Not long ago the strategy genre was struggling when it came to the final frontier. Fans of endlessly replayable strategy games and galactic empires frequently cite 1996’s Master of Orion II as the pinnacle of the sub-genre. Nearly two decades have gone by without much competition.
Fast-forward to 2017 and suddenly we have a myriad of excellent space games all vying for your star-faring gaze. If you want to smash spaceships together, you’ve got Homeworld Remastered. Fancy jumping into the cockpit and playing Choose Your Own Adventure in Space? Try Elite: Dangerous or Rebel Galaxy. Want to learn the actual real-world science behind the space program? Hello Kerbal Space Program! And I haven’t even mentioned Eve Online, which remains one of the most popular and successful Massively Multiplayer Online games without the word Warcraft in its title.
But what if you want to take a few steps back and guide an entire galactic empire to victory? The time has finally come for my beloved strategy genre, or “4X” (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) to take its place among the stars.
Between 2015’s Galactic Civilizations III, last year’s Stellaris, and the recently released Endless Space 2, I’m officially declaring it the Golden Age of Space Strategy Games. But which one is right for you, O Conquistador of the Cosmos?
Galactic Civilizations III
The Galactic Civilizations series, published and developed by Stardock Entertainment, was one of the few games proudly carrying the torch of 4X space games through the dark ages of the 2000s. Galactic Civilizations III had a rocky launch two years ago but has since received some quality updates and well-received DLC.
Galactic Civilizations III is the most board game-like of the space strategy games in its visual style. Planetary maps and even space itself are represented by hex grids. You can dive into micromanaging adjacency bonuses on each planet, or let a governor run things and turn your attention to those pesky space orcs next door.
A short story-based campaign is included, which features humanity facing off against the Drengin Empire. The visuals boast some fairly high production values, with fully animated leaders and voice acting. It adds a rich amount of personality to each playthrough, whether in the campaign or through scenarios with dozens of potential players.
GalCiv 3’s best component is the ship builder. It features one of the most comprehensive spaceship creators since Spore, letting you resize pieces and slide them around to create unique designs. It’s easy to lose hours designing your dream vessels with the LEGO-like builder. Unfortunately the actual space combat is little more than watching ships pew-pew each other (a problem every space 4X game seems to suffer from).
Play Galactic Civilizations III If: You’re a galactic warlord who loves customizing and tinkering with spaceships.
If you’re coming from a Civilization background, Stellaris will feel completely alien, and not just because you can play as a fungus hive-mind if you want to. Stellaris is developed by Paradox, who carved out a successful niche with their Grand Strategy titles. Their games eschew standard turn-based gameplay for a real-time experience that demands constant attention as you fly through epochs of technological advancement, explore anomalies, and colonize distant star systems.
Stellaris has the weakest visual presentation but comes with a large amount of customization for building your own galactic race, from totalitarian lizards to honorable space-birds. Diplomacy comes down to your chosen ethics and technology choices, and combat largely relies on who can muster a bigger fleet to throw more spaceships at their opponent.
What makes Stellaris compelling is the emergent narratives that crop up, such as uplifting a young race on a promising planet only to have them rebel against you. Or catching a scientist being worshiped as a god in another planet, complete with pyramids.
If you haven’t played any of Paradox’s Grand Strategy games, Stellaris can be an intimidating game to get into, with a steep learning curve. But it’s a rewarding experience that is absolutely worth discovering for fans of space strategy games.
Play Stellaris If: Taking turns is for suckers and you want to shape the entire history of your galactic empire.
Endless Space 2
Hopefully you’ve already read my review and know that Endless Space 2 is a great game. It brings everything that made Amplitude Studios’ Endless Legend a breath of fresh air back where it belongs – in space!
Endless Space 2 may be the easiest game of the bunch to get into, even if you haven’t played Amplitude’s previous Endless games. It’s the most Civ-like of the bunch as each unit in your diverse population produces food, industry, science, and dust to empower your military, build structures, research new technology, and grease the right palms.
Unlike Civ choosing your empire doesn’t just provide a few bonuses, it completely changes the way you play, from space vampires who drain planets to a race of genetic clones and tree-people. Each faction has dramatically different play-styles, political affiliations, and narrative arcs. RPG-like quests demand you make choices that affect your entire empire, letting you customize your game both mechanically and narratively.
I’ve never played a game that let me enjoy politics as much as Endless Space 2. The political system is built into every area of the game, making politics an integral and compelling feature.
Play Endless Space 2 If: You want to run your galaxy with a hefty dose of resource management and RPG elements.
Craneballs Studio’s first foray into PC development, Planet Nomads, is riding the waves of popularity that sandbox games have garnered over the last several years.
As was rumored, the recently revealed sequel Destiny 2 is coming this Fall. Destiny 2 will launch on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and for a series first, on PC…
No other game series defined a generation as completely as Mass Effect. Developed from the ground up as a trilogy, the Mass Effect series told the story of one space-faring superhero and his or her motley crew of badasses. Taken individually each game contains major flaws, but the series collectively struck a nerve over its five year release window. They were AAA action games full of lasers and explosions. But the focus was always on your crew members and developing strong relationships, whether romantic or platonic.
In many ways Mass Effect represented a critical intersection between the Play Your Way freedom that RPGs can provide, and the linear theme park structure and spectacle of big-budget games. Add in one of the most well-constructed sci-fi universes since Star Wars and you have the recipe for one of the most beloved and memorable game series in modern gaming.
It’s five years later. Five years since the release of Mass Effect 3, and a controversy surrounding the ending that proved the passionate fanbase could turn on a dime. BioWare would infamously take this vitriolic feedback to heart, eventually releasing post-launch patches to update and tweak the ending. The ending of the trilogy is still one of the most divisive and sour notes in gaming, brought on because the Mass Effect series has become such an important cultural phenomenon for gamers.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the fangs came out for Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Mass Effect: Andromeda proves that you can’t go home again. I mean that in the figurative sense, though literally Andromeda takes place hundreds of years and light-years removed from the Milky Way galaxy and the time period of the original trilogy. You arrive in an all-new galaxy after a 600-year journey, ready to explore and colonize a new slice of the universe.
That’s an exciting premise, but Andromeda has a steep hill to climb. It has to separate itself from the original trilogy and its beloved heroes like Commander Shepard, Garrus, Tali, and Wrex. No more Reapers, no more Geth. Much of the beloved universe-building and lore has to evolve to fit a new narrative within a new galaxy.
Yet it also has to feel like a Mass Effect game. Thus the Andromeda Initiative brings along gigantic colony ships full of Krogan, Salarian, Turian, and Asari. All their conflicts are still there, like the genophage and hostility between Krogan and Salarians. You get to take the Milky Way with you, which prevents Andromeda from crafting a new journey into the unknown.
The biggest problem with Mass Effect: Andromeda, however, is technical. Awkward animations and poorly optimized graphics often destroy the immersion and cohesion in many dialogue scenes. If Andromeda was more about pure run and gun action that may be forgivable, but the Mass Effect series prides itself on role-playing and character interaction. During a tensely emotional scene the last thing you want is for your character to stare ahead dead-eyed, or look the wrong direction. It feels sloppy and unfinished, and we’re talking about a AAA spin-off sequel that should have been given all the time and money it needed.
The general gaming public turned on Mass Effect: Andromeda with startling alacrity. Excitement melted away to cynicism as clips and images began circulating of the awkward and laughably bad animations and character models.
It began with playfully pointing out the goofy animation weirdness, like the ones below.
When you walk into a clothing store just to look at shit and the clerk sneaks up on you to ask if you need help pic.twitter.com/Eg5tLVdsJA
— Nibel (@Nibellion) March 16, 2017
— Nibel (@Nibellion) March 16, 2017
Something tells me stuff like this is not what BioWare and EA were hoping people would be focusing on as Mass Effect nears release. pic.twitter.com/sQkEMmI2iu
— Patrick Klepek (@patrickklepek) March 16, 2017
But things quickly grew cruel and sinister in a way the No Man’s Sky developers are all too familiar with. A subsection of gaming troglodytes picked an ex-EA developer to heap all their blame on, and targeted her in a vicious harassment campaign. The Metacritic User Score currently sits at an ugly 4.6 with over 2500 user reviews.
When people are disappointed they look for someone to blame. But most video games, especially AAA games are a hugely collaborative process. The animation woes in Mass Effect: Andromeda are the result of time management and prioritization.
Jonathan Cooper, a veteran animator at Naughty Dog (formerly BioWare), put together an informative twitter thread explaining how the animations in Andromeda are built using algorithms rather than by hand. You can start the thread below.
Folks have been asking so here are my thoughts on Mass Effect Andromeda’s animation. Hopefully people will better understand the process.
— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) March 23, 2017
BioWare responded this week, and teased out future plans and patches: “We’ve received quite a bit of feedback, some of it positive and some of it critical. That feedback is an important part of our ongoing support of the game, and we can’t wait to share more of our immediate plans with you on Tuesday, April 4.”
— BioWare (@bioware) March 30, 2017
A lot of the controversy boils down to the simple fact that for many game development remains an impenetrable, mysterious process that most people are wholly unfamiliar with. The level of time, work, and money it takes to make a game, let alone a gigantic undertaking like Mass Effect: Andromeda is vastly underrated and under appreciated. It takes talent, skill, passionate, and often a detrimental work-life balance to produce video games in a highly competitive industry. To see the level of vitriol beyond standard criticism is disappointing, but not shocking to a series with such a passionate fanbase.
It’s not all bad. Critics and fans were ultimately mixed on Andromeda. Technical issues aside, the story has a poor opening but gets better the further along you play (a common complaint for many big JRPGs as well). The new cast members are generally praised as being worthy of BioWare’s past efforts, the flexible combat system is well-received, and some side quests offer compelling writing and scenarios. Andromeda’s biggest failing is trying to survive in the shadow of the trilogy, and the technical difficulties don’t do it any favors.
Constructive, thoughtful criticism is important and valuable to elicit the right kind of feedback and push people to make better games. Harassment and frothing hatred doesn’t do anyone any favors, however, and could easily push many budding game developers out of the career altogether. I do worry that BioWare created a dangerous precedent in tweaking the ending to Mass Effect 3, opening the doors to harsher and more possessive criticism than most. We all want better games, and no one wants an amazing Mass Effect game more than BioWare. Hopefully they can still deliver one.