If you love science fiction and 4X games, this is a banner year for you. From AAA studios releasing new titles, mid-tier studios doing their first sequels and small indie studio startups putting forth their first entry into the genre, 2015 is a sci-fi aficionados 4X paradise. One of the choices that might get overlooked in all the madness is Predestination by Tina Lauro and Brendan Drain of Brain and Nerd Ltd.
Originally funded via Kickstarter, Predestination is currently in Steam’s early access program. Development seems to be coming along with a major update every month or two. The last one, according to Brain and Nerd’s site, was February 13th. I would imagine that means another is very close.
The game takes inspiration from classic titles such as Master of Orion 2 and Galactic Civilizations. The premise is that there once was a fleet of ships that were hurled back in time and crash-landed on numerous planets throughout the galaxy. Your mission is to reconstitute your fleet before the other factions do the same. To do this, you’ll need to go through the classic 4X formula: explore your planet(s), expand your domain, exploit resources to build more cities/ships, and then exterminate any foes who try to stop you.
There are six races from which to choose. These are the usual suspects: humans, kitty-people, cyborgs, etc. Right now, they are just flavor. None of the racial bonuses or effects are yet incorporated, from what I can tell. I tried two different games: one with the Sauros (lizard-people) and one with the Starforged (cyborgs) and could not detect any tangible differences.
As one would expect for a game in alpha, play is basic. The version I played (0.8.1.8) starts with a generic planet and a single city. You have a scout ship that automatically eXplores the planet for you, revealing various resources such as food, coal, uranium, and ore (metal). You can build cities and connect them to resource structures like farms and solar energy plants. Most of the construction is handled automatically; you can just queue up whatever buildings you want in any quantity you want and the game will build them when you have enough resources.
There are four multi-branched tech trees in the game. A fifth will be implemented at some point further along in the alpha development. It takes about six to seven decades in game time to research them to maximize the first set of trees, which isn’t much time. Unlike Distant Worlds, in which you can split your research, Predestination allows you to only research items from one type of tree at a time. Once you have the first tier of each tree maxed out, you’re able to rebuild your crashed ship. This ship becomes known as your “colony ship” and is what you’ll use to settle a second planet.
Ground combat was not implemented at the time of this writing. Fleet combat has been a little buggy, so I haven’t had a chance to check it out just yet. According to Brain and Nerd’s website, turn-based combat happens on a tactical hex-board. The board will have obstacles and features like asteroids and micro-nebulae that are intended to keep the fighting interesting. The developers have recently patched space combat, so hopefully it will be fully functional for people who buy the game now.
Exploring the galaxy is fairly simple. You point your ships in the direction you want them to go, and they move automatically. When they arrive at a new star, you get a report of what planets there are and a general sense of what resources they have. There is barely enough information from your ships’ scans to make a decision on whether or not to settle one of the orbiting planets. You have to look at scales for “Organic” and “Mineral” and then guess if there are enough of each that it’s worth settling there. Right-clicking on a planet presents an option to send a colony ship to settle there. It’s all pretty easy. Then you just rinse and repeat.
There are a number of various planet types. If you are a fan of the Master of Orion series, you’ll recognize them: baren, toxic, watery, etc. Likewise, planets have differing sizes such as tiny, small, large, and so on that limit the number of cities that can be supported. Biodomes and hydroponics make the more hostile planet types inhabitable- all pretty standard for a sci-fi 4X game.
If I had to use one word to describe the game in its alpha state, it would be “leisurely.” City management is very basic. Despite the hours I spent playing the same game, I was never contacted or attacked by another race. The music is soft and calming. The scout ship zips lazily back and forth across the screen in an efficient pattern without any manual input. Buildings rise like flowers after a rain. Mainly, I just relax and watch the auto-turns (a great feature by the way) clip by. The game pauses only to tell me I have a new tech ready or my scout has discovered some treasure. So for the most part, yeah, I wasn’t too active.
There was only one time I felt a little frustrated. When colonizing a new planet for the first time, I had trouble figuring out how to do it properly. It took me three tries to get a stable colony, but once I did, it was smooth sailing from there. All things considered, that’s just a small inconvenience- something you’d expect when learning any new game.
Below is an example of how a simple added feature might convey a great deal of information. Micah, aka Marlowe, my video partner in this preview, runs into a problem. He is unable to ascertain how his empire is generating income. Currently, the game doesn’t have a tooltip or a GUI that breaks down income from taxes, markets, or resources and the outgoing upkeep for cities, buildings, and ships. Income oscillates between positive and negative a lot, especially in the mid game. The experience with the game would be much better if the player could know why this happens. As Predestination is still in alpha, it’s no surprise these types of helpful mechanics aren’t in yet.
The graphics are all in alpha state. Cities are little more than a collection of labeled hexagonal prisms. I will compliment them in that the labels are at least legible. When I was playing the alpha version of Worlds of Magic, the fonts were barely readable at times. Predestination seems to have a few different ship models implemented, but they look the same for each race. Planets look as if they have the same basic layout for continents and oceans. Clearly, the game’s visuals are still in the process of being implemented.
There are plans to have a 3D custom ship builder in the game and a custom race generator. However, they are not implemented in the game yet. When it comes to ships, you have to build the default configurations the game comes with.
Predestination does have decently intuitive UI for an alpha game. Each resource has its own tab with lots of graphs and information telling how much I’m producing, what my surplus is, and how much I have stored. These are all color coded, helping me know in an instant if I’m running low on something. These helpful hints make learning the game quite easy. I felt I pretty much mastered the basics of the alpha version in the first 30 minutes of play, or so. The game also has a tutorial which certainly helps as well, but even if I had skipped that, I think it would have taken just a couple hours to get a handle on everything.
There are a few features I’d like to see added at this point. For instance, if my scout finds an archeological site, I should be able to click something on the popup that will build everything I need to eXploit it, including a nearby city if necessary. At the moment, it can be tedious to fully get the benefits from such a find. I’d also like to be able to move structures, such as farms and coal power plants, at half their build cost. Finally, I’d like to know a little bit more about the races. The game is really light on lore right now, so it’s hard to sink my teeth into it.
As far as the other mechanics go, I do have a couple minor complaints. First, there’s no way to recycle unneeded buildings. For instance, once a coal plant uses up all the coal, you have to demolish it for no gain. With resources so scarce, you would think that recycling would be a big part of this space culture’s way of life. Even though I have a whole galaxy to eXplore and eXploit, I’d prefer to have to option of being more efficient in my play. Second, the game is pretty repetitive when it comes to city building. I wish there were more interesting things to do other than just build entertainment centers until my people are happy. I wish I could build more than one type of market (the game lets you sell surplus food, metal, or energy through “markets”). I’d also like to see more types of military structures and have those structures have an effect on the citizens in some way. And finally, the game would be better if I could choose how to connect various buildings like Solar Plants, Farms, and Archaeological Digs to my cities. Right now the game chooses for me, and it’s not always optimal.
In closing, readers should know that there isn’t much to do in the game at this point. Predestination is still a proto-game really. Most of the tabs are disabled. This includes parts of the tech trees, which is a real pain at times. Diplomacy is not yet implemented. As mentioned before, ground combat is not in, and there are plenty of other missing features, as you would expect in an alpha build. While there’s nothing overly laborious about play, there is not much to get excited about yet either. The game is stable. I didn’t experience a single crash or hiccup. I’ll certainly keep following the game as it progresses, but as of right now, there isn’t much else to say.
Predestination has been available on Steam’s Early Access program since February 4th, 2015. It retails for $29.99. It’s unpolished, as almost all Early Access titles are, but unlike some other alpha titles, it’s not riddled with bugs that will ruin your time with it. Overall, I really enjoyed the time I put into the game and do plan to play more in the future. The developers have a solid core of a game. Time will tell if they can get it into a publishable state.
Troy played 13 hours on his Windows 8.1 Dell Inspiron 7000 Series 7537 BTX 17” laptop with Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4500U CPU @ 1.80 GHz, 16GB Ram, 64 bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card.