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Mindless ramblings after a first playthrough

Posted: Sat Nov 16, 2013 4:39 am
by Veneke
I just finished my first run through the game and decided to leave my thoughts on how it went.

Quick overview of how the game played out. I started as Terra Salvum on a huge archipelago map on marathon speed against hard AIs and medium native aggression. The start was pretty nice - there was an island all to myself with three or four alien hives, some larger xenos meandering around and a small amount of fungus. An observatory, two xenite fields, a natural plantation and a hot spring rounded the largely hilly island off. I ended up settling four cities and then a fifth to fill the island up about half way through the game. I decided, about half way through, that I would go for a research victory. Partly because that suits my playstyle but also to see the majority of the tech tree. Togra, the Corporation and the Solar Dynastry were all wiped out somewhere between the late Colonization era and the mid Mechanization era. The Imperium and Ascension factions both lasted with myself until the end game where there was a close race to finish the research race. I'll try and post a few screenshots in a bit.

At any rate, there were some really cool things, some curious things and a very few problems.

Good: Pretty much all of the content.
- Operations. These are awesome and pretty unique. The scanner in particular is ingenious - it takes all the micromanagement out of exploring.
- Megacities. Towards the endgame the five cities were between 30 and 40 population each.
- Fluff pieces, like when you discover every tile on the map or the first time you destroy a hive.
- The tech tree. It's just huge and the fact that it's slightly random is pretty sweet.
- Map generator. I may have just got lucky but the archipelago map I rolled is almost exactly what I envision an archipelago map should be every game and which other planetary 4Xs *coughCivcough* almost never properly deliver. I haven't tried the other map scripts yet but I expect them to be of a similar quality.
- Stable. Not a single crash, bug or error - at least that I could see - and, aside from some technical difficulties setting up it played flawlessly. You don't see that often enough and I think it worthy of comment.

Curious: Some unclear things and missing/weak features.
- It's never quite clear the parameters under which the natives attack. I knew my bonus had kicked in because the few colonial troopers the AI sent to scout my territory were roflstomped by two or three strength 8 natives who were wandering around my island but the alien aggression notice I got didn't seem to make the natives any more aggressive. They seemed to continue on as normal for some time and then, subsequently, attacked.
- There's no ability to create a custom faction. That's considered fairly standard in most contemporary (and even older) 4X games. I know it wasn't a feature in SMAC so fair enough but it still seems like a reasonably easy thing to add that would add to replayability.
- There's no tooltip explaining why you can't refit units. The option is dark for some units with no explanation as to why. I had to play around with it for quite some time before it finally dawned on me that a unit had to be in a city to refit.
- Diplomacy is sadly lacking. Considering this is a spiritual successor to SMAC the absence of a Planetary Council is odd. What's even more curious is that you actually have a tech in the game which seems specifically geared to that but which only seems to be give a boost to relations with other factions. I know that you've said you've plans to expand on this (and other things) but this doesn't make it any less unfortunate.
- Terraforming. This seems like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Your options are pretty limited. I'll admit that I had also expected the ability to improve the ecosystem to be much more powerful than it actually is, turning grassland forests into miniature Edens or creating pristine snowbound tundra and so on. What is odd though is that you can build improvements on top of special features. This just feels wrong and I hope it gets patched out.

Problematic: Mostly the AI.
- Field training is way too cheap, comes way too early and is, quite possibly, the single most important operation out there. If the AI knew how to use it then this wouldn't be an issue but because it doesn't it isn't particularly well balanced.
- More generally, the AI has no idea how to use operations. Pretty sure it kinda knows how to use the operational scanner but it has no concept of just how powerful field training is.
- The AI seems to have no concept of how close it was to winning a research victory or how close I was. This wasn't immediately apparent at first but upon discovery that a blackhole generator was one of the very final techs the fact that both AIs had been busy building these for the past twenty turns should've meant that one or the other should've won the game quite a bit back. Regardless of this though, the AI certainly should have spotted me closing in on victory and acted accordingly. I don't mean Civ 5 style (where it was taken to absurd levels) but some degradation of relations would probably have been expected and this never happened. What's truly odd is that the newscaster who reports on how faction X is approaching the victory goals even suggests the use of WMDs but this never materializes.
- The AI is a bit nuts at diplomacy. One turn it'll send you a gift and two turns after ask for tribute. This process continuously repeated from the middle of the game onwards in my playthrough. I presume it has something to do with overall good relations conflicting with a low military score.
- The AI doesn't upgrade its units. It was still walking level 2 colonial troopers around the place once pretty much all the techs had been researched.
- AI city selection was, generally, pretty good with one exception: It settled a city on my island. Normally this wouldn't be cause for concern but when it did so on a tiny snowbound peninsula with no special improvements or features nearby and within three tiles of one of my cities (albeit my smallest one) I was left scratching my head wondering what it was doing. Especially so when there were two completely untouched islands still left to colonize which had, in fact, special features on it. Some good ones too - at least one, if not two, observatories were there for the taking.

I didn't engage in any wars over the course of the game so I can't speak to the combat ability of the AI. In the main though you can forgive the AI for most of its faults - there's a limit as to what you can expect from it. The fact that it didn't seem to care about you winning when the game itself specifically warns you to watch out for AI attacks is just bizarre though and it not upgrading its units nor using field training seriously handicaps it.

Re: Mindless ramblings after a first playthrough

Posted: Sat Nov 16, 2013 5:18 am
by Rosseau
Thanks for the walkthrough. I'm hoping the AI's lack of upgrading units was due to your lack of military aggressiveness or some other factor. That may be wishful thinking, though, and would seriously hamper the fun factor of combat. What's the point of upgrading your own units with all these neat techs if all you'll be facing are garrison level units throughout the whole game? I guess you'd have to mod the race you're facing into "super" units to add some challenge. I'm on the fence on this one.

Re: Mindless ramblings after a first playthrough

Posted: Sat Nov 16, 2013 5:49 am
by Veneke
Although that's possible I don't think that it's very likely. Their military score ramped up significantly and consistently throughout the game - I didn't see an attempt to keep pace with me. At the end of the game their military score was double mine, even though one of my units could probably slaughter three or four of theirs. I probably wasn't as active with the orbital scanner in terms of figuring out precisely how many units they had and at what level but I only ever saw Mechanization era (2nd tier) class units towards the latter half of the Transcendent Era (3rd and last) and their frontline city on my island was guarded by two tier one units with no fancy upgrades and a basic water craft.

What I did notice though is that they built nuclear and blackhole operation buildings in every city. So they should have a fairly significantly stockpile in the event of a war. Given, however, that they don't seem to use the Field Training I don't hold out much hope that they'll be any better with nukes, blackholes or EMPs. I might play on a few turns and start a war (hopefully with everyone at war with everyone) just to see how that plays out.

Re: Mindless ramblings after a first playthrough

Posted: Sat Nov 16, 2013 2:04 pm
by MizzouRah
The AI wiped me out on easy.. lol

Re: Mindless ramblings after a first playthrough

Posted: Sat Nov 16, 2013 10:23 pm
by Rosseau
Probably because you didn't know the game yet :)

I'm a generally weak player, which is an advantage when trying to enjoy vs. the AI. Any other input is appreciated.

Re: Mindless ramblings after a first playthrough

Posted: Sun Nov 17, 2013 7:17 am
by Veneke
Something I forgot to mention in the OP was that the music was pretty good. It did get a bit repetitive but I was expecting that given it was on Marathon speed.

Anyway, here are a couple of screenshots. I couldn't figure out how to take a screenshot when it was fullscreen so I windowed it and used the snipping tool. Couple of things to note:

I couldn't find the main Ascension army. I thought it would be near their capital but they appear to have a much more dispersed formation than the Imperium.

The city the Imperium founded right beside me is, apparently, part of a pattern. They founded another similar foothold city on the capital island of the Ascension. They picked a terribly spot for it (had they gone south they could have picked up an observatory and made a decent city out of it) but I'm beginning to wonder if the AI is coded to establish these foothold cities. I can't imagine why but two in roughly the same geopolitical positioning against the remaining two powers is too much to be a coincidence.

Regarding the minimap the centre island is mine (obviously). The three islands to the north are pretty much entirely Ascension. There's the odd Imperium city but that's it. The two islands to the south are Imperium islands, with the odd Ascension city. The two islands to my east (and west really) are uninhabited. There's still a remaining native hive (the yellow dot on the minimap) and there is some curious wasteland spots on those islands. I'm not entirely positive how they developed. As far as I was aware nobody settled on those islands for the entire game (although it's possible I might have missed a settlement that was destroyed reasonably quickly).

If you want a quick and dirty comparison between the tiers (in case you think that levels and tiers might not have a significant impact on strength) each of my cities is guarded by 1 tier 3 level 10 infantry unit. That's approx. 80 strength in a single unit. As you can see in the Imperium screenshot the strength of the AI's units ranges from anywhere between 5 and 20 for some of their more advanced stuff. At the end of the game, before I started upgrading to tier 3 stuff, the AI outnumbered me in military score by approximately 2:1.

Some screenshots for you.

The northern half of my island. Note the Imperium foothold city to the northwest.

The southern half of my island. I have ten units in each of those armies just north of my capital. 4 infantry, 3 tanks and 3 planes. They're a mix of 2nd and 3rd tier units. I was in the process of upgrading (which is extremely expensive!) when I took the screenshot. The fleet south of the capital has 10 ships, 6 barracudas and 4 cruisers (can't remember the name) with largely 2nd tier tech, I believe.

The Imperium capital island. I only took the one mouseover as the other AI armies (including for the Ascension) there are basically the same thing. A mix of 1st and 2nd tier tech with level 1 and 2 units. There does appear to be a scattering of 3rd tier devices and armour (this screenshot and the last one) which is repeated across their armies more generally but never in any serious concentration.

The Ascension capital island. Note the Imperium foothold city to the northeast.