Light of Altair Review
By Michael Richter |
For a game made by two people and on sale for $15, this is a pretty decent entry to the economic strategy market even if it's unlikely to win any awards. Starting on future Earth, Light of Altair challenges players to push out into the solar system and, eventually, nearby stars in the galaxy. It's all about constructing colonies on planets, building up resources, and massing fleets for war. While the concept is great and the game has a low barrier of entry for players just getting into strategy, veteran players will probably find frustration along with the fun and will be left wishing for a little more complexity.
While many strategy games put most of their emphasis on military strategy and tactics, Light of Altair shies away from that by putting the emphasis on the economics of colonization and war. In this way, it's probably more comparable to games like the Anno series than Sins of a Solar Empire (minus the obvious sci-fi space comparison.) Each scenario puts you in charge of a fledgling colony which you must build to prosperity in order to colonize yet more planets in the system and compete with rival factions.
Fleets mobilizing.Once you've colonized a few planets and grown them successfully, you'll know the pattern and some of the game's initial luster will wear off. There are no considerations about trading goods between planets so in many cases there's very little reason to pick one planet over another for colonization. There also aren't as many terrain considerations when expanding colonization on a planet as in a normal city builder or grand strategy game. Where building economy and eventually a military presence in a game such as 1701 A.D. or The Settlers (or even a standard RTS like Age of Empires) becomes trickier, more complicated, and more fun with new terrain designed for challenges, Altair eliminates the necessity for deep consideration about how you're going to set up a planet. Of course, this has the great opposite effect of being easy to learn, which lowers the level of complication for players new to the genre.
There are planets with pockets of land that can't be used for construction and planets with and without atmosphere but the impact on strategy and play is minimal in my experience. It doesn't necessitate the planning and strategy of claiming the mountain/desert just to get a certain resource for trade or placing a city to block a rival's further expansion like you would find in Civilization. Where you put a new colony matters less than what you put into it and how you repeat the process. A couple of farms and an energy plant, then wait for growth. A few more farms and maybe a research facility or some industry and mines, wait for growth. Some more farms and some buildings for happiness, wait for growth.... Because there aren't any proximity bonuses for buildings, they can basically be placed wherever you wish without much thought. It's about following a recognized pattern of development that really doesn't change overly much the farther and farther you get into the game. There may be improved versions of buildings, but very few game changing concepts.
This isn't to say Light of Altair doesn't demand some planning. Some missions initially allow you to take your time, but when enemies come into the system, you'll need to spread out quickly to fend off their attempts at expansion and eventually fight them. It becomes more about choosing between balancing the development of a single world (which is a bit cheaper in the short run and can pay huge dividends in the long run) and expanding to another world (which may have good resources but will cost a lot to colonize and build up to a point of viability). Even more, there are special planets with asteroids in orbit that provide good resources with not as much building up. Considering these resources give you both materials and the precious fuel needed to keep a fleet, these usually small planets become valuable enough to eschew larger planets to grab them.
For a game that tries to equalize the importance of combat and economy in missions, the two sides aren't actually very balanced. The number of fleets under your control and what you can actually do with them is pretty limited. There are no tactics involved in the game, making the combat a bit more Civilization-like in its approach. Two fleets come together and whichever one has higher technology and numbers will generally win.
Fire everything!The AI that runs what are basically cinematic battles (you can watch it play out even if you can't control anything) is tactically poor. To be fair, it's universally poor so the computer enemies won't have an advantage over you. For a long-time strategy game player, it's frustrating to watch fighter ships simply fly on ahead to be destroyed when they could just hang back while your capital ships fire their long range heavy damage weapons. Even more frustrating is watching those capital ships with deadly long range weapons go wading into close ranged combat when they aren't outfitted for that purpose.
The strategy in war is more about the toys you employ than anything else. There are four ship chassis and a space station that can be outfitted with a variety of weapons, armor types, shields, and fighter bays. Picking the right equipment to deal with the enemy at hand is the key. Some of the enemies you fight will be more inclined to use laser technology while others will prefer conventional warheads. Some will outfit their ships with shields while other times they'll rely on basic armor. It's a matter of testing the waters and finding the correct solution and then changing up your ship schematics to suit the enemy. Every ship chassis has to have the same load-out all the time making early skirmishes with enemies an important event for gathering intelligence in order to make the right adjustments to your own fleet schematics.