Every Monday, Rob Zacny ... Early Access … a worthy in-progress game.
Last Days of Old Earth [official site] has tons of potential to be a great strategy game, in much the way a story outline has the potential to be a literary masterpiece.
An Early Access evaluation is an odd creature. On the one hand, it has to look at the game that currently exists, in whatever incomplete form it has taken. At the same time, people who buy an early-access game aren't just buying a particular build of a game. They're buying a ticket to a destination that a developer can only imperfectly describe so far. A good early access game just needs to be enjoyable enough to play right now, while hinting at all the exciting things that players will enjoy along the road ahead.
Despite an evocative title and an aesthetic that's been inexpertly copied from Amplitude's Endless series, and a claimed lineage tracing back to Vic Davis' Armageddon Empires, Last Days of Old Earth fails to ignite the imagination. The foundations laid in its current iteration appear strong, but they are so sparse that they imply hardly anything about the game's future except a vague anxiety that little will be built atop those foundations.
Last Days of Old Earth is really a turn-based deathmatch with hexes and cards. It's a 2X: explore and exterminate. Two factions, the Automata and the Skywatchers are vying for territory as mankind flees to the equator during the final days of the sun's death and Earth's existence. The Automata are the robot army and the Skywatchers are humans and for some reason they've gone all Sharks-and-Jets on each other.
That's not necessarily a bad idea, and Last Days of Old Earth might be onto something with its "knife fight in a phone booth" setup. But it also means that the strategic layer is mostly window-dressing on a card-drafting game with an underdeveloped resource economy.
There are three resources (energy, material, and population) that you need in order to deploy units from your hand to the campaign map, and to bid for initiative at the start of every turn. The more resources you spend on initiative, the more dice you'll roll and the higher your chances of going before the other players. This is doubly advantageous, because not only do you get to move earlier (which can let you pick-off a weak enemy army or escape a deadly one before they can react) but you get more action points overall.
With few resource-producing locations on the map, it's very hard to ever take and hold a meaningful advantage in terms of resource production. Last Days of Old Earth feels like a game that's meant to impose sharp, near-identical resource constraints early that players will asymmetrically choose to solve by focusing on different types of armies and heroes. That also means that once a player does enjoy a significant advantage on resources, usually thanks to a couple early victories in combat near key locations, they can snowball to victory with breathtaking speed.
That gives LDOE an enjoyable pace, especially as those early armies start sparring around the map, but also made me feel like I'd basically seen everything there was to see by my third or fourth game. There simply isn't that much to do except scout a little, try and grab some extra resources, then build your main army and try to pick-off smaller enemy armies while ducking their big punches.
When those armies run into each other, you have the option of fighting a tactical battle, which quickly proves to be as underdeveloped as most other tactical battle systems in other strategy games. You decide which units to put in your front line to fight as combat units, and which will stay in the back line as support units. That's the generally the last important decision you'll make before your troops and the opposing army trade blows until one side retreats or runs out of warm bodies.
There are some wrinkles to consider: when you're building your army back at base, you should consider what bonuses your hero provides to units in his or her stack, so that your units get buffs and bonuses over and above their card stats. During battle, you need to pay attention to what synergies are working in your opponent's favor, and the most effective way to break their army down. But at heart, Last Days of Old Earth is a game where the bigger army with more hit points tends to carry the day, and the tactical screen is an order-of-operations minigame that will marginally affect the outcome.
The strategic layer is largely wrinkle-free, which is bad news when you're a strategy game, and "wrinkles" are what constitute the motivation for trade-offs, decisions, and the other stuff that makes a strategy game exciting. You build up resources until you can deploy better units, and then you go stomp people with them. Your armies have to build outposts to expand your empire's supply range, but the penalty for going outside your supply range is so instantly crippling that spamming outposts quickly becomes the order of the day.
The game quickly becomes unbalanced as one side gets an advantage, however. One-on-one is where Last Days of Old Earth seems to work best, but is also at its most boring because it's such a zero-sum game in each interaction. A big skirmish, however, starts to fall apart as weaker players are eliminated and stronger ones get just enough of their resources to begin to snowball. The moment the decisive clashes are over, the game tilts toward a drawn-out but inevitable endgame.
While a recent patch introduced deck-building so that you can bring custom armies to your next game, I didn't feel like the core strategy layers was so interesting that it would benefit from lots of army variety. When the war is simplistic and its outcomes predictably formulaic, who cares who is fighting it?
I can't just say that Last Days of Old Earth is going to be a bad strategy game at this point, however, because it feels like huge chunks of it don't exist yet. I sure hope so. I can't believe someone would create a three-resource economy and then do so little to utilize that differentiation. There are units with special anti-air abilities on their card, except that no air units exist in the game yet and I have no idea how they will function.
Last Days of Old Earth is not something I can recommend right now, however much I hope that it develops into the good, fast-paced strategy / wargame hybrid that its current form implies. At the moment, however, it's the incomplete skeleton of a game that could be great or utterly forgettable. It's also not something worth buying unless you know you'll be able to find people to play it, because the AI never stops sending out small, weak armies that are easy to snap-up piecemeal. Word of warning, though: I wasn't able to get multiplayer working after the most recent update
Last Days of Old Earth is a game that makes me regret that Early Access has become such a widely-adopted development model. Because it is manifestly unready to withstand the scrutiny of the strategy and wargame audience, and it is such a work-in-progress (I hope) that it seems Auroch Digital now face three difficult, traditionally sequential jobs, all at once. They have to finish their idea for a game, while finishing said game, while providing post-release support to paying customers.
Don't make that last job harder. Give Auroch time and space to figure out what Last Days of Old Earth can be before booking a ticket on an uncertain voyage.
Last Days of Old Earth is available on Steam for a confident-verging-on-presumptuous £18.99 / $24.99. My impressions are based on build 1029251 on 20 March 2016.