The universe of space 4X games has expanded rapidly in recent times. In the past five years, we’ve had roughly 20 space 4X games released (give or take depending on your definition of 4X), along with some of the biggest names and developers in the industry releasing flagship titles: Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, Endless Space 2, Stellaris, and Galactic Civilizations 3. While these big names have launched to varying degrees of critical and commercial success, popular consensus is that all of them still need more work to reach their potential. Shockingly, there are even more space 4X games still on the horizon.
Unsurprisingly, many of my colleagues at eXplorminate are getting burned out by the glut of space 4X games. I am not unsympathetic to their plight, and I would love to see more 4X-style mechanical juice pumped into original themes, as well. Where is the post-apocalyptic 4X game? Or a steampunk 4X game? Or a zombie survival 4X game? (okay maybe not that one).
But at the same time, I personally haven’t connected with the big space 4X games that have been released recently. A lack of polish, a lack of depth, too sprawling of a design scope, and other quibbles prevented me from falling in love with any of them. So I’m still searching the stars for my perfect fare.
One of these space 4X games still on the horizon that has piqued my interest is Interstellar Space: Genesis (IS:G). That mouthful of a title aside, the game is developed by Praxis Games, which draws its ranks from the now retired Space Sector website. Indeed, gaming critics- turned-development studio offers a tantalizing proposition: Does the experience of playing and critiquing so many strategy games, specifically space 4X games, give the developers a chance to deliver a compelling title amidst the host of competition? More importantly, can they succeed where so many other indie developers have fallen short?
Perhaps it is best to start with what Praxis Games stated as their intentions for IS:G:
Our mission, with Interstellar Space: Genesis, is to develop a spiritual successor to Master of Orion 2, the turn-based space 4X strategy game from the 90’s that we love so much.
This will be a faithful successor, that is true in spirit to the series. We believe that by sticking to its fundamentals we will please the fans who want to feel the atmosphere and that “feeling” of Master of Orion 2, but also want to experience something new and fresh, with all the complexity and depth of a big 4X game.
A tall order. Many developers have made similar claims, and in nearly every case the resulting games failed to capture the hearts and minds of MoO fans. It is, perhaps, hallowed ground, or a fool’s errand, or a quest for the holy grail.
Part of the challenge facing such endeavors is identifying the “fundamentals” of the MoO series in the first place – let alone building on those mechanics to provide “something new and fresh” that also simultaneously meets modern expectations and transcends the nostalgia barrier. The developers note the MoO fundamentals as: turn-based combat, ship design, free movement with range limits (no star lanes), race customization, leaders, deep colony management and espionage.
The “new mechanics” added to the MoO2 fundamentals include: remote exploration, deeper terraforming, leader trait advancement, strategic resource system, space culture, and a dynamic event system. Not all of these new features are currently implemented in the pre-alpha version of the game.
Having played the “pre-alpha” for IS:G, I can say one thing rather enthusiastically: the developers have done their homework. It’s clear to me that they spent years thinking about the problems and pitfalls of the 4X space genre and designed a system of mechanics that leverage the best of the past with newer innovations. They injected just enough novelty into the design to make it feel like it’s own thing. So far, the developers appear to be well on track.
Mechanical Fundamentals in IS:G
The core mechanics of IS:G draw heavily from a cross section of both MoO and MoO2. The game features turn-based strategic gameplay. There is open space travel between star systems limited by fuel-range (i.e. no starlanes). Combat uses a classic turn-based IGOUGO system ( one side moves all their ships, then the other side moves all their ships). Star systems can contain a number of different planets, asteroid belts, gas giants, and other anomalies which can then be colonized or secured by constructing outposts. The game is also designed so that the entire galaxy is viewable and fully functional while fitting on one screen (in fact the screen is locked to that one view). Overall, the basic economy of generating tax revenue, upkeep costs, and managing fleet capacity will feel very familiar. Fundamentally, it is all very MoO-like.
However, IS:G departs from the MoO mechanics in a number of interesting ways. The exploration system is a great example of the developers addressing a long-standing point of criticism in 4X games: that exploration becomes dull or irrelevant by the mid-game. Star systems have multiple possible levels of exploration, which can be conducted using survey ships or by conducting “remote exploration.” Remote exploration slices the entire galaxy into a grid of sectors. By default, up to one sector (or more with certain culture advancements) can be explored at a time, and each sector ultimately requires multiple exploration rounds to fully explore it.
The interesting innovation here is that beyond revealing more details about identified star systems and planets, remote exploration can even uncover entirely new star systems or other hidden anomalies (black holes, etc.) in a sector. This in turn changes the galactic landscape over the course of the game as new locations (not just wormhole connections or similar movement pathways) come into play. It’s pretty slick.
IS:G also incorporates a strategic resources system with its own novel twists. Strategic resources are discovered by surveying star systems. But utilizing strategic resources dovetails with an outpost construction mechanic, allowing players to exploit asteroid belts for production, research, or trade bonuses. Furthermore, when strategic resources are first found, an event pops up asking you to decide between mutually-exclusive technology pathways. Based on your decision, certain technologies will become available in the technology tree. In a way, this starts to get at the MoO2-like research system with its hard choices.
That said, the technology tree itself is more conventional in its overall approach. Imagine MoO2’s technology system, except picking one choice doesn’t preclude you from going back and taking one of the other choices later. The resulting trade-off is then between choosing to research more lower level technologies versus pushing further down a technology field more quickly. The balance will be important to get right for this to feel like a highlight of the game – but overall it functions similar to the system in Endless Space 2.
Planetary/colony management takes an inventive approach to minimizing micromanagement while keeping the focus squarely on big important decisions. Instead of dragging population units (pops) between tasks (a la MoO2 and countless other games) there is a slider system (a la the first MoO) for allocating production between construction, infrastructure, and ecological engineering projects.
The resulting production system is compelling. Construction feeds into a typical build queue system, but these are kept focused and more manageable as planets are limited to a certain number of building slots. Infrastructure projects utilize a mini-tech tree system that allows you to specialize planets around certain tasks, e.g. boosting ship production versus boosting fleet capacity, or even increasing building slots. Ecological projects enhance habitability and population growth rates, but also include opportunities for terraforming. Overall, I like the direction this is going. Development decisions feel important and rarely like “busy work” or mindless micromanagement.
Another aspect of empire development is the “space culture” system. In addition to acquiring galactic credits and research points, your empire also generates culture points. Excess income can also be diverted away from the treasury to increase your rate of culture gain. At certain cultural thresholds, you can choose a perk for your empire from three different branches of culture. It is a nice compliment to the research system, allowing you to specialize your empire’s overall focus. Eventually, the plan is for the space culture system to dovetail with other mechanics (like diplomatic relationships), and thus have an impact even beyond the perk selections.
When it comes to space combat, IS:G’s ship designer uses a hull- and weight-based approach, giving players latitude to design ships with a wide range of modules, defenses, and weapon systems. Most modules can be further customized with special attributes (longer range, faster fire rates, etc.). It reminds me a bit of a combination between StarDrive’s system (minus the need to manage a physical layout) with the original weight-based system from Endless Space. Again, it finds a nice balance point between level of detail and impactful choices. One design choice I’m less enthusiastic about is that players are limited to only half a dozen ship design slots. While this was present in earlier MoO games, I don’t think this was for any gameplay reason (rather a technical limitation), and I fail to see the appeal of reusing a limitation that feels arbitrary.
The tactical combat system is turn-based (as advertised) and I really like the direction it is going in. The controls are intuitive and it’s relatively easy to understand how your ships are performing. Handy overlays for movement and weapon range let you plan out your movement and target priorities easily.
One nice addition to the tactical system is that you can issue special orders to ships that do things like boost shields or engine power but generate additional “heat” for the ship. If the heat meter gets too high, your ship is at risk for more catastrophic damage. So far I have no major complaints about the tactical combat system and it seems poised to be a standout feature.
Last on the feature list, IS:G has a leader and hero system, providing a bonus to colonies or fleets respectively. The leader system is a bit more in-depth than in many other games (Endless Space 2 is probably the closest comparison). Leaders earn XP and their primary attributes can be upgraded to benefit specific tasks (e.g. boosting colony production or fleet capacity). But leaders also earn special talent abilities when they level up, which can be quite impactful depending on the situation.
The Pre-Alpha Status
IS:G is currently in a pre-alpha status. Despite this, I’ve played a number of games through to completion without experiencing any game breaking bugs (yes, seriously – no major bugs for me). Some planned features are still not, or are only partially, implemented. Diplomacy is fairly barebones at the moment and games are limited to no more than three empires on the map. There are also only three factions currently in the game. The technology tree appears to be only 50% complete, with many of the special technologies that are linked to strategic resources not yet implemented. And there is some sort of ground combat, bombardment, and planet defense system in the works. Last, the developers also plan to add in starbases, ship refitting, espionage, race customization, and many more special events as development moves forward.
Regarding the UI and visual elements, the pre-alpha version is certainly functional and does the job, although of course more work needs to be done. I’m not sure about the aesthetic direction of the game and how much that will change (or not). IS:G has a “throwback” feel to its visuals, particularly on the galaxy view, and I worry that it might not capture the attention of newer gamers, who might be nonplussed by the vintage look. Certainly much of this will change as development proceeds, but it’s still a worry.
One specific complaint of mine is that, while the game is designed to function with the full galaxy in view, there is no zooming into the map or panning around. Consequently the strategic screen feels rigid and lacks character – and at times I’d like to be able to zoom in and see fleet positions more clearly. Should this remain the case at launch, it will almost certainly be a point of criticism.
On the positive side, I’ve been quite impressed with the AI behavior. The AI is very opportunistic in attacking the player if they leave systems undefended. In one instance, the AI sent a small fleet of ships towards my undefended homeworld, forcing me to pull back ships to defend. With my frontline exposed, the AI sent another fleet that stole a number of my outposts and colonies. Pretty impressive for an AI that the devs claim is only running at 30% capacity, especially with the developers noting that the AI doesn’t “cheat” with unlimited vision of the map. Needless to say, it’s caught me with my proverbial pants down in this manner on more than one occasion! Most impressive.
Unexpectedly, I’ve had more fun playing IS:G, even its pre-alpha state, than many other recent 4X games. Part of it may be that the overall pacing and game design is more aligned with what I’m looking for in a space 4X. IS:G leans towards being a strategic-decision heavy game that is played in a more compressed timeframe compared to other 4X games. Instead of a game lasting 15-20 (or more) hours, games of IS:G can be finished in 2-3 evenings quite easily.
Of course, the overall size and scope of the galaxy is smaller, with players managing fewer total planets and ships as a result. While some may lament this more focused approach, for me it’s fantastic. I want the decisions I’m faced with to be impactful and interesting, so I hope the design continues in that direction. That said, I continue to keep an eye on the pacing of the game. While I like the streamlined and faster paced play, there are also a fair number of “dead turns” – especially in the early game where you are waiting for a project or research task to finish before you can advance. But by the mid-game, there is no shortage of things to keep you engaged.
I’ve also been impressed with the developers’ openness and candidness in discussing IS:G. I mentioned up front that it appears the developers have done their homework – and this is reflected by the thoughtfulness put into the design itself as well as in discussions with the pre-alpha community.
You might be wondering whether you should buy it now or wait. As a pre-alpha, it goes without saying that there is still much work to do. I suggest not diving into the game at this point unless you are really interested in providing constructive feedback to the developer. While the game is completely playable, there are major mechanics and oodles of content still to be implemented. IS:G will be launching on steam early access at some point when it is further along. The Praxis website lists a tentative release date of Q4 2018 – which is still a good way off.
There are a bunch of other space 4X games circling around the spectre of MoO. Dominus Galaxia, Lord of Rigel, and Remnants of the Precursors all build on the MoO lineage, with the latter being a near-identical recreation of MoO1 mechanics. There is also Stars in Shadow (already released), which strikes a similar chord as a MoO-ish reimplementation. It will be interesting to watch how all of these titles manage to differentiate themselves over the coming year. As for IS:G, all in all, I’m optimistic about the title and hope that maybe, just maybe, this will be my perfect fare. One can dream, right?