A handful of intrepid eXplorminaters were lucky enough to be welcomed into the closed beta for Oriental Empires – the upcoming 4X developed by Shining Pixel Studios. You may not have heard of Shining Pixel, but you almost definitely are familiar with their lead designer, Bob Smith, who worked on the Total War and Armada 2526 series amongst a host of others..
Now that we’ve all gotten a look at this early iteration of the game, we’re here to give you our first impressions.
In a time filled with innovative approaches to the 4X genre – games like Sorcerer King, Thea, and Stellaris – it’s important to note that, despite its unique look and setting, OE is a far more orthodox take on 4X. OE feels more like a modernized, polished version of a classic game, rather than an innovative vision for the future of the genre. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to note that those searching for a radical update to the 4X genre might consider looking elsewhere.
Where OE does do things differently is where it takes place. In case you haven’t figured it out yet (and if you haven’t, ummmm…), OE is set in a geographically accurate representation of feudal China – 1500 BCE to 1500 CE, to be specific. No Elves, Orcs or Alien Invaders here, just good old historical-based gameplay. The Asian-inspired environment opens up all kinds of possibilities to differentiate the game, and OE does a good job of taking advantage of its setting to give players a unique experience.
While Oriental Empires will offer both single player and multiplayer options at launch, we’ve only been able to eXplore the solo eXperience thus far. Players can choose to be one of 16 different factions, though only 5 are available when you first load up the game. The Zhou, for example, get a bonus to leader virtue (which affects the happiness of your people) and are good with chariots. The Han, on the other hand, get bonuses to their crossbowmen but have weaker armies, overall. The other 11 factions are unlocked after playing 200 turns of the game.
The factions don’t feel as differentiated as, say, the civs in Civilization V – let alone the incredibly distinct races of Endless Legend. However, each dynasty has unique strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll still want to try the different factions to see which is the best fit for your style of play.
Once you choose your tribe, you’ll be taken to the game world itself where you’ll see… Actually, let’s stop right there.
The very first thing you’ll see is that this game is gorgeous. The art style does a fantastic job of putting the player in the setting, making you feel immersed in this incredible world. You can zoom all the way in ‘til those tiny, fully-animated humans look life-sized and all the way out to a painted map as well. This is chocolate-covered, caramel-filled eye candy.
The second thing you’ll see is that you start with one city, already settled, and two units: a settler and an army. The settler is your stock standard city-forming unit. But the army is actually a representation of your faction’s current leader – a hero unit who can make your warriors and your cities better – and their elite escort. These hero units have lifespans, and they can be killed in battle as well. When they go, the whole faction can dissolve into chaos, at least until the hero is replaced by an AI-chosen heir.
Play in OE is turn-based, with each turn representing one season in the year. Gameplay doesn’t change with the seasons, only the look of the lands, but it’s still a great way to show the passage of time and helps the world feel real. It might be nice if winter slowed down movement or if food increased in fall, adding a bit of intrigue to each turn, but it’s not a dealbreaker that those complications aren’t here.
Each turn, you’ll be improving your cities, doing research, and moving your armies around. Y’know, 4X stuff. Cities have the standard options of cultivating the land around them, building important buildings, and recruiting troops. A nice feature is that your cities have limited space for buildings, so you have to be judicious about what you build. You can eventually expand for more space, but it’s quite costly to do so, especially early on.
There’s also research, of course. In a neat detail, each technology is represented by a mah-jongg tile. Again, it doesn’t change the gameplay any, but OE really does such a nice job of getting the player to feel the theme. There are four trees – Power, Craft, Thought, and Knowledge – and you’ll be researching a technology in each at all times, similar to Master of Orion 1. This really helps research feel like a big part of the game, and you’ll be going to this screen at least every three turns or so.
The techs are the usual bronze working, horse riding kinds of things, but there are also some new concepts in the mix to be discovered such as the I Ching or the game of Go. Right now however, a lot of the rewards are of the “plus 1 to x” variety, and it can be hard to understand why you should choose one option over the other, beyond as a stepping stone to greater glory. It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity, especially since some factions get bonuses in certain trees. More distinct tech bonuses or maluses would really help differentiate each faction.
Finally, on your turn, you can move your units. Unlike many other turn-based 4X games, however, units only move after your turn. So, for example, you select your settlers and send them south. Then you choose your army and move them east. The game will show an arrow marking where you’ve moved your units. However, they won’t actually move until you click the “end turn” button. Once that happens, each faction’s units will execute their move orders, and all the movement will simultaneously animate on screen. Fans of Eador: Master of the Broken World should recognize this mechanic.
As you can imagine, this has quite the impact on combat. You can absolutely build your stack of doom, mixing archers, chariots and spearmen all in one hex. You can tell them what formation to use and how to act in battle. However, once you move the armies into position and click end turn, there’s nothing to do but sit back, watch, and hope.
Armies charge and hack at each other until one runs away. There’s no fighting to the absolute death, so combat is more about formations pushing each other across the map rather than wiping each other out. This does create a nice feel of chasing an opposing army, guessing at where the AI might go, and battling for the best positioning – yes, flanking and facing do matter in this game. For all the options beforehand, however, it seems like battles play out much the same once combat begins. At least in the early going, anyway. Larger battles with more diverse unit sets might feel more dynamic.
Of course, in order to have a battle, you need to encounter other factions. When you’re not beating your enemies over the head, there is a diplomacy screen for discussing pacts. The options here are sparse, again OE isn’t reinventing the wheel. You’ve got the usual defensive pacts and alliances available. You can also trade resources for cash. There’s no tech trading, which I know will make some of us very happy, but it also leaves the diplomatic options feeling a little thin.
There is a lot more to OE – the game has a ton of depth – including peasant and noble rebellions, trade, random events, multiple victory conditions, culture, diplomacy… There’s a lot going on in this game, far beyond the scope of a first impressions article like this one. The game is still very much in beta, but it has improved in the time since we’ve gotten our grubby hands on it in April 2016. As it stands, we’ve yet to encounter any massive bugs – mostly just features that need to be made more robust or mechanics that require greater explanation. The UI is clean and fairly clear, though some of the icons aren’t quite as intuitive as they could be. The music is… Fine. It’s what you’re expecting from a game like this while staying fairly generic. Tooltips are being added all the time and growing more robust. That needs to continue. For as much information as has been added, the game needs more.
Suffice to say that what we’ve seen of Oriental Empires so far has us pretty excited. We’ve got a lot to look at coming up this year, but these adventures in the Middle Kingdom have really caught our eye.