As a life-long science-fiction fan, I’ve always had a passion for conquer-the-galaxy games, ever since I first booted up SSG’s now-classic Reach for the Stars. What other gaming genre offers such vast scope for the megalomaniac within us? I mean, conquering the world is nice, but conquering a hundred worlds is a challenge worthy of any gamer’s mettle.
During the eight years I’ve been writing about PC games, I’ve played almost every game published in this category. All have been entertaining; some, such as Master of Orion, have been superb.
So I don’t make the following statement lightly: Ascendancy, the Logic Factory’s debut offering, is simply the best game of its type yet published. It’s a creation of such scope, elegance, richness, and sheer addictive playability that it’s a thing of wonder.
First things first: the online tutorial is the finest I’ve ever seen. It divides a truly huge game into seven digestible learning segments, then leads you gently through each. Every interface function is clearly explained; the consequences of every mouse-click are demonstrated; and you can back up, start over, or replay isolated segments any time you like. There is no need to crack a manual.
The game-elements are traditional for the genre: exploration, technological development, diplomacy, war. If you’ve played Master of Orion, the basic system will be familiar, although Ascendancy is much deeper than even that classic.
Each game begins with user-chosen parameters: how big and dense the galaxy; how many alien species you want to interact with (as many as seven); how volatile is the political mood; and, finally, which species you want to be. Homo sapiens is not an option, but you can play as -- and against -- 21 wildly varied alien races, from glowering cyborgs to sentient gas-bags. Each species has a "special ability," but since the computer randomizes your opponents, the challenges are always new and different.
According to The Logic Factory, there are more than 100,000 possible combinations of species and abilities. Add to that the varying galaxy sizes and political attitudes, and the total permutations become -- well, astronomical.
As you send out your first exploration and colonizing ships, you’ll gain greater knowledge of the star-lanes connecting the various systems. The galactic map is constantly updated as control of vital lanes passes from one species to another, and it can be rotated, enlarged, and customized to present just the information you need.
Once you’ve got colonies, you can set them on "self-management," and they’ll generally develop in a logical and balanced way. You’ll want to check on them periodically, however, because incompetent management does occur, resulting in wasted resources, lost time, needlessly vulnerable defenses, etc.
Research progress is shown by means of a branching-tree diagram; each new discovery leads to several possible new projects, and one of your most vital tasks is to set priorities for your scientists. The game’s designers have really out-done themselves here, coming up with some of the zaniest gizmos conceivable -- weapons that "jumble reality" inside enemy ships, "nano-twirlers" to supply energy, even an interstellar version of the Internet.
Of course, sooner or later, war breaks out. Both spaceship battles and planetary sieges are depicted with colorful animated sequences -- great death-ray and fireball effects! -- accompanied, as is all the action, with terrific sounds. When you knock out an enemy ship, it vaporizes in a spectacular sequence, supplying a real rush.
There are good tactical options (if your technology is advanced enough, you can actually block enemy star-lanes), and the amazing array of weaponry, coupled with those sneaky "special abilities," makes for constant surprises. One very aggressive race, the Minions, has a special ability to pass through planetary shields as though they were tissue paper, and the only way to defend against them is with powerful Orbital Whoppers.
Diplomacy is handled in the conventional manner -- you contact aliens, or they contact you, and you click on questions and responses. Alliances are possible (until you’re ready to break them, naturally...), and navigational and research data can be exchanged. Given the big number of possible attitudes and priorities, the diplomacy aspect can get pretty Machiavellian -- which is, of course, a major part of the fun.
The amount of detail packed into each element of Ascendancy is wonderful: every game is different, and each is full of gratifying little discoveries and Easter-egg enlightenments. Moreover, each major element is balanced against the others with an incredible combination of force and delicacy. Your colonies’ productivity and strategic value depend on a subtle mix of their happiness, prosperity, and brute output. If you make a risky decision early in the game, it could come back to haunt you, or even exterminate you, centuries later.
And yet, for all the mind-boggling depth, for all the interplanetary slaughter and diplomatic mayhem, the tone of the entire colossal product is always this simple: let’s have as much pure fun with all this stuff as possible.
I’ve played about seventy hours’ worth of Ascendancy as of this writing, and I still haven’t had enough. The game lures you in with its tight, clean interface, its sexy graphics and delightful music, and its tail-wagging tutorial -- then it grips you like a python in the seemingly endless coils of its complexities and subtleties. The box should carry a big warning label: "This game can cause severe addiction, domestic strife, wrist-fatigue, and can result in missed deadlines if you happen to be a writer."
The year isn’t over yet, and there’s still a tidal wave of good stuff bearing down on us, but I’ll go on record right now: Ascendancy is strategy game of the year, at least as far as this hopelessly addicted reviewer is concerned.
--William R. Trotter