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.
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!
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.
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.
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.