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Two Atypical Takes To 4X

Alright, now that I got that off my chest, lets get down to something worth talking about: gaming!  I had a few words to say about Drox Operative and Fallen Enchantress.

Drox Operative: Diablo And Master Of Orion's Lovechild

So I've been kicking around this idea in my head for awhile while I was seeking the holy grail of gaming.  The idea is that, "What if we were to take the dynamic content generation system of a 4X game, like Civilization or Master Of Orion, and make it play like a roleplaying game where the player is actually just a single individual living in those dynamically generated worlds?"  Unlimited quests with extremely well-modeled consequences, that's what!

Apparently I was not the only one who had this idea, as this was the same idea that Soldak Entertainment came up with in their latest release, Drox Operative.  It probably should not surprise anyone that it's Soldak that did this, because their previous games (Din's Curse, Dens Of Peril, Kivi's Underworld) were very much the idea of "Diablo, if the dungeon could come up and wipe out the town if you failed to address your quests in time."  In other words, these guys are ahead of the curve in producing "emergent" RPGs.

The first thing you might suspect of a software company that makes Diablo clones is that, if they tried to make a Master Of Orion RPG, it would probably play too much like a Diablo clone.  You'd be right, the Diablo-like repetitive gameplay is Drox Operative's primary problem: it's too hack and slashy (except you're in a ship going pewpewpew all the time) in that you're just constantly killing stuff in order to collect loot (ship components) with randomized properties and selling what you don't want to equip at the nearest merchant (friendly planet) for gold (credits) over and over again.

But, that said, lots of people play Diablo clones despite their repetition, and it seems that there was indeed some merit to the idea of playing Master Of Orion from the inside.  Just as I hoped this formula would, stories get told throughout the course of the gameplay; dramatic space operas result from the random happenstances.

How does all that play out?  Well, first the sector is randomly generated with solar systems and planets, some of the planets are assigned to each of the empires, and you're then plopped down into the middle of the sector.  The empires immediately start expanding - let them worry about all the messy 4X game logistics - and you get to be there when the kind of stuff happens that you'd expect to see happening in Master of Orion: space monsters attack, new technologies are researched, diplomacy fails, and so on. 

Most excitingly of all, as a member of the ultra powerful Drox Operative guild, you have center stage, with the power to change the course of galactic history, whether it be through combat or even various means of subterfuge, such as planting rumors about the other races (inciting them to war or peace) sabotaging planets, or stealing technology.  Your lonesome ship (perhaps with a few friends playing cooperatively with you) has just as much sway as a powerful space empire.

If this went on forever, it would just lead to stagnation.  However, you can "win" each sector in one of five ways before taking your ship (with everything you earned) to the next randomized sector:
  • Conquest - Form an alliance with the last empire left alive, possibly assisting them in eliminating the competition.  Reward: One medium chest plus one "rare or better, race-specific" component from your ally.
  • Diplomacy - Form an alliance with all surviving empires, who are also allied with each other.  Reward: One small chest from each surviving faction.
  • Economic - Perform quests and trade in the diplomacy interface and the Drox Operative guild gets paid a cut for all your hard work.  Earn enough credits, you win.  Reward: One medium chest plus half of your "earnings."
  • Fear - Earn enough "fear" points by generally being a scourge, decimating planets, launching doomday weapons, ect.  Reward: One medium reward chest plus one small chest from all surviving factions.
  • Legend - Earn enough "legend" points by exploring, performing daring rescues, and killing space monsters.  Reward: One medium chest and a hefty experience point reward.
It's theoretically possible to lose by not being allied with the surviving empire(s), ending up at war with everyone, or losing too much credits from respawning.  However, I find it's pretty easy to jump in bed with any empire you want by doing a little dirty work.  The tactic I've found myself adapting is going for a "Legend" win, letting the empires do their own thing while getting into a "non-aggression" pact with them all, and only falling back on "Diplomacy" or "Conquest" wins depending on if I have enough time to pull it off.  "Diplomacy" wins are the most likely, as empires will usually become fast friends after uniting against a common, more belligerent, empire.

Drox Operative proves that my 4X/RPG merging idea was as solid in implementation as it was in my head, and I was foolish to sit around and balk about its viability.  Consequently, I should really take every complaint I have about the game and get to work on my own, even if that is a rather tremendous undertaking.  Oh well, on to discussing the next game...

Fallen Enchantress: Elements Of Greatness

I think that I really want to like Fallen Enchantress, another 4X game this time in the vein of Master Of Magic or Age Of Wonders, I really do.

After all, there's a lot of reasons to like Fallen Enchantress:
  • It has a whole lot of great ideas crammed into it, such as a custom unit design engine, optionally winning via completion of a quest line, top-notch customization options of the type of 4X game you want to play, and so on.
  • Pretty good fantasy artwork.  It may not be technically stunning, but it is very imaginative.
  • A goodly amount of lore involving a cataclysm, titans, historical figures, kingdoms of life, and empires of death.
  • An indy developer with a pretty good pedigree: this is Stardock, makers of Galactic Civilizations and (in collaboration with Ironclad) Sins Of A Solar Empire, for Pete's sake!  
  • At the time of this writing, the game scores 76/100 on Metacritic.  A decent score, across 10 reviewers.  
Fallen Enchantress is Elemental, re-released, 2 years later, with all the bug quashing and refinement it was missing from the tragic initial release.  We had reason to be excited about Elemental, and those are the same reasons to be excited about Fallen Enchantress.

And yet....
"But as much as I feel like I should be head-over-heels in love with it, my 50-plus hours with the game leave me satisfied rather than ecstatic." - Game Informer

"Its individual elements suffer from a 'jack of all trades' mediocrity, but they combine to form a whole that hints at greatness without ever quite achieving it." - Gamespot

"It's not that Fallen Enchantress [is broken like its] predecessor War of Magic–it's just that it doesn't grab hold of you in the way that a 4X game should." - GamingTrend

"I like a game that tries to combine several different gameplay styles, but the overall experience seems rushed and unpolished. It offers plenty of content and skills, yet doesn't seem to excel at any particular one. Elemental: Fallen Enchantress does a lot of things right but never truly delivers on any of them." - Canadian Online Gamers
I did not need to read any of those reviewers' quotes to have come to the same conclusion myself.  Despite having so many great parts, the sum of the parts of Fallen Enchantress simply do not dazzle.  I'm left feeling like my time would be better spent playing similar games that are somewhat better at this, such as Warlock: Master Of The Arcane or even the venerable Age Of Wonders: Shadow Magic.

A lot of that probably comes down to the finer derails of the implementation.  Off the top of my head, I noticed quite a few sticking points in Fallen Enchantress:
  • Magic does not feel as important as it was in Master Of Magic, Age Of Wonders, or Warlock: Master Of The Arcane.  The only place spells are adequately represented is in combat; out of combat spells are few in variety and not very influential when employed.  Also, learning spells is very rudimentary: you either earn them from research or by leveling up your heroes' preexisting magical perks.
  • The research tree is extremely tiny, to the point where the player is likely to have unlocked everything across the three categories, "civilization," "warfare," and "magic," within the first 200 turns in the game.  There are additional "refine" categories of research that simply buff various parts of your empire each time they are successfully researched, but they are a poor substitute for a better sized research tree.
  • Custom unit design and production is highly cumbersome.  Prohibitively restrictive costs on "crystals" and "metal" makes building custom units overly situational.  It actually might have been better not to have custom designs at all, because there's a resulting lack of true unit specialization to such an open-ended system; it feels like an archer is simply a spearman who carries a bow instead of a spear.
  • Cities end up feeling less like cities and more like queues you need to micromanage to get them to work fast enough to get the things you need done.  There's a certain gold-to-production-point misbalance that makes rushing projects to completion the primary means of getting things done. 
  • Diplomacy is remarkably spartan.  Enemy rulers are not at all unpredictable, lacking personality, only attacking if they have a great advantage.  Getting them to agree to anything you want is as simple as meeting their price.
Overall, Fallen Enchantress is tolerable, even playable.  It's a 4X game I can trundle through, as sheer mental busy work, and appreciate the occasional breathtaking moment of lore as I do so.  However, it feels like it's only half-baked, feigning life but clearly lifeless, due to the bulleted points above and others.

That's a shame, because there's something wonderfully ambitious about Fallen Enchantress, the detail of its randomly generated maps, and even its interface.  There's a good game here struggling to get out but, for now...?  I guess you could say that they've pulled off the "mastery" - the game is fairly rock solid and plays - but they've yet to add the "magic" - it lacks enough game mechanic refinement and has insufficient bulk to its elements to be truly interesting.
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