Developer: L30 Interactive
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
When it comes to creating a new Sci-Fi 4X game, you could do a lot worse than taking inspiration from Master Of Orion 2.
Horizon dreams of the golden age of eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and eXtermination, those MOO and Alpha Centauri days, wherein we'd leap into enormous galaxies and lead our civilizations to dominance through canny diplomacy, cutting edge research and colonisation. Not to mention wielding enormous fleets in tactical turn-based combat. Rather than trying to reinvent the genre, L30 Interactive are trying to bring it back in all its deeply involved, complex, occasionally overwhelming and rewarding glory. Promising eleven races, sprawling tech trees, massive randomly-generated galaxies and highly customisable fleets, they're certainly not scrimping on content.
Having sunk some considerable hours into the beta build (available on Steam Early Access for £18.98), I can report that Horizon is broadly on the right track. But can it deliver when the project hits v.1.0 next month?
The human singleplayer campaign acts as a tutorial, introduction and storyline rolled into one. Taking clear influence from Babylon 5 (right down to two ancient warring races and some shadowy ship designs), you'll gradually learn the ropes of shipbuilding, colonisation and navigation as the fledgling civilisation reaches out to the stars. Simple missions introduce each familiar gameplay element in turn, before loosing you into the galaxy to make your own way through the universe, all while an overarching narrative adds some pleasing context and direction. You'll seek out new life and new civilizations, before deciding whether to forge diplomatic relations or send in the gunships.
Naturally you're also free to step into the floating gelatinous carapace of the Lezgoon League, colonise inhospitable worlds with the blobby plant-like Barbeck or wield the might of the parasitic Tantik Intelligence (just three examples of eleven playable races with unique aptitudes and weaknesses) in sandbox mode.
Gameplay-wise, Horizon is 4X bread and butter. The galaxy conforms to a 2D grid of square sectors, many containing stars and planets to scan and colonise. You'll build ships, send out scouts, micro-manage your empire and engage in fleet combat; using a silver tongue, bleeding-edge tech and an iron fist to keep erstwhile allies and enemies in line. Much of which boils down to setting destinations for your ships, adding structures to build queues and clicking the 'End Turn' button until a new situation pops up or your mouse disintegrates (whichever comes first). As mentioned, L30 aren't trying to reinvent the wheel, but several key gameplay pillars deserve a closer look.
Expansion and colonisation is an essential facet of the 4X experience, and adheres to the age-old standard of deploying colony ships to uninhabited worlds. Building your infrastructure is similarly familiar; granting access to trade, government, entertainment, farming, industry, research and orbital defence structures, allowing players to specialise their worlds for a particular role. However, in a pleasing twist, each planet has multiple build queues and can thus construct numerous buildings and starships simultaneously so long as you've got the resources. This has long been a bugbear of mine (after all, is it realistic that an entire planet's workforce are tied up constructing a single ship?), though the lack of AI governors can make managing multiple colonies overwhelming.
This mixture of familiarity and new features also spices up the research side of things, which currently offers over 80 technologies with ten upgrade levels apiece. From basic necessities such as interstellar communication (a must for maintaining contact with your fleets and alien races) to genetic manipulation and esoteric Xenobiology, there's scope to create radically different civilizations - especially since wild new tech can be found in planetary surveys or digs via ancient artefacts. Players can order their scientists to focus on specific trees and/or specific upgrades depending on their priorities.
Maintaining strong diplomatic relations is important, especially since the full game will offer Alliance as a victory condition. As a zealous Birth Of The Federation fan, I like this immensely. It's simple stuff, primarily involving treaties and promises of military support against mutual enemies, with an additional wrinkle of having to take communication range into account. Horizon's AI has notably improved throughout the beta, acting in line with racial personalities. Chances are most species will be willing to talk... that is, if you've got the firepower to back up your place in the universe. Without a strong fleet of well-equipped starships, expect many races to just shoot first, steal your real estate and never bother asking questions.
Which brings us nicely onto the important matter of badass spaceships: a key concern for any 4X space game in my opinion. Though not offering the shipbuilding depth of some notable genre mainstays, creating custom vessels is a relatively intuitive and versatile affair. Four ship archetypes - small, medium, large and huge - can be outfitted with various weapons, essential modules and 'Specials,' the latter of which specialises them for a specific role. Carriers need fighter bays. Boarding craft need assault shuttles, while colonisers must naturally boast coloniser pods. As your tech improves, playing about with new ship designs becomes increasingly deep and exciting, whether designing multi-role transports or massive honking motherships bristling with fighters and nuclear missiles.
Fleets and task forces can be commanded from the tactical overview, a fairly simple if click-heavy procedure of choosing destination systems and waiting for ships to eventually arrive, while ensuring that task forces have enough supplies to avoid crippling their movement speed. What sets Horizon apart from many other 4X games, though, is the fact that each system sector is modelled down to the individual planet, allowing you to choose exactly which world to orbit. Sooner or later you'll encounter an enemy to engage, at which point the action zooms into a tactical phase that grants turn-based control over each individual starship. Ships move in order of speed and initiative, allowing you to execute sweeping strategies, pincer manoeuvres and boarding raids on the 2D plane from a more intimate perspective.
Unfortunately what sounds promising in theory proves to be the weakest part of the game as it stands. Combat is currently slow and dreary, involving enormous distances to cover and massive turn lengths when multiple ships are involved. Worse, it's genuinely boring in the main, both due to the sluggish pacing and humdrum art assets. The UI could also use a revamp to improve usability, especially in terms of showing us the turn order and movement ranges.
Horizon will have to address this in v.1.0, which is ambitiously scheduled for next month. "Ambitiously" being the operative word here, because despite offering a strong foundation, L30 really do have their work cut out. The combat needs to be more engaging. The AI requires further smoothing. We need a greater degree of automation, especially in terms of planetary governors. Bigger galaxies, more modes, additional artefacts and more story content for all races is absolutely necessary if Horizon wants to stake its claim as a prodigal 4X son.
And, to be perfectly frank, L30 needs to jazz up certain aspects of Horizon's presentation. From the offensively terrible opening cinematic to the workmanlike menus, low-resolution portraits (the leering Human general is a uniquely awful piece of artwork) and uninteresting ship sprites, Horizon really does look like a blast from the past in all the wrong ways; requiring both prompt pizazz and polish in equal measure. This sounds shallow, but when we're staring at menus and portraits for hours on end, a little artistic flair goes a long way.
Thankfully, that's what a beta is for.
The space 4X genre is in an interesting place right now, in that there's both demand and supply. Gamers are keen to buy and Kickstart new projects, while developers are equally keen to deliver. However, despite this renewed interest in the genre, we've arguably yet to receive a truly great game in recent years beyond Endless Space (which alienated plenty of fans with its controversial card-based fleet combat), and indie hybrids like AI War. So many Kickstarted titles failed to fulfil their remit, while even well-funded games end up buggy and unfinished. We hope that L30 will consider a delay if they find themselves slipping behind schedule.
We'll find out whether Horizon is a contender soon enough - and we've got our fingers crossed. Or tentacles. Whatever. For now, I'd recommend holding off on a purchase until we can review the finished article, but 4X fans should definitely keep this on their radar over the coming weeks.