It’s been a while since I played a 4X/RTS hybrid. Despite leaving its Early Access stage yesterday, Dawn of Andromeda proves that a video game which shows great promise, can also keep its word in terms of promises made to its players and early buyers/supporters. Nonetheless, it is the Steam debut of its developer, Grey Wolf Entertainment.
I was play testing extensively the Early Access when out of the blue, that stage was over and I could finally sink my teeth into the proper Dawn of Andromeda storyline. The highly anticipated (by me) Eras. You may consider them scenarios focusing on very specific objectives and struggles between two or more factions. Before the campaign was launched, I had to contend with a sandbox mode of sorts, titled “Custom Game”. It was more than fine yet it could hardly fill the void for a proper story. Along came the Eras and while I shall not spoil anything to you, know that its main plot line focuses on the causes and effects of a cataclysmic event, triggered by mindless warfare and religious zealotry. Why does it sound so familiar to me?
It’s still debatable if Dawn of Andromeda’s graphics engine is running Unity 5 assets, but as far as players are concerned, the game looks gorgeous. In the several hours I spent building up my galactic empires, I haven’t met a single bug, glitch or crash to desktop. The frame rate was constantly pushing 60 FPS while rendering at 4K resolution. An Early Access that features absolutely no technical issues isn’t something you take for granted. I have obviously met none, even after two days since the game’s full release. Textures were featuring the right amount of detail and variety, but I’d still like to see more ship design features, other than a few templates that only have modifiable loadouts and no aesthetic options as well. At least the chance to alter the faction and unit color schemes would be welcome.
The sounds are not quite on par with the eye candy in Dawn of Andromeda. Sure, the soundtrack is a soothing and genre specific, yet the sound effects are lacking in diversity and there is absolutely no voice acting. Not for the intro cinematics or for the various task and interface screens between major or minor species. I probably got too used to the diplomatic screen from the more recent Civilization titles, but I’d like at least a few lines of spoken dialogue when interacting with the AI allies or foes. We’re negotiating intergalactic peace over here, so they should spare the time to properly thank me for that.
I mentioned in the Introduction section two acronyms. Perhaps some of you are more familiar to RTS (real time strategy) than 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”), yet they both represent old school staples of the strategic gaming genre. Recent years may have been less kind to 4X since this subgenre has always been harder to implement or improve over the existing formula (micromanagement can rarely get streamlined), but I still like to think that it’s more than just a niche demand for strategy games that incorporate in-depth elements of politics and diplomacy, because 4X is as much about waging total war as it is about brokering a lasting peace. Ensuring technological advancement, without neglecting society’s constant need for changes in its structure. Politics may be a dreary subject to some players, yet such video games may present a more “digestible” version to the real life negotiations which are never as smooth or straightforward as the mass media portrays them.
The Artificial Intelligence in 4X games needs to be sharper than in many other strategic subgenres, since the gameplay is more static. Even in Dawn of Andromeda’s case, where you experience all the drama and joys of empire building in real time, you will pause the game often enough or at least play at half the “normal” speed. Many decisions to consider, orders to issue and planning your next move should never be rushed, unless you wish to gamble away your units or survival odds. In the Eras campaigns, the AI cannot be fiddled with, but I found its tweaking options in the sandbox mode to be quite efficient. Playing in an custom galaxy and with the specific factions you desire as your competitors, you can set their behavior to either Expansionist, Survivalist or Diplomatic. It goes without saying that if you wish to play the game at a considerably slower pace, you must set your future AI rivals to a more Diplomatic conduct and you can then research the entire tech tree in Dawn of Andromeda before they’d dare to lift a finger against you, no matter how close you get to their homeland.
Speaking of acquiring new territories, colonial expansion is the bread and butter in Dawn of Andromeda. Your fleets of space ships can be assigned certain roles, such as mining resource-rich asteroids, surveying anomalies or colonizing other planets. Right from the start, you won’t be able to expand on every single world you set your eyes upon, but with proper research in a few unlockable projects, you may inhabit even the most inhospitable environment if you’re interested in the resources hosted by the planet in question. Trading with the other species you encounter, will be your second most important source of income, after taxation itself. You will need all the credits you can squeeze from your citizens, in order to assemble and maintain an efficient defensive fleet.
I hope the dev team shall add the option of retrofitting the ships with newly researched tech advancements, instead of forcing me to disband units and commission new vessels in their place. Never mind the cost, it’s a time consuming process which could spell disaster during an ongoing conflict. You have full control over all crucial aspects of you space empire. You influence the finances, industry, agriculture, diplomacy, internal policies, military and research efforts. If that doesn’t sound like an easy job, it probably ain’t. But this is a video game and unlike real life, you can always load a previous save file, if you think you screwed up things beyond repair. Ideology also plays an important role and your Council of ministers/governors needs to be reconciled, lest you invite rebellion or civil war upon your doorstep. You will understand soon enough that democracy is just the compromise you accept out of fear for its alternatives.
Dawn of Andromeda is a real-time 4X strategy title done right. It doesn’t sacrifice well established gameplay mechanics for the sake of “modernity”. It’s streamlined enough to appease new players but at the same time, it doesn’t antagonize the subgenre veterans. If you consider it overpriced, just wait for a bundled offer or better yet, a Steam Sale which is more predictable. In case you’re wondering why even old 4X games are seemingly overpriced, you need to understand that the AI, interface complexity and potential for hundreds of gameplay hours, cannot be offered at the price tag of more simple and repetitive genres. Don’t compare apples to oranges. They are priced accordingly. Even if you’re not a die-hard fan of strategy, Dawn of Andromeda’s tutorial screens will guide you towards the galactic conquest you’ve always dreamed of!
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.