When one thinks about space 4X games, and about publisher Slitherine Ltd., they almost undoubtedly think of their hugely successful Distant Worlds series. It has provided countless hours of entertainment for its fans and has spawned numerous well-received expansions. One might wonder how their upcoming release, Polaris Sector from developer SoftWarWare, fits into their portfolio. On the surface, they share a lot, but underneath the bones are quite different.
Polaris Sector may be another real-time space 4X game, but it’s still one of a very few in that category. Ship combat is also in real-time, but it takes place on a separate instanced map outside of normal galactic time. Both of these modes include numerous speed adjustments and the game often pauses whenever something interesting is going on. I can safely say you will feel comfortable, given the options available to you, even if you hate hectic RTS games.
The game includes 9 fully customizable races to choose from and 10 customizable galaxy types. Each race has their own unique portrait, background, and ship models. Most of the racial traits are percentage based bonuses to certain actions, but it is possible to select a bonus starting technology or the ability to colonize less hospitable planets. Galaxy settings include shape and number of stars. Every galaxy uses star lanes, and because of that, you can shape your galaxy to accommodate a more open or defensively oriented game as you see fit. The number of stars can get very high, but given how easy it is to automate your colony developments using policies, it is relatively easy to manage a rather large empire.
In our “A List of Space/Sci-Fi/Fantasy Games You Can’t Miss in 2016” article, we mentioned that a couple of Polaris Sector’s key features include its “Innovative research system” and “Unique espionage system”. I’ve not experienced the espionage system enough yet to say how unique it is, but I can say with confidence that the research system is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. That’s not to say that there aren’t other areas of variation too. Multi-decked ship design is a new concept. Oh, and I should mention the diplomatic response tree which can sometimes include up to 10 different requests or responses.
With the game’s launch coming up soon, on March 22nd, 2016, it is high time I provide you some thoughts on the game as it stands in its current beta state. Of course, all the usual caveats around a beta apply here. I’ve also not spent enough time to fully evaluate the game as I will for the review, so my thoughts should be viewed as first impressions only.
Time and Space
One of the things that struck me right away with Polaris Sector is its sense of time scale. Perhaps I’m just accustomed to turn-based games, but I noticed right away that everything takes quite a bit longer than I expected. I mentioned that turn-based fans shouldn’t fear the real-time nature of the game with good reason, as I found myself cranking up the speed to maximum quite often early on. While on normal difficulty you will start with a ship to explore with, on hard difficulty you start with nothing, and waiting many years for your first scout to finish building will get you acquainted with the speed adjustments early on. When you have everything set to max speed it moves along at good pace, but I find most of the slower settings unusable due to the time it takes to build and even travel.
Another aspect of the game that jumped out right away at me was the degree of automation. The game seems clearly designed to accommodate very large empires. As you explore, you can click any worthwhile planet and select “Plan Colonization”. This designates that planet for colonization and automatically queues up a colony ship at one of your planets. Once colonized, it is possible to initiate manually control, but the construction options are limited to the point that micromanaging seemed unnecessary. It is mostly a matter of building multiple farms, factories, or research stations that stack up with an indicator showing how many of these you’ve built. Farms x74 for example. There are a number of policies that can be set per colony that essentially act as governors controlling what it will build. Typically, these decisions are straightforward and involve setting a policy that best exploits that planet’s best attribute. For instance, with earth-like planets typically agriculture or innovation (research) is best. With a frozen or desert world, mineral or production may be a better option. Ultimately, because your empire has a global economy that combines all resources and shares them with all planets, it comes down to min-maxing.
I mentioned how exploration allows you to plan colonization, and should you find a nice earth-like planet rich in minerals, it is a no-brainer to do so right away. You’ll discover other planets that with proper research can become inhabitable later on, but at the beginning earth-like and oceanic are the best choices, though your racial attributes can vary these somewhat. Aside from planets, you may encounter pirates, if you’ve enabled them. There is also space debris around some planets that can contain a cache of resources or one of numerous parts to an ancient ship. Unfortunately, beyond that, space is an empty void. Until you encounter another major race, you’ll have to be content with pirates and the search for hospitable planets.
I was pleased to see a somewhat radical alternative to the standard research system seen in 4X games. I suspect that with a better understanding of how it all works, and of what is good to have, that some fine tuning can certainly be done here. Your science points are divided, based on a percentage you set, between fundamental science and applied science. Fundamental science is then sub-divided into percentages in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics. Leveling up in these unlocks access to new applied sciences you can research like Antimatter and Xenobiology. Then, researching those, unlocks actual technologies you can use. It’s all a very complex balancing act that to the uninitiated is certainly overwhelming. I found myself selecting a few specific techs to prioritize and for the most allowing research to run on autopilot the rest of the time.
By Space, Land, and… Sea?
Ship design is an area worth mentioning due to the multiple tiers available on most ships. While modular ship design is nothing truly new, the concept of placing turrets on top of the ship and other modules in the middle and lower decks is. Weapon slots are pre-defined, as are engines, and weapons in lower decks have smaller firing arcs than those placed on the top. Armor is applied to the ship as a whole and isn’t a placed component. Inside the ship you can place engines, scanners, hangars, fuel, and other components you research and unlock.
Overall, ship design works well except for the intense mini-game that is space optimization. Each ship for each race has a unique layout, and with modules being 5×5 and larger in many cases, it can become a tedious activity trying to figure out how to best fit everything in. Leaving as
much little empty space as possible is typically the goal, but it is not one that is easily achieved here. Those who demand symmetric ship layouts are going to have nightmares in this regard.
Space combat takes place in real-time while ground combat is simulated. I don’t think I’ve ventured far enough into the game to truly explore the depths of space combat, but thus far with only a few ships the level of tactics in play is very limited. The tutorial does teach proper use of fighters and anti-fighters, which is about as far as I’ve taken the tactics thus far. More typical is grouping my ships into a pile and sending them in to focus fire down enemy ships.
Ground combat is interesting in that it involves a rather complex rock, paper, scissor type system involving tanks, marines, police, fighters, ground attack aircraft, and even sea faring ships. Once your troops and other units are deployed, a meter displays who is going to win without further intervention and in how long. It’s not in my experience uncommon to see very prolonged 30+ year ground battles over planets.
My beta experiences
Honestly, my first impressions of the game were poor. I first played through the tutorial, and I am hoping it will get some work and become a bit more comprehensive by release. While it explained some basic concepts, I felt like it left out a lot of information regarding the more confusing and uniquely implemented areas such as diplomacy and research. Despite this, I found that my first game on normal difficulty that I was completely dominating the AI who admittedly seemed to be reluctant to expand from their home systems. While I had established 10 colonies, when I found my nearest rivals they had only 1 or 2. I was also beating them in production, development, and research, despite hardly knowing what I was doing. Exploration isn’t overly exciting, so without any AI pressure and a highly automated empire, I was left feeling rather empty.
Not content to accept the experience I was having as all Polaris Sector had to offer, I began a new game against the hard AI. I noticed right away that every game I started had me facing an immediate adjacent pirate threat. Pirates swooped in and demanded reparations within a few short moments each time. I tried multiple races, spawned multiple galaxies, and yet every time the pirates were on my doorstep. It was then that I thought to myself, perhaps the hard AI changes more than just a few AI percentages as we so often see. I decided to start again, hard AI, this time with pirates turned off, and the pirates were gone, but this time I didn’t start with any ships at all. Hmm, I was intrigued.
It didn’t take long to discover a galaxy of AIs that actually cared about expanding. They were in-fact boxing me in and making demands whenever I left a nearby system undefended. The galactic charts showed them outpacing me in several key areas. I was driven to start over, so that I could try harder early on, and I found that their willingness to expand and conquer was once again alive and well. They were fighting among each other even, and had troops on the ground performing hostile takeovers. I tried to offer assistance to the smaller empire, but they told me to stop wasting their time when I asked for a small gift in return. They subsequently lost their planet, so I felt somewhat vindicated.
At this point, I have conflicted thoughts based on my time spent with the beta version of the game. I suspect the AI is still being tuned, especially in normal mode. I’m more concerned about the multiple systems and mechanisms I feel aren’t intuitive or covered by the tutorial. As a long time 4X player, the research system left me feeling left in the dark. The diplomatic system seemed unwilling to give up its secrets, left to make responses and requests without knowing what I was really asking for or why the AI was accepting, or more typically, denying them.
Other aspects of the game, like per planet initiatives that adjust planet output and modifiers, and a global control that adjusts the number of working hours per day, are unusual but interesting additions that may someday prove useful to me when I figure out how to properly use them. I find it interesting that this level of control is made available while at the same time exploration is left uneventful and boring. I also found that even in my small empire I was losing touch with planetary unrest. Despite numerous automation controls, the game didn’t queue up police to deal with this, leaving me to micromanagement this aspect in a way that seemed at odds with the rest of the game. At this point I am hopeful that with more time invested with the final non-beta product I will find many of my fears alleviated and a more enjoyable experience, but only time will tell.
Polaris Sector is a real-time (pausable) space 4X strategy game currently being developed by SoftWarWare and published by Slitherine for the Windows PC, and is expected to release on March 22nd of 2016.
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