Horizon Review – 4x Game Is 4x More Boring Than It Should Be

It’s very cool for a developer to model a game after those of a past era. I would do unspeakable things to get my hands on an updated Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, but it’s important to note that I, and most people, don’t want near exact copies of old games we loved. The past wasn’t perfect, so when someone’s game nods to an “older” genre, I want to see smoother UI, updated graphics, and something innovative that reflects the great age of gaming we’re in now. There’s a difference between heart-filled homage and unfortunate stale replica. It’s not a black-and-white call, but sadly Horizon and fell closer to the “are you sure this was made in 2013?” end of the spectrum.

Horizon is a galactic 4x game available for PC through Steam from L30 Interactive. Technically, “4x” is a term used to describe games where you “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”.  Anyone who’s drowned hours at a time in Sid Meier’s anything like I have is intimately familiar with this genre. The premise is classic: colonize planets, make ships, explore the universe, interact with alien races, and try not to get blown to smithereens. Sadly, almost each of these aspects was ill-constructed and achieved little in terms of playability or innovation, meaning you usually get blown up in some sort of smithereen fashion

From the get-go, colonization is half as interesting as it should be. A planet where millions of people are exploring and growing is reduced to a single screen where you choose to specialize in one of 6 areas such as farming or industry. Specialization itself is watered down, as you do little more than simply click “upgrade” to further your colony. While this is not a horrible system, it’s uninspired and lacks the creativity that many strategy games bring to world-building. 4x players tend to enjoy a hands-on experience rather than mindlessly clicking their way to greatness.

galaxyThere are a couple of areas where Horizon succeeds in grabbing my attention. The research system is well implemented, with a streamlined interface and many choices for advancement that offer a fun experience I wish the rest of the game had. Fleet creation is also interesting, as the player can modify blueprints and add various weapons or utilities to their ships. Sadly, these customizations aren’t fully appreciated because the same bland sprites are used for every ship type. Perhaps the best quality of Horizon is the variety of side quests uncovered throughout exploration. Chance discoveries or encounters foster unique stories, complete with clues and rewards should you pursue them.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 12.22.35 AM

Here’s an alien fish pirate.

My favorite part of galactic 4x games are the alien races, or more specifically, making all the alien races worship the ground I walk on. In Horizon, you encounter various species, and as you communicate with each other throughout the years, you’ll notice two categories of space neighbors. Type 1 are disturbingly friendly races that are always bearing gifts even though I threaten to annihilate them on a daily basis. I practically have the Gargal Regime worshipping my left pinky toe simply because I asked them to.

Type two are the races that declare war; all the time, always, for no reason at all. I’ll just be merrily strolling across Mars and out of nowhere see that ‘Relations with so and so have become worse’. The game spews this identical line over and over, seemingly at random. There’s never any reason to the note, no story of what happened or varied causes for these political upsets. While it’s established that certain races are inherently aggressive, the undifferentiated presentation of events feels random and wastes a good opportunity for lore.

Eventually, the randomness of neighboring species makes relations feel like a farce. Maybe if there was some news report saying “Earth assassinates Kamzak general, armistice null”, I would feel more satisfied. Unfortunately, the irrational race relations feel like toddlers fighting over space candy. There’s nothing substantial behind most interactions, and I hate to say it but sometimes I feel like I’m negotiating with a Bop It, just going through programmed motions and hoping to click the right choice.  I’m pretty sure diplomacy is a little more nuanced than a kid’s toy, but Horizon fails to provide any depth here that would reflect the improved AI we’ve developed since the 90s.

Ultimately, Horizon makes its greatest attempt at intricacy in the combat system. Battles take place on a 2D grid, where you control each individual ship according to their movement capabilities, weapon ranges, and firing arcs. It sounds cool, but what seems to be a detailed battle system is in actuality a turn by turn massacre of my patience. Once you command any decently sized armada, you will literally sit in the battle screen for 20 minutes inching your 20 ships towards the enemy, then another 10 minutes trying to rotate them correctly, and the last 10 minutes watching them get blown to bits because you both failed at rotating them and want to watch them explode as violently as your sanity did.

horizon battle

Battles lack visual and tactical stimulation.

The lack of mass unit selection tools or general “attack” or “defend” gambits is sorely missed, but the game does offer an option to fast forward the battle and give the AI command of your ships. I soon found out, though, that I’d rather hand the controls of my intergalactic war fleet to a goldfish than this blubbering, possibly blind AI that couldn’t hit a barn door with a giant missile launcher.

In the end, Horizon is complicated, which in this genre can be very good. It’s addictive trying to master your empire, learn the intricacies of galactic politics, and become a tactical expert. This title offered the interest of space exploration but complicates the UI, forces players to struggle with mindless clicking, and needs to expand on its diplomacy system. While I’m always supportive of a game that wants to up the skill cap, overemphasis on slight maneuvering is not the alternative to easy gaming, and it actually devalues the war experience.

4x games succeed when their realism stems from ideas that accurately recreate the qualitative feeling of exploration and conquest, rather than simplifying growth and over-simulating the nonessential points of combat. Worse of all, these clunky complications, generic diplomatic scenarios, and stale visuals detract from player immersion, which is core to this genre and gaming in general. 4x games are fantastic, and I would love to see our modern capabilities pull off realistic intricacy in these types of games. In the end, it seems that Horizon missed the mark. Hopefully development will clean up the interface and focus on more valuable ideas, because it has the potential to be a very enjoyable game. For the $29.99 pricetag, I could only recommend this to strong fans of the genre, as it would basely satisfy their galactic cravings. Otherwise, this game needs a technical facelift if it hopes to be an achievement rather than just an unimpressive 4x.

Final Breakdown

[+Intriguing quests] [+Satisfying Research System] [+Varied Ship Design] [-Stale Graphics] [-Basic Colonization] [-Frustrating Battle Mechanics] [-Generic Diplomacy]

Good Review Score



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