Interstellar Space: Genesis Review05 Aug 2019 0
Interstellar Space: Genesis Review
Released 25 Jul 2019
Anyone who is a fan of 4X games set in space will naturally be at home with Insterstellar Space: Genesis by Praxis Games. The usual setup is very clear: start with one planet with a duo of frigates and work your way up from there against distinct rivals. It's quite obvious from the beginning that Interstellar Space: Genesis wishes to bring the player back to the look and feel of the venerable Master of Orion 2. One look at their rectangular galaxy map throws one back to the days when 4X games did not bother with the hyperrealism of depicting a spiral galaxy (something which even the sequels of Master of Orion 2 did). Instead, just as with Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, the “galaxy” is a rectangular grid of finite stars.
If the obvious draw is to bring back fans to the satisfaction of the old classics or to introduce a new generation of gamers to what was successful before, ISG is meticulous in attempting to live up to that standard. The devotion to the Master of Orion format, for example, easily makes ISG a seamless “unofficial sequel” to Master of Orion 2.
Anyone who has played Master of Orion 2 can find that their tried and true strategies will still be applicable. The obvious path of acquiring planets to populate and then specialize in production later is applicable now as it was years ago. Resisting the temptation to just shovel all of your planet focus into production instead of building pops requires about as much discipline as investing for a retirement fund, but it is definitely standard for any fan of the genre.
For the old player, it is a relief to apply one's deep knowledge of how to build space empires to a new setting while for a new player, it can successfully present an “optimization puzzle” since it can be so easy to be outpaced by other empires if one does not properly optimize their initial moves.
Master of Orion, however, is not the only franchise that ISG seems to draw its creative juices from. A Civilization-style “Space Culture” system is present (similar, also, to the more contemporary “traditions” presented in Stellaris) that, while welcome, is somewhat limited in flavour. Unlike Civ's rather titanic ideological dichotomies—such as choosing between such fundamental choices as liberty and hierarchy—there is not much flavour or drama when choosing between Space Culture paths. They all seem to subscribe to the same template of technological progress. Some choices don't even make sense as pirate tendencies for the more enlightened or Borg-like races presents a strange cognitive dissonance.
Similar to every other 4X game, factions are available to play with varying ideologies and bonuses. Aside from the “usual” Human faction, there are also hive minds, enlightened nomads, “space elves”, etc. The six presented all run the usual gamut of Space civilizations. While nothing particularly stands out about these factions, none of them particularly disappoint either. After all, one does not necessarily complain that an ice cream stand contains vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Thankfully, there is an option to edit the factions or customize one's own. In fact, even the difficulty of a particular faction can be tweaked so that you can create “boss” races to deal with. Otherwise, the options are relatively limited to differing bonuses and starting options, but at least allows a player to aim for that optimal sweet spot. Thankfully, the artwork for each faction and their quaint semi-animation (similar to Stellaris portraits) are worth commending as a triumph for an indie title.
In fact, the overall artwork is actually rather impressive for an indie game that chose not to go down the path of cartoonish abstraction. The opening sequence, for example, while humble and slightly awkward in its English narration, still executes a sense of mystery that is the right pairing for a space exploration game. The 3D graphics such as in the colony view are rather sleek and finely detailed, but actually suffer from a lack of available camera angles. This is unfortunate since even the simplistic models of Imperium Galactica II could be explored by the player adjusting the camera. Even if we want to remain with the old style of 4X games, it is unfortunate that ISG teases us with decent graphics and does not allow us to look around.
Still, not everything is thoroughly orthodox. The remote exploration system which allows for exploration without a survey ship based on technological range and which can also be repeated in order to further delve into a particular sector is a truly inspired mechanic. This system even beats out Stellaris's exploration suite which is a once-surveyed-done mechanic. In contrast, while not containing the breadth of larger production titles, ISG's system demonstrates the ability to address depth of exploration and not just exploring “wide”.
The obvious sandbox nature of 4X games helps to make sure that ISG is a replayable offering. The various customizations also help to allow the game to be enjoyable even after the first few forays. New players in particular will be obviously spending many playthroughs adjusting their optimization curves to beat the various levels of difficulty. Thankfully, replayability is also aided by certain options such as random tech tree settings in the beginning.
The overarching story is relatively light hinting at some overarching origin or threat which is satisfactory enough even if the story won't be completed until the expansions come out (I'll avoid spoilers). Still, the focus is definitely in reproducing a particular feel of game rather than offering an entirely engaging storyline. Most of the story is left up to the player to create in usual 4X sandbox style.
The flavour events that can pop up range from mildly interesting to downright amusing. They add a certain level of immersion in an otherwise number-heavy game. Still, the technical expertise of the game overshadows the rather shallow side stories. The window dressing, while a noble effort, ultimately yields to the game experience. The game is almost an exercise in impressionism: and this time, the subject is 4X mechanics.
Space combat has its entertaining aspects. The ability to customize one's ships and even the differences between the various races offer a wide spectrum of combat experiences which does not leave one bored. The turn-based system which is quite a throwback might be controversial for new players but completes the homage to the old games. Tactical planning is relatively enjoyable all things considered. While perhaps controversial, space combat actually deploys fewer ships than one might expect from 4X titles (how often, for example, did we amass Romulan Destroyer-IIs in Birth of the Federation), but I can see the appeal. In some ways, it's similar to the relatively small number of heavily-armed ships in modern navies.
This “smaller scale” is also practiced on Empire Management which has been “simplified” compared to its Master of Orion 2 spiritual father. Fewer building slots and greater focus on the type of buildings built in a colony might be a welcome relief for so many players who want to avoid spending half the time in the late game just clicking the same upgrades over and over again.
Ground combat is very reminiscent of Imperium Galactica II especially with hovertanks. The usual siege-assault mechanic is easy enough to understand even for new players. However, some interesting choices such as “raiding” in order to basically do covert operations on a planet adds some diversity which is not present in even larger titles.
With so many techs either weak or strong against each other, these kinds of operations as well as espionage in general has been positioned to be more relevant than in previous 4X titles of the old days. This is actually a welcome development as espionage actions were often just minor bonuses or advantages in other titles. Here, they can actually make or break a particular engagement. It truly puts to light what Sun Tzu said about knowing one's self and knowing one's enemy as the key to victory.
Perhaps the most interesting innovation they've created is the enhanced leader system which infuses a great sense of personality to the game. Leaders have their own agendas and traits which finally creates a realistic “ecosystem” of persons in any given Empire. You an even choose to satisfy or ignore these ambitions of each leader with varying effects and risks. I cannot stress enough how refreshing this mechanic is to engage the player as truly Emperor of this group of free individuals.
With all that being said, while straddling the uncanny valley between nostalgic throwback and space grand strategy, Interstellar Space: Genesis still has some charm to it. For an Indie game, it successfully fills a niche that has a particular demand and does it with enough self-awareness to avoid being a stale experience or a cynical moneygrab. Considering the scale, and the fact that it focuses on “4X Impressionism”, despite not being at the heights of something as heavy handed as Stellaris, it is a proof of concept that an old genre can be resurrected. Like Richard Hammond's 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390, the machinery and old style hum perfectly, but this particular roadster does add enough modern amenities to make it stand out. While they should have prioritized some over others, its conservative adherence to the old ways is its saving grace.