Monday, June 15, 2009

Light of Altair Review

Light of Altair, developed and published by SaintXi.
The Good: Approachable space colony development, usually free-form scenarios, numerous explicit objectives, incredibly useful interface, non-interactive space battles with custom ship designs
The Not So Good: Lacks sandbox and multiplayer features, no map editor, linear resource relationships means some repetition, inhuman AI
What say you? A notable introductory space colonization title with an emphasis on city planning and custom ship design strategy: 6/8

Someone wise once said: “Space, the final frontier.” I think it was Han Solo. In any event, space sure is a popular setting for games, as gamers enjoy vacuums that do not involve cleaning of any kind (unless it’s s space cleaning simulation). Plus, we cannot get enough of Uranus. All of those cold hunks of rock aren’t going to colonize themselves (I plan on sending a probe to Uranus….all right, enough of those jokes), so Light of Altair wants you to colonize and populate planets all in the name of intergalactic genocide. Who’s ready to become a rocket man/woman/hermaphrodite?

Space games are typically sources of some grand graphical spectacles, and Light of Altair has some good features in its independent roots. Most importantly (to me), all of the planets rotate in orbit during the game’s real time play. It always bothers me when planets are stars are always in the same place, even if the time scale doesn’t really call for drastic movement. It never affects your strategy, but it’s nice to look at. The overall theme of Light of Altair is slightly cartoon-like and exaggerated, but that’s OK as it makes everything easier to identify at a distance. Since the game takes place on spheres, you will have to rotate your view in order to see anything: I’m not sure if “realistic” is the correct term for it, but it is different and effective and a lot more interesting than a flat planet view. The special effects are minimal at best, but that’s not really the focus of the game. The sound design is less impressive: sporadic effects and generic but non-annoying background music round out the typical presentation of Light of Altair.

I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the interface (it’s graphics related): it’s really good. Because you will eventually have a lot of planets with a lot of colonies under your control, it’s important for the game to allow for easy, one-glance access to them, and Light of Altair does. All of your colonies on a single planet are listed in the bottom corner with icons for happiness, population growth, and income. When zoomed further out, all of your colonized planets are listed and it only takes a couple of clicks to switch between worlds, important in a real-time setting. You can also right-click any building listed in the construction list to focus on one of them: brilliant. In addition, there is an “idle worker” button of sorts to select empty minerals spaces and clear terrain just waiting to be built upon: quite useful on large worlds. There is no undo for accidental middle-clicking bulldozing (I’m used to the Demigod method of rotating the camera with the middle mouse button) and you can’t deselect an item by pressing escape or right-clicking, offering up some unintentional building orders. You can also zoom in and out smoothly with the mouse wheel from planet-level to a wide space view (somebody played Supreme Commander). Good stuff.

Light of Altair takes place over sixteen maps that expand from our solar system outwards. Each scenario has you colonizing for a different faction, but because there's no gameplay or features difference between playing Asia and the United States, the nations are purely cosmetic. The game features a reasonable difference between difficulty levels (not just more enemies or more hit points or an income bonus). The “normal” setting is actually more like “easy,” where you have more of everything (money, time, happiness) and the opponent has less (defenses, expansion rate, fleet sizes). The game is meant to be played on the “hard” setting where everyone is on an even playing field, except the computer has the advantage of instantaneous decision making. There is nothing beyond the sixteen mission campaign, though: Light of Altair lacks a map editor, either manually drawn solar systems or randomly generated ones. That’s too bad, but the included scenarios are quite large and take a significant amount of time to complete. The first three levels are meant as tutorials to the basics of the game; they do a good job teaching the basics, and Light of Altair additionally offers extensive in-game help: just press "i" and it takes you to a replica of the manual for that object. Light of Altair also features frequent and helpful objectives that usually point you in the right direction for success. These features make Light of Altair very easy to learn for beginning players.

Your first task upon establishing a new colony on an alien world is to promote population growth, and nothing says “sex” like “food.” Placing food-producing structures will grow the population up to the level of food production, and cities that grow in size will produce more taxes. You will also have to provide power in the form of solar arrays for worlds close to their star or reactors for those further away. Once you have established the basics, you can expand into other areas. Another way of making fat stacks of cash is to establish mines on mineral deposits and trade the resources by building a starport at your capital. You will need to build one factory for every ten mines to process the material (a relationship I discovered after wasting lots of money on one factory for every mine in my first game). Mineral deposits are also used for fuel, which is used for fleets and colonizing distant planets; it’s an interesting strategic decision balancing your economy against your military. Other structures can improve happiness, research new buildings or weapons (and reveal mineral deposits), change the atmosphere to something more hospitable, and defend against enemy attacks. Because there is a limited amount of room, you will usually devote each colony to one specialization: mining, food, industry, research. Borders expand as cities level up and grow, allowing for some mixing among your largest colonies, but normally each city will fulfill one important role. Later in the game, you will control multiple colonies on a single planet and multiple planets throughout the solar system; thankfully, the interface makes juggling all of these far-away lands easy. There is also little waiting because you can accelerate time; while Light of Altair is technically a real time game, you can pause at any time and skip the boring parts. In addition, time acceleration stops when an important event occurs, like a new colony being established.

Eventually, you are going to want to kick someone’s ass, and that’s where your fleets come in. Your population cap with fleets is determined by your fuel capacity: the more fuel you have, the larger your fleet can be. You can create a defensive group of fighters at any planet for a low cost for fuel, or make an attack force with more sophisticated hardware: corvettes, frigates, cruisers, and even space stations. Larger craft have higher upkeep but they can carry many more weapons: missiles, rockets, torpedoes, lasers, lances, gauss guns, and rail runs, in addition to fighter bays, armor, shields, and counter measures. There is an interesting strategy when designing custom ships: shields can defend against lasers and counter measures can destroy incoming rockets, but not vice versa. Once you see what your enemy has used, you can exploit their weaknesses. The space battles are automated, so the result is determined beforehand by your fleet size and tactical upgrade decisions. It takes time to conquer large planets, giving the other side time to raise another fleet to counter the attack.

Despite the straightforward nature of the mechanics, Light of Altair is not an easy game, especially when playing at the “hard” setting. The game gets difficult quickly after the first three introductory maps, mostly thanks to the very aggressive AI opponents. Your foes colonize very quickly, too quickly actually. They have fully expanded colonies almost instantaneously, leaving you in the competitive dust. Since a lot of the victory conditions have to do with out-producing the enemy, you are quickly behind and must use your superior human intellect to win. The developers certainly have a good opponent, but they did not scale their actions down to human-like levels of dexterity. Thankfully, you can juggle different planets thanks to the interface, otherwise the game would be impossible to play. There are some interesting strategic (tactical?) decisions to make during your expansion: balancing mining ore for profit and mining fuel for ships, and choosing which weapons to use. The research tree in Light of Altair isn’t as sophisticated as Galactic Civilizations, since you can always afford to simply research all available techs, but you are limited to how many weapons you can squeeze on a single ship. You are limited in the amount of cash you have on hand, something I really never paid much attention to, since your employer tends to give you additional funding if you dip too far into the red. It’s really easy to overspend since construction times are instantaneous.

While Light of Altair lacks the depth of strategy stalwarts like Galactic Civilizations, its more approachable gameplay will definitely appeal to a more casual crowd, and this game serves as a great introduction to the space 4X genre. It is a simplification of the 4X conventions, focusing more on expanding and exterminating while simplifying exploring (everything is explored) and exploiting (uncomplicated economy). There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and I found the learning curve of Light of Altair to be pleasingly low, and the higher difficulty setting is there for those who want more of a challenge. Creating a functioning colony is pretty simple: placing buildings for food, power, money (through mining), and happiness all have predictable results. It’s this predictability that introduces some repetition to the game, in that you’ll always result to the same basic strategy with every new planet. Light of Altair is more a game of efficiency: who can get the powerful ships first? You are given a good amount of freedom in your plans, especially later on when entire solar systems open up for exploration and colonization. The interface is fantastic, letting you juggle all of your colonies with ease. Eventually, you will raise a space fleet to defend your worlds and attack others. Light of Altair lets you design your own ships, and since the weapons use a rock-paper-scissors system you can counteract enemy strategies with your own designs. Light of Altair is easy to learn because the unambiguous and plentiful objectives make your goals crystal clear. Two things the game lacks, a map editor and multiplayer, are relatively small transgressions because of the quality gameplay. The obviously robotic AI is more of an issue that has to do with immersion than quality of gameplay, but it is distressing when the opposing nations construct fully-functioning colonies way faster than you ever could. Still, even with some nagging issues, Light of Altair is definitely worth $15. Fans of space-based games, city builders, and 4X titles will find a lot to like in the simplified but engrossing Light of Altair. Go towards the light, my friend.