Everyone's making 4X games these days, it seems. But the trouble with a well-worn genre that's been practically perfected in the likes of Galactic Civilizations II and, before that, the utterly sublime Masters of Orion II is that it can become difficult for newcomers to make a mark. Endless Space had a worthy bash at it, but even with that game, after a while I just found myself firing up DOSbox and thanking GOG for allowing me to go back in time and delight once more in a childhood spent conquering galaxies in MOO and its sequel.
In many ways, GOG has ruined the modern space-based 4X market. If you can play Masters of Orion II for a fiver, why the hell would you ever need any other pretender?
Enter Lords of the Black Sun, or the game formerly known as Star Lords. It's in beta right now, a term that has admittedly lost its once-singular meaning these days -- it's basically done, but it's missing a few bits such as story elements, occasionally crashes to the desktop, and occasionally seems a bit sparse.
The 4X formula is pretty addictive, and that makes it very easy to create a game that sucks you in via a strategic template of sorts. I'm not saying that Lords of the Black Sun copies the games that have come before, it's just that... wait, no that's exactly what I'm saying. But every single game in this genre has done that, so it's not that big of a deal. What is a big deal, however, is just how generic things feel. I've sunk several hours into the game, and the core gameplay is enjoyable, but too often you just find yourself endlessly ending turns. The UI is small and finicky, though pleasingly rather uncluttered and easy to navigate, but the level of depth doesn't seem to be there yet. One of my biggest bugbears is not being able to see the diplomatic relations of my allies. In fact, simple visual communication in general is not exactly one of the game's fortes.
There are eight playable races currently, and AI does a decent job of keeping you on your toes, but there's little room to really stamp your mark on the game. The ship designer is welcome but limited, and the research trees (why can't I zoom out!) are a little uninspired. On the military side of things, you have a choice between beam weapons and missiles and that's it. There's little thrill or fanfare when you breach new ground in terms of the research side of things.
Still, it was a fairly pleasant way of whiling away a few hours, but that's because Lords of the Black Sun appears to be a pretty safe 4X game that takes a whole bunch of cues from GC2 and MOO but doesn't really change things up all that much. As I mention in the video, we'll revisit the beta early next week once empires have expanded and people start going to war. In the meantime, though, here's a lengthy taste of what to expect from Lords of the Black Sun...