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Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

Author:
Jonathan Lester
Category:
Reviews
Tags:
4X games, Iceberg Interactive, L30 Interactive, PC, PC games

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

Platform: PC

Developer: L30 Interactive

Publisher: Iceberg Interactive

The space 4X genre is in a very strange place right now. There's demand and supply thanks to crowd-funding and early access, yet we still don't have a truly great modern game that gives GalCiv, Master Of Orion 2 and Birth Of The Federation a run for their money. Even the magnificent Endless Space alienated many players with its controversial card combat, while we've seen so many promising titles release unfinished, unpolished or plain unplayable.

But all hope is not lost. Cue Horizon, an unapologetically old-school affair that dreams of the genre's glory years. Players lead their chosen race to dominate sprawling galaxies, expanding their reach with new colonies, exploring the wild frontier and tech trees, exploiting virgin territory and exterminating all comers when diplomacy fails. Offering unique races and turn-based fleet combat, Horizon has been on our radar for some considerable time.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

Having previewed the Early Access build a few weeks ago, I was worried that Horizon might need a lot of work to bring it up to snuff, but a massive v.1.0. patch put paid to many of my concerns. Minutes turned to hours as I led the fledgling human race to take its first steps towards becoming a major galactic superpower.

Sadly, continued play reveals that L30 Interactive have built an otherwise enjoyable game on shaky foundations.

Horizon is pitched squarely at experienced 4X veterans, so I'm going to gloss over the basic mechanics. This is a review, after all, not an FAQ or Instruction Manual. Luckily it's familiar genre business from the outset: choose one of a variety of unique races (such as the versatile humans, plant-based Barbeck who can thrive on hostile worlds and the hateful interstellar trolls of the Tantik Intelligence), then get down to eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and eXtermination in a two dimensional sector-based galaxy. You'll colonise planets and manage your territories. Conduct research. Make money through trade routes. Talk to your neighbours, negotiate treaties, then optionally break them with ruinous battlefleets of your own design. Then click, click, click and click that 'Turn' button until the morning light.

Though the grid-based galaxy map UI isn't the most intuitive or attractive we've ever seen, it does a reasonable job of providing a clean and uncluttered experience in the first few hours. Ships and task forces can roam an infinite distance at the cost of reduced movement speed when they run out of automatically-replenishing resources, with colony and research screens a simple keyboard shortcut away. Each turn begins with a considerate summary screen bristling with hotlinks to all major events, which is a nice touch. So long as you've played a space 4X game before, it won't take long to learn the ropes.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

Horizon is very much a space sandbox, offering multiple galaxy sizes and setups, but some optional story quests provide pleasing direction. Two ancient races vie for dominance as the galaxy's younger civilizations bend over backwards to please them, while powerful artefacts and lengthy story threads can be picked up and pursued on a whim. Taking inspiration from Babylon 5 in all the right ways, this extra optional context makes each match feel more like an epic narrative rather than just another rush to the victory conditions of alliance, domination or galactic council. Mind you, the main human campaign tutorial takes far too long to get going, wasting dozens of turns as the other galactic powers marshal their strength. If you don't expand early, you'll find yourself quickly out of pocket, bereft of systems to colonise and seriously outgunned.

L30 Interactive aren't trying to reinvent the wheel here. Everything you'd expect from a classic 4X game is in here in some capacity, and generally works fairly well. However, some of the systems deserve a closer look.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

Colony management is an odd compromise between depth and streamlining. Only a small list of structures (farming, industry, research etc) are available to build, keeping things simple, but on the flip-side each colony boasts multiple build queues that demand a massive amount of micromanagement. Being able to build multiple structures and ships simultaneously is a neat change of pace, yet maintaining this balancing act across dozens of worlds cries out for more automation, if not AI governors. The inability to export surplus resources is also incredibly annoying, since you can't create farm worlds to feed dedicated science or construction colonies.

Shipbuilding feels somewhat limited, locking players to four blueprints per ship class and offering little in the way of cosmetic details. Thankfully research unlocks a dizzying array of upgrades and modules to outfit your fleets for distinct roles, such as menacing motherships, planetary assault vessels or ECM support ships. Personally, I found that the small number of blueprint slots forced me to think carefully about my designs, as opposed to just making loads of iterative and fairly useless attempts.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

Horizon's research system, however, fares much better. We're free to focus on specific branches or technologies to cater to our playstyle, whether we want to quickly assemble cutting-edge battlefleets or specialise in communication, construction or colonisation. It's tremendously versatile and powerful, and better yet, technological breakthroughs can be discovered by digging up abandoned ancient relics or compelling new ideas from allies and enemies.

Captain Picard and Bruce Boxleitner will tell you that it's good to talk, so it's somewhat fitting that diplomacy is the high point of the package. Going far beyond the simplistic non-aggression and alliance treaties we're used to from weaker games, Horizon lets us beg allies for financial aid, threaten warring factions into making peace and demand technological trades; allowing us to construct complex relationships with our intergalactic neighbours. Races react to your olive branches depending on their preset attitudes and outlook; bowing to your will if you've got the military muscle to back it up, or demanding tribute in return should they deem you unworthy. If not laughing off your advances out of hand and sending in the cruisers. Here's looking at you, Tantik Intelligence. You utter b*stards.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

And then Horizon reveals its piece de resistance: the Tactical Phase. Unlike most 4X games, Horizon individually simulates each ship, planet and starbase across the galaxy in 2D space, right down to their specific movement speeds. As such, you can dip into this alternate view at any time to get your hands dirty in turn-based fleet movement and combat. It's a lovely idea... but in practice, it nearly breaks Horizon beyond recommendation.

This extra layer of simulation introduces unnecessary tedious busywork to even the simplest of tasks. Something as basic as resupplying a colony ship requires you to move it to a system with a starbase, then manually orbit a specific planet, which involves extra clicks and associated wait times. Surveying systems, refitting obsolete vessels and moving task forces to planetary bombardment range takes an age. When you're leading massive fleets and empires, this extra work piles up into hours of boring fiddly middle management, especially when Horizon sometimes automatically opens the tactical phase in empty systems just for the sheer hell of it (despite a speedy patch).

You'll feel less like an emperor and more like a clerk tasked with mountains of paperwork. Which, unbelievably, proves to be more interesting than the atrocious combat.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

We see the appeal. Ships act in order of speed on a 2D plane, allowing us to take full control over our fleets and pull off satisfying pincer manoeuvres. The level of detail is impressive, each ship boasting specific firing arcs and movement ranges. Unfortunately, in reality, we have to manually assign EVERY SINGLE SHIP, FIGHTER AND STARBASE INDIVIDUALLY with even the most basic of orders, made doubly infuriating due to the lack of helpful automation, visual firing arc indicators or even an on-screen turn order. You can't just command a ship to engage a distant enemy, rather you have to manually move them into range, over multiple turns, then ensure that they're facing the correct direction, and then eventually attack the target. It's miserably clunky, time-consuming and aggravating on a mechanical level, especially since you'll have to repeat this process for every single ship in your armada.

When several dozen vessels face off against each other, the result is a painfully slow crawl that will gradually leave you gnawing your fingers off just for the mental stimulation. The only alternative is to click the "Auto" button, which might as well read "commit suicide," because the tragic AI practically guarantees that your fleets will advance piecemeal straight at the enemy lines and die in short order. Adding insult to injury, the uninspiring and bland ship sprites are a far cry from the colourful FMV sequences that introduce each race, giving us nothing interesting to look at.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

We need 4X games to supply satisfying tactical depth, but there's a fine line between depth and unintuitive uninteresting unnecessary overcomplication. A line that Horizon smashes through at warp speed. Fleet combat should be the delicious icing on the 4X cake, so we know that something has gone badly awry when we actively avoid battle... not because we're scared of losing, but because we're terrified of the ensuing boredom.

It's a crying shame, since I enjoyed several solid hours of Horizon throughout the course of my first game. I relished every minute spent hammering out treaties and making alliances. I agonised over creating balanced fleets, viable colonies and keeping my empire profitable. I loved pursuing the story missions and discovering how the ancient races fit into the sprawling canon. But as the minutes, hours and even days rolled on, Horizon kept pushing me away, drowning me in fussy micromanagement and hours of painful combat rather than letting me enjoy the big picture. The search for the prodigal 4X son continues.

Pros:

  • Truly excellent diplomacy and research systems
  • Compelling optional storylines and quests to pursue
  • Can be fiercely addictive for a time

Cons:

  • Disastrous tactical phase and painful combat drag the package down
  • Tedious and fiddly micromanagement abounds; unhelpful UI
  • Limited (yet infuriatingly fussy) ship customisation and colony specialisation
  • Lack of race-specific HUD elements and visual panache

The Short Version: Horizon's old-school strategy should be catnip for 4X fans, and L30 Interactive have got a lot right. All the genre basics are present and correct, with superb diplomacy, research and optional story quests hinting at hours of fun. Sadly, what should have been a return to form is built on a nasty tactical simulation layer that introduces unnecessary micro-management at every turn, and makes combat a miserable chore.

After a few enjoyable hours, I found myself scrabbling around in the cupboard to find my ancient copy of Birth Of The Federation. To be honest, I'd recommend that you do the same.

Horizon Review | Catastrophic Combat Cripples A 4X Contender

Add a comment2 comments
phil16  Feb. 11 at 12:03

Such a shame. I lost many an hour of my teenage life to 4x games (Pax imperium 2 and Master of Orion 2 in particular). Been waiting desperately for something similar to appear. They never do (Same with TIE fighter/Freespace - lots of contenders but nothing comparable). Someone desperately needs to do a MofO 2 HD make over...

JonLester  Feb. 11 at 12:32

@phil16: I hear ya. With the exception of Endless Space (and some RTS-focused indie hybrids like AI War and StarDrive), we've had precious little of note from the genre, even though devs - and Iceberg Interactive - keep queueing up to have a go.

It really is a shame, especially in this case, since Horizon honestly could have been a contender.

I personally reckon that L30 could vastly improve the game by scaling back the Tactical Phase and implementing instanced fleet combat with broadly the same mechanics, but a radically overhauled interface and contextual menus. Doing so would cut out the tedious micromanagement involved with just getting our ships from A to B, and letting us enjoy the in-depth strategy. Also, the 'Auto' mode is a joke (as mentioned, it's basically a "suicide charge" button - it should be replaced with time compression.

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