Monday, March 31, 2008

Lost Empire: Immortals Review

Lost Empire: Immortals, developed by Pollux Game Labs and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Vastly improved interface, different map sizes, enhanced graphics
The Not So Good: Still room for additional small interface improvements
What say you? This stand-alone expansion has a handful of necessary improvements: 6/8

If there is one genre that is going strong, it’s the space strategy game. It seems like a get a new title every month that takes place in the final frontier, and frankly I’m running out of original things to say. So let’s just get it out of the way: list of five recent games I reviewed, joke about Uranus, and I’m done. Well, almost. I reviewed Lost Empire when it came out last year and the game was good, except it was impossible to control 5,000 stars with the inadequate interface. Has this stand-alone expansion improved enough upon the original?

One area that’s been improved upon is the graphics. The game simply looks better, with more exciting backgrounds, more informative icons, and superior textures. The ships are also more detailed, although most of the game will be played far enough out where you won’t notice. Lost Empire: Immortals looks less like an independent game (like Lost Empire did) and more like a polished product released by a larger studio. The sound is largely the same: Lost Empire: Immortals relies more on text-based information than auditory clues and the game lacks voice acting. So at least some work went into making Lost Empire: Immortals look better than its predecessor, which is more than a lot of stand-alone expansions can say.

Lost Empire: Immortals is a classic 4X (do I need to explain what that means again?) turn-based strategy game. This stand-alone expansion makes a number of improvements over the original title in key areas that I complained about when I did the review of the original. First, there are a lot more maps to choose from, including galaxies of different sizes (yay!) that aren’t just limited to the 5,000 star behemoth from Lost Empire. In addition, your galaxy template choice includes distances, a general shape, and resource levels; the template is then used to semi-randomly generate a new map to conquer. There are a number of victory conditions to choose from: domination (highest score), elimination, economic (collect half the resources), science (collect half the research), and a story mode where you can align with one of two immortals (thus the name of the expansion) by completing quests for them. Like Sins of a Solar Empire, there isn’t a campaign per se, but there is enough content to keep you busy. You can also play Lost Empire: Immortals online. The tutorial is just OK: it is short and most of the information is conveyed through pop-up boxes when you access a new feature rather than directed instruction. Thus, it can take an amount of time to learn the game fully.

Like all 4X games, your first objective is to scout and colonize nearby stars. Lost Empire: Immortals is somewhat unique in that you just need to worry about the stars and all of the individual planets are colonized and developed automatically depending on your settings. Scouts can be set to automatically scout (good), but colony ships must be manually set to “colonize” (they come out of the shipyard with a “move” order); it took me a while to figure out why my colony ships were not colonizing. If a ship is located near a star, it is difficult to select as the two are almost directly on top of each other. The best new feature of Lost Empire: Immortals is a planet list; before, you had to scroll through each one individually (you can imagine how fun what would be with 5,000 to choose from). You can sort the planet list by their abilities, specialization, build queue, or defenses. This makes it so much easier to run a galactic empire. Similar to its predecessor, Lost Empire: Immortals tries to reduce the micromanagement by letting you assign a specialization to each star system. Each system has an inherent income in each of five areas (farming, mining, shipyards, trading ports, biosphere) that is randomly assigned when the map is generated. You should pick the specialization that will result in the maximum resource increase (or an area you desperately need). In addition to focusing on a resource category, star systems can also remain outposts (with large detection ranges) or become fortresses. Each system also has a temperature, and since your race can only tolerate a narrow band of climates, penalties will be accessed for colonizing inappropriate stars. Lost Empire: Immortals has three main resources: food, minerals (for construction), and credits (for research). Success in Lost Empire: Immortals is very dependent on luck: you must get “good” nearly planets in order to stand a chance at success. Too often I’ve been dealt poor hands as it were, and systems within my range were poor producers. You can dictate the level of food consumption, planetary improvement, and research to balance your overall budget. Since there are many factory to consider (construction, research, morale), important decisions are made here. One of four government types can also be set that will give small bonuses in specific areas to further tailor your galactic empire.

Like Lost Empire, ships beyond the basic scouts and colony ships must be custom designed. You can choose the engines, electronic systems, equipment, armor, weapons, and hulls you have researched to place on your fleet. As the hull size increases, so does the amount of stuff they can carry (and the overall cost and maintenance). Newly produced ships can be placed in an existing fleet (and are done so by default), reducing the overall micromanagement. In fact, ships will travel to an assigned fleet even if its not in the same system: that’s a better system than rally points. Fleets can be ordered to explore, eliminate, patrol, invade, intercept, colonize, or repair, and they generally do so automatically. Like the planet overview, the fleet overview will give you specific information on each of your ships. Individual ships in a fleet can be given specific roles to perform in battle, such as wolf (attack head on in a pack) or hunter (flank the weak support ships). It seems odd to have this level of micromanagement present in the game considering the rest of Lost Empire: Immortals focuses on the bigger picture. Still, people who like to customize their fleet will find enough options here, as the automated combat doesn’t involve any direct interaction.

The remainder of Lost Empire: Immortals is generally the same as its predecessor, but I’ll go ahead and quickly run through the rest of the features (it makes my review longer). Research isn’t as much a tree as a set of categories that are continually improved and open-ended. Occasionally advanced options are unlocked, but in general you will choose a number of areas you want to concentrate in and they will be improved upon until you alter your selections. It seems more advantageous to specialize in a couple of areas rather than researching large number of fields. Leaders can be assigned to several roles that will produce small bonuses in that particular area for your empire. You should pick roles (engineer, scientist, trader, doctor, spy, et cetera) that fit their ratings to maximize their contributions; it should be noted that this is more difficult than it should be, as there is no auto-pick option and the displays only say their current role and not the one selected in the drop-down menu. Diplomacy with AI players is done through the diplomacy interface; you can enter various pacts (non-aggression, trade) and perform actions (acquire system, set up an embassy, share galaxy maps). Minor races muse be selected manually on the map and their interface is less elegant, using a contact bar that works like a conversation in most adventure games. News is displayed each turn along the left hand side of the screen; while I appreciate that it doesn’t take up the entire view, clicking on the news only occasionally takes you to the appropriate screen or area of the map.

Lost Empire: Immortals is just as tough as its predecessor. Although the AI is not exactly the smartest (thing) in the (thing that contains things), I am usually behind most of the AI players in terms of score on normal difficulty. I think this results from not really grasping the resource model and which planets to colonize rather than using incorrect strategy. Of course, this might also be due to poor nearby planets, something you can’t really deal with. The overall pace of the game is very leisurely: resource gathering is slow and thus construction is slow since you have to wait a really long time to gather the minerals required to build a single ship, let alone a fleet. There will be a lot of turns with nothing happening thanks to the low resource levels. It took upwards of 100 turns to get a fleet of two ships going after I had colonized the nearby planets that were desirable. While I commend Lost Empire: Immortals for being an improvement over the original and the unique features it presents, there are more accessible options in the genre.

If you liked Lost Empire, then Lost Empire: Immortals presents key improvements upon the original that you will enjoy. I think the level of improvements is beyond that of a simple patch, so I don’t have a problem with them releasing a new game. The planet and fleet interfaces are welcome additions that actually make the game playable. The graphical improvements are nice as well, making Lost Empire: Immortals look a bit more professional. You are also not stuck with the ungodly large 5,000 star galaxies, as more options are present. There are still some small improvements that can be made: making the news usable, lengthening the tutorial, and not making the game so dependent on adjacent resources. While Lost Empire: Immortals isn’t quite on the level of Sins of a Solar Empire, it still has some unique features that fans of the genre should take note of.