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Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is fantastic, once you leave the cockpit

In third-person view, it plays like a different game entirely

The player’s starting ship in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, basically a green-and-yellow brick with engines, sweeps in low over a massive explosion. Gouts of black and yellow fill the screen. Double Damage Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Booting up Rebel Galaxy Outlaw for the first time last week, I nearly lost my appetite for the spacefaring shooter. Inside the cockpit, the prequel to 2015’s Rebel Galaxy feels clunky and outdated. Once on the outside of the ship, however, the game opens up. Playing in third-person makes it feel like a completely different game.

Announced just one year ago this month, Outlaw is a tribute to the golden age of space combat games. If you grew up with a Gravis joystick in your hand, whaling away at enemy ships in the TIE Fighter or the Wing Commander series, you’re in luck. Double Damage is aping that style right down to its menu interface, which is rendered in the same sort of pastel palette common on many CGA monitors from the same era.

Inside the game’s cramped cockpits, the action can be a bit muddy. There’s no way to see out any side windows of your ships, which means you’re stuck staring through the forward-facing canopy while tiny enemy vessels go flitting by. Tap down on the directional pad — the FAQ says the game supports joysticks, but its flight model isn’t sophisticated enough to warrant them — and you’re kicked out to a third-person chase camera. That’s where the feel of the game changes completely.

A view from inside the cockpit in Rebel Galaxy. Double Damage Games
The player lines up a shot in a high-level ship, five wings each with multiple attitude thrusters. The target ship burns in the distance. The battle takes place in an asteroid field. Double Damage Games
A player in a mid-level ship with four wings, painted red  and blue, lights up an enemy ship in battle alongside a large transport ship. Double Damage Games

Once outside the ship, Outlaw’s excellent camera model comes into its own. It reacts well to aggressive maneuvers, giving a sense of momentum and acceleration that simply doesn’t translate well while inside the cockpit. The guns and missiles feel great in third-person, especially with the enhanced aiming features turned on. Just hold the left trigger and the view zooms in slightly, matching your velocity and attitude with the enemy while giving you finer control over where you land each shot.

Essentially, auto-aim rewards you for getting your ship into the right position to line up your weapons, then takes away the need to actually fly your ship while letting you aim down the sights like you’re playing a first-person shooter. It’s hard to explain, but from inside the ship that same feature set feels like a cheat. Once outside, though, auto-aim allows you more freedom to enjoy the scenery while also getting down to the business of blowing shit up.

And you’re going to be blowing up quite a lot of shit in Outlaw. The early game is fairly grindy, with lots of low-paying missions required before you can purchase a jump drive and be on your way to the larger campaign. But, now that I’ve got my feet under me with the combat mechanics, I’m having an awful lot of fun. Grindy missions are the least of my concerns.

The delivery of the gameplay and UI is exceptional. Elements of the heads-up display will be immediately familiar to fans of the genre, but they’ve been updated for modern equipment. So while the computers in this universe look straight out of 1994, the game world itself feels futuristic and lived-in. The pyrotechnics are great as well, with big greasy explosions and filthy contrails from missiles filling the screen during combat. It also helps that the in-game radio station has more than 20 hours of fresh rock music and campy little ads that pop off every so often.

If there’s one disappointment, it’s the voice acting. It’s interesting to be playing a 40-something woman, down on her luck in what may as well be a pan-galactic truck stop. But every performance is just so teeth-gratingly deadpan that it’s hard to feel anything for these characters. Mostly, I’m just ignoring them.

Bottom line, while there are modes and settings that will allow you to relive the heyday of the golden age of space combat, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is really its own thing. Embrace its arcade-y nature, skip anything that bores you, and get out there into space and start some trouble. It’s a very special game, and I’m looking forward to spending a lot more hours with it in the weeks to come.

Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is available now for $29.99 on the Epic Games Store. It is expected to arrive on Steam in one year. Plans are also in the works for a Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 version.

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