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Fragile Allegiance
Minimum specs:  Unavailable
Developer: In-house
Publisher: Gremlin Interactive
Genre: War Game
Release Date: Out Now No Players:  Unavailable
UK price: £40.00 PC Gamer Score: 91%

Article first published: Issue 38
Writer:  Jonathan Davies

Monopolising
Playing Fragile Allegiance - which is well worth doing, as it's brilliant - involves remembering the following things simultaneously: the mineral content of 20 or 30 asteroids; the levels of your building, vehicle, missile and personnel budgets; the positions, destinations and armaments of up to 10 fleets of spaceships; the capabilities and salary levels of any number of colony supervisors; the extent of each asteroid's stockpile of minerals; the state of construction in each asteroid's shipyards, missile silos and space dock; the diplomatic status of up to 6 races of competing aliens; the arrival date of the Federal Transporter; the nature of any blueprints for new devices on order from the Sci-Tek corporation; the functions of hundreds of ridiculously-shaped icons; the locations and orders of any agents you've engaged; the state of the defences of each of your asteroids; the completion dates of any new buildings you're constructing; and the amounts of each of 10 minerals that are required to build each of 17 types of spaceships and missiles.
Although you can find out this information by clicking on things to bring up lists of statistics, having it all in your head at once is the only way you'll be able to plan what needs doing next.
It's almost - but not quite - impossible.
Not quite impossible until, that is, the phone rings. Or your PC crashes. Or someone shouts across the room for you to write some captions. Or Fragile Allegiance starts loading in one of its wretched 3D animations causing the PC to hang for a couple of seconds. Or a car blows its horn outside the window. Or Mrs Brown comes in with another cup of her infernal tea. Then, suddenly, the whole thing collapses. What was a thriving colony of asteroids, with thousands of colonists busily bustling about, suddenly becomes nothing more than an impenetrable splattering of red dots on a black background. Which one's the base again? Why are those spaceships going over there? Which asteroid's got the transporter on it? It's no good. You've either got to try to piece it all back together again by clicking on everything to see what it's up to, or start again.
Bah.

You see, Fragile Allegiance is kind of like SimCity 2000, Civilization and Risk all rolled into one, and is therefore alarmingly complicated. It's possibly the most complicated game I've ever played, in fact. Even after a week, on and off, at its controls I'm still only just at the stage where I'm starting to think about expanding into enemy territory.

You start off with an asteroid, floating in a sea of blackness. On its surface is one building - a sort of colony starter pack - and hovering above it is a single transporter ship. You've also got 1,000,000 credits to get you started.
Without delay, then, you'll need to start building stuff. Somewhere for your colonists to live, to start with, along with a leisure centre, an oxygen processing plant, a food production centre, a medical centre, a security centre, some solar panels, a power store, and a radiation filter. It doesn't matter where you put them, as long as they're there.

But pretty soon you'll start to run out of money. And the answer to that is to start digging. A geological survey will reveal what your asteroid's made of, and you can then install some mines and some storage vats. Then, eventually, the Federal Transporter will turn up from the sinister TetraCorp organisation (who've sold you the mining franchise), and will take away everything you've mined in exchange for credits.

Sounds simple enough, eh? Ah, but no. You see, out there are hundreds of other asteroids, all brimming with exciting mineral deposits. Except you can't see them. So what you need to do is build a shipyard and a landing pad, construct a couple of scout ships, and send them out to explore. They'll either find nothing or discover another asteroid, which will appear in grey on your map.
And then your expansion can begin. While your scout ships go off exploring elsewhere, and your colonists continue to dig for minerals, you can send your transporter off to set up a new colony on the new asteroid. This will then be able to start churning out ore as well, which you can load onto your transporter and ship back to your first asteroid to be sold to TetraCorp.

As you discover more asteroids and earn more money from TetraCorp, you'll probably start to feel a little limited by the equipment that's available. Luckily, though, the equally sinister Sci-Tek corporation is on hand to sell you the blueprints for better stuff. In exchange for large sums of money they'll provide the blueprints to more efficient mines, better power generators and so on.
And it's about this time that it'll all start to get a bit much. Setting up one colony is pretty good fun, and a second isn't too much trouble, but by about the third you're starting to get a bit fed up with building all the same buildings on every new asteroid you discover. But what also happens about now is that your message indicator will beep, and it'll be a colony supervisor offering his services. Colony supervisors can be employed for a monthly fee to overlook the construction and running of one of more colonies, and are one of the features that make Fragile Allegiance great.
So then. You've got colonies being set up, scout ships exploring, miners mining, and colony supervisors supervising. It's probably about time you discovered that you're not the only one who's been sold a mining franchise by TetraCorp.

The precise number of alien races that are out there depends on the difficulty level you've selected at the start of the game. And your first contact with them could come in one of three ways. (a) One of your scout ships might discover an asteroid that isn't grey, but another colour. You can then send a spy satellite to peek at its surface. (b) You might receive a communication from another race's leader, offering to establish a treaty or something. He'll appear on the screen fully motion-captured and rendered, which has obviously taken Gremlin ages. Or (c) you might suddenly find missiles raining down on one of your asteroids, and fleets of enemy spaceships approaching it.

You see, as well as everything we've already gone through (and sorry about all this lengthy explanation, by the way, but there's no escaping it), Fragile Allegiance is a game of war.
You can play defensively, peppering your asteroids' surfaces with lasers and shielding devices. Or you can get your shipyards to start building attack ships. There are various types of these, and you can specify them with a range of weapons. As usual, the better ones are more expensive. And these can then be assembled into fleets to be given collective orders. As well as that you can construct missile silos and load them up with missiles ready to launch against the enemy.
But, as always, there are problems. While you're putt-putting around in little fighter ships, the baddies seem to have huge destroyers and special lasers. So it's just as well, then, that the impartial Sci-Tek are on hand to help once again. As long as you've got the money they're just as happy to sell you the plans to nuclear missiles as advanced mining equipment, so you can have big spaceships too, right up to the desirable, Super-Star-Destroyer-scale Command Cruiser. To build the larger ones, though, you'll need to construct a space dock above your base. And then, as your ships and missiles launch their attack, you can cut to the view from your spy satellite and watch spaceships wheeling through the air, laser bolts criss-crossing the sky, and buildings erupting in flames. It's great.

So you're searching for new asteroids, mining, ferrying ore around, constructing colonies, bartering with Sci-Tek and TetraCorp and fending off attacks from baddies. And it doesn't stop there. There's diplomacy, whereby you can negotiate treaties with other races and make pacts, calling upon the Federation to mediate when necessary. There are agents, who you can send to spy on and sabotage competing asteroids. There are natural disasters, like diseases and equipment break-downs. There are traders who'll call in from time to time. There's the fact that the asteroids are actually moving very slowly, which means that as well as new asteroids sometimes floating into range, you've got collisions to worry about. There's the steady depletion of each asteroid's supply of ore. There is, in short, enough to fill an entire issue of PC Gamer, let alone four pages.

Which doesn't leave much room for the 'how good it is' stuff, so it's to be hoped that, in explaining the game's immense scope, I've somehow managed to convey just how absorbing and enjoyable it is.
Much about Fragile Allegiance is maddening. The hundreds of icons, for example, which are labelled with silly pictures rather than the English Language which we've taken centuries to develop for this very purpose. The Control key can be held down to give a description of their function as you pass the mouse over them, and I found I was still having to do this after a week playing the game. It's also annoying the way you can only access certain functions from certain screens - for example, you can only look at your budgets from the 'asteroid surface' view, while you can only juggle colony supervisors from the 'map' view. Icons have just been placed wherever there's room for them, rather than where actually might make sense.
Rather more fundamentally, there's the time you have to spend shuffling ore around. Pretty soon it becomes clear that the way to succeed is to concentrate your mining efforts on the asteroids with the most valuable minerals tucked away on them, and then have another asteroid with your command centre on it along with spaceship construction facilities and some huge storage containers. Ore teleporters can then be set up on the mining asteroids to transport ore to this central asteroid to be made into spaceships and sold to TetraCorp. But that means that every few minutes you've got to do a tour of all your asteroids, clicking on the ore teleporter on each one, clicking on teleport, clicking on 'Select Destination', selecting your central asteroid, clicking on OK, and moving up and down the list of minerals teleporting them over before moving on to the next asteroid. When you've got ten or so asteroids this rapidly becomes tedious, and really needs some way of automating it, or at least for asteroids to remember where they're meant to be teleporting to.

But because there's so much else going on - because as soon as you finish one thing then something else starts happening - Fragile Allegiance is virtually impossible to stop playing. You're always just seconds away from colonising a new asteroid, or being able to afford a new sort of missile, or your fleet arriving at an enemy asteroid, or the Federal Transporter arriving to give you loads more money. It hooks you in just the same way as Colonization or SimCity, but is a very different game to play with its fleets of spaceships and alien races. Ridiculous icons aside, the interface it uses is wonderful, making the sort of chirpy beeping noises that all computers ought to be emitting by this stage in the 20th century. And even days into it you're still discovering new ways of playing, new weapons, and new little tricks.

It's been a dreadfully tedious review, I know. But imagine the exact opposite - something really exciting and gripping - and that's Fragile Allegiance. Very few PC games can honestly be said to be worth the money, but this one definitely can, and will give you more hours of fun per pound than just about anything else Western culture has to offer. Just ensure you find a secluded spot to play it in.

Final Score
   

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