes to attack planetary systems and valuable convoys in a matter of seconds. Learning more about them will help you to craft your own device to travel through the galaxy without using jumpgates, the "warpgates" that connect different space systems like a network.
The beauty of the game comes with the different four races represented and factions available. Initially closer to the human-looking Terran, your behaviour and alliances will determine your reputation, making you a welcome guests in some systems while an outlaw in others. If you plan to earn cash transporting people and goods, it is probably wise to be the friendly sort of guy, but if you prefer looting humongous cargo ships, you'll become banned pretty quickly.
The open-world experience can be a bit daunting at the beginning, but soon you'll be familiar with certain systems and be able to choose your own missions. The fact that every planetary system only has one jumpgate and that small ships tend to be slow, will make you loose track of your objective before you reach your destination.
Galaxy on Fire 2 is an adventure/action game packed with space dogfights where every five minutes you'll have the chance to prove your shooting skills. The free gameplay promise works well because enemies will appear pretty often. The weapon mix is quite wide, and as you progress through the game you'll be able to combine blasts from your primary weapon, missiles and EMP attacks to immobilise your targets. The AI is not great, even with some of the tougher enemies and the outcome will be determined by the speed of your enemy and in most cases, by being outnumbered. If you are a trigger-happy gamer like me, remember that accidentally shooting an ally will change your reputation instantly and all the friendly ships surrounding you will attack you. You can change this with bribes, but it happened to me rather often.
Every now and then, you will find space stations abandoned due to the pirate activity. This means that you won't be able to re-arrange equipment and buy/sell in the hangar, look for missions in the space lounge and only save the game. Although the area will be infested with pirates, get some good weapons and shields and try to aim for a red nebula, usually located on the left and south of the station. As you get closer, you will see that the red clouds cover a pirate mothership. Once you are done with the first wave of pirates protecting it, you can destroy it and end with the pirate menace in the area. Now return to the abandoned station and you will get your reward (and medal) for helping these guys out.
The latest update on Galaxy on Fire 2 makes the app Universal (although it was perfectly playable on the iPad thanks to its Retina Display graphics,) Game Center support, and a fast forward button to make space journeys a bit faster without using the boost. This was one of the main drawbacks when I played the game for the first time, as I would see myself cruising the space alone with all the time in the world to take screenshots or observe my ship from a third person point of view, much like in Homeworld. The visuals are fantastic, the ships look great and you really get a sense of the space greatness with the different shades and lighting in every system.
Compared with other App Store alternatives, Galaxy on Fire 2 holds well against Freeverse's Warpgate HD and Gameloft's Star Battalion HD. They play around the same concept from different perspectives, so if you like the genre, it is absolutely OK to downloads all the three lite versions and experience which one you like most. While the latter feels to me more like a breed between a shooter and that epic Rogue Squadron for the Nintendo 64, Warpgate is more like a genuine space trader competitor.
I really enjoyed playing Galaxy on Fire 2. It is one of the most beautiful looking games available on the App Store and it improves the first title in every aspect. The main story wasn't that captivating and most of the dialogues are straight silly, but it doesn't spoil it much as the main story runs around four hours into the game and then you are free to explore on your own. The only thing that would make it more exciting would be a technology tree for every faction or some guide with different equipment available, as it is really tedious to remember which stations sells what or comparing similar technology across races. If I had to ask for a new feature in Galaxy on Fire 3, it would be an social aspect to trading, allowing you to exchange goods with your OpenFeint or GameCenter friends as you do in Nimblebit's Pocket Frogs.
I have spent over twenty hours playing and I still get killed in ambushes from time to time. However, the kidnapping, space junk, search and destroy and other missions get terribly repetitive and the only motivation to continue is to earn medals. But let's be fair, if you have become a bounty hunter who has no rival in space, this is what will happen to you. Give it a go and you tell me once you have equipped your Veteran ship with the best available in the galaxy.