Friday, June 29, 2012

Gemini Wars Review

Gemini Wars, developed by Camel 101 and published by Iceberg Interactive.
The Good: Building cap eliminates base spam, can capture crewless ships, fast intrasystem movement trigger chokepoints, fairly extensive research tree, combat can target unit subsystems, decent ship selection
The Not So Good: Simplifications reduce strategic variety, heavily scripted campaign missions with no randomized maps and no diplomacy, assorted interface shortcomings, no multiplayer (yet), no skirmish games (yet)
What say you? A space real-time strategy game with streamlined mechanics for easier command but decreased depth: 4/8

UPDATE (8/4/12): Skirmish mode has been added.

Space serves as fertile ground for strategy gaming. The ability to colonize new worlds and produce ships that fight in a 3-D environment has captured the imagination of computer gamers everywhere, spawning both real-time and turn-based strategy titles too numerous to mention (although naming them would make my review significantly longer). The next entry in this long line of heralded gameplay is Gemini Wars, a real-time adaptation where you command ships and bases, conduct research, and invade colonies in several star systems connected by wormholes. Does Gemini Wars provide unique, compelling real-time strategy?

I was occasionally impressed by the graphics of Gemini Wars. Space is a fertile ground for nice graphics, and Gemini Wars is no exception. First, planets and bases rotate, which breathes live into the empty static of space. Ships and buildings also have nice textures when viewed up close, although the black palette obscures some of the detail. Weapon and shield effects are repetitive but generally effective, as you can clearly see shots deflected and damage taken. The ship destruction animation is better than most games, where you can actually see 3-D pieces of the ship float away. Building construction is also animated, although it occurs in stages rather than a fully progressive visual. Gemini Wars also has very pretty backgrounds to serve as a backdrop for the action. The sound design is more typical, with appropriate battle effects and voice acting of varying quality, but usually at least average. Event voice notifications are misleading: every ship is a "capital ship" and the game never says whether it's a friendly "capital ship" or an enemy "capital ship" that has been destroyed. The music fits the genre but is nothing special in a genre that usually offers up dramatic scores. Effort has been made to make Gemini Wars look decent in a setting that essentially requires notable graphics, so that is to be commended.

The story of Gemini Wars unfolds across a sixteen-mission single-player campaign. The objectives are varied, with defend and escort missions, elevating the campaign above a simple collection of skirmish maps (a popular choice in strategy games), although the objectives are also quite linear and leave little room for varied strategy. Each mission lasts a while, usually between thirty minutes and one hour, so it can take some time to finish the campaign. Of course, some of the time is spent simply waiting, for a countdown timer or watching lengthy battles resolve, with no user input, so the time investment could have been reduced. Mission objectives could have also been more clear: you are told what to do but not where to do it, as objective location indicators are never used on the map (occasionally mission objectives name the location of interest, but not always). Missions are accompanied by fairly extensive CGI exposition and mission briefings, for people that enjoy that sort of thing. They are frequent enough to interrupt mission flow, but because of the heavily scripted nature of mission structure, this amount of disturbance is required. This obviously reduces replay value, and the release version does not include skirmish games or multiplayer, although they are planned for release in the future.

Missions in Gemini Wars can involve multiple maps that are linked by wormholes, and the maps also feature lots of planets and asteroids to capture and build upon, although the enemy starts in specific areas and behaves predictably during a single mission. In terms of difficulty, some missions are too hard, and some missions are too easy, and all have significant waiting at some point that I alluded to earlier. Missions last a bit too long, a combination of a slow game pace, overwhelming enemies, and arbitrary mission requirements (like defending for an entire hour for no discernable reason, or constructing exactly ten ships (even though you need many more to defeat the sizable enemy navy)). One reason why I don't like solo campaigns in strategy games is because it's so hard to get the difficulty just right: one extra enemy ship can mean the difference between success and failure, balance and imbalance. Gemini Wars introduces new actions gradually during the campaign (which confusingly disables major gameplay mechanics for a majority of the campaign, like colonization) and in two tutorials; the tutorials provide decent information (although keyboard commands are not explained) but have voiced instructions you can’t quickly skip through.

The interface for Gemini Wars is pretty typical for the genre, with no truly innovative features and some areas that could use significant improvement. The “strategic map” button allows for instant access to a zoomed-out perspective. The game is played on a 2-D surface, which makes it easy to navigate; while 3-D space is obviously more realistic, I’ve found that using it in games like Sword of the Stars is ultimately more confusing. There are several places that could use some work: there is no idle ship button, or a way to box-select (or not box-select) construction ships (you can de-select them from a selection, but that adds an extra step). Military bases and shipyards do not have rally points where newly constructed vessels can be sent automatically. Units always default to close attack, for some reason, even though ranged attack is always the better option (especially for units with missiles, and assault units will close in automatically anyway). When multiple units are selected, the icons in the bottom left of the screen never show specific health or shield information, only turning red when a unit is near death and displaying numerical hyperspace fuel levels. Those icons really need pop-up tool-tips, as I don't have the ship icons memorized and constantly forget which shape is a battleship and which is a cruiser. Unit health bars also disappear when you are zoomed out at a usable level. You also can't reconfigure the controls, the few that there are in the game. The game tells you when a new unit is built, but not where (you can't click on the notification to move the camera) or what it is (other than a tiny little icon). In addition, there is a twenty-second difference between when a ship is finished and when you can select it, which is extremely annoying in the heat of battle. Issuing a move order to a unit several systems away does not use the hyperspace drive. Placing build orders does not use resources immediately (that's good), but the construction is canceled (instead of being put on hold) if the required resources are not available when the construction starts (that's bad). While you can queue ships, you cannot queue research. Gemini Wars could also use a master ship list (though the strategic map view allows you to see all of your units) and more detailed tool-tips (displaying things like resource gathering rates). Strategy games, especially real-time ones, require an efficient interface to play the game, and Gemini Wars needs several improvements.

There is just one primary resource to worry about in Gemini Wars: crystal. It’s used to build ships and construct buildings, and collected by placing a single mining base on an asteroid field. Planets will also need to be colonized, once a colony ship has successfully visited a neutral world. Colonies provide marines for troop ships (so you can invade other colonies), increase the unit cap, and enable the construction of massive large ships. Military stations can also be placed in orbit around a friendly colony; these allow for small ships to be constructed, in addition to other buildings, like the shipyard (for buildings larger ships), turrets (of which there is no limit on, curiously), shield generators, and long-range cannons. Gemini Wars restricts you to placing one mining base, one military station, and one shipyard in each location, which cuts down on spam but reduces tactical flexibility. There is also a population cap, which is increased by founding new colonies with military stations. The building variety in Gemini Wars is quite limited: while a straightforward build order makes the game easier to learn, I’d still like to see more options (like weapon or defensive attachments or completely new structures) added to this portion of the game.

Like the building selection, ships in Gemini Wars are basic and generic, but they cover all of the options present in your typical strategy game. Military options include the missile frigate, assault frigate, destroyer, cruiser, battleship, and carrier, while colony ships and troop ships are provided for founding and attacking colonies. Battleships get one special ability of your choice (like a devastating shot or shield recharge), unlike other ships with static weaponry. However, because these special abilities take so long to recharge (twenty real-time minutes, I’d say, on average), their use is essentially meaningless. Gemini Wars does not allow you to design your own units or add different weapons to the designs, but research is available to improve different aspects of your ships across the board. Those aspects include the hull, shields, speed, and weapon attributes (damage and range). In addition to research, combat experience also increases a unit’s damage. An enemy ship can be captured if the crew is eliminated, which is a nice twist not usually offered in strategy games. As with the buildings, I would like to see more varied ship types that take advantage of simple weapon countering methods (as in Galactic Civilizations).

In addition to typical slow movement around space, Gemini Wars features localized jump movement between planets and asteroids using hyperspace fuel. This works like nodal movement in Sword of the Stars or Endless Space, but with more freedom in choosing your specific destination. This movement method has several advantages: predictable movement (you know the enemy will appear at planets or asteroids) makes setting up defenses easier (and concentrates the action), and waiting for the jump power to recharge forces both sides to stick around for a fight. It’s a nice system that works well. Wormholes to different stars on the same map are controlled by one side and not usable by the other until they destroy the enemy warp gate, which is a neat way of cutting off a portion of the map and isolating enemy units.

Units can be given orders beyond “move here”: rotate, stop, attack, ranged attack, and defend (which keeps units in formation). You can't specify unit facing when issuing a move command by holding down the right-mouse button, and you must wait to define it after the destination is reached (the rotate command is confusing anyway). Units have a hard time consistently staying at maximum range: the “ranged attack” option keeps on switching off for me (defaulting to “attack”) frequently when units are selected, which brings the missile units close enough to get shot by melee adversaries. While units are smart enough to engage nearby enemies on their own, their movement tactics leaves a lot to be desired. On larger ships, subsystems (life support, weapons, engines) can be targeted, but I found this method to be unreliable as well: too often, right-clicking on a specific component would end up attacking the hull anyway and subsequently destroyed the ship I wanted to disable and capture with shuttle-launched marines. You also cannot flank units and attack weaker side or rear shields, as in Starpoint Gemini. Gemini Wars has a slow pace, with units moving slowly and weapons causing minor damage: large battles can take a significant amount of time to resolve, and time acceleration is not an option. The streamlined nature of the game has some disadvantages, as fewer decisions make for duller games. Just choose the biggest ships you can research and afford, establish the closest colonies (when you are able), construct defenses, research improvements, and destroy. Gemini Wars lacks the depth found in competing space strategy games, which makes the game more approachable, but potentially too simple for veteran strategists.

It’s hard to gauge the quality of the AI in Gemini Wars, since most (if not all) of the campaign missions are completely scripted, with defined starting conditions and locations for your computerized opponents. The AI will produce units and send them to where you are, but I’m not sure if these tactics are thought of on the fly or scripted by the scenario designer in advance. As I stated earlier, difficulty in the game can be erratic, and the AI certainly does not play “fair”: it’s usually given many more units at the beginning of a mission, and it’s up to the human player to outproduce the computer from there on out. Until Gemini Wars gets the promised skirmish mode, it’s difficult to tell just how intelligent the artificial intelligence may be. Rounding out the package is research: you can unlock hulls and structures and improve engines, armor, shields, and weapons for all of your units by constructing a research station (one per planet) and spending the points they generate. All of the research options are not available until the end of the campaign (you usually get one new thing to discover per mission), however. Finally, Gemini Wars does not have diplomacy of any kind, since the single-player campaign is story-driven.

The simplified nature of Gemini Wars is a two-edged sword: it makes the game very approachable, but also limits the long-term strategic variety. Limiting each base to only one major building of each type means you’ll encounter the same basic design every time. In addition, only six military ships means you’ll run into the same fleets over and over again. Research options do expand the specific attributes of units you’ll see, but continually using the same effective, simple plan that lacks the nuances of other space strategy games reduces replay value. Gemini Wars has a nice combination of real-time mechanics with 4X elements, like planet colonization and movement between specific points. Like almost everything in the game, the economy is simplified: just build a mining station near each asteroid field to gather the game’s only resource. Each planets can be surrounded by one military station, which allows for additional buildings like shipyards, turrets, and research stations. Since you are limited in the number of buildings you can construct at each base, you’ll have to colonize new worlds to expand your influence. Shipyards produce six different types of military units (plus construction and colonization craft), which may seem disappointing but cover all of the options present in most real-time strategy games. Unit attributes can be further customized through research, so there is still some choice, albeit indirect, in building your military. During combat, you can target specific subsystems of the larger vessels and capture enemy ships that have a deceased crew. Gemini Wars lacks diplomacy, relying instead on heavily scripted encounters during the sixteen-mission campaign, set on fixed map layouts. The AI benefits from these scripted force allocations, and difficulty can be inconsistent, but at least there is a mission variety beyond a series of skirmish matches. The graphics look nice, but the interface has several areas in need of enhancement. Still, Gemini Wars needs the inclusion of skirmish games and online multiplayer to earn a full recommendation. $40 is a little pricey for sixteen campaign scenarios (I would have preferred, say, $20 or $25 now with a $10 DLC for skirmish and multiplayer whenever they are finished), but fans of streamlined real-time strategy games set in space could take a gander at Gemini Wars.