The 4X strategy genre, be it turn-based, real-time, or a combination of the two, offers some of the most challenging, complex and exciting gameplay a gamer will ever have. They offer the chance for the player to attain the ultimate prize: an empire. 4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate and the player must work towards these goals with all at their disposal if they wish to become top-dog and rule the world. Many titles have delivered some fine 4X experiences: from classic, influential titles such as Masters of Orion and Galactic Civilisations, to the recent successes like Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion and Endless Space. Now developers L3o Interactive with publishers Iceberg Interactive hopes to give players even more 4X goodness with their new strategy game: Horizon, a 4X turn-based strategy game where your goal is to defeat your rivals and rule the galaxy by any means necessary.
Horizon plays out typically like most other 4X science-fiction strategy games. You start off by choose your race, each with their own special attributes and bonuses affecting the economy, social status and military prowess of their civilisation. You can also choose to play in two modes: normal which starts each race with their default attributes (meaning that some alien races start out more advanced than others) and classic where everyone starts on equal ground with the same technology, economic and military level. You can also determine the number of habitable planets, special planets, rare planets, the number of anomalies, specific win conditions and which factions will be competing with you.
You’ll be managing your empire on the turn-based star-map where you can start out your colonisation efforts from your homeworld. The best thing to do first out is to build colony ships and colonise nearby worlds as soon as possible. These newly colonised worlds can be upgraded to focus on trade, research, industry, farming, even entertainment. Or your planets can be a one-stop-shop and offer everything up front, which has it’s advantages but is very expensive. As you continue to explore the galaxy, you’ll eventually encounter your rivals and decide whether to begin peaceful negotiations or open hostilities. You can begin trade routes with them, share research and form military alliances. Sometimes other factions give you a demand or offering upfront and you can either accept what they have to offer or tell them to take their offer and shove it.
What’s interesting to note is that when starting in normal mode, it also acts as a story mode with humanity just discovering space flight and encountering much more advanced civilisations. Humanity are the underdogs of the galaxy and must use all at their disposal to ensure they have a place in the galactic community and maybe someday take their place above it. The lore behind this game is very interesting and you’ll find yourself wanting to know more about the galaxy and it’s inhabitants as you progress throughout the game.
The user interface used to carry out these commands is very descriptive and simple to use. It’s easy to keep track of important information such as your production levels, economic standing, the strength of your armed forces, research status, current news events and how your faction stacks up against your rivals. Information is explained clearly and concisely, with tooltips presenting even more information. The The UI even gives you quick access to fleets, single ships and your colonised planets with the click of a button, making management a more efficient task.
The research trees are divided into 6 categories: Propulsion, Armour, Electronics, Biotech, Construction and Weapons. Carrying out projects in these categories will greatly improve food production, industry, influence, military and much more. What’s clever about this is that your scientists will continue to make breakthroughs on research projects which you’ve finished carrying out and greatly enhance their capabilities. This happens at random intervals and depending on how developed your research centres are on your colonies, these random breakthroughs could happen often and improve your empire at a much faster rate.
Horizon also gives you the opportunity to customize your ships and outfit them with better weapons, armour, shields, engines and abilities such as boarding enemy ships with marines and sending a ground invasion onto enemy planets. These upgrades are obtained through research and can be further enhanced by your scientists. Spending time and resources into upgrading your vessels will have your enemies cowering in fear at the sight of your mighty fleet.
Horizon get much right when it comes to presenting a comprehensive 4X experience. It’s easy to get into grips with first time around and you’ll soon find yourself colonising, researching and meeting other species in no time. The problems however, become apparent as you continue to play and it becomes obvious to the point where it hampers the whole experience you’ll have with Horizon.
Initially building and maintaining colonies is a rather streamlined task. With the click of a button, your colonies will become thriving Trade Centres or fun-filled tourist attractions for the whole family and your mighty fleet can grow simultaneously across your colonies. Yet as your empire grows, you’ll find yourself having to click more than a couple of times to do what needs to be done, as you’ll have to manage each planet individually, setting up colonies and building ships too. The game cries out for some level of automation because it’s far too much work to maintain your empire all by yourself.
The combat itself can be actually be quite tense as you plan out your attack and not know what to expect from the enemy. Manoeuvring your forces into position is rather daunting as your opponent can counter with a more cunning attack. Battles can be huge and even span across multiple star systems. Yet with all this potential for massive and exciting space battles, it soon becomes an annoying micro-management affair moving dozens of ships across a large breadth of space for over 3 or more turns before you and the enemy have even met. During encounters you can’t assign tasks to a group of your forces and you can’t group forces together and instead you have to pick each one individually and issue orders that way. Auto mode allows you to skip the tactics and watch the ships duke it out, but the AI ruins what you initially had planned and instead charges the enemy head on and start spraying their weapons at the first target they see.
The visuals are a very big drawback to this game. L3o have attempted to re-create the retro-vibe of classic 4X games like Masters of Orion, however it looks very dated and doesn’t hold up as well against some of the other 3D 4X heavy-hitters today like Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion or Endless Space. The sound-production doesn’t do a good job of adding an engaging and exciting experience either, particularly when in battle. Laser blasts and explosions don’t sound satisfying enough and fail to add any intensity and impact to space combat and it doesn’t feel and look like you’re in a heated battle. The music tracks sound great and add a sense of wonder and adventure to the game, but listing to just one combat tune every time you’re fighting is a repetitive affair.
Horizon initially presents itself very well. As you start playing you’ll feel hooked and want to keep going. It has a great back-story, it’s easy to interact with and it can be downright addictive also. However the more you progress, the more you notice the glaring problems which hold the game back and unfortunately, prevent it from standing alongside it’s 4X peers. Even the classic titles this pays homage too. There is room for improvement and given enough time, Horizon may be able to someday provide a fulfilling quest to conquer the galaxy but right now, this isn’t the game that will help you become emperor just yet.
This review was based on a digital review copy of Horizon for the PC provided by L3O Interactive.