Well, over a year later this game now has a green light from the developers. Great! Now it’s playable and I can review it without having to bite down on my knuckles to avoid ranting about ‘game-not-ready-itis’.
The Enhanced Edition, which my original copy automatically upgraded to on Steam, is the same game as the original. It’s subtitled ‘End of Flesh’ on account of the new playable faction, the Loa, a faction of Borg-like AIs who presumably aren’t keen on organs and whatnot. They’re able to reconfigure fleets on the fly and live on barren planets useless to the others, I’m enjoying using them. Especially now everything works. No random crashes, the menus make much more sense, the tooltips provide more help than a blank box saying ‘insert tip here’. It’s all good.
Except the game, really.
Most of the things I originally liked about it hold water, to be honest. It’s big, detailed and ambitious. It requires a lot of thinking to get very far. It looks good, especially during big space battles. If you’re willing to work at it, there’s a lot to love in here. But good lord, do you have to work at it.
It’s slow. Not just in terms of a 4X strategy game, where you need to plan ahead and really think about what research or exploration you’ll do first. Hitting the end turn button can deliver a wait of up to five or six minutes, even on a system like mine that’s no slouch. Most of this seems to be the computer auto resolving AI actions, so if you play against other people or smaller numbers of enemies, you’ll probably be fine. But go for a full house, and it’s interminable.
Research and exploration, big parts of the game, are both laborious. Not only is the tech tree is randomised, so you can’t always get the same technologies, but many options require a first-pass research attempt before you can even begin trying to invent them. Realistic, yes, but not a great game mechanic. If you’re investing time into the game, having it all thrown back in your face makes it harder to enjoy. Waiting six turns to know you can’t have those new torpedoes really stings.
Exploration is similarly tough. Sending fleets anywhere uses an abstracted mission system, where you kit out a fleet, point it in the right direction and send it off. Once they’ve gone, they won’t come back until they’re done, or until you cancel the mission. It’s ruthless, although again realistic (sort of) – if you’ve sent everyone away to explore and then get ambushed in your home systems, they’re not going to have a homeworld left to land on. Surveys will run off without completing if they get attacked and don’t beat the enemy in a single turn. Sensible, but frustrating.
Doubly so as combat, despite looking fantastic, still suffers from a murky interface. And a single turn of combat is often inconclusive, as your ships are easily dented but hard to finish off. You see a fair bit, too, with random aggressors turning up to bombard you with meteors, pirate raids, alien menaces from beyond the stars and so forth. Most of these are inconclusive irritations rather than the fun they could be. Some are game ending nightmares, of the Dwarf Fortress Fun variety. None of them can be predicted.
Yes, you can turn a lot of this off (or up, if you’d rather) when you set up a game. And personally, I enjoy a lot of this graft, it does feel strangely authentic. But I’ve been working at learning this game since release. If it feels a bit more intuitive now, it’s because I managed to play it when it was broken through perseverance. I know about the world I’m playing in through extensive forum and wiki reading, not because the game teaches you. There are good tutorials on how to manage the baffling menus, but they’re out on the net, not in the game where they’re needed.
So it’s slow, confusing, cruel and often tedious. It does repay your time, eventually. That moment when a fleet of boarding shuttles captures an enemy dreadnaught and turns it on its friends? The last minute successful defense against a lethal ghost ship? Watching the fire of your enemies’ once-deadly leviathan patter off your now-upgraded lance cruisers? It’s good stuff at heart. I still get that one-more-turn feel from it, as well as the glow of an obscure game mastered that Dwarf Fortress gives, actually.
There’s almost as much detail and faith in the player in here. Not as much charm, somehow, perhaps because the way it looks makes you expect something more user-friendly. I don’t think the developers are stopping work on it, though, so maybe in another year this will be a sleeper hit. Plenty still to do before it becomes a true Total War in Space game. I’d love to see a custom battle option, for example, to play about with the great fleet fights.
There’s a lot of loyal love on the forums for the game, and I can definitely see why. That love comes from a fairly specific subset of gamers, I suspect. This isn’t a mass appeal game, and it certainly has plenty of flaws that should put most strategy gamers off. If you’re looking for a long term challenge, though, and enjoy complex tactical thinking, this could work for you. I like it despite the broken bits, masochist that I am, and the gameplay values below reflect that, but I stress that this is my personal taste. I strongly doubt many people would share it, and I don’t exactly recommend the game widely as a result, but please prove me wrong! I’m a masochist, I like the warm glow of self-destruction.