Privateer 2: The Darkening, an FE2 Alternative ?

Recently, I spent a good deal of time play testing Privateer 2, the Darkening: Deluxe Edition. Perhaps you have wondered about this product as I did; it seems all too often these games come out and fade from the scene so quickly, it is hard to get a bead on them. Then, one day you are prowling around the software store and spot a box in the discount bin that promises an "Elite type" gaming experience. My hope was to find a game with many of the elements of Frontier Elite II (FE2), and from the box it looked like P2 might well deliver...

Now the "Deluxe Edition" was a re-release of the initial product, not an expanded edition - really just the "Debugged Edition" properly ported to WIN95/98 (sort of). It came with a little poster too - oh boy! What is obvious from the boot is that this game clearly shows an FE2 player what a modern graphical treatment of a space combat / trading type game -can- be like. Sadly, the comparison ends here as P2 soon becomes rather unplayable... to the point that the elite fan will remove it from their hard drive in torrid disgust.

While the game has a beautiful neat little universe to fly around in, amazingly detailed with cool worlds and planetoids to visit, unique space stations to dock at, and an embedded movie that you can somewhat take part in, the product becomes totally gaffed in the arena of game play balance. By "game play balance" I mean how hard it is for you to live, work, and fight in the game universe... Elite Plus (the masterful forerunner to Frontier Elite II and to a certain extent, FE2 itself, present a near perfect blend of combat with peaceful game play... that being, not only can much combat be avoided by traveling in more safe systems, but the difficulty levels of the computer generated combatants are "enjoyably difficult", but not so much so that you cannot win in many cases with practice and a small amount of luck.

Privateer 2 utilizes (per the Official Guide), 12 Difficulty Levels. These levels run from 1 to 12. As you play, you climb in the game... through either buying a more expensive ship, the movie plot advancement (seen as a series of short clips that are shown as you go certain places), the total number of kills, or total generated cash (from either trade or combat); you keep getting "bumped up" on the Difficulty Levels ladder. That's a bad thing. Higher levels mean more aggressive pilots, a greater foe gunfire rate, more missile launches from the bad guys, and most of all - way way too many more enemy ships to constantly battle! You go from having an interesting little universe to explore and sometimes fight in - to just trying to get around -alive- in this psycho-space shooter badlands nightmare. Ugh.

Now for a little "Elite Speak". Level One in P2 feels like your average combat experience around Lave in Elite Plus... Nice you say, right? However, you can only imagine what Level 12 feels like in Privateer 2... Ever repeatedly attack a starport in FE2 just to see how many police vipers will come after you? (Be honest, I know you have.) Now imagine every system you visit being like that with no aggressive action taken on your part to provoke the response. Oh, and imagine it happens almost every time you use the hyper-drive as well. Got the picture? And, as you play you have no choice but to go up in levels... that is unless you do not make any money, kill any attacking foe, or buy a better ship - in other words don't play.

The end result of moving up past say, Level Six (easily attained in about 8 hours of game play time) is that there becomes so many combatants at an encounter... you are unable to survive without cheating (you can type NO TALENT at the Nav Screen prompt and be indestructible until you land). Indeed, at some encounters you will not even want to fight with indestructible cheat protection on as there are simply so many enemy ships... sometimes more than ten at a single jump point. This gets old quick (... and you usually have to jump many times to reach your destination). Running away is barely possible and takes a long long time - if it works at all. (Even the act of trying to run away is only possible with the use of another built-in cheat - that being, to constantly refill your afterburners fuel tank by typing the cheat code PETY PETY at the Nav screen prompt.) So, the sad bottom line - the P2 universe is so riddled with constant space combat that it is simply too annoying to play. RIP.

The above unplayablility is really a shame as P2 does cover some new ground in the space combat / trading genre. One departure from the norm - you do not carry cargo, you rent a cargo ship with a pilot to lug your goods around. Therefore, you have to escort and protect this ship. This means that all the ships you can buy are fighters of some sort. While the cargo ship idea sounds a bit cool, in actuality it barely works; your cargo toting pal follows you around like some stupid dog, stopping when you do and doing not much else. When you call him on the comm screen he always says the same thing. A silly wav file that says "Do'in just fine...." (in a CBing trucker voice out of one of those 1970s "Smokey and the Bandit" type movies). Cute - at first. Once in a while, he'll yelp for help in combat - however, its near impossible to keep track of him in a multi-ship fight.

Also new in P2 is that you can hire wingmen to help you out with your trade run or mission. Unfortunately, you can only hire one wingman... dumb when some jump points will have a gaggle of bad guys out to kill you. One FX that is particularly annoying in the game is the constant repetitive sound file taunts of enemy combatants when in space fur balls. While there are about seven different voices, they say the same lines over and over - and over again, matched up to an ever changing series of comm vid images of very strange pilots' faces - none of which are the same each time, even though the voices are! It REALLY gets on your nerves, hearing "Hey, you look good for a cross-hair" or the ripped-off Blade Runner line, "Wake up - its time to die"... about 80 times in twenty minutes! The only toggle in game options is to turn off all sounds in space if you want these folks to shut up! Too bad, as the gun sounds are great.

There are some other nifty items in the game. For one, your in-flight computer has the voice of sexy Amanda Pays (she also makes a cameo appearance in the opening movie). Hubba hubba. Indeed, there were many fine actors and actresses hired for the film plot including John Hurt (you will remember him as a baby monster popped out of his gut in the original "Alien" movie), strange Christopher Walken (of various wierdo roles), and the unforgettable beauty, Mathilda May ( the stunning naked chick who graced the unique scifi / horror movie, "Lifeforce"). Sadly, these people are only around for the movie plot or tiny subplot missions, so you do not get to interact with them -outside- of these canned scenes. Indeed, only the most patient of players will see most of these performances... even with the help of the cheat codes.

The below table covers some additional concerns that most elite players look for...

Fully detailed star systems with planetsNope - jump direct to near destination
Landing or Docking ControlNix - watch a vid, automated landing
Random Mission GeneratorYes - text only graphics
Commodities TradeYup - with price changes via news stories
Large game universeNegative - 23 destinations
3d type space travel to destinationsno - follow highway type routes - dumb
Different colored sunsSorry, didn't see any
Space babes...Not enough

Should the Elite Player even buy Privateer 2? I would say if you can get it on the cheap (and you keep your expectations very low)... it is certainly worth a look for the stunning graphics alone... Perhaps, if you are a quick joystick nut jobber, you may do well in this space shooter... What is worth looking at is the beautifully rendered scenes, trade routine treatment, the 3d space flight engine, and the fluidity of combat... even on slower systems.

Unfortunately, in the end it will come off your system with a sigh and a bucket load of frustration as you have many thoughts of what this product could have been... and a sense astonishment at the effort wasted on a limitedly playable game. One can only hope that producers of new space trading / combat genre games take heed and understand that limitations and linear game play do not produce legends like Elite Plus or Frontier Elite II.

Origin and Electronic Arts have a wonderful site about Privateer 2. It looks like "Elite Five" or something there... Please have a gander though the link below or you may click on the box image at the top of this page.

written: October 2000

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