When delivering a new product into the hands of a media-oversaturated audience, timing is everything – and it is fickle. A strong title released at the right time can ride a wave of enthusiasm all the way to the bank. Or, it can find itself smashed by that same wave. C’est la vie.
Polaris Sector, developed by SoftWarWare and published by Slitherine, is right at the crest of that wave. Released March 22nd, this title hit digital shelves before the official launch of 2016’s mammoth space 4X games – Stellaris, Master of Orion, and Endless Space 2. But even beating those games out the gate, can a dark-horse title from a one-man-studio keep up?
One way or another, we’re going to find out. So hold onto your helmet. This spacescape may look familiar, but it’s got some surprises. And I’ve got a feeling you’ll like them.
Before jumping into a game of Polaris Sector, players will have to set up their galaxy and choose a race to play. There are a number of galaxy options, including its shape and size, number of factions, star lane density, game difficulty, and victory conditions. Each can have a big impact on how a game plays out.
Polaris Sector implicitly acknowledges the contentious nature of the “star lanes vs. no star lanes” debate by giving players the ability to set star lane density. This means those who like the tactical positioning and choke points of restricted movement can dial down the density, and those who prefer freer movement between stars can increase it.
The different species feature extensive backstories and distinct behaviors that give them a lot of character. The warlike Drills have a hard time making friends. The (house)catlike Sharatar are as unpredictable as one might expect of a race of sapient hermaphroditic felines blissing out on catnip. Those who like to really immerse themselves in a game world will have plenty of fuel for thought.
In contrast to the colorful and diverse backgrounds, the mechanical modifiers for racial customization are somewhat bland. Aside from climate preference and starting technologies, all of the traits are simple bonuses or penalties to some statistic like mining, research, and espionage. They certainly have an impact on gameplay, but the strictly numeric bonuses lack flavor and add little variety to the experience.
Unfortunately, when it comes to eXploring the galaxy itself, Polaris Sector doesn’t really deliver. There just isn’t enough to keep a player excited and engaged. It is great to find an Earthlike planet with +22.80% science output or huge deposits of useful ores or to scout the occasional anomaly and net a tech boost or bonus resources. But star systems start looking very samey very quickly and, with few really gratifying reward points, eXploration feels unengaging and lackluster.
Then there’s the tech tree. Ho boy, is this ever something else. In Polaris Sector, you don’t simply choose a tech to research. Instead, you split your research efforts between two areas: Fundamental Science and Applied Science. As you pursue Fundamental Sciences, you’ll unlock new Applied Sciences. In turn, researching these Applied Sciences unlocks new technologies (things like facilities and ship components). So instead of researching technologies directly, you discover them by reaching certain thresholds in the Fundamental and Applied fields.
Players use a series of sliders to split their research points between the two overarching categories, and then further between the four disciplines of Fundamental Science and the various Applied Sciences they’ve unlocked. If managing all the sliders seems like a nightmare, don’t worry. Players can simply click on a research project, and the game will automatically adjust the sliders to get to that research goal as quickly as possible. This original take on such a staple mechanic provides a lot of fun, fresh experiences and it shows a lot of promise.
Furthermore, a lot of that promise has gone unrealized so far. There is no opportunity cost to changing the sliders, no limit to how far you can push a slider (except always needing at least 10% in Fundamental), and no diminishing returns from funneling all your efforts into one discipline. This means players never have to make any real tradeoffs, compromises, or sacrifices. The bones of the tech system are a wonderful departure from genre conventions, but in practice, it plays out pretty much like any other 4X tech system. You select a tech to focus on, wait until it’s done and then choose another.
During the beta, developer Vladimir “Ufnv” Ufnarovsky announced plans for a science-focused expansion with potentially sweeping changes (unique tech ladders for every species, for example). Fundamentally, there’s a lot of potential in this system and an expansion could really capitalize on that. But as it stands today, the tech system shoots high, comes so close to being extraordinary, but ends up being just good.
Expansion in Polaris Sector will be pretty familiar to any 4X gamer. Prospective galactic emperors in Polaris Sector start with one system, a little bit of tech, and a bunch of unexplored star lanes. You have all the technology you need to explore and colonize other planets, and that’s what you will do… Or you will fail miserably.
Colonization is straightforward. You can manually build and command colony ships, but it’s often easier to simply select a planet then click the big “Plan Colonization” button. The AI takes care of building the colony ship at an appropriate facility and loading colonists from a densely-populated planet. There’s also a planet-finder interface that makes sifting through potential colonization targets much quicker.
While the colonization interface is nothing revolutionary, it’s an important part of the game because Polaris Sector is one hell of a target-rich environment. Every sun supports planets, often three or more. And with the right technology (available early on), you can settle every one. Having the ability to sort planets by biome or mineral deposits makes an otherwise maddening task more manageable.
This brings me to one of my gripes with Polaris Sector (and many other space 4X games, as well). Expansion in Polaris Sector has only one rule: colonize as aggressively as you can or fall behind. I’m fine with rewarding investment in expansion, but the cost/benefit calculus is so skewed that infinite expansion is far and away the best thing you can do (other than perhaps rushing a neighbor). While some planets are essentially fruitless, they are far outnumbered by useful worlds, and there’s very little reason not to colonize the latter. The only real limits on your colonization are a few (mostly low-hanging) technologies and how much food you can produce from your arable planets to keep your people fed. In practice, this was never enough to keep me from settling every halfway-decent planet I could find along with plenty of mediocre ones.
But all is not bleak on the spaceward front. After all, games like Distant Worlds have taught us that it’s not the size of the empire that counts, but how you automate it…
Both eXploration and eXpansion have their share of hits and misses. It sounds like we’re about due for a clean, solid home run. And, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what the third X provides.
The population model in Polaris Sector greatly departs from the typical for-X-mula. Generally, the citizen is the central unit of production. That citizen can be told to do different things like work on production (in Master of Orion II) or work a specific tile for its output (in Civilization). This output is increased by facilities like an Automated Factory or a Windmill, but it’s the population unit that produces the actual yield.
In contrast, planetary infrastructure is the the focus of Polaris Sector’s economy. A unit of population is only used to run your buildings (or conscripted as ground units). You don’t assign population to be a farmer. Instead, you build a farm, and units of your population are drafted into running it. This may sound like semantics, but it has a big impact on the way the game’s economy works.
Planetary infrastructure is made up of farming, mining, research, and production facilities (plus any necessary habitation facilities or military buildings). These buildings compete with one another for facility slots limited by planet size and biome. This is unusual for 4X games, which usually let you take an “all of the above” approach and build as many facilities as you want (Galactic Civilizations is a notable exception).
In most 4X games, this combination of “all of the above” infrastructure with population-based labor results in gameplay that encourages short-term investment, micromanagement, and min/maxing. Short on food this turn? Move one worker over to farming. Decide you want a warfleet? Move all your researchers over to production. Polaris Sector flips this around. Instead of rewarding short-term finagling, the game emphasizes making smart, long-term decisions regarding your planets’ infrastructure. You can still retool them after the fact, but that means tearing down the old facilities to build new ones – an inefficient strategy.
The production system complements another of Polaris Sector’s highlights: strong colony management. Players can tell a planet to focus on agriculture, innovation, industrialization, mining, or balanced economics. The AI handles it from there – and handles it competently. If you want to micromanage a planet, you can take direct control, creating and applying build templates as you see fit. Whichever system you rely on, you can fully direct your planets’ development without needing to queue up individual structures every time you settle a new world.
A word of warning: if you like managing extensive planetary build queues, Polaris Sector may ultimately frustrate you. The number of buildings you have access to is really small compared to most games. You don’t start with “food production facility 1” and research all the way up to “food production facility 4”. For the most part, you have your farm, and if you dedicate a world to agriculture, you will build that farm as many times as you can. So if scripting elaborate building chains is your jam, you may have to jam elsewhere.
One oddity of the game’s economic system is its use of currency. That is, there isn’t any. All costs are expressed in minerals. I’ll concede that the way money is used in many 4X games is often bland and uninteresting, but having no liquid currency means it’s harder to judge and compare costs, especially when making trade deals with other species.
Diplomacy itself has a lot of interesting functions. You can agree to varying levels of open borders, ranging from just scouting vessels, to shared surveillance data, to military access and refuelling privileges, to a full-blown military alliance including shared colonial access. That’s right – to get in good with someone, you need to be willing to compromise your territorial integrity. Of course, this also means you can settle in their systems.
There’s one more facet of eXploitation to cover: espionage. Espionage was a late addition to the beta, so I’ve only spent a little while playing with it. In that short time, I’ve discovered that 1) it’s interesting, 2) it’s important, and 3) it’s innovative. Instead of recruitable spies, Polaris Sector features spy ships. Loaded out with advanced equipment like cloaking devices and stellar energy converters, they’re a big investment, but can yield some excellent returns.
On top of the usual espionage options like sabotage and tech stealing, spies can uncover a wealth of valuable information. For example, you can always see your enemies’ fleets on the map, but you don’t know their numbers or how they’re equipped. Your spies can reveal all of that information. They also tell you if that planet your neighbors just grabbed right outside your borders is a simple farming world or if it’s being turned into an industrial/military powerhouse.
Counterespionage also has a fun angle to it. When a spy’s cover is blown, the spied-upon may choose to reveal it, possibly throwing it out by force or shooting it down. But instead, they may also choose to secretly feed misinformation to the spy. Players can control the nature of the misinformation to fit their agenda. Mustering a fleet at your enemy’s border? Make their spy think the system is a weakly-defended economic powerhouse. Need to keep them away from a high-value target? Tell them it’s a barren wasteland.
The espionage system has a lot of promise, but I feel like I can’t quite do it justice with the short time I’ve been able to spend with it. Stay tuned for a future Audible eXtension podcast if you want to know more.
Like many 4X games, Polaris Sector is largely a wargame. The diplomacy, espionage, technology, and colony management systems are all good, but ultimately the most meaningful interactions with other factions will be on the battlefield.
Preparing for Combat
Designing your own ships is a time-honored staple of space 4X. Much like the recent Star Ruler 2 and StarDrive 2, Polaris Sector uses a grid-based hull layout for ship design. So instead of adding a laser with space 5 or an engine with mass 20, you add a laser turret with size 3×3 or an engine with size 8×5. On top of taking up precious grid spaces, every component has a mass. The greater the total mass of a ship’s components, the slower it moves. You also have to keep in mind a module’s power draw and ammunition requirements. Weapons placed on the top deck have 360° coverage, while any guns on the lower levels can only fire in a 90° arc. And while most modules can be placed in any grid space, engines and weapons require special hardpoints. All of these pieces fit together to make for a wonderful puzzle with many distinct, workable combinations.
It’s a lot of fun discovering new configurations as you unlock new modules. This also encourages different types of designs or research priorities for different species. For example, in my first game as the koala-looking Valagars, my ships’ keels were boxy and compact. Much like, say, a koala. As the Asari-looking Magellans, my hulls were much thinner and spindlier. These designs offered more space, but in smaller dimensions. This made researching slimmer spaceship components a higher priority. Additionally, because layouts and hardpoints can vary widely between hull sizes, players will still find viable roles for their Corvettes and Frigates even in the era of Cruisers and Battleships.
In a lot of space 4X games, power levels jump wildly between levels of technology. This leads to breakpoints where one faction can run away with a game by exploiting the disproportionate edge a particular technology gives them. Not so here; power creep in Polaris Sector is an incremental affair. Ships with higher-tech modules definitely perform better than their less advanced counterparts, but you’ll still find uses for your old standbys. Some high-tech modules buck this trend, but most of the game follows this more gradual progression.
So now that you’ve researched the tech and christened your new ships, the question remains: How does it all come together? The short answer: combat is one of Polaris Sector’s strongest points. The long answer: read on…
Like all of Polaris Sector, space combat happens in real time with free pausing, but in a separate tactical space (e.g. battle map) than the strategic gameplay. I’ve become a big fan of this method in recent years. It enables fast-paced, engaging battles that don’t get bogged down by large fleets moving one ship at a time (in the case of turn based combat), making titanic clashes a treat rather than a chore. At the same time, players can freely pause to issue orders. This removes the APM (actions per minute) requirement of a full RTS and emulates the major perk of TBS by giving players room to think and rewarding them for carefully executed tactics. A speed dial lets the player slow the action to ⅓ or increase it all the way to x64. For any combat you just don’t feel like playing out, there’s an auto-resolve command that fully simulates the battle using the game’s formidable combat AI.
The interface for controlling your ships is standard. You can pause, give commands, mouse over ships to see their specs, show weapon firing arcs, and give movement, attack, and retreat orders. The biggest complaint that I have is the low number of of tactical orders. I’d really like to have commands like “Maintain maximum weapon range,” “Screen fighters,” “Engage with all weapons,” or “Maximize broadside use.”
Finally, Polaris Sector scores major points for its good use of fighters. They are well- implemented and integrated – so much so that as combat is heavily balanced around them. Specialized fighters can easily threaten capital ships en masse. Even your largest flagships can be brought down by concentrated torpedo salvoes or anti-capital plasma guns. The interplay between interceptors, bombers, capitals, and dedicated point-defense ships makes combat in Polaris Sector much more dynamic, whereas most games struggle to provide real combined-arms tactics.
The tactical AI is pretty impressive. It puts up a good fight, and even legitimately surprises me from time to time. Succeeding in combat is often a question of outperforming your enemies by analyzing their technology and adapting to counter their tactics, so the AI’s ability to keep players on their toes does a lot for the combat experience. As people play the game, they will probably find optimal designs and learn how to get a leg up on the AI. Whether the AI’s scripting is up to the challenge in the long-term… We shall see!
The planetary invasion mechanics are simple but also a departure from the norm. The logistics are standard fare: build transports, build an army, and use them to ruin someone’s day. But the way combat is resolved is quite different. Rather than happen instantaneously, planetary conquest takes place over the course of months or even years. This has an edge in realism compared to instantaneous resolution, and it makes ground combat an interesting back-and-forth affair. Bringing enough troops to slowly grind down an enemy doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to win. If you can’t keep control of space, the defenders can reinforce their beleaguered armies.
Ground combat is modeled after Sun Tzu’s The Art of Rock-Paper-Scissors. Players can deploy marines, tanks, bombers, fighters, and even sea ships, each of which has bonuses and penalties against the other types. The graphical feedback is sparse – just a list of everyone’s forces, a summary of who’s winning, and a ribbon representing the progress of the side with the upper hand. That doesn’t do much to build tension, since you’re told what the outcome will be if no new troops are brought to bear. But it’s clear, functional and convenient.
Polaris Sector delivers a great ease-of-use feature in allowing players to invade planets in much the same way they’d colonize. Click an enemy planet, click “Plan Invasion,” and secure the airspace. The AI will take care of the details. However, the auto-invade AI seems to treat Police like any other military unit, using them in invasions. In one game, two of my planets revolted and actually declared independence because their police were picked up for a ground war far away. Still, the mechanic works as long as your planetary morale is in good shape, and it can save a ton of time.
Now we’ve got all the pieces of the game in place – the eXploration, diplomacy, economy, combat, etc. Some parts look awesome and others could use an upgrade. Now the question is, how does this baby fly?
Graphics, Sound, and UI
Because it’s a one-man developer, I was expecting Polaris Sector to lack in the audiovisual department. It does have weaknesses in some of those areas, but to my surprise, it does quite well in others. The species’ leaders are fully animated and responsive. While the animations aren’t top-tier, they look better than I expected. Ship designs range from utilitarian to elegant, and reflect the aesthetic of each species. The galaxy backgrounds and planet graphics are gorgeous, wrapping your galactic exploits in a warm, comfortable aesthetic.
On other fronts, however, the graphics aren’t as hot. The strategic map looks pretty plain once the player zooms in. The empire borders look jagged and a little rough, and they don’t fill with color past moderate levels of zoom. Space combat takes place on a basic isometric 2D plane, and for the most part looks fairly rudimentary or even a little dated.
As for audio, there’s no voiceover work, and the sound effects are pleasant, if minimal. But the music is real ear-candy. Polaris Sector’s soundtrack is a sci-fi throwback in the vein of Mass Effect, with all the synth vibes you can handle. Because it’s contextually sensitive – with separate music for combat and a track for diplomacy with each species – the music always fits the mood. It may not be important to everyone, but for those who are really tuned-in to a game’s audio elements, that can go a long ways.
The UI is functional and pleasing to look at, but it’s one of Polaris Sector’s weaker links. There seemed to be frequent misalignment between my cursor and my actual click. The interface features some minor goofs like misplaced (but still functional) elements. Finally, there are some problems with the ingame text. Astute readers will find some placeholder text and a few translational quirks and idiosyncrasies (English isn’t the developer’s native language).
The research interface in particular could use some more love. On top of a few (minor, but frustrating) functionality issues, the data-heavy and very unusual tech ladder system can be a big barrier to unfamiliar players. The tech system would benefit greatly from making information more usable, accessible and transparent. None of these get in the way of playing the game, but they give the impression that it could have used another round or two of polish.
Mechanics and Gameplay
One of the first things that new players will notice is Polaris Sector’s time scale. In many sci-fi 4X games, tasks are measured in an order of months. When I queued up my first scout in Polaris Sector, I was told it would take me over ten years! It’s not unusual for an especially lofty research goal to take 30 years or more, even focusing all your efforts on it.
This is largely a function of Polaris Sector’s real-time-pausable gameplay. Just like space combat, you can speed up the flow of time on the strategic layer to a maximum of x20. It may seem daunting to ratchet up the speed at first, but it doesn’t take long to sink into the game’s rhythm. After my first hour or so of play, I settled into either playing at x6 or x10 speed, depending on how quickly things were happening. A strong auto-pause system means that the player is always in control and can’t be blindsided by unexpected developments.
This all makes for some very smooth gameplay that never seems to drag. This game wants you to focus on the big picture, and the real-time system goes a long ways towards making that enjoyable. Since you’re not making monthly rounds to optimize your workflow, you’ll naturally hit lulls in the gameplay. Polaris Sector makes sure those periods go by as quickly as possible so you can get back into the action.
One common complaint during Polaris Sector’s beta is that it leans too heavily towards combat as the game progresses. You still have your strong espionage and diplomacy, but past a certain point – about 30-40% up the tech ladder – nearly all of the available research projects revolve around things like new weapons, armor, engines and reactors for your ships (many of which tread on “just giving bigger numbers” territory). Granted, there are some really cool modules in the upper technology tiers, but I’d have loved to see more advanced planetary facilities, diplomatic options, espionage equipment, etc., to refine the game’s other systems or give me new ways of flexing my imperial muscle.
Because of the balance and tuning issues associated with multiplayer, Polaris Sector is single-player only. Thankfully, it sports impressive enemy AI. Even on Normal difficulty, it was able to throw some surprises at me. Its rushes were generally effective, although sometimes it forgot to bring troop transports. Once it even snuck some stealthy ships past my star lane chokepoints and bombed my vulnerable core planets! And in every game I played the time the eXpansion and early eXtermination phases petered out, I found myself with at least one other empire that could match or even exceed my strength.
As you can tell by the above screenshot, while the AI together can put up a good fight, some individual AIs struggle to get off the ground. I didn’t intentionally hem those tiny empires in until well into the eXpansion phase; they just failed to get any traction. I don’t know what factors lead some AIs to prosper and some to falter, but some have speculated it may be in part linked to starting location. Whatever the cause, it’s a knock against the generally challenging AI. I know not everyone can prosper every game, but AI performance is a lot more inconsistent than I’d like.
One last strength I’d like to touch on is Polaris Sector’s moddability. Players can mod nearly any game element without needing too much technical knowhow, and Ufnarovsky has even opened up large chunks of the source code to modders. It’s still too early to know how the mod scene will shape up, but the closed beta has given rise to a Star Wars total-conversion mod, Star Wars: Alliance. That seems to bode well for the future of Polaris Sector’s mod ecosystem.
Victory Conditions and Longevity
Although Polaris Sector puts a big emphasis on war-making, it has a number of victory conditions, many of which can be achieved peacefully. Players can get default Domination wins by being bigger, more developed, or more advanced than their adversaries, although these can be disabled at game creation. On top of that, there are political victories, both assimilation and alliance, and a special “external threat” victory condition (also enabled or disabled at galaxy creation) that drops a truly game-changing twist near the endgame. Of course, there’s always good old-fashioned last-alien-standing, if you’ve disabled Domination wins.
Unfortunately, as of now, I can’t give a comprehensive overview of how these different victory conditions play out. Every one of my playthroughs ended in a Domination win (although not always mine). It may be that I just got (un)lucky in my games, but these victories seemed really easy to achieve. Some of them even happened in games that seemed way too close for a victory by default. For example, two screenshots up, I (the green side) was locked in what I thought was a pretty close struggle for supremacy with the Erians. But not long after I took that screenshot, I won by Domination. I was stunned, and frankly, a little disappointed. I didn’t feel I’d earned that victory, and further, I didn’t get to see how the game played out. From that point on, I’ve disabled Domination victories. It may simply be that the victory threshold is on the low side, or, again, maybe it was mostly luck.
4X games tend to have high longevity, and Polaris Sector is no exception. The biggest marks against it are the somewhat bland species customization options and the generally uninspiring eXploration phase. But apart from that, the game has replayability in spades. The variance in starship hulls on its own means you’ll have a new design mini-game every time you choose a new species. The galaxy customization options, while few in number, have a big impact on the way a game plays out. And even with their dry, numbers-driven traits, the different species lend themselves to very different gameplay eXperiences.
The Big Picture
There’s a lot to like in Polaris Sector. It successfully eases the tedium of empire management, letting the player focus on the unfolding strategic landscape, while retaining an optional layer of detail for those wanting to dive deeper. While eXpansion and eXploitation are streamlined, they still provide interesting choices. The overall combat system is gripping and satisfying – all the way from designing your first Corvette to eXterminating the last uppity feline in the galaxy. Its superb pacing and innovative takes on aging systems such as espionage and research ensure there is always something to keep players engaged.
On the down side, Polaris Sector lacks any one outstanding feature that would help shine a light on the title. Space combat is great, but it lacks sophisticated commands or a battle arena to test things out. The empire management layer is strong, but it’s hindered by lackluster eXploration and oversaturation of homogenous worlds. Science is so close to being something new and grand, but falls just short and feels all too familiar. Polaris Sector has its flaws, and I won’t pretend otherwise.
With stiff competition looming just around the corner, does Polaris Sector have what it takes to secure a place in the 4X market? I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that on its own merits, it can hold its own. It has a focus, it has a purpose, and it executes them skillfully. It knows that it’s a big-picture empire management/war game, and it has all the tools to provide exactly that experience in spades. It knows that it wants to distance itself from some facets of the 4X genre, and it does so in compelling, interesting ways. The DNA of this game is an unusual, beautiful mutation of space 4X as I know it and love it. Those are Polaris Sector’s strengths, and they far outshine its weaknesses.
TL;DR: Polaris Sector takes the best parts of the space 4X formula and gives them a few fresh, delightful twists. Empire management is quick, easy, and slick. Espionage is something new and beautiful. Ship design and waging war are a blast. And a strong enemy AI rounds out the package. But for each strong iteration and innovation, there’s another system that doesn’t quite go the distance. Even with that shortcoming, its unique mechanics and well-thought-out implementation give it a strong identity and raison d’etre.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re looking for a strong game that puts an interesting, original spin on our beloved genre’s conventions
- You want to manage your empire on a higher level than Master of Orion II or Galactic Civilizations III, but lower than Distant Worlds
- You like to experience 4X games as wargames, with a heavy focus on space combat and ship design
- You enjoy a competent AI that can engage and even surprise you from time to time
- You’d like to try out a tech system that, despite not being revolutionary, dares to do things differently
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You want a familiar game that does things by the book
- You like managing complex planetary infrastructures
- 4X games that focus on military conflict don’t hold your interest
- You prefer or expect a fully-polished game or AAA graphics
- You prefer playing multiplayer
Ben played for 42 hours on an Apple iMac with Windows 7, an Intel Core Duo i5-2400S @ 2.5GHz, 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, and an AMD Radeon HD 6750 graphics card.