Ancient Space Review

When two of my favorite things combine into one neat package it is impossible to overlook how awesome it could be. Real Time Strategy games that take place in the near-vacuum of space have been done a few times in the past, and more often than not have interesting ways of dealing with the three-dimensional environment. Published by Paradox Interactive, CreativeForge Games’ Ancient Space is both similar and different which offers an enjoyable yet challenging single-player experience.

In Ancient Space you command a fleet of various-sized space ships commanded by the Ulysses II carrier on a two-part mission to explore the “Black Zone” of space, and to find out what happened to the Ulysses I that was on a similar mission. Each mission takes place in a varying number of sectors (like islands) within one zone of space. Objectives vary between missions and consist of things such as protecting a structure, intercepting a convoy, and an all out assault on a pirate base.

Story elements are presented via a mixture of real-time voice over during gameplay, and cutscenes in-between missions. I wanted to make a special note to mention that both of these have stellar voice work. The voice acting in Ancient Space is phenomenal and among the best in the industry. Animations within cutscenes also come in very appropriately to match the game’s tone and setting. There is hardly any disconnect between the video style and gameplay visuals, which themselves are top notch.

Ancient Space combat with in-game dialog

Ancient Space combat with in-game dialog

Space manages to be empty and beautiful in the same breath, and Ancient Space portrays this wonderfully. The environments and backdrops are filled with space debris but also leave a lot of open space to accurately depict the lack of help you will be receiving if you begin to fail your given mission objective. Ships and stations are bright colors on a black sheet of stars while objects blend in the background to hide in plain sight. Sometimes not seeing something is just as important as seeing something, and the different levels do well to show this off.

Moving toward more specific graphical models such as the ships and stations, we find they have simplified detail models which ends up benefiting the game more than it hinders gameplay. This leaves a little to be desired if you were expecting ultra higher resolution settings; however, it is worth noting that the game runs very well even on mid-range machines, and even in the largest battles slowdowns are never present. This is largely due to these design choices made on the textures of the different ships to be detailed but not overly so. We won’t find super-high-resolution ships here, but it is acceptable with the nature of a game that doesn’t require us to be constantly looking at the broadside of a cruiser up close.

Ships in Ancient Space are broken up into various size classes ranging from small to extra-large. Larger ships such as carriers are represented by a single vessel that can be quite massive alongside smaller ships such as fighters which are not simply a single small ship, but rather a squadron of small ships. This works very well visually both in making fleets appear more numerous by having more objects than units, and also giving a closer to actual size difference between ships. Size of ship also equates to size of explosion because no words will effectively illustrate how awesome it is to see an enemy XL size ship explode during fleet combat. That is truly a sight to see, and I won’t spoil it here!

Zoom shot of large and small ships

Zoom shot of large and small ships

This brings me to how the game actually plays, and discussing what type of game it actually is and what it’s not. The genre it finds itself identifying most closely with is Real Time Strategy; however, while that gives a general idea of what to expect, it is also far from actuality. Ancient Space plays more like what I call a “Real Time Fleet Strategy Simulator” (with a pause button), but trust me when I say it isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Allow me to explain:

Typical Real Time Strategy games consist of constructing a base, harvesting resources which allows the training of units from said base, and then sending those units to complete an objective which is most of the time to simply destroy the enemy and his base. In Ancient Space there’s no stationary base but rather your fleet’s upgradable carrier along with the controlled and friendly AI ships under its command. This fleet moves around in the given area to complete varying and evolving objectives while trying to not die in the process. See, not so bad.

Your carrier does act in a similar manner to the stationary bases of old in that it is the central construction platform for ships, but being mobile and able to assault incoming ships gives it a substantially more useful presence than simple structures. Your carrier also acts as the generator for resources used in ship construction. Each ship requires a certain amount of energy, material, and replicants (unit capacity); all of which your carrier controls. What it is most effective against depends on the modules and upgrades you fit on it in between missions. These upgrades can enhance speed, armor, resource load, or attack power against the various ship classes. My style is to make the carrier as unbelievably powerful as possible so it kills anything before it has a chance to kill it, by increasing damage output while sacrificing strength. But your strategy and mileage may vary.

Carrier customization screen before mission launch

Carrier customization screen before mission launch

At the start of each mission you may be given some starting ships, but will need to build more to suit whatever task lies ahead of you. After you have assembled your fleet, the actual point-and-click control of your individual and customizable groups of ships is identical to stereotypical RTS games in that you simply select the ships you want to give an order to and then initiate that order by clicking where you want them to go or attack. Command and control is done via left-clicking to select followed by right-clicking an area of space to have your ships move there, or right-clicking another ship to engage the target. Here is where we have a chance to really get creative with strategies and become a fleet commander.

Each ship has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Invader is a small strike aircraft, very good at taking out Large and Extra-Large ships, complete with an ability that launches a barrage of missiles at its target to deal massive damage. However, if you were to send your Invader squadron against a set of Small- or Medium-class fighters it would get destroyed embarrassingly quickly. Fortunately you are not required to memorize or constantly look up these strengths. When issuing an order to attack an enemy you will be greeted with a line illustrating the completion of that order. This line will glow green or red indicating if it is a safe attack or one that will result in failure. If you start to panic in combat just hit space to pause the action and queue up the appropriate assaults tapping space a second time to unleash the power of your coordinated assault.

Movement (white) and safe attack (green) lines are clearly visible during combat

Movement (white) and safe attack (green) lines are clearly visible during combat

Giving these orders is where space-based strategy games can get a little confusing compared to their terrestrial relatives. Land-based RTS games only have to worry about two-dimensional movement because everything either moves along the ground or slightly above it. When exploration and combat venture beyond the atmosphere things typically get a little more complicated as up and down have different meanings. Fortunately for those of us without experience in interstellar travel, Ancient Space takes care of all of this for us.

Combat and movement certainly moves around in three-dimensional space as ships frequently fly up and down when assaulting one another, especially during small craft dogfights and strike runs. The field of combat is not a true three-dimensional space but limited to a set of flat planes inside a larger spherical combat zone. Ships move about in three dimensions but orders are given and interpreted as two-dimensional. Think of it as doing battle on plates floating inside a bubble.

Issuing commands to your fleet within these bubbles is easy thanks to the camera controls being among the simplest I have encountered in strategic gameplay. W-A-S-D keys pan the camera forward, left, back, and right in relative motion to the direction you are looking. Think of this as sliding across the plate. E and Q move the camera up and down, again relative to your vision. Now that we can move across the plane of the floating plate, we need to be able to rotate our view. As mentioned earlier, left-click selects units and right-click gives orders; however, holding right-click and moving the mouse looks around the battlefield the same way your head and eyes would. After using this system for a minute or two it becomes natural and for each given engagement a centerpoint is usually apparent and the camera can be left there until moving on to the next objective.

I mentioned in the beginning about how Ancient Space combines two of my favorite things and if it was not clear before now, those things are strategy games and space exploration. Unfortunately we live in a time when I will not be able to venture into the unknown reaches of our galaxy or get the opportunity to command a battle fleet in whatever situation calls for one. However, with games such as Ancient Space I am able to experience a little bit more about what it would be like to do such things. The strategic elements of the game are solid and function without any problems, just as the visuals offer a palette fitting of a space adventure. Because of the differences Ancient Space has with its kinship in the RTS genre it won’t be the perfect fit for all fans of the scene, however those that take interest in its uniqueness and launch themselves into its grandeur will not be disappointed.

Second Opinion
by Nate Humphries, Tech/Science Editor:

I’m glad that Ancient Space was a very easy game to get into, because it’s been a while since I last played the closest thing, Star Trek: Armada 2. Given that, here’s my take on the game:
I got into the storyline enough to be interested in where it would lead. I only got far enough in to know that it’s a pretty typical start to a story (ship gets lost, go find it), but for all I know Ancient Space could do some really interesting stuff with that. The voice acting and sound effects were pretty good – good use of static in certain situations, etc.

The controls and workflow of movement and maneuvers were not difficult to master at all. Having the pause button really helped with getting to know the layout. It was also incredibly, incredibly helpful to see the red (unacceptable) or green (acceptable) lines when you selected a target for your units. The little info bar above every unit was useful, too – you can see the size of the unit (S, M, L, XL), health, and formation icon.

For me, all the downsides to Ancient Space were in the visual department. There are extremely limited visual options in the menu (resolution, then Very Low, Low, Normal, and High quality), the High quality setting could use some work (it’d be nice to use my available NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770 power), and while there are some moving space objects, it would be amazing if there were more (the nice cosmic backgrounds would become amazingly awesome).

On a personal note (although I think this would be a good thing in general), it’d be nice if there were no unit icons and instead you could pick out attack units based on their inherently unique visual aspect. I found that, when viewing the battlefield from a zoomed-out, normal perspective, having the unit icon completely overlap the actual unit took away from the awesomeness of having space fleets. Instead of seeing the unit itself with the little info bar above it, you see the icon for an Invader instead, with a little of the unit poking out. While that icon disappears the closer you zoom in, I’d much prefer only seeing the unit – even when zoomed all the way out.

Overall, I’m glad that Ancient Space exists, and I plan on playing it more. And maybe that’s enough of a testament to its “good”-ness. I could just stop here, not caring about what CreativeForge Games and Paradox Interactive have to offer, and move on to something else. But I’m drawn in enough to want to see what’ll happen next, the fighting is fun, and maybe most importantly, it’s easy enough to get into for a near-novice. However, I’d encourage the developer to continue their work, upgrading and tweaking the visual aspects as appropriate. That’ll keep me in for the long haul.

In my opinion, Ancient Space is at least worth checking out. I’m not sure it’d be worth $40 or $50, so considering it’s currently $19.99 I think that’s spot-on.

Artimus Charest-Fulks

Artimus Charest-Fulks

I am a technophile and amateur space archaeologist who has been playing games for longer than I can remember. My fuel is an unwavering passion for the escape and immersion only video games offer. I avoid subscribing to any one specific genre and instead look for enjoyment in all that games have to offer. Whether it's nostalgia in Halo, competitive rivalry in Mario Kart, winning strategies in Civilization, living a fantasy in Mass Effect, or anywhere in-between; if there is fun to be had I will surely find it. Go Leafs!
Artimus Charest-Fulks

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