Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lost Empire Review

Lost Empire, developed by Pollux Game Labs and published on GamersGate.
The Good: Enjoyable gameplay with a variety of elements to tailor your overall strategy (governments, huge tech tree, custom unit design, leaders), fast pace, multiple victory conditions, enormous galaxy, customizable races, automated trade, multiplayer, decent AI
The Not So Good: The limited user interface makes it almost unplayable when your empire grows and war starts, no multiplayer matchmaking
What say you? There are a lot of unique or innovative features in this speedy 4X space strategy game, but the user interface is awkward: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the exception of the Civilization series, by far the most popular setting for a 4X game is space. From Galactic Civilizations II to Space Empires V to Starships Unlimited to Sword of the Stars, space is the final frontier and must be conquered. I think this is because space has yet to be conquered, so it’s a plausible scenario, at least far in the future. Plus, faraway stars and planets is a slightly more interesting setting than, say, Delaware. The latest entry into the fray is Lost Empire, where you guide the human race to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate the galaxy.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Normally, space games are a good source for fantastic graphics, as the nebulae and stars that populate our universe provide a good backdrop. While Lost Empire has components of good graphics, overall the game comes across as a quite boring version of space. I do like the planets visibly revolving around their stars (and the subsequent shadowing) and some of the ship models are unique, but the background is just bland. There’s nothing beyond the 2-D plane of the universe, so you’re starting at stars set against a black background. The game doesn’t really have many special effects, and the 3-D battles are just OK. Zoomed out, Lost Empire doesn’t adjust any sizes of the ships and the lack of a minimap makes managing a large empire impossible (more on this later). The fact that ships completely block out stars makes selecting things difficult as well. The sound in the game is pretty standard for the genre. Overall, the graphics and sounds are average for the genre, but for a space game I am expecting a little bit more.

ET AL.
In Lost Empire, you will lead humans (or any other race) to galactic superiority. The game gives you some customization options when creating a new game. The universe size is fixed at 5,000 stars (that’s right, 5,000; hello micromanagement) but the spacing can be increased for a more slowly paced game. You can tweak the resource levels and introduce a timer to quicken the pace of multiplayer games. The game comes with a number of pre-designed races, but you can create your own to compete against. Lost Empire gives to ten points to distribute among different attributes, such as levels of culture or commerce, population growth, temperature tolerance, pollution tolerance, and trading skill. The game gives you a good amount of freedom creating a custom race tailored to your overall strategy. There are multiple victory conditions that can be enabled: score, conquest, domination, economic, cultural, science, and exploration; this opens up more than just purely military victory and increases the replay value and variety of gameplay immensely. The tutorial serves as a very bare-bones introduction to the game and it leaves a lot of the minutiae and unique conventions unexplained. Lost Empire does include multiplayer action, but there is no matchmaking service.

Usually, I talk about my least favorite aspect of the game last, but I’m going to address the user interface now to mix it up. There are some aspects of the interface that are good: everything is directly accessible from the main screen and a lot of information is presented on each screen to better inform the player. However, there are some necessary additions that are just left off. There are 5,000 freaking stars in the universe, but no drop-down menu for selecting known planets, displaying habitable planets, or anything else: you have to scroll through each of your stars and actually mouse over each newly discovered star to find appropriate candidates for new colonies. As I mentioned earlier, the icons don’t change with zoom level, so it’s impossible to find any ships when zoomed out, other than using the scrolling list that goes through every single ship in the universe. This isn’t that big of a deal in the beginning of the game, but when you are at war and have a large empire to run, finding anything is hopeless. It gets to the point where the game is simply unplayable late in the game; it’s fortunate, then, that the game typically ends near turn 300 (which happens a lot quicker than you think). This is really too bad, because Lost Empire contains a lot of new or innovative ideas.

There are two resources in the game, food and minerals, that are automatically collected by your populace. As you’ll see, Lost Empire automates a lot of the menial tasks present in many strategy games and lets you pay attention more to the big picture. Each planet has a number of attributes that determines how hospitable it is towards your race. Each race has tolerance levels for temperature and microorganisms, so there might be planets that can be colonized by you but not another race (and vice versa). Once you explore a star, you own all of the planets in that solar system. There are anywhere from 3-7 stars in a solar system; if the main planet is habitable, the minor planets may be colonized as “moon bases” automatically (at least I think so; the game is not so clear on this). Trade routes seem to be completely automated as well: you just turn them “on” and the game picks a destination. Lost Empire has different governments you can adopt along the way: these affect leader chance, technology, trade, production, culture, and happiness. Other races will also base their relationship with you based on your current government type, so switching to more “advanced” versions is suggested.

One interesting aspect of Lost Empire is the inclusion of leaders. They give you a lot of control over your empire’s specialization. Leaders can hold a number of different jobs that can improve your civilization as a whole, trade, research, resources, happiness, build times, or diplomacy. Leaders will also automatically choose a task if they aren’t specifically given one after a while. Research in the game is a combination of tech levels and unlockable technologies. There are 162 different research topics you can discover, and research is as simple as choosing the fields you want. It’s better to concentrate in a couple of fields in each category instead of spreading yourself too thin, especially since lower level units can only carry a few different weapons. Multiple-level techs can sometimes be more powerful than newly discovered techs, so there are some interesting decisions to be made in the game.

Lost Empire only features eight types of ships based on their size (plus colony ships and star bases). However, you can have five designs per type to incorporate newly researched components. And research happens very, very quickly so you will be constantly upgrading your ships. Designing ships is a straightforward affair; the game can automatically suggest a design that will incorporate the basic needs of a ship, allowing you to customize the weapons. Units are organized into fleets that can contain an arrangement of different ship types; the composition of a fleet is shown with icons, although the icons lack tool-tips so it’s hard to remember exactly which ones they are until you memorize the eight ship types. Each fleet can be given an order, beyond the usually move order, such as patrol, invade, research, and cloak. This is good because it gives you more specific control over your units, but it’s bad because it’s one extra click and you would think the game could figure it out based on what you clicked.

Diplomacy is interesting: you are given goodwill points that grow over time to create treaties and bribes. It seems that these must be accepted whether the opponent wants to or not if you have the points to pay for it, which is kind of weird. It seems like treaties should be mutually beneficial instead of forces upon people because you waited enough turns to accumulate goodwill points. Examples of treaties include non-aggression pacts, trade agreements, and cultural exchanges, while you can also sabotage fleets and support insurgencies against your enemies. Lost Empire has status sliders that show why alien races have the attitude towards you that they do, which depends on your things like your military, expansion, and technology levels. You can change your attitude (to war or positive) to slightly influence their attitude. Eventually, someone will not like you and combat is inevitable. Actual battles are automated, although you can watch them after the fact if you so choose. Troops used for planetary defense can be loaded onto fleets and used to invade enemy planets. The AI in the game seems to be quite good, although they tend to have a lot of single ships instead of large fleets. Their attitudes are reasonable and they are adept at expansion and provide a worthy foe.

IN CLOSING
Lost Empire has a number of features that I like, but ultimately the user interface gets in the way of what could have been a remarkable strategy game. The game gives you a lot of options, including custom races, leaders, government, and research, to satisfy any of the game’s multiple victory conditions. A lot of the little things in the game are automated, like trade, but units need to be micromanaged and they will take up a large portion of your time later in the game. Diplomacy is a bit too abstract for my tastes, and the galaxy is fixed with too many stars for small games, but Lost Empire runs as such as fast clip when compared to other 4X games that you probably won’t ever get close to discovering them all. The core of the game is great, but controlling your empire is not straightforward. If Lost Empire featured a useful zoomed-out view or minimap, then playing later in the game would be possible. Some people might have a better handle on the game, but I found it too cumbersome to be enjoyable. Lost Empire is just too difficult to manage, and when you have 5,000 stars to worry about, you need a great user interface and Lost Empire lacks this important feature.