This vision of the future feels just a little historic
Armada 2526 has just shipped a new Gold edition: developers Ntronium Games have taken the time to add a whole host of new features and races to last year’s 4X simulator, and offered an even fuller package for the gamers’ buck. Offering all the joys of exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination, Armada 2526 certainly ticks the boxes – unfortunately, it just seems to have done them from the turn of the 21st century as opposed to the 26th. But let’s start with the good stuff – Armada’s main strength is in its turn based development phases, and luckily, there’s plenty of these to go around. Starting from a home planet, with limited resources, you, as the head of your race, must help conquer the galaxy by any means possible. By researching and developing technology and equipment, you build armadas, WMDs, population controls and much, much more, all of which allow you to exert your tyrannical control over your people and other species, or simply benevolently develop into a galactic buddha. Of this, by far the most fun for me was developing subterfuge and Special Forces, to secretly hide troops on neighbours’ planets and report back or sabotage their defences in the preparation for an attack. Coupling this with overly friendly diplomacy and favourable trade terms really brought out the hidden “diplomat” in me, and added a lot to the fun. Tied into this is the development and research processes: the classic formula of decision trees and research points works well here, with players pushed into certain paths to really develop the best stuff. Often your choices pay out in ways you wouldn’t expect, and the great Skunkworks option adding an element of random development to proceedings if you wish. Again, it’s nothing new, but it’s handled so very well it’s a lot of fun. For newcomers, Armada has a wonderfully gentle lead-in: the game takes time to explain all the nuances of every aspect of the gameplay, and offer advice on how everything ties together, all of which is readily referential for the newcomer. It’s just a shame it’s all blocks of texts and stuck-on pointers, as the potential for a bit of interactivity wouldn’t have gone amiss. Which brings me nicely onto the first major hiccup: the presentation. Lacking in sound effects, speech or even animation when liaising with other species means they all appear as a rather lifeless sets of demands, instead of motivated and purposeful races. It’s a real shame too, as often treaties and trade agreements could add some depth to interstellar relations, but seem instead to fall a bit flat into simple lists of expectations and demands.
Armada lets itself down on just enough fronts to go from a must-play to a possibly-rent
And then we get into the combat – real-time ship battles in space, with fleets doing battle on the fly against opponents, whether in defence of a planet or simply a chance fracas in space. The trailers for it look amazing, with ships rendered in glorious 3D appearing to fight simultaneously across the expanses of space. In truth, though, it’s a lot less fun: two fleets line up on a 2d grid, swim towards one another and scrap it out in slow combat, reminiscent of early Star Trek episodes, as opposed to the fluid and dynamic combat expected so often nowadays. The loss of the third dimension is really quite a big thing: plans of attack tend towards the ubiquitous rush tactics, with nuanced thought and planning going out the window somewhat and being replaced by “biggest fleet wins”. Perhaps I missed something, but it really feels that if you can build a big enough fleet early on in the game, the rest is a doddle, wherein you can basically set up a perimeter of ships and slowly expand out to crush all in your path. A third dimension and a little more balance to ships strengths and weaknesses would have gone a long way here. At least you can automate it, though. There’s also an alarming lack of multiplayer, limited to seatswapping on one PC, LAN play or play by email – surely some simple internet play is no tall ask in this day and age? If you are new to the 4X genre, there’s worse places to start, although I would say there’s also a lot of better ones too. At least Armada has the training wheels on for long enough that the switch from tutorial to main game doesn’t have that “edge of the chasm” feel sometimes found in other games, but again, it lacks the depth of other games too. You certainly won’t find anything in here you haven’t seen somewhere else (and often in a shinier format), but it’s tough to call Armada a total failure; more a labour of love that gets the fundamentals right without pushing any boundaries. If only the combat was more engaging, the simplicity could be overlooked, but in a genre so reliant on getting all the disparate parts right, Armada lets itself down on just enough fronts to go from a must-play to a possibly-rent.
The Bad: Looks about 10 years old, and often plays similar; no 3D in space combat; no new ideas; multiplayer limited to local, LAN or PBEM