Sometimes, the timing of a video game release impacts the success of a game as much as the quality of the final product. Dawn of Andromeda, a pausable real-time 4X space game from Grey Wolf Entertainment, could be such a game. A little history lesson first – DoA is brought to you by the lead developer, under a different studio, for another title we reviewed previously: Lords of the Black Sun. Have you heard of it? If you follow our site, then you probably have. But what does that have to do with the price of tea on Regulus? DoA is a much better game. Read on to find out why we think this second outing is a vastly improved one.
Before setting out to conquer the stars, you must choose the “story” your species will follow. The game offers the standard options for galaxy size, number of pirate or minor factions, frequency of planets, in-game events, and so on. One option (my favorite actually) lets you start as an advanced empire with massive technological and military advantages.
However, what really stands out is DoA’s “era” system. Each era acts as a scenario of sorts, which allows you to start playing at different points along a faction’s timeline (or start from the beginning) and play across a series of games. Most importantly, the victory conditions vary from faction to faction depending on the selected era. These scenarios start when the Terrans’ emerge as a space faring empire and stretch through two massive wars that engulf the entire Andromeda galaxy. Players can replay each available era from the perspective of the various alien species involved.
The era system is one of those features that will either be a selling point for players or something they will never utilize. It is reminiscent of the scenarios in the older Civ games, but even more advanced. The era system doesn’t prevent a player from just booting up a fresh custom map, but its inclusion shows how DoA strives to differentiate itself from other 4X titles.
The other major component in setting up the game will be your choice of alien species! Eight separate races are included in the game, each having a distinctive look and feel in appearance and ship style. Even though they share similar traits (think static bonuses), they do have unique technologies. For instance, the “hard workers” trait is common and boosts infrastructure production. These exclusive technologies create noticeable gameplay differences. For example, the Terrans get a technology called neutron bombs which amplifies siege damage by a factor of five. The Sython Collective, on the other hand, have access to quantum robotics which provides a significant production boost. These aren’t just minor alterations, they’re actually quite impactful, and really help to differentiate each species.
In the early stage of most 4X games, I usually pass the time by searching for forgettable goodie huts. Thankfully, DoA pushes the formula beyond what players usually encounter. My favorite feature? Actual valuable space treasure! This often appears as artifacts which you can find around the galaxy. But simply finding an alien relic or a powerful item isn’t enough to unlock its secrets. Each discovery requires the dedication and full focus of your research to unlock its potential through special projects. This shows that the developers really tried to provide actual treasure as opposed to the usual consolation prizes that seem to accompany exploration in 4X titles.
Another unique twist to exploration is that going out to explore asteroids can prove quite beneficial – and there are more than enough to find around the map. Take for example the Aromium asteroid, which, if mined, would speed up some of my infrastructure development by 20%. That is a rather large percentage boost no matter what game you are playing. Players will also encounter some less-than-friendly monsters as they explore. One game brought me face to face with a space dragon many times stronger than my entire early game fleet! Once I finally engaged it, I discovered it was even deadlier than I first expected, but it created a nice barrier between myself and a neighboring empire.
The Andromeda sector is not devoid of habitable worlds. There is an abundance of potential colonies, but unfortunately, as you expand, there isn’t enough diversity to make individual planets or systems feel distinct from one another. Yes, your population will attain different levels of satisfaction depending on how much they enjoy the particular planet you have plopped them on. But overall planets are up for grabs for everyone and very easy to colonize.
However, in a new twist to the tired colonization formula, your attempts to settle a new world can result in failure! That’s right, there is a chance that when you attempt to colonize a new planet it will be unsuccessful.This small but interesting mechanic can slow down your early expansion and creates a little more suspense than you would otherwise experience when grabbing new worlds.
While exploration and colonization play it safe and familiar for the most part, colony development is perhaps one of DoA’s biggest departures from other 4X titles. By default, each planet has five infrastructure points to allocate across six categories: housing, farming, social, industry, research, and military. You can invest all your points in a single category or spread them out. One point in farming may grant plus one food production, while a point in industry boosts your productivity by 0.3 (actually a much larger amount than it seems). But the cool thing about this “pick six” system is these choices can be very fluid.
Tired of researching too much (ok, this would never happen) and instead want to build ships faster? Reinvest in industry. It’s a really simple system, but it is so nice to not worry about checking every settlement for a library or a factory improvement. It takes a step back from something like Galactic Civilizations III in which a planet full of research stations would take a very long time to re-specialize. But just because you can change easily doesn’t mean it is free – investing in any level of infrastructural development comes with a maintenance cost that will drain your treasury until the redevelopment is completed.
You are also discouraged from dumping all your infrastructure points into any one specialization, at least in the early game. In order to spend more than one or two points in a specialization, you have to discover new technologies that allow for more focused investment. This limits the ability to assign a single focus to each planet in the early game, and prompts you to come back and alter your infrastructure as the game progresses. Overall, the system doesn’t feel too prohibitive, but I did conclude that it left my planets looking and feeling a bit too similar.
Given the novel approach of the colony management system, it is one of my favorite parts about the game. I am a long way from learning how to truly maximize the power and control this gives me to adapt to situations. It seems like a great solution for the tedium that can emerge from playing massive galaxy spanning 4X games that can easily have dozens or hundreds of planets to oversee.
If managing and specializing planets by decree wasn’t enough, DoA boasts an atypical research tree made up of three specializations: science, military, and economy. There is an additional special projects section which focuses on learning how to interact with other species and researching artifacts. A nice change is that many of the techs are obscured until you research prerequisite items.
However, one problem I ran into was the time requirements for researching, which didn’t scale all that well. Jumping up from one technology tier to the next may double or triple the cost but the techs didn’t always feel that much better to me. The bigger problem though, was the amount of time everything seems to take. Weeks and months take ages, even on the fastest speed. For example, researching a kinetic drive required three months and one week in game time which roughly translated into something between four to five minutes of actual time.
Now I can appreciate that 4X games can be intentional marathons at times, but I often felt like I was waiting forever for something interesting to happen in DoA. I attribute this to the lack of feedback displayed for players as time passes. Only seeing the week and month timer in the corner of the screen is like looking at a watch without second hands, making time progression feel slower than it should. I can’t put my finger on what specifically the problem is – maybe if there was a counter for the days, it wouldn’t be such a psychological barrier for me. I have played a fair amount of Stellaris which also just takes a while to do anything but I’ve never felt quite the same tedium.
As for the other two types of research, the projects section is the much stronger idea and the pillar that the research system stands on. You can study other species to improve your relations with them, which kinda makes sense, right? If you learn more about that freaky looking alien, you just might warm up to them and ease your finger off the trigger ever so slightly. Have an epidemic sweeping across a colony? Better devote research to finding a cure to clear the debuff. Again, this is a really smart system that forces players to choose between the classical upgrades or gaining bonuses in other areas not traditionally covered under the umbrella of research. While maybe a little less thematically developed than, say, special research projects in Stellaris, it is still a smart move that more 4X titles could learn from.
DoA utilizes an interesting system of leaders who act as the governors for your empire. Upon starting a game you will chose five leaders to fill the positions available on your council. Leaders have a variety of traits, each with their own bonuses and/or maluses that can be further affected by random events in their personal lives. However, leaders can also lean towards a more authoritarian versus democratic approach to governing. When certain policies are enacted, this can result in wholesale shifts in your empire and the contentment level of your citizens and leaders. During the game, you can replace leaders if you’re unhappy with their performance, and likewise the leaders can resign when you enact policies they dislike.
On the surface, the council system offers an intriguing gameplay mechanic. Unfortunately as my games progressed, my interactions with the council and the empire’s policies seemed to wane in significance and impact. By the end of my games, leaders seemed more like a side note as opposed to a key piece of my masterplan.
The game also forces you to balance a number of resources as you grow in order to maintain your prosperity. Factors such as how content your population is with your government or how much surplus money you have in your treasury affect your empire’s level of prosperity, which in turn results in increased levels of income and approval. Prosperity also affects how quickly you gain influence, so if you plan on engaging in any diplomacy, it is vital to keep your prosperity up.
However, it can be challenging to maintain an empire’s prosperity because it is often difficult to have a large treasury. Virtually everything you build from ships to infrastructure comes with a cost, and money never seems to come in fast enough to keep up with it. By the time I was starting the mid game it seemed like I would need three months’ worth of income to build a basic battleship. Smart investment in infrastructure early on is important to eliminate the upkeep that comes when you add or move your infrastructure points around. Overall, the prosperity systems required players to carefully balance their assets to a degree I have seldom experienced.
The fact that so much is dependent on having a fat enough piggy bank means players will want to attempt to sell strategic resources to other empires. If you can sell a resource, it can easily boost your income by extremely wide margins. The only problem is the A.I. Why won’t you buy from me A.I.?! I suppose they’re probably just as cash strapped as I am, but I have yet to see any sort of interaction in terms of economic cooperation or trade.
Overall, income levels and research outputs operate at a smaller and tighter scale than I am used to with 4X games. Your income of 90 a week may drop to 86 because of a new ship’s upkeep which then slows your income and thus your ability to queue up another ship. Multiply this effect by four or five ships and you will have a nice looking small fleet but also suddenly be cash strapped with very little income. Even if you start with an advanced empire spanning multiple systems with developed infrastructure, you may be looking at a few weeks’ total income to generate enough cash to build a large ship.
All of this requires a higher degree of planning out of the player than I am accustomed to. If you expand too fast or spread your focus too wide and your economy will come to a crashing halt. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing – but it is something to consider as the sometimes smaller scale could be a major issue depending on what a player wants out of their gaming experience.
As for diplomacy, the system strikes a nice balance between typical options and more unique mechanics. For instance, players must go through several steps of relationship deterioration to move from being friends to waging all out war. You may also find yourself paying pirates a protection fee or paying foreign powers for the coordinates of an uncolonized planet. You can also impose embargos or declare friendships. And in a bolder diplomatic move, you will need a diplomatic excuse to declare war or else you will be hit with a significant warmonger penalty. However you can also use your diplomatic influence to fabricate a Casus Belli, which can be critical if you want to kill someone in a hurry and not suffer too many consequences.
While none of these features completely reinvents diplomacy as we know it within the genre, it is nice to see a smattering of options that aren’t usually present and which add something unique. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the A.I. makes the best diplomatic deals for itself. Should it be willing to give you the location of an artifact for a small sum of cash if artifacts are indeed so treasured? At the end of the day, the A.I. seemed about as easy to exploit as in most other 4X games, hindering the potential depth of the system.
Overall, I wish that even more attention was given to the diplomatic system, so players could spend as much time plotting their diplomatic actions as they do formulating combat strategies. The dial moves a little further in DoA, but fails to reach truly innovative territory. It doesn’t help that the diplomatic UI is hidden behind a separate tab that must be opened to display an empire’s relations or their views on your neighbors. In general, diplomacy is an area that I believe Grey Wolf Entertainment can push more and continue to enhance in future updates.
When it comes to all-out-war, it wouldn’t be space without explosions, lasers, and space monsters! DoA allows players to customize their ships in interesting ways over the stock designs. Like many other space 4X games, you are limited by the tonnage (rather than a slot-based system) the ship can handle as you customize the weapons, armor, engines, and other equipment. One strange aspect of this was it seemed like my light ships and capital ships could only outfit five weapon modules, each. It just didn’t quite sit right with me that a much larger capital ship would only carry the same firepower of a smaller light class vessel.
Beyond placing weapons on your ships, the game provides a vast selection of other unique modules. There is a wide array of options making your choice more interesting than just deciding between missiles and lasers.
Ship modules boost stats such as accuracy, damage, range, and speed. You can do things like bolster shields, hack enemies’ engines, or even cloak your ship for a small window of time. My favorite, however, is the destroyer of worlds which is exactly as awesome as it sounds! I think other games neglect options such these more times than not simply because of concerns over balancing. However DoA goes for it and the their inclusion adds some flare to combat.
Despite these tantalizing options, my choices didn’t feel as impactful as I had hoped. I am normally a warmonger first and foremost, but the ship design system never quite demanded my attention the same way that it does in other space 4X titles.
The game could definitely benefit from a better fleet management UI as it basically limits you to the standard ten number keys at the top of the keyboard. Now while I would appreciate more control I suppose with the rather simple combat options you can get by with what is here as there really isn’t anything in the way of tactics or ship formations. The game doesn’t require any one of these features, but I would have loved to see more complexity for players.
In combat, ships line up and shoot at one another in much the same way as in Sins of a Solar Empire. However, my fleets have never been all that large by comparison. After colonizing a number of planets and entering the mid-game I seemed to be maxed out (from an economic perspective) at about eight large ships. If I am being honest, I was a little let down by the fact that the game seemed to keep fleet sizes relatively small. Especially when you look at the graphics! Zooming into an engagement will treat you to visuals that will rival or surpass almost any 4X space game out there. For how pleasant it is to watch the destruction unfold, battles unfortunately feel more like skirmishes rather than major engagements.
Simply because I have yet to ever amass a giant warfleet – the space dragons, as I so lovingly call them, are a real pain. With their huge health pool and their massive power they do feel like more of a barrier than I have experienced in other games. But I kind of like that. They are more of a force of nature as opposed to just a speed bump you quickly forget about in the early game.
I am torn when it comes to Dawn of Andromeda. The game tries to push the traditional boundaries of 4X design and forge new ideas. It goes beyond just implementing a checklist of features that people commonly associate with the genre, layering in some unique approaches to familiar systems. But I must also acknowledge that the game’s bare bones approach is a little outside what normally grabs my interest. However, I realize that the kinds of games that pull me in for hundreds of hours of enjoyment often don’t attract everyone else. With that in mind let me try to parse out the strengths and weaknesses DoA presents to players.
First off, the game is visually stunning and creates some fabulous screenshots. The backgrounds, maps, zooming into ships – it all looks good. The UI and the menus don’t quite have the same level of polish as some other titles out there, but nothing looks bad. Combine this with a good soundtrack that will keep you engaged while still remaining in the background, and it creates an enticing atmosphere. Even though other aspects of the game may feel underdeveloped – your senses won’t feel robbed.
The other big plus for the game comes from its novel twists on familiar mechanics. If you are the kind of person who wants to see gameplay that moves outside the normal 4X box, DoA is worth checking out. However, with the same breath I must caution players who are looking for something at the level of complexity of Stellaris or Endless Space 2. DoA’s systems feel intact and relatively complete – they are just simpler and more simplified in scope than I have grown accustomed to. Overall, I found that DoA fits in the space between something like Sins of a Solar Empire and Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars in terms of complexity.
Of course, simple isn’t bad. Some of my favorite games are smaller, more focused experiences that excel by not trying to be everything for everyone. I think the issue with DoA is that, while the mechanical systems are novel and nicely streamlined, the overall experience doesn’t feel tight and interlocked enough to create a sense of deep strategic thinking.
I also felt that the entire experience suffered from a scale problem. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted more of everything, especially bigger fleets. Both SoaSE and Age of Wonders 3 are more successful in providing a streamlined empire management experience coupled with a focus on combat. If there had been a greater emphasis on combat, or alternatively, if the game was more of an empire trading or management sim, then I feel it would have resulted in a better overall experience.
Another criticism is that the pacing in the game felt a little off to me. For example, you can build a massive space ship in a week or two, but it takes 11 weeks to move your food production on a planet up a level. I don’t think this an issue from a logical and thematic standpoint – but rather an issue with the game’s balance. My suspicion is that the relatively low production levels and resource outputs are at fault. For instance, my main world had a productivity of 1.6, meaning it could build a dreadnaught in two weeks. Even in the early game I could build a much smaller colony ship in around the same time it took to construct a dreadnaught. A colony ship and a dreadnaught don’t usually take the same time to build in any other game for good reason. I hope this is something that future patches or DLC can smooth out.
I realize it sounds like I am pounding on the game pretty hard. While it incorporates many interesting ideas, I think they could’ve been taken father. But most of DoA’s problems could easily be fixed with simple balance tweaks along with future patches or expansions. If DoA continues to receive sustained developer support, then it could easily move from simply having “interesting ideas” to being a “unique and great experience.”
I appreciate it when a developer takes a chance to try something new, like Amplitude’s unstacked cities in Endless Legend, but not at the expense of gameplay refinement. DoA really tries to innovate, but only partially succeeds in adding something new to the conversation. My struggle is that I feel that the game provides a less enticing experience than some of its competitors despite the new ideas it incorporates. The game is priced at $29.99, which is a less than many many other 4X titles, so it feels fair for what the game has to offer.
After spending time with DoA I can’t help but wonder if my opinion would have been different if there wasn’t a slew of recent space 4X games that have achieved, in my view, greater levels of success. While DoA enacts some new ideas, I fear that it will be hard for the game to compete in the current marketplace. That said, if you are looking for a more streamlined 4X game – go for it! But if you want a larger or more complex game – buyer beware – because this might not be everything you would expect.
TL;DR: Dawn of Andromeda presents fresh new ideas that I haven’t seen before in a 4X game. It gives players the tools to govern their planets and empires in unique and interesting ways. Beyond this, the game is something to behold as it is quite striking visually. As a pausable, real time 4X game, players can watch their empire grow and flourish at the speed they choose. Although it is full of standard 4X features, it does feel simpler than one might expect when all the systems finally come together. The game lacks the depth and scope witnessed in other recent space 4X titles, and DoA struggles to stand out from the crowd.
You will like this game if:
- You want to see new ideas within a genre that can often feel very stale
- Visuals are a large selling point of a game
- You’re looking for a smaller 4X game in terms of scope that provides a more intimate experience
- You are looking for a different experience in a space 4X
You will NOT like this game if:
- You are expecting a Sins of a Solar Empire 2
- You enjoy the complexity of managing large empires
- Combat is a large point of focus for your 4X experiences
- Rather stick with more traditional 4X mechanics than try something new
Dallin was provided a copy for review purposes by Iceberg Interactive, and played 40+ hours of Dawn of Andromeda on Windows 10 – 3.9 Ghz CPU, GTX 1070 video card, with 16GB of RAM