Oh boy! Are we going to try something dangerous? Sorry, had to work the reference in there somewhere.
Blink and you’ll miss it. Or, at least, “be sick nigh unto death itself with food poisoning and ye shall not see it.” Last week, while my guts were re-staging the storming of the Bastille, Paradox showed off the first live-play session with forthcoming sci-fi 4x game, Age of Wonders: Planetfall. But wait, you say, isn’t Age of Wonders a fantasy series? Not this time, friend, though the video does show off some classic Age of Wonders / fantasy 4x mechanics adapted to sci-fi with grace and aplomb.
Maybe it’s just the legacy of Master of Orion (the game the term “4x” was coined to describe) alongside Spaceward Ho! and VGA Planets, but I immediately associate sci-fi 4x games with starmaps and interstellar exploration (expansion, etc.). Historical and fantasy 4x, that happens on a world map, but when things go planetside in a sci-fi strategy game, we usually hop the fence from turn-based 4x to scenario-based RTS.
Watching the Planetfall video, I kept seeing “fantasy” mechanics, but I was consistently impressed with how they’d been re-considered in a sci-fi context. There are melee-focused units, for example, but very few that have no ranged weapons. Designing a mech for production looked more like slotting equipment onto a hero than the baroque starship designers common in space 4x games. An artillery attack worked more-or-less like a spell (the devs even call it a spell, if you’re paying attention), but had a feel that reminded me of plotting artillery fire for the next turn back in the days of The Perfect General, as the big boom came at the beginning on that player’s next turn.
I think I’m hooked, I just don’t know why the devs chose to play as a pasty faction of boring humans with a hero who looked like a young Burt Reynolds (requiescat in pace), fresh off the set of Smokey and the Bandit, auditioning for the part of Han Solo. They could have been playing
Klackons, Zerg Tyrranids anthropomorphic insects! With swarming bonuses and acid spit and antennae and everything!
Easily-customized mechs are all well and good, but if you want to spend hours kitting out your giant robots, right down to micromanaging their armour plating a fraction of a tonne at a time, there’s Battletech, and the forthcoming DLC “Flashpoint” finally corrects one of my (very few) complaints with Harebrained Schemes’s vision of the Succession Wars: you now have (mission-specific) reasons to use your light and medium mechs alongside your Atlases and Orions!
Battletech restricts the player’s deployments to a fixed number of mechs, rather than a maximum tonnage, and that works well for game balance and progression, but also limits one’s tactics somewhat. I often wanted to trade out a Heavy or Assault mech for a couple of spotters, and now I may get the chance. I’d really like to see a Battletech game that uses (more or less) the same system, but scaled up from single lances to the company level (3+ lances and supporting vehicles). One of the things my 7 year-old kept asking about when we played Battletech together was why we didn’t get any vehicles (tanks, APCs, missile carriers).
To make a game like that work, customization would have to be pared back dramatically or limited to “heroic” lances, and there’d have to be compromises made in terms of how the game is displayed: as it is, Hairbrained had to address players’ desire for faster animations, and even that wouldn’t be enough to keep company-level battles from dragging on interminably. Still, I can dream.
Flashpoint is due out sometime in November. There’s no release date yet for Planetfall, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Paradox is buttering us up for Xmas.