Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Supernova 2: Spacewar Review

Supernova 2: Spacewar, developed and published by Tycoon Games.
The Good: Straightforward resource management, tactical battles, researching an advanced technology will also queue prerequisites, decent AI
The Not So Good: Not much depth with only a handful of ships and technologies and no customization, lots of turns waiting for resources to accumulate, lengthy weapon recharging causes a lot of waiting around in tactical battles, tutorial only covers combat, convoluted interface, simplistic graphics, annoying sound effects
What say you? A very bare 4X space game: 4/8

I like me some good 4X strategy game. The exploring! The expanding! The exploiting! The exterminating! Yes, this genre has it all. With the recent releases of some very enjoyable titles, competition has gotten quite stiff and you had better bring the goods. The developer of Magic Stones is back with Supernova 2: Spacewar, a crack at the whole space colonization and warfare thing. How will this effort compare against the giants of the genre?

While you wouldn’t expect an independent game such as Supernova 2: Spacewar to feature a cutting-edge presentation, the 2-D graphics and generic sounds are still disappointing. The interface is very basic, the space map is lifeless, and the battles lack the chaotic punch commonly seen in the genre. The best aspect of the graphics is the missile animations during combat, but this is a very small highlight in an overall substandard package. Add to this campy music and an extremely annoying clicking sound and you get dissatisfaction. While graphics certainly do not make the game and I don’t expect a fantastic 3-D presentation in the strategy genre, Supernova 2: Spacewar is still below average when compared against similar titles and certainly looks and sounds archaic.

Supernova 2: Spacewar lets you lead one of two legions to galactic victory. The two races are identical except for a different color and ship names, so the same strategy can be used for either side. There isn’t any multiplayer (same computer or online) so you’ll be playing exclusively against the AI. The game plays out as a simplified 4X strategy game, where you establish new colonies, research additional technologies, and build up your military. Victory involves getting control of 75% of the galaxy or killing the enemy leader unit. You can also introduce alien technologies into the game. Supernova 2: Spacewar allows you to customize your galaxy size, planet density, mineral availability, and the number of habitable planets. The tutorial only covers the turn-based combat mode rather than the entire game, but learning the empire management portion of Supernova 2: Spacewar is easy enough.

Supernova 2: Spacewar features clear-cut resource management through a slider system. You will need to assign your population to one of six jobs: politicians, officers, soldiers, scientists, engineers, civilians. Each occupation has a primary and secondary effect; for example, politicians increase loyalty and add a tribute to your treasury each turn. The distribution of your people affects loyalty, training, maximum units, research, population growth, income, view range, hit points, speed, and production rate. You obviously can’t excel in every area, so you will need to choose the area most important for your current goals. A lot of turns are spent simply waiting for resources to accumulate, so the initial game is not very well balanced.

There are a number of technologies to choose from. These range from generic techs that increase research rates or resource collection to specific weapons, armors, and ships. There is no real reason to do anything other than the generic and ship categories, since you cannot customize your ship designs. Luckily, all of the prerequisite technologies for each ship will automatically be queued for you (which, sadly, is the best aspect of the game), but the techs used in each ship are hard-coded and cannot be changed, even if you research an upgraded version of the same technology. While you can choose your own path in dealing with the technology tree, since you should really only choose ships, this potential freedom is hindered.

Invading an enemy (or neutral) star system simply involves clicking on it in the galaxy map. You can’t go just anywhere in the galaxy, as stars are connected by paths, much like Sins of a Solar Empire. You are given a basic scouting report on the enemy size, but the star rating given is an odd choice, instead of just providing a number of ships: how many ships does three stars correspond to? Stars can have an assortment of effects for battle like reduced speed or range. In order to invade another star system, you need to build up your military first. You can queue up a ship once you have the materials and money (which takes a long time, even for the initial scouts). For whatever reason, all of your produced ships are put into only one fleet and there are only a handful of ships to choose from, reducing your tactical options dramatically.

The battles in Supernova 2: Spacewar are turn-based, where you can move and shoot each of your ships. The battles are tactically interesting, since you have to worry about which way your ships are facing and the range to enemy craft for each of your weapons. The game indicates whether a specific weapon can be fired, but you have to guess which way to rotate in order to rectify the situation (usually it’s towards them). It’s hard to tell which way was “forward” for each ship (there is no arrow and the unit information doesn’t rotate with the ship), so you can be backwards (as I initially was the first couple of times I played) and not know it until it’s too late and you can’t use any of your weapons. Most weapons take a couple of turns to recharge, so both sides can be sitting there with nothing to do half of the time. Many maps have a planet you will need to assault with a transport craft in order to completely win the match, so these ships need to be protected at all costs. Battles tend to last a long time (even the first couple), which is completely the opposite of the fast-paced, skip-many-turns attitude of the management mode; this is mainly thanks to the inexplicable weapon loading times. The AI in both the tactical battles and the galaxy management modes is good enough to be suitable competition, although their strategies are pretty basic and their advantages are usually numerical rather than strategic.

Supernova 2: Spacewar is a generally disappointing 4X game because of its limited nature. There are only two (essentially identical) races to choose from, the resource management is simple but limited, ships are generic and not customizable, and it takes a long time to build up the resources required to build any semblance of a decent military. If you like pressing the “next turn” button, then the first ten minutes of Supernova 2: Spacewar will be so much fun! The game tries its best to reduce your tactical options, from the frozen and limited ship designs to the technology tree. If a game is going to only have a handful of units to choose from, you should at least be able to customize their configurations somewhat. Even the tactical battles have their problems: there is a lot of waiting for weapons to recharge, and rotating the facing direction can be confusing. The AI is decent enough, but this isn’t enough to save this title from a supernova of regret. There are simply much better space strategy games to choose from. It is fair to directly compare Supernova 2: Spacewar to games that are twice the price? Maybe not, but this is more like a $10 game rather than a $25 game. Supernova 2: Spacewar is a simple 4X strategy game that’s too simple, and lacks many features we have taken for granted.