Iceberg Interactive seem to be on a one team conservation effort of the 4X space strategy genre as of late, in the past nine months they’ve published Gemini Wars, Armada 2526, StarDrive and now Horizon which has just released on the alpha access section of Steam. This isn’t a complaint, more strategy games is a positive, provided they’re good. Is Horizon good? It’s early days to judge the end result, it’s open hunting season on the Alpha though.
As of now there isn’t a massive amount to choose from when starting a game. You can play as the Earth Alliance (EA) or the Earth Alliance. Selecting through the options available you can start a skirmish that has a form of story to it, showing the development of the EA to the spacefaring empire it is when you take over. An alien probe sends over technology, it takes the humans a while to decipher it all and then we go to the abandoned alien probe that’s orbiting Pluto.
The story is decent at jumping you in and fast-tracking you, acting as a tutorial at the same time so it’s not too intrusive and you’re still able to skip it if you want to. Of course being the babies in space empires, you as the humans are playing catchup. A fair assessment as if we ever get a space empire going there will obviously be some form of entity more advanced than us. To think we’re the most advanced species in a universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies that feature billions of planets each is both arrogant and sad at the same time. Enough philosophy, more Horizon.
Horizon seems to be the standard turn-based system you’ll find in such as Civilization (old ones) featured on a square grid, like the older Civ games you can fill one grid of space with as much as you like, really harking back to the older days. You’re looking at two seperate phases here, the general phase which let’s you move your ships, check out the star systems which then list the planets there, any you have colonised you can then go in deeper and build improvements.
Building here a little too easy because if you have the cash, there is no build queue. You can build one of everything. Upgrade each of the six building type, construct one of each of the four ship types and if you haven’t already, the other colony attachments all at the same time. It’s somewhat too easy and offering no penalty for over-expansion aside from the general upkeep costs which, if you fully upgrade Earth and Mars, give you more than enough income to negate anything else. Limiting to a handful of building options at the same time would be the best option simply to make it more strategic.
One thing I do like is the designing of ships prior to building them. Ships are divided into four classes: Small, Medium, Large, Huge. You have four slots for each of the classes with only a handful of presets already there. The ship design allows you to alter the four sets, using certain types of upgrades to adjust a ship to what you want it to be. Always a useful system offering more control and customisation, albeit not as much as some of the competitors but it’s early day, there may be adjustments. Even if it’s just to offer more than four in each class.
Upgrades to the technology available in ship building and also the efficiency of your colony buildings all come from technology upgrades. These are primarily obtained through research, though you also have the chance of getting upgrades or new techs through diplomacy and also through scanning planets, some planets will have ancient artifacts that you then have the chance to dig up, sometimes offering a new technology. Like most strategy games technology is a key aspect and as such this new system is intriguing, albeit flawed. I’ve been unfortunate in not finding any new technologies in scanning planets and diplomacy is a mixed bag at best, not allowing you to offer trades in the usual sense. I don’t particularly want to go up to a friend and shout at them until they give me a new technology or launch a few space nukes up my arse.
Where technology is strong is the ability to research more than one area at a time, but to focus. As in reality, people don’t focus just on one advancement and one alone, we have a number of projects going but some take precedent. Technology level is quantified by the number of projects and you can select which technology to dedicate the most to while still not completely shutting down the rest. It makes for a more adaptive and interesting system. Though I’m still not entirely fond of the lack of tech trees.
Diplomacy is one of my other few bugbears about Horizon. It starts off by offering a decent, albeit easily manipulable, slider system to show the races attitude towards you. You have a variety of options such as offering treaties, giving them gifts, requesting aid in certain aspects or outright demanding things. Unlike most strategy games there is a complete and utter lack of trading system which is a glaring omission to say the least. It would make sense to be able to go to an ally and offer them money or another technology in exchange for a technology you don’t know yet, allowing you to study it first and then level it up gaining more benefits. As of now your only way is to pummel them in combat until they want to quit and then start demanding things or wait for them to simply give you something.
Horizons real strength shows in space combat. While turn based there is a lot of tactical fidelity. From using motherships with fighter bays, to assault ships to board the enemy ships and forcibly take it over to simple blasting the enemy to bits, there is a lot to choose from. There is an issue in that certain weapons were impossible to use. At least the fusion bomb was impossible for me to use, still not figured it out so I’ve simply removed it from all of my ships.
At this moment in time the weakest aspect of Horizon is the UI. It can be terribly cluttered and also doesn’t offer enough information on certain actions, such as the requirements to even take such actions. In addition to the fixed elements, other information pops up in other bars. For example, selecting a system will drop down a list of the planets with a graphical representation on the right of the screen as well as, on the bottom, a toolbar featuring the separate ships or fleets.
It can eventually become a bit of a chore to move between a number of things due to having to click through a lot of things but it’s somewhat necessary with the amount of decisions on offer. A way to smooth this out or make it more fluid would be infinitely more preferable to the system on show now, but it very well could be something the developers are going to be working on.
This is an alpha so inevitably you aren’t going to be the smoothest of experiences. A few key things like the UI, Diplomacy and the ability to practically build everything at once stand out as problems to me and hopefully will be fixed as it goes further in development. Up until now what I’ve seen is decent. There’s a good focus on story with small missions which will hopefully be fleshed out and hopefully more will be offered as time goes on. The focus on lore and story could be what manages to set this apart from others.