It’s been a year since this eXpedition started. In that time, eXplorminate has gone through many changes both in appearance and staff. We’ve growth from a small, two-man operation based on little more than a love for 4X games to a group with over
1,500 1,600 members in only twelve months. That’s staggering!
In the last annum, we have given away over thirty keys to a dozen different games, added nearly 2,000 subscribers to our YouTube channel, posted over 200 videos, and written around 100 articles. Our success has been great, but it is all due to you – dear reader – and your loyalty to this community. We are eXtremely grateful to you.
We discussed a lot of options for commemorating our first year and eventually decided on an all-of-the-above approach. We’ll be holding a giveaway for the whole week of August 30th. (Good luck to all who enter!) Also, we’ll be looking back at all the games we covered this year and compile them into a three different articles. We hope that those who’ve been with us the entire time enjoy the trip down memory lane, and those who are new to eXplorminate will appreciate having all the great games we’ve reviewed and eXplored gathered in one place for easy reading. This year-in-review series of articles will serve as a snapshot in our history and the history of our beloved genre. If we are indeed in a new Golden Age as some suspect and others deny, let this collection be eXhibit A in the debate.
Thus, without further ado, the staff of eXplorminate is pleased to present the games of our first year:
The New Hotness
Endless Legend – Nate “Nasarog”
Amplitude Studios did it again. Since release, Endless Legend has had several free and one paid DLC. The second paid DLC, Shadows, will introduce a new faction and a new feature: Espionage. This new mechanic makes both the singleplayer and multiplayer experiences more robust. A new AI development team has been brought on board to make the mid and late game more interesting. (Although the new AI specialists are just starting out, so the needed boost in AI power might not be seen right away.) The earlier DLCs’ addition of titan units, global events, a new victory condition, unique and legendary buildings, and deeds adds much to the game. Since release, EL has only improved.
The endgame is in need of more content, diplomacy is still somewhat threadbare, and Winter is not all that it can be just yet. Overall though, that’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things. Amplitude Studios does not abandon its games, and has a history of long-term post-release support. Just look at how long they put out content for Endless Space (2.5 years). We are anxiously waiting to see what else they bring.
Galactic Civilizations III – Dallin “Kearon”
There was a time when we were worried about the launch of this game. It was full of bugs and was not succeeding as well in early access as we had anticipated. Still, upon release, Galactic Civilizations III was received with high hopes and generally positive reviews, but has in some ways stagnated since its initial launch. Two mini-DLC packs have added a map editor and mega-events. The additional content and the recent update to version 1.2 demonstrates that we have a lot of Galactic Civilizations III to look forward to in the coming years. The game has a lot going for it, but still plays a bit too similar between playthroughs. Perhaps the biggest question remaining is whether post-release support will bring it the same breadth and depth of content found in its predecessors. The upcoming Patch 1.3 will show us more.
The Avant Garde
Sorcerer King – Rob “DevildogFF”
Sorcerer King is barely out of Early Access, but it’s already received a substantial 1.1 patch. The game is much better for it, with plenty of polish items, bug fixes, and gameplay changes. The big one, the ability to cast spells without the use of a unit’s turn, is game-changing and does a lot for the flow and feel of the game in positive ways. Sorcerer King was a big surprise for me, and I continue to enjoy playing it.
Stardock has officially announced plans for a 1.2 and 1.3 version with an expansion to follow next year. We’re hopeful that some of its shortcomings, i.e. the endgame and replayability, are shored up through both the free patches and the planned expansion. Of Stardock’s two major releases this year, we believe this one has more to offer in terms of ingenuity and we heartily recommend the game to 4X lovers looking for something new and different.
Star Ruler 2 – Micah “Marlowe”
The developers of Star Ruler 2 were not afraid to explore some uncharted territory where their game design is concerned. That’s not a bad quality in the space 4X sub-genre where tradition still rules the roost. SR2 features a fascinating economic system that brings a new level of tension to the usual colonization race through an interactive supply chain model where certain colonies are leveraged for their natural resources to increase the production and technology levels of other worlds. The game also features an excellent card-based diplomacy system and an intricate build-to-order ship designer for when the time inevitably comes to target the juicy colonies of a neighboring empire.
Understanding all the new game mechanics is made much easier by the in-game IRC channel where you can find other players, and even the developers themselves, to answer any questions that come up. Whether or not there will be additional content for the game, or even a Star Ruler 3, is unknown at this time. Either way, hopefully the innovative game mechanics found in SR2 seep into future space 4X games. Anyone looking for something a little different in the realm of sci-fi strategy games should definitely give SR2 a good, long look.
StarDrive 2 – Oliver “Mezmorki”
Great expectations rested on the shoulders of StarDrive 2, the creation of solo developer Dan DiCicco (a.k.a. Zero Sum Games), which was released early April 2015. Unlike the first StarDrive game, SD2 switched to a turn-based structure for the strategic-level gameplay but retained a real-time system for the tactical fleet battles. Adding ground combat, an extensive event system, a revamped technology approach, and an good ship designer, StarDrive 2 is one of the closest spiritual successors to Master of Orion we’ve seen yet.
Of course the game does have its problem areas. It has been highly criticized for being one-dimensional in its gameplay, with only a single conquer-everything victory condition, which makes the endgame a grind. While the interface and audio/visual presentation looks polished, many quality of life improvements to the UI and gameplay systems are needed to minimize the grind, especially in terms of the lackluster ground combat system. Nevertheless, if you can look past its faults, SD2 is an accomplished game. Even though current prospects look grim, we are keeping our fingers crossed that Dan will continue to make improvements on the game going forward.
Worlds of Magic – Troy “TC”
In the same year we got a true spiritual successor to Master of Orion, we also got one for MoO’s fantasy cousin: Master of Magic. Worlds of Magic is the closest anyone has come yet to making a game which could be recognized as what Master of Magic 2 might have looked like. Launched in March of this year, WoM set out to capture the old school fantasy 4X market. WoM brought back beloved factions such as the Dark Elves and Draconians from the 1994 Microprose classic and added new factions of its own such as the deathly Unhallowed and insectoid Myrodants. WoM also updated the MoM’s spell system with a truly unique circle-based mechanic that gives players much greater variety and control over what spells they will research during play.
However, like SD2, WoM has had its share troubles. The game launched with a myriad of bugs and missing content. As a result, the game has not met with much critical or financial success. Wastelands Interactive has made great progress on the game since launch, but there is still plenty of work to be done. The latest version (1.2.5) is a marked improvement over previous incarnations and will likely be the version offered DRM-free on GoG. In the next six months, it’s also slated for a UI and graphical overhaul which will culminate in some kind of relaunch. In the meantime, the game is still getting regular patches and added content. For those looking to recapture the mid 90’s era of 4X gaming, it’s hard to find a better-suited game than Worlds of Magic; just be aware that it has intermittent fits of incredibly glitchy play.
Endless Legend: Guardians – Nate “Nasarog”
Endless Legend is a fantastic game, but it has a couple of problems: substandard AI and a poor late game. The Guardians expansion improved on both. By adding the titan units, the mid game was significantly improved. Legendary deeds and global events not only add flavor and immersion, but they actually give you additional goals to try to achieve. These goals give you various benefits for participation and completion of particular tasks. But that’s not all! You also have legendary and unique buildings which adds a whole new dynamic to city management. Tiny tweaks to the AI have slightly improved its performance as well. Overall, this expansion added a lot to the early and mid game, with a tiny sprinkling to the end game.
Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords – Oliver “Mezmorki”
Age of Wonders III launched in March 2014 to shaky reception. While the game was generally praised for its exceptional level of polish and outstanding tactical combat, it was also criticized for having shallow empire management and limited content compared to its predecessor: Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. Fortunately, sustained developer support has culminated in two expansions, of the old school sort crammed with content, which have turned the game into one of the finest 4X wargames in recent memory.
The first expansion, Golden Realms, released in October 2014 and added a new race (halflings) and a much-needed alternate victory condition. The second expansion, Eternal Lords, landed in April 2015 and along with the 1.5 patch ushered in major enhancements to the base game mechanics, including changes to the alignment and happiness mechanics that resolved many of complaints about shallow empire management. AoW3 is, simply put, my favorite strategy game in years and with the expansions it is worth the attention of any 4X game fan.
Three EU4 Expansions: Art of War, El Dorado, and Common Sense – Denis “Nosferatiel”
The flag of grand strategy games aiming at total world domination is still held high by Europa Universalis IV by Paradox. Released in August 2013, EU4 has lived through several major patches and expansions. Each DLC coincided with one major patch retuning, reworking, and even adding game mechanics. Thus, the game steadily grew from a “diplomatically annex them all”, “play catch with AI armies”, and “who cares about overseas?” starting point. It improved all of the aforementioned points of criticism and even introduced a tall empire mechanic for the less territory-greedy player.
Having invested more than 500 hours into the game, I can only consider myself biased, but I’m looking forward to what Paradox might come up with next. Even if I lose yet another few savegames to a major patch every six months, the replayability was, is, and will remain almost endless. The one critique I can imagine is that it is punishing, hardcore, and not easily accessible, so those looking for something easy to digest or mainly focused on moving around soldiers will have to look elsewhere…
Last Federation: Betrayed Hope – Oliver “Mezmorki”
To be fair, I haven’t given Last Federation, released in April 2014 by developer Arcen Games, its due. I’ve fired the game up a number of times, including its expansion, Betrayed Hope, released last fall. On paper, the game seems to deliver the promise of a space-based game of geopolitical intrigue, wrapped up in a bit of 4X and a pinch of bullet-hell-style tactical combat. It is an intoxicating mix of flavors, but I’ve found that swallowing it can be a little hard. The game is very different, which is a good thing. But I’ve also found it is a bit of a challenge to get into the game, as you are quickly dumped into a complex political arena with little guidance or understanding of how to actually play the game. The problem could be me, and as mentioned I really need to play this more.
The Viceroy – Ben “RL”
If I were to describe The Viceroy as a 4X game, those Xs would stand for “eXploit, eXploit, eXploit, and eXploit.” Goatee Games’ passion was to create a micromanagement economic simulator/strategy, and they’ve made no apologies or concessions in doing so. As the Viceroy, you’re essentially a far-future imperial social-collapse first-responder. Each mission assigns you a territory devastated by a particular calamity, which imposes certain challenges to be overcome. It’s your job to direct the economic and technological engines of the territory to bring prosperity back to its citizens, while blowing up some rebels along the way.
Where The Viceroy works is in its fundamental gameplay. It does a good job of broadly simulating production and consumption on a semi-micro level, and the game world is refreshing and engaging. Unfortunately, it starts to stumble once you dive further in. The tutorial doesn’t really adequately prepare you to understand what you’re supposed to do. The interface fails to provide easy or sufficient access to the information you need in order to make good decisions. This is topped off with a truly frustrating and unsatisfying space combat system that distracts from the strong core gameplay. It’s still a smart, original game with plenty of appeal within its niche, but it has its share of blemishes. Goatee Games has posted a few patches since its July 28 release, addressing some of the more common complaints. I hope they keep at it, as with proper support, The Viceroy has the potential to become a real cult classic.
Total War: Attila – Elie “WG”
This is Rome II as it should have been: the “next-gen” Total War made better. Attila brings back the family tree, the construction/city browser, leader personalities, and more importantly, some difficulty. While the battles here suffer from the same problem as Rome II – they’re too short – units that rout can now muster their courage and return to the field, requiring more than a cheap one-off scare tactic to win the battle. On top of that, roaming tribes field massive armies that loot and pillage across your lands without hesitation as your large empire splinters further every turn. Creative Assembly did warn that this would be a game of survival and, not counting the Sassanids, this turns out to be very true as you can easily lose a campaign in your early turns if you aren’t careful.
That’s not to say the game is perfect. The aggressive DLC schedule is still here, charging exorbitant prices for what amounts to a small amount of content (though culture packs do boast a…”story”). The unit collision, while slightly better than Rome II’s, is still not as smooth as it was in the previous Total War games and the aforementioned pillaging mechanic makes the endgame resemble a scorched-earth simulator more so than a strategy game. The mod tools for Attila were released recently, with a fancy trailer and much hoo-ha for something that does not even allow changes to the campaign map. Attila brings back some of the depth that Rome II was missing, but leaves one wondering if Creative Assembly will be able to maintain interest if its series becomes too repetitive, mod-unfriendly, and expensive!
What can I say? When you even hint at a comparison to one of the greatest 4X games of all time (Alpha Centauri), expectations are going to be a bit high. When you subsequently release a game that feels like an extensive mod that is more of a step backward than a step forward, people will be disappointed. As of the time of this writing, its Steam Review score is 55% and for good reason: this is easily the weakest entry in the Civilization series, perhaps ever. We’re still hopeful that the Rising Tide expansion can turn this around a bit and make it a worthwhile entry to the lauded series.
Sid Meier’s Starships – Nate “Nasarog”
Potential. What is potential? It’s something SMS never achieved. As a pure side project for Sid Meier, Starships is a sort of accompaniment to Beyond Earth: a space combat simulator, that isn’t really all that good. With its “rich” lore, narrow focus, and legendary developer, SMS never reached its potential. It’s bland, devoid of life, and repetitious. Sure, most strategy games can be accused of this, but SMS actually deserves it.
Apollo4X – Troy “TC”
Creating, designing, developing, and publishing your own video game is an incredibly difficult process. It can take years and years of hard work, time, and money that many people don’t have. And yet, even with all best intentions in the world, the game may not turn out as hoped or promised. Such is the case with Apollo4X. Digi-Ent made a valiant effort at making a futuristic economy simulator game. Unfortunately, the end product fell short of their vision. The game is a simplistic puzzle that can be solved in a matter of hours. There is little to challenge or engage the audience. Perhaps they would have been better served by marketing it as a “Tycoon” game rather than a 4X game, but alas, that ship has sailed. It is our hope that A4X will provide the experience Digi-Ent needs to launch an even better game down the road.
Galactic Inheritors – Ben “RL”
I have a lot of respect for studios that have the guts to try new things. It’s a huge risk, but if no one gave it a shot, titles would quickly become stale and bland. In Galactic Inheritors, Argonauts Interactive took that risk. And unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well. Some of the ideas are great, at least in principle. Media warfare works something like a modernized version of Paradox games’ casus belli system, forcing the player to make more long-term preparations before declaring war. Likewise, the use of a military-industrial complex as a gameplay element has a lot of promise. But in practice, neither these nor the rest of the game’s systems were executed in a way that made for engaging gameplay. Add to that a minimal colony development layer, perplexingly poor galaxy setup, and easily solved gameplay, and you have a game that fails to deliver a compelling experience – despite good intentions.
The last 12 months have clearly seen their share of ups and downs in the 4X genre. We’ve had some game-changing titles released as well as some massive let-downs. Let us not forget, however, just how fortunate we’ve been this past year. There was a time when our beloved genre would be lucky to get even a single game in a given 12 month period. This year, we’ve gotten over a dozen, and next year looks to hold even more. We’ll be previewing the expected offerings the next annum holds later on this week. We hope you’ll join us again as we look ahead now that we’ve had a chance to look behind.