Coming from the school of "prettier doesn't necessarily mean better," is Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators. It doesn't have the graphical prowess of its spirit-relative "Freelancer", but Space Rangers 2 far exceeds the scope and variety of gameplay that Freelancer brought to the PC.
Players are able to trade and fight, of course, but missions go from the cash register of a galactic ski-resort to the robot battles on icy terrain. There is as much variety in Space Rangers 2 as there is notoriety for the player's reputation. And while the game keeps you jumping from system to system, upgrading and questing as you attempt to defeat the Dominator invasion, how one goes about winning is entirely up to the player.
Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators picks up after the events of the Space Rangers 1. A race of self-aware robots called Dominators have become aggressive towards the five primary races in the galaxy and are systematically attempting to eradicate them. The Rangers, a rogue defense group of which the player starts at the lowest echelon, is the first line of defense for the races. The Rangers are independent, self-employed military/traders (think mercenaries) whose sole purpose is to profit and to advance through the ranks of their organization.
Open-ended gameplay is a natural fit with a space adventure game. Freelancer did it quite well, in 4x and in 3D, allowing for questing, trading, harvesting, and fighting (a little diplomacy too) and then leaving the rest up to the player. The main quest was there, a guiding tool for the impatient, but the joy of Freelancer was in the unhindered freedom. Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators does some things very similar, but others completely different. Both, however, allow complete freedom of choice.
Sticking to 2D allowed Elemental Games to keep Space Rangers 2 turn-based, allowing choice during both battles and just joyriding around the cosmos. Going planetside to battle with your robot army turns the game into a 3D real time strategy, a blend for the genre that is both refreshing and frustratingly simple. There is no single linear storyline, but one that branches and changes depending on the player's actions. For the most part you'll be on missions across different systems, making money to upgrade your ship. In true RPG style, you can upgrade your character as you accrue experience points, which can make you faster at flying, better at maneuvering, maybe a sharper shot, or even allow you to command other units.
There is no lack of variety in Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators. And I've experienced a few mini-games that are far removed from the simple messenger routine of many quests. I was, at first, leaning toward dogfighting and leveling for battle, but I learned the usefulness of a bigger, better engine very quickly. Larger engines allow faster travel (in parsecs) so you can make it to more distant systems in shorter time. This is, simply, one of the most important upgrades in Space Rangers 2, as nearly all your "messenger" quests are timed (in days).
To make this open-ended gameplay even more amazing is that the systems are randomly generated, allowing for almost limitless gameplay. The missions, which will take you around all the systems, keep you interacting with all of the five races. Choosing a race hostile to the others shifts your character from diplomatic messenger to renegade fighter, allowing less contact within the systems, and making a trade route a life or death run. It all becomes pretty exciting stuff, especially in the early stages of the game while you're exploring and getting some petty cash. And of course, run into a Dominator and get ready to high-tail it out of that system.
As the Dominators exert their dominance in the galaxy, you will have to get off your planet and go toe-to-toe with their ships. Having the leadership ability upgraded allows other ships to fight with you, giving the player greater potential to win. But the Dominators have tough-as-nails ships that can cause nova bursts, damaging all other ships in the vicinity. But liberate a system from the clutches of the Dominators and you'll be in very good shape, economically and politically.
Not all battles are fought in space. Sometimes you'll have to go down to the surface and construct robots for battle. The trick here seems to be to find a cost-effective/high-powered robot and mass produce it and take over the world systematically. Having a few healer bots in your arsenal is useful, but the AI for these RTS moments can get clogged at choke points and not be able to advance - healers only make this situation more desperate. The enemy AI is pretty vicious, but extremely dim-witted. For the most part, they just sit there as you amass an army to attack them. They do nothing while you're trying to rebuild other than focus on your damaged, hopeless robots. You can also build turrets for defense, and eventually you can call in helicopter reinforcements. These sections can be avoided altogether if the player chooses to skip them or not to install them at all.
Another gameplay change is Black Holes. Black holes sometimes appear in systems before Dominator attacks. Flying into one will launch the player into another mini-game where you'll take control of your ship and battle it out with Dominators. In this mode, the turn based game is put on hold for a strictly action setting. You can control your ship with the arrow keys and fire with the Ctrl button. One weapon fires at a time and power-ups can be found inside the black holes to turn the tide against the behemoth Dominator ships.
The music in Space Rangers 2 is a techno-based space theme that reminds me of the music from Deus Ex. It's quite catchy, but after hours and hours of gameplay it wears a little on the ears. Though it's catchy, it's always on. Each system has a different theme, one for each of the different races. Sound effects are all spot-on, and all the bells and whistles you'd expect in a space adventure, had you any expectations, are included.
Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators really surprised me. The depth and breadth of the game is on par or grander than Freelancer or even The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but lacks the internal storyline to project the player toward the end. The goal of defeating the Dominators isn't easy, and requires lots of preparation, upgrading, questing, and discovery that open-ended games thrive on, and that Rangers 2 provides. The amount of things to do in Space Rangers 2 is staggering, sometimes daunting, but the friendly training mode (be sure to go through it) allows players unfamiliar with the genre to get into it. Rangers 2 allows for near limitless gameplay with no hand-holding, making it truly an epic, addictive experience. Though it has some flaws, the scale and depth of gameplay make Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators one of the best space adventure games to come along in years.