The reason you may have never heard of Space Rangers II is because the original Space Rangers never saw a stateside release. The Russian developer 1C is the biggest and most popular company of its type in its home country, not only developing games in-house, but publishing localized versions of virtually every piece of international software.
Unfortunately, apart from the line of beautifully crafted IL-2 Sturmovik flight simulators, we haven't seen much else here in the States. Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators is an intense amalgam of space exploration, combat strategy, politics, trading, puzzle-solving, and customization.
Reading the 108 page manual may be time well spent, but even that only contains a portion of the information you'll need to get the hang of it. At first, the lack of direction is discomforting, since we've been trained to expect a game to blatantly nudge us toward the next goal. After a while, the mechanics of the universe, such as how to travel and make money efficiently, become clear to you and the game hits its stride. The amount of freedom thrown at the player can be intimidating, but that same freedom also allows you to learn the many aspects of the game at your own pace, and is a strength later in the game.
Space Rangers 2 doesn't impose a strict storyline on the player, opting instead for a single objective and providing numerous tools to accomplish that. After choosing one of five races, one of five types of ship and a few starting attributes, you are abruptly thrown into the game and warned of the impending doom. The Dominators featured in the title have developed a somewhat cliché intelligence, gone berserk, and now fight their creators for galactic authority. If it weren't for the internal struggle between the three types of Dominators, the galaxy would be overrun immediately. Fortunately for the player, the Blazeroids, Terronoids, and Kelleroids each strive for that dominance, even against one another.
The races are fairly generic as far as qualities go: the Maloqs are the over sized aggressors, primarily solving problems through combat. The amphibious Pelengs have a knack for industrial espionage and furthering their own goals through sabotage. The hermaphroditic Faeyans are the most research and development oriented culture and Gaalians favor peaceful resolution, treating everyone as a friend and cultivating humanism whenever possible. And as expected, the Humans are more or less average at everything. Choosing one race or another has an initial impact on your relations with the others, but it will mostly be the subsequent actions of the player that determine whose favor you are in.
Ships and equipment have an enormous amount of variation, each with a number of equipment slots. Depending on how you wish to make your fortune, you may choose a vessel with a large hold for the transport of goods or sacrifice that size in favor of a lighter, faster load in order to equip more weapons. Not only are there about a dozen different weapons, but a good amount of supplementary equipment such as grippers, radar, repair droids and shield generators. Within each of those types, there are eight levels of quality and variable sizes and strengths. You'll have to make the decision whether a fragment cannon with a weight of 30 and force of 60 is better than one with 40 weight and 70 power. The total weight of your equipment cannot exceed a certain amount dependent on the hull, so this management is very important. If that weren't enough to keep you busy, each item can be outfitted with a micromodule which may increase its effectiveness, lower the repair bill or alter its size.
The galaxy is randomly generated when you begin the game and divided into roughly eighteen sectors, each with three or four planet systems. For each of these, there are anywhere from one to eight points of interest - planets, military bases, medical centers, etc. - all with their own economies and governments. What this amounts to is a ridiculous amount of exploration, and any number of things to do at any point in your adventure. If you choose to partake in the missions doled out by those governments, the rewards are substantial. During this portion of the game, which will most likely be a while, you'll have the opportunity to make award winning pizzas, break out of jail, bribe a number of officials, battle hordes of ruthless sentient robots, escort convoys, and deliver a handheld palace among countless others. If not, there's always pirating, trading or scavenging Dominator parts.
Some of the missions are just very detailed text adventures, reminiscent of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. The writing and variations present here are good, but marred by a number of translation errors. The sentences are still mostly readable, but it can be frustrating to fail at a task due to a confusingly worded phrase. Combined with the unforgiving level of difficulty for some of them, you can expect to restart these often.
A big change for this incarnation of Space Rangers is the inclusion of a full 3D real time strategy engine. Dominators, in one way or another, set up shop on a planet and must be eliminated. You begin with a single base on one of eighteen different maps and are trusted to dispose of the invaders through more efficient production of your own forces. Each robot you produce is fully customizable and can be given tank treads, flamethrowers or other equipment based on your needs and resources. The strategy here isn't as deep as a full-fledged RTS like Starcraft, but working and enjoyable nonetheless. Most importantly, if this style of game isn't your cup of tea, you can simply go to the next planet and get a different mission altogether. Again, there is no pressure on the player to participate.
For those that do favor a conclusion, the three Dominator bases will become available targets when you advance to a high enough level. Finding them is difficult by itself and eliminating them is not any easier. The Kelleroid boss, for example, is only found inside black holes, where a fast arcade style shooter is the minigame-du-jour. Power-ups and enemy ships are sprinkled about the course, and you cannot exit the black hole until they've all been defeated. Even here in the absence of space, there is an autopilot feature to prevent any distress to gamers with less skill or interest in this style of combat.
Any old-school players that enjoyed Pirates! Gold on the Genesis will be right at home here. The same turn based exploration and combat, the loose goals and numerous means to the end are here in vivid color and detail if you can withstand the steep difficulty and learning curve. The addictive and something-for-everybody nature of gameplay, plus the budget price tag and inclusion of the original Space Rangers, make this a wise purchase for any PC gamer.