Wot I Think: Ancient Space

Space games are having something of a renaissance of late, but it’s only in the fly-and-shoot genres that we’re seeing much concrete promise (specifically with the rise and rise of Elite: Dangerous). The RTS meanwhile still pines for Homeworld, and while there are a number of games on our space-radar, nothing has yet to really spool up our jump drive and push into the next sector.

Could Ancient Space take up this critical astro-gauntlet?

No, basically.

That’s not to say Ancient Space is a terrible game: it’s actually not ever bad in any dramatic sense, it just doesn’t do anything particularly exciting. It’s disappointing. Beautiful, but disappointing. There’s your three word summary.

But I can say more. And I will. So Ancient Space is this: it’s a faux-3D real-time space strategy with a number of resource management vectors, a bit of resource gathering and building, and a severely limited skirmish mode. This means that the bulk of the action is to be had in the campaign, in which you build and blast your way through a series of tricky missions to unfold a story about something or other happening in space. It’s beautifully presented, and instantly comprehensible to anyone who has laid their fingertips over the mouse and keyboard of a real-time strategy in the past ten years.

That said, the initial feeling that this is going to be an interestingly atmospheric sort of game soon fades. Yes, it’s all dark matter this and funny named spaceships that, and I say that as a man who knows the name of far too many imaginary spaceships across a wealth of movies and videogames. But nothing sticks, and it all sounds like filler.

The proposition, hell even the name, Ancient Space actually gripped me: a vision of a dark and distant space ruin, explored by intrepid folk in big functionalist starships. The reality is far closer to the genre norm, however: embittered voice-over man, corporate/governmental interference, big bad, robot advisor, etc. It’s bizarre, in a world where there is so much incredible richness and variety of sci-fi literature, that it is so hard for that freshness to be picked up by games.

This, then, is a shame, because it seems like the game had the opportunity to inject a bit of class into the genre. We know who did this, long ago, and no one seems to have been able to quite manage to replicate that trick. Ancient Space certainly is beautiful. The action occurs in a series of arenas, framed with asteroids, huge mysterious structures, gigantic warp gates, and then more distantly by immense rock structures and glowing nebulae. It is quite the eyeful, and it gives Ancient Space a visual kick that few games manage. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful games I’ve played lately.

However, the sense of wonder diminishes when you realise how small, and how tied to the linear scripted events these areas actually are. The vast things that float around you in the cold awesome of space really mean nothing, and quite a lot of the action occurs within UI circles in which you can build some space stations and maybe tap into the infinite resource wells.

You’ll notice I said “faux-3D” earlier, too. That’s because while both the ships and the camera can sort of move up and down a bit, you are basically tied to the X axis, and everything occurs across the plane. It is 3D, strictly speaking, but not in a way that makes any difference whatsoever to what occurs, and as such it might as well have been produced in two dimensions.

Is there anything interesting left in there, then? Well sort of. It’s a capable RTS in its own right, and some of the scenarios are difficult enough to make for an interesting challenge. Others, meanwhile, are simply ponderous, and most involve waiting for the enemy to slowly work their way to you, while you make sure you have enough of the (surprisingly small number of) ships, while repairing any damage caused.

You can also change your officers (overall fleet buffs) and do some fleet tinkering between missions. I have a lot of interest in this sort of tweaking and modifier love, but Ancient Space does not, sadly, go deep enough with this, or really articulate its effects particularly well in play.

Worse, perhaps, it cloaks everything in a fiddly UI, and doesn’t really give much prominence to the things that are important. The camera controls, too, aren’t quite right, with the camera not actually being free to move around in space, and zoom oddly restricted and some points. This has clearly been recognised as an issue by the developers, because you can hit Tab for an overall tactical view, which is sort of what I’d have liked from the main game camera.

Ancient Space’s greatest weakness, however, is that it just isn’t very interesting. The great and good of the RTS lineage always drop a mission (usually early on) that claims your attention by doing something bold or spectacular. I was waiting for that in Ancient Space, but instead it trots out workmanlike situations which you charmlessly click your way through. I would love to have been able to love this. But I cannot. It all works, nothing hurts, but it offers nothing that speaks to the heart. As such, I just cannot recommend it.

Ah well, perhaps Limit Theory will rescue the RTS from this fate of mild mediocrity.

Ancient Space is out now.

43 Comments

  1. Hex says:

    Faux-3D is the worst. (I’ll never forgive you, Star Trek Online!)

    • Premium User Badge

      Cooper says:

      ST:O got a lot wrong. They utterly failed to make a game that in any way felt like the developers understood the franchise. But the space-battles-take-place-with-all-ships-kinda-on-the-same-plane thing is actually pretty close to how most combat was actually depicted on screen.

      • honkskillet says:

        Cooper is intelligent, but not experienced. His posts indicate two dimension thinking.

      • P.Funk says:

        DS9 actually showed plenty of out of plane maneuvers. There was a stock CGI shot actaully of Birds of Prey actaully banking in formation from on high to basically dive onto the enemy (I know, there is no diving in space but there is no arbitrary plane either). The Defiant did loops too.

    • vecordae says:

      The new update lets you do a barrel roll.

  2. lordcooper says:

    It is actually proper 3d, but the game doesn’t explain it unless you go digging through the tips. Press G and hold ctrl to issue move orders along the up/down axis (not that you really gain much by doing so).

    I’m about four missions in at present and enjoying it a fair bit. It’s nothing earth shatteringly groundbreaking and I do wish that units had a bit more HP, but it’s a pretty competent RTS campaign with some very nice visuals. I’ll finish the game or sure, but I doubt I’ll be coming back for a second playthrough.

    Disclaimer/confession: I never played Homeworld. Am I missing out? Does it still hold up?

    • vecordae says:

      Homeworld absolutely holds up. The graphics, even on the original, are still serviceable and the games can be scaled up to 1080p by futzing with some ini files. The games themselves are special things, inspired by Battlestar Galactica, Abrahamic mythology, Middle-Eastern history, Robotech, and Babylon 5.

      Good friggin’ stuff.

      • CMaster says:

        Hell, Homeworld went back and seemingly inspired the new BSG in a few ways.

        And it’s a gorgeous game because of it’s aesthetics, even if the poly count and texture res is low by modern standards (and hell, they made the poly count work for them. Other than some rather angular things that should be round, the Kushan and Taidan aesthetic is effectively realised with the number of trianlges alotted.

      • David Bliff says:

        Homeworld 2 is probably a bit more approachable – it still looks great and grouping fighters into squadrons makes perfect sense (think Company of Heroes or Dawn of War). And you can play in resolution just by modifying the shortcut, you don’t even have to dig through and find the .ini file.

        The story in Homeworld 2 doesn’t really rely on the player knowing the original plot, either.

        • bill says:

          Homeworld 2 looks a bit better, is more approachable and has a more modern tactical view.
          Having squadrons makes things easier and is logical.
          But it just doesn’t grab you as much as the original. It’s missing some of the atmosphere imho.

          It also seems much more 2D. It has the same 3D space, but you don’t seem to really need to use it as most things happen on the 2D plane or very close to it.
          I think they did this because a lot of people got confused by the 3D space in HW1. (Khan!)

          In HW1 they did a really good job of using the 3D space as real 3D. (though the crappy view distance helped). I remember one of the early missions where I set up my defences around my mothership in a typical 2D RTS mode, only to get destroyed when an entire fleet piled into my mothership from directly above, bypassing all my defences. Lesson learned.

      • Tom De Roeck says:

        Actually, gamewise, HW:Cataclysm is the better sequel than HW2. However, HW2:Complex 9 is an interesting beast. I think it adds the complexity nicely, even though the AI can be horrid. (essentially, you can ramp up the difficulty pretty much, using the same tactics, and youll win anyway.

        • Razumen says:

          Yes! This exactly. Going to HW2 from Cataclysm was quite a let-down. Not that HW2 wasn’t a marked improvement from HW1 (It was), but there was a lot of improvements from Cataclysm that didn’t carry over, and the overall ship design and variety was lackluster compared to Cataclysm’s two very unique factions and the interesting units each had.

    • Ex Lion Tamer says:

      I…you…but…*explodes*

      What vecordae and CMaster said, basically. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it if you’re enjoying Ancient Space. If visuals are a concern for you, the remastered versions should be out before too much longer (fingers crossed).

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        It’s hard to fathom a space rts fan who hasn’t played HW, true. But I’m finding it harder to imagine anyone being put off by Homeworld 2’s visuals. The first one… eh, sure. I still think it’s pretty, but I can see why some might disagree. But 2?! Jeez, I must be far more out of the loop than I thought if there are people out there who won’t play HW2 because of the graphics. It’s still one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.

        • Geebs says:

          This is true. The music and sound design of Homeworld 2 were/are amazing, too.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            The soundtracks are burned into my brain. Writing was brilliantly done and keeping it quite toned-down was an excellent move. The delivery was so, so brilliant, to this day I can’t figure out how such short, simple lines delivered so monotonously could be so compelling. Not just the plot dialogue, either. Even things like “This is a cakewalk” or “Hull breach, hull breach” from your pilots were subdued and professional, but still carried just enough feeling that, if you let yourself, you could care about them, just for a second. Care about a single pilot with the same damned voice as every other pilot in your fleet.
            And that low, heartwrenching moan when a capship dies…

          • salattu says:

            In the part where Rossignol comments on the ships’ names in Ancient Space and how nothing sticks, I thought of just this. In Homeworld, one name was just “Mothership”, but the way it was said and what it meant to the player and story made it stick.

    • bill says:

      Holds up really well, except switching to the tactical view and the short view distance.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        What on earth is wrong with HW’s tactical view?

        • Werthead says:

          You can’t issue orders in it, which even at the time of release was really odd. CATACLYSM and HW2 fixed that, fortunately, and I presume the remastered edition will as well.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            It’s been so long I sort of just assumed the original had the same tac view as the sequel. Wow, okay, gotta give you that one. Not cool.

    • Werthead says:

      I’d hold fire for the new edition which is due out in a few months. That will include the original versions and also all-new, all-prettified HD remastered versions of the games. There’s also a prequel, SHIPBREAKERS (although that’s set on a planet, not in space), which is due in a year or so.

      If you really wanted to give them a whirl now, go for it. I last played them a few months back and they work pretty well on modern machines and stand up very well. HW2 in fact still looks and sounds incredible.

    • Vinraith says:

      To provide a bit of a counterpoint to the prevailing love, I never really got along with Homeworld. The aesthetics were spectacular (that opening animatic, and the beginning of the first mission, are nothing short of stunning), but I found the actual moment-to-moment play of the game to be something of a clunky mess even by the standards of the time. 3D control in a real time game is always going to be problematic due to the limitations of the interface and display, Homeworld did its best but actually moving your ships around in 3D was a muddy chore IMO (no matter how cool it looked). I’d imagine it’s held up terribly, considering.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Again, dunno about HW1, but I’d have to contradict you regarding HW2.
        I am not a big RTS player, I prefer turn-based. Here’s the thing, HW2’s pause key is not remappable, and it doesn’t recognize the pause key on my laptop, so I’m having to play it ENTIRELY real-time, without pausing to give orders. Something I’m truly terrible at. And I’m still doing alright and having a whale of a time. It’s held up fine.

  3. Gog Magog says:

    I wish someone made a RUSE that was actually great instead of inventive but disappointing.
    Also, this game is meh.

    • bill says:

      I was thinking of RUSE too. Someone said recently that it’s annoying that developers tend to drop ideas that weren’t super successful, rather than polishing them up in the next game.
      The ideas from RUSE seemed like they could be varingly applied to many different strategy games, but they don’t seem to have been picked up.

      One of the problems of space RTS is that there’s not much ‘terrain’. Having ruse like tricks would be a great way to liven things up.

      Basically, if you remade Howeworld with a RUSE/Supreme commander smooth zoom to tactical view and RUSE style feints and mis-information then that would be perfect.

  4. Serenegoose says:

    I’ll probably pick this up anyway, because ‘a capable RTS in its own right’ in a subgenre so starved is rare enough, and they’re not asking much even at full price. It’s a pity it’s disappointing, but it’s even more of a pity that space RTS is a mostly-dead genre.

    • Hex says:

      But space TBS has Endless Space. What more do you need?

      (I’m much too old and slow to be able to enjoy RTS of any sub-genre anymore.)

    • Ex Lion Tamer says:

      Yeah, I’m with you – pretty space RTS probably means a buy for me, as much as I trust Jim’s judgment. If nothing else it would send a useful signal for Ancient Space to be a surprise mini-hit.

      • Bobka says:

        I concur. I bought this at full price mostly as a “vote with my wallet” statement. I want more RTS games with strong single-player, and throwing my money at the precious few I see – even if they are only decent – seems like the best way to communicate that message to publishers.

  5. Premium User Badge

    tigerfort says:

    I now want a sit-com about the tragic life of “Embittered voice-over man”, who is the main character but never actually appears on screen.

  6. Koshinator says:

    Limit Theory? This isn’t an upcoming RTS.

    • Haxton Fale says:

      I was just about to say that – Josh doesn’t seem to be giving a very close release date, and he’s not really making the game an RTS proper either (though the way these space-sims operate does make them pretty much a rather big RTS which you control from your cockpit)

    • keithzg says:

      In fairness, Limit Theory looks fantastic enough that maybe it’ll save all genres just by proximity. Or the dev will find some way to procedurally generate additional games out of Limit Theory.

    • ColdSpiral says:

      As hyped as I am about LT’s existence (ultrahype), I agree with you here. It’s going to closer approach the experience of post-campaign Freelancer or one of the X games, with better fleet management and procedural gen everything. Not really an RTS in the clearer sense.

      For promising upcoming indie space RTSs with recent RPS mentions, I’d be looking to the intriguing Deep Space Settlement , the ever-more-stunning Shallow Space, and the presently-kickstarting Flagship, maybe.

  7. Thrippy says:

    Lords of Kobol, the capital ships wiggle waggle. You know what I mean, that pathing glitch that prevents movement so the object gets seizures instead. If not for that, I could forgive much.

    I think most people don’t mind, even like, the stunt celebrity voice casting. Nevertheless, the voice acting is actually quite good! It does provide motivation to press on.

    Just makes us realize how hungry we are for more Homeworld. This game also gives me a odd hankering to play Conquest: Frontiers Wars again. ADMIRAL HALSEY HERE.

    • Serenegoose says:

      About time! Was just about to send the rescue ship to pull you from the nearest mantis hive.

    • keithzg says:

      I really enjoyed that game, far more than I probably should have. It combined two of my favourite things in games: space, and building utterly ridiculous defensive systems (at least, that’s generally how I played it).

  8. Nova says:

    A Jim WIT, yes!

    Pity about Ancient Space, though.

  9. Armante says:

    Just to clarify: Limit Theory is NOT an RTS set in space. You fly your space ship around a limitless universe, trading, mining, bounty hunting, pirating or setting up a trade empire. Yes you can research things and instruct other ships you own to keep on mining etc, but it’s not some sort of mission-based RTS. More like a 3rd person Elite really.