Lost Empire Review
Review - posted by YourConscience on Sun 7 October 2007, 07:17:26
game version 1.04
review by YourConscience
Lost Empire by Pollux Game Labs, a new entry into the field of 4X space strategy games, has been recently released and this fact surprised everyone. Produced by an unknown developer and having received no marketing whatsoever, it flew mostly under the radar of most people, even most die-hard fans of specifically such games. And once someone stumbled over it some way or other, it was and still is hard to judge what this title promises in terms of game play. This review tries to describe the inner workings of the game in order to enable an informed decision on behalf of you, the reader, whether to buy or to wait. If you just want the decision without it being informed, scroll down and read the last few sentences.
The game can be briefly characterized as playing out on a 2D map consisting of star systems. A star system is either owned by you, by another civilization, by a neutral civilization or is empty. The game is turn based and each turn you will adjust research spending rates, modify build queues on your star systems, make new ship designs and send your ships around. This is pretty much similar to other recent games of the same genre such as Galactic Civilizations II, Space Empires V or Sword of the Stars. As usual though, there are a number of differences and quirks that make this game entirely different from the named ones, in a sense.
One of the most important questions I had at first when I learned about this game was whether it has interactive tactical battles. Well, it doesn't. In that respect it is exactly like Dominions 3. During your turn you move your ship onto an enemy ship (or fleet), press 'end turn' and the next turn the result is either your fleet still sitting there, or one of the enemy is (which in the beginning will happen more often). However, this game theoretically has a view battle option which will switch to a full 3D battle animation where the ships slug it out. Practically though, even now at patch level 1.04 battles unfortunately may not be listed to be viewed, which is clearly a bug (one of many). It seems though, that this bug occurs only with the Chi Lung race. At some point I was in turn 200 and the most recent battle I was being offered to view was one minor scout battle from turn 21 or somesuch despite the mutual destruction of literally hundreds of dreadnoughts in the meanwhile.
I wouldn't mind the lack of interactive battles as much if this would not incur another problem: Without the battles views and their corresponding stat sheet on the most powerful weapon used it is impossible to tell what it actually was that brought down you shiny new fleet of 5 battleships over there. And especially since the attack types and defence types become more varied later in the game this becomes a major issue.
Similar to most related games, designing your own ships is part of the fun and it's not missing here either. Unfortunately the execution of that feature isn't as fun as in those most related games. A part of the problem is the nearly universal absence of information. For many installable subsystems it is simply hard to tell whether they have an effect on the battles at all and to what extent that effect goes or whether the effect is large enough to justify the increased cost. Some parts are simply illogical (such as the ship size enlarger). Other parts have functions such as increasing firerate. By how much? Unknown. Additionally, the creators attempted to reduce micromanagement here by making several parts of the same type simply stack, which somehow ends up being quite counterintuitive because yes, you can put 5 laser guns on your scouts, or 5 missile launchers. But no, you cannot put one laser and one missile launcher. Furthermore, in the battles it seems that a ship equipped with one weak but long range missile launcher and 10 powerful plasma guns will stay behind whereas other weaker ships get molested by the enemy first. These are moments where the non-interactivity of the battles becomes annoying.
Another question I had was how exactly the star map is set up. It is similar to Galactic Civilizations I (not II) in that it is a flat map and each star system has only one owner. The creators clearly tried to reduce micromanagement and thus all the planets of a star system are just subsumed into a general score representing space for colonists, mineral extraction rate and food production rate. Contrary to the aforementioned similar game the map is continuous, not a 2 dimensional grid. I think this feels more natural and clearly adds to the immersion.
The most important feature about the map, however, is the size. Upon starting the game you see your starting system and a few surrounding ones. Then you zoom out. And out. And even more out. And amazingly even way more out. (Kind of similar to the map in Elite 2 and 3, if someone remembers that) This map is huge! Basically it puts no limit to your playing! In fact, any game will be over one way or another before even half of the map is populated. This is clearly something no other game has to offer and it is frustrating how the currently present micromanagement issues (see below) make it impossible to enjoy that to the fullest.
Also, the creators clearly attempted to add a number of informative overlays for the star map. However, several unfortunate decisions make the map look very cluttered and ugly. One point is that the enemy tends to send lots of small fleets all around the place and it's easy then to miss that one important huge fleet going for your homeworld. On top of that, fleet representations do not possess any indicators for the relative strength of the fleet. Thus, a fleet with one cruiser will have the exact same visual representation with 20 cruisers, 30 destroyers and some more scouts. All this makes for this strange point in the middle to late game where I suddenly stopped caring to look up each and every enemy fleet flying around in my space and several times that carelessnes brought an end to my empire because I'd lost my homeworld.
Frankly, most informative overlays make the map look ugly. For example, the territorial view adds colored nebulas around star systems with colors according to the owners. However, these nebulas are often indiscernable from nebulas of the background picture and generally have a sloppy look to them and could be improved by using an algorithm such as this or something similar. Another example is that each fleet comes with a symbol representing its owner. For one, these symbols are very far from the fleet picture which makes it hard to tell what is what when there are many different fleets next to each other and then these symbols cannot be switched off (or I didn't find the button to do so).
Now, micromanagement is something the creators really tried hard to avoid. This is visible on several layers. For example, solar systems are managed as a whole, not each planet particularly. Or claiming a solar system for yourself is as easy as sending a scout ship there. Or that new inventions also appear as short notes in the upper left part of the screen.
Nevertheless, the bad execution of the interface more than makes up for that. I often found myself fighting with the fact that clicking on a fleet which happens to be in the same place as two other fleets and a solar system seems to highlight that fleet. But when sending that fleet somewhere it turns out the I had only selected the solar system and the previously selected fleet now got the movement orders. So I have to go back to that previous fleet, give it it's original orders, go back to the intended fleet and so on. Another point is the mentioned sparsity of information. Once I've got more than 10 fleets I began to forget the exact composition of each fleet, or even the approximate strength. And there is no other way than to click on that fleet, then click on the fleet information button, look up the information and then click again to close that screen. A simple number near the fleet and/or a mouseover tooltip window containing the most important information would've been so much easier.
There are also smaller but nevertheless annoying 'features' of the user interface. For example I want to create a new cruiser design. So I open the construction window (which in an attempt to reduce micromanagement contains both construction queues and the design utility), click on cruisers, then remember that I wanted to design, not produce, switch to the design page (which automatically resets the ship class to scout) and find myself putting a first component onto the scout design before remembering to switch to cruisers first.
As I said all this makes the gaming experience quite cumbersome once the empire grows a bit. And precisely this is where the game tries to be strong allowing you to play on such huge maps and so this failure is why it is so frustrating at times.
There are several other unique features in Lost Empire. One very nice is the inclusion of the Chi Lung race. Contrary to the normal races this one doesn't design or build ships. Chi Lung is a race of space dragons. You start with three very very young dragons. Putting two together to perform ... a certain action gives you a set chance to acquire a new dragon. This is the only way of acquiring new dragons. And the only way of growing your initially very weak dragons is to let them eat solar systems' populations. Therefore, the more fruity juicy systems you own, the faster your fleet will grow more powerful.
But! For example one bug allows to grow a very very old dragon even older which turns him into a non-defined ship class which has no movement points... And unfortunately, many more bugs, curiosities and the extreme micromanagement necessary make this race nearly unplayable. Additionally the AI doesn't know how to play the Chi Lung. Again, all of this is very frustrating, because obviously this is a very nice and very original idea I like a lot. I hope they will keep and finish it.
Two other features are barely worth writing about. One is the roster of maximally a dozen heroes your empire magically hires automatically (you know, avoiding micromanagement). Those heroes unfortunately live only several dozens of turns after which they die and new ones are hired. Again But! You have to assign them functions and the solar system where to work manually because the game will do so (apparently) randomly otherwise. Due to the constant dying this adds too much micromanagement which is why I always tend to forget to give them something useful to do. And spies appear to have a life expectancy of no longer than 3 turns even if I am not in war with anyone...
The other feature is trading. Each solar system can have up to three trading routes to other systems. And again But! The game will not manage these routes automatically and it won't even create those routes. On top of that, even now I don't fully understand what they do and whether it's good or bad that all my solar systems seem to pick one particular system and trade only with that. I think this should either be more automated (but then why have it at all?) or be more transparent and interactive (allow raiding trade routes even peace time?).
While mentioning trading it's also worth mentioning the economic system of the game. In a nutshell, every production costs minerals and food. Every solar system has a rating which says how much minerals and how much food will be extracted there. Mostly independent of this is population which basically just defines how much research you can output, how fast that system can build ships (or so I think) and possibly influences the mineral and food production rates. There is no upkeep to anything (which reduces micromanagement somewhat). The only gripe about this simplified system is that the two resources are not distinct enough. Nearly everything costs both minerals and food which results in the player being unable to do anything at all if there is not enough of one of the two types.
AI and diplomacy
This review is slightly inversed in that usually reviews praise the graphics and mourn for the braindead AI. After all the criticisms above finally this is a part of the review which will stay positive. The AI comes with three difficulty settings. Despite my best efforts I did not have yet any reason to use an other setting than 'easy'. The AI is very effective and aggressive. And an AI player will always try to pick someone weaker than itself to improve it's position. This also means that a hopelessly weaker AI player will do anything to make you happy and will avoid attacking you if possible.
Another positive aspect is the diplomacy screen. It lists several factors that define your current relationship to an other player and it makes it very easy to grasp why things are improving or worsening. After all the failed attempts to reduce micromanagement this is finally a part where in my opinion the creators of the game were successful. In fact, I think this is the best diplomatic screen I have seen to date.
Considering that Pollux Game Labs is a total newcomer they showed that they are able to create a very fun game. The only thing left for them to do now (regarding Lost Empire, that is), is to actually finish it! I found many things to criticize in this review, but nearly all of them basically result from the game being released in an unfinished state and unpolished. Therefore, in its current state if you really need a new space conquering game, I think you will get some enjoyment out of Lost Empire. For all others I recommend to wait for the announced remake Lost Empire: Immortals, apparently due to be out rather soon in Q1 2008.