When we think of the future of space exploration, we probably envision NASA or some international government collaboration taking the lead. However, it’s the private aerospace industry that seized the initiative and laid the galactic groundwork for Hunters: Episode One (Out Now, Freemium, $4.99 full purchase). As anonymous captain of a spacefaring bounty hunting vessel, the player gathers dangerous – if lucrative – contracts from corporations that not only trade planets like stocks, but consider blowing their business rivals to smithereens part of healthy interstellar market competition.

Rodeo Games is definitely onto something with a premise that simply screams potential, but sadly Hunters‘ scenario remains completely undeveloped in the initial release. The creepy amorality of the player’s activities quickly gets lost in the simple repetition of collecting missions, dispatching bounty hunters, and outfitting them with new destructive implements before rinsing and repeating. Devoid of backstory, each hire is only so much warm meat the player gets to slap equipment on, and the game serves up similar missions indefinitely in a way that makes Hunters feel like a futuristic nine-to-five job simulation rather than an escape into a different reality.

What’s frustrating about Hunters‘ lack of motivating glue is that the game design itself is so utterly superb — it’s just that the initial release won’t hold your attention for long unless you’re enough of a diehard Turn-Based Strategy fan to appreciate it only for its gameplay depth and creative use of touch controls. Hunters’ overhead perspective will completely weird out some gamers at first but it lends itself perfectly to the iOS, where pinch-zooming and battlefield rotation become an intuitive part of the experience. Actions are executed immediately through quick taps rather than complex menus, although there is a downside to this: the player needs to pay extremely careful attention to the game’s forecasts for action point usage because there’s no turn rewind option and enemy AI unforgivingly exploits player mistakes. Luckily an ongoing tutorial keeps the player well grounded as he or she learns the ropes.

The shopping runs, leveling up, skill trees and differing weapon properties that Turn Based Strategy and Strategy RPG fans take for granted are all here, but in addition Hunters sports a few gameplay systems that really stand out. The armor a mercenary unit wears falls into one of three weight classes, with level of protection inversely proportional to the number of action points that unit may draw upon during any given turn. Therefore a heavily armored unit can move and attack less, whereas a lightweight can get in more licks at the risk of falling more quickly to enemy attacks.

Even more interesting is the Guard system, which allows the player to employ a character’s remaining action points in keeping vigil over a portion of the battlefield during the subsequent enemy turn; any enemy that steps into the watched area will receive a punishing pre-emptive strike. Hunters‘ Guard system nicely complements the fact that battlefield squares outside the player characters’ range of vision are obscured, encouraging cautious advance into unknown territory. One might expect that a strategy game featuring long-range firearms would teem with acts of crazy bravado, but Hunters feels decidedly fresh in forcing the player to operate more like a real-world special forces team. Environments are constructed in a way that leaves open multiple strategic approaches — does the player keep the squad together at all times or risk splitting up and busting into a given room through multiple entrances? Whereas individual player actions cannot be recalled once executed, the player can always forfeit an assignment and restart the mission from scratch when it appears a different methodology would have proven more successful.

Hunters’ initial release has been met with an extraordinary number of complaints about the game freezing. As of this writing Rodeo Games have submitted a bugfix patch, but iFanzine can report that both the free trial and the full version of the initial release played stably on an iPod Touch 4, software version 4.2.1 installed. I did experience a few technical quirks on my iDevice, however: enemies hidden in non-visible parts of the battlefield still consume game memory as they skulk around in the shadows, leading to awkward pauses during enemy phases that dissipate as the player reveals and whittles down the opposition. Secondly, the game’s pause menu seems to experience a brief loss of touch sensitivity in the moments after the iDevice is brought back from its automatic energy saver state.

Hunters is aesthetically pleasing in most respects. Its menu designs, especially, do a great job of packing tons of information into a clean and streamlined format. Weighing on its visuals is the fact that all the player’s space mercenaries look identical with the exception of equipped weapons and armor; not only does it beg the question of where women went off to during the intervening millennium in this envisioned future, but it introduces so much difficulty in keeping track of units that the game actually has an option for attaching giant Greek letters to player characters as distinguishing marks. Sadly Hunters sports no music aside from ambient winds, but it does have the courtesy to shut off the ambience while keeping sound effects on if the player fires up an iTunes playlist.

iFanzine Verdict: There’s little question that Hunters: Episode One is a surefire win for fans of Turn Based Strategy – and to some extent, Strategy RPG – games, thanks to standout design features and implementation. However, it could have been so much more! Lacking a storyline backbone and the sense of progression that would accompany it in a single-player game, Hunters feels like an aimless romp once the repetitiveness of its periodically dispensed missions sets in.

Rodeo Games has hinted at major expansions in the foreseeable future, including multiplayer and a story mode. The basic gameplay already on offer is solid enough to warrant a very close eye on this one as updates roll out.