By: Adam Taylor (Video Game Editor) –
It’s been many years since the iconic sci-fi turn-based 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) games such as Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations; games, which practically defined the genre. Horizon from L3O, a small independent Toronto-based PC video game developer is a 4X game with deep roots in those classics while introducing new concepts to make it something truly unique.
Horizon is currently available on Steam. While the game has gone “gold”, it is constantly under development. The game is definitely shaping up to be a strategy game to challenge the AAA titles. The developers keep a close eye on the forums, both the official ones and the Steam forums. They are quick to respond to issues that users bring forward and open to suggestions from the players. Such dedication is key to a quality game and a loyal fan-base.
The current version of the game offers a good view of what the finished product will be like. It holds true to classic turn based strategy concepts. The player can take their time planning every move, with access to a large array of info screens to help present the state of their empire and what’s going on around them. There is deep ship customization along with an in-depth colony management system. Negotiations with alien races also provide a classic feel with a fresh twist.
One of the core design concepts that really sets the game apart from others of its type is the sector-based galaxy. The entire universe is laid out in a giant grid; even within a system, all ships move across this grid based on their individual speeds. Within a system, a ship will move from planet to planet across this grid, rather than how most games handle systems as a whole with ships simply being “in” the system. This holds true for travel across the map, so moving from one sector to the next isn’t simply a matter of moving from point A to point B, but rather moving across the space between these points. This can result in battles out in the depths of space, rather than just in a specific system as is the norm for such games. It also vastly improves the concept of a system controlled by multiple factions; instead of fleets constantly butting heads because they occupy the same system, factions can keep their ships to their own planets within that system, or patrol the space between worlds. Combat makes good use of this grid system, allowing a very deep tactical system.
With a system of upgrade points handling colony management, each colony can be improved several times based on its size and importance (capitols having the most upgrades). Aspects of the colony are improved by stages; farming, industry, trade, research and tourism, and each have three base levels that can be built, with more upgrades becoming available through certain research options. Workers on a planet are automatically assigned based on the facilities available, prioritizing food production, then being placed in to other fields. Colony strategy is up the player, giving them the choice of how to focus their planets. Colonies can also be upgraded with military barracks, shipyards, star bases and planetary defences, all of which provide various bonuses (such as shipyards doubling ship production speed).
Ships are deeply customizable, taking a cue from Master of Orion 2. Each ship has slots for essential systems, weapons and extras. There are two weapon slots for each of the four sides of a ship, allowing weapons to be placed in the various firing arcs. However a weapon can be placed as one of three sizes, with the smallest having less damage but a 360-degree arc, while the game restricts the larger sizes to firing in only one arc. So the trade-off becomes firepower over tactical positioning. Essential systems such as engines can be changed as players discover new technologies. Each selection isn’t so much “better” than another, but rather are “side-grades”. One engine might offer more power while taking more space on the ship while another offers less power while leaving more space for other systems, both engines still provide the same overall speed. So it becomes a choice of just how to customize a ship to a player’s tastes rather than simply picking the “best” options for each spot.
Research offers some interesting twists from the standard formula. Each race will start with a selection of technologies available to them (which can be customized at the start of a game). There are three types of research item, discoveries, breakthroughs and refinements. Discoveries are technologies found randomly through researching a field, which add new options to the tech tree. Breakthroughs are research into technologies, which researchers have discovered but are notcurrently available. Finishing a breakthrough will make an item or upgrade available to use in your empire. Refinement is research into technologies an empire already possesses, which upgrades their effective level giving improved bonuses (weapons will do more damage or gain extra effects, buildings will give better production, etc).
Dealing with other empires has always been a key factor to strategy games. Horizon allows communication with other races once researchers have analyzed key technology. A player must also have a colony or ship close enough to communicate with the other races. Diplomacy options involve the standard working out of treaties and trades, offering aid, as well as making demands (such as for technology or systems) and of course declaring war.
The game offers two single player game modes, normal and classic. Classic is the typical “everyone starts off even” method where players can pick or customize a race, choose galaxy options and opponents, and have everyone start from the beginning randomly placed around the galaxy. Normal mode is quite different. It covers the emergence of humanity as a space faring race. This mode still randomizes the galaxy, however the various races all start at different levels of advancement, with humanity having only Earth and the technology to start building their first intergalactic ships. Some races will begin this mode with huge empires. Normal mode is more of a “story mode”, where game presents the player with a series of missions and events for them to deal with, while trying to understand the mysteries of the galaxy around them.
Horizon is a great new vision of a classic genre. With the excellent foundation that has already been developed and the dedication that L3O is showing to their fans, it promises to be a true 4X classic in its own right.