I saw an awful lot of games about killing men with guns at Gamescom, so escaping to Kalypso's booth for a couple of hours to catch up on more measured fare was something of a relief. First up was Legends of Pegasus, described by new PC dev Novacore Studios as a "4X space sim, like Sins of a Solar Empire with a unique touch." There's also more than a little Homeworld in there, at least thematically - which means it's also nodding to Battlestar Galactica. As the game kicks off, Earth is attacked by an alien race and nearly explodeydeaded, but a few human ships manage to flee through a wormhole first. You're in charge, obviously, and will need to build up a new base, find out what happened to Earth and, in theory, nobble whoever was behind the assault.
That said, lead character Daniel will find himself jumping between the game's three playable races, not just the humans. Novacore aren't revealing the third bunch as yet, but the second in the roster are mechanical insect dudes the Xor. They're really big on spikes. Also, they have a different economic system to the humans because "what would an mechanical insect race do with credits?" Well, probably the same thing we would: devise an arbitrary, abstracted system of wealth and ownership which results in humanity's hardest workers being the least rewarded, and whereby society itself teeters precariously upon a laughably fragile construct built around only theoretical money that means fat, cruel dickheads with access to the most important spreadsheets can destabilise billions of people's standard of living as a result of recklessness and greed. Anyway! The Xor don't have that. Good for them.
Pegasus is going pretty heavy on the storyline, Novacore feeling that one place Sins faltered was in singleplayer entry-points, and that it was arguably tricky to get into if you weren't a fairly experienced strategy-head. There are mysteries and twists, and they will be revealed, and in singleplayer features are unlocked bit-by-bit rather than bombarding your peanut brain with everything from the off. The game also aims to extend the player's sense of attachment to their spaceploration with a modular building/upgrade system for its various ships. You'll pick a base chassis - for instance, cruiser or freighter, then attack different modules to it, which in turn affects appearance as well as abilities.
So fill a ship's mount points with science modules and civilian modules and you'll have something peppered with the likes of geodomes and that, while nominally the same type of ship, looks profoundly different to a war cruiser bristling with laser and plasma guns, and which itself begins to resemble a weapon as a result. "We want the players to construct very individual ships, very specialised" Novacore's Andre Overhagen tells me. "It's not that in the late game you're just building cruisers and blowing everything up. You'll need smaller ships too because bigger ships can't aim at smaller ships, the smaller ships are too fast and versatile."
Planning and building is turn-based, but battles are real-time, and thus blessed with likes of flanking and special abilities like tractor beams. The game will jump "seamlessly" from mode to mode, and when you have a big ol' fight near stuff you own, you'll notice it's got the same layout in real-time, 3D-o-vision as it did when you so diligently laid it all out.
It's the construction and colonisation that looks most appealing to me. Once you've established your presence on planets, you can tailor, build and upgrade the bases there in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Civilization's cities. Before that, though, you need to find a suitable home for this next arm of your galactic civilisation. Customise one of your ships with Colony modules, head out to one of the game's many systems (connected via starlanes) and you can colonise a planet of your choice with a click'n'drag. There's a whole layer of strategy just to this - find a blue, Earth-like planet and it'll colonise that much quicker. Find a red one and you can still take it, but first it'll need terraforming.
This plays out in speed-time - so you'll see little seas form, grow into large oceans, green and blue creep across the surface, the atmosphere change colour and generally the once dead planet visibly become a life-supporting one. You don't need a progress bar to tell you when it's ready to send settlers in: it'll be obvious. Unfortunately, setting up base on a virgin planet has its own, similarly visible effects - heavy industry will change the atmosphere for the worse. More positively, you'll see oodles of tiny light points appear where cities form, visually celebrating the society that's built there.
This philosophy of the game's many elaborate elements having a sense of life extends to the combat - as well as dynamic music, which gets suitably excitable depending on the amount of action currently going on, in the real-time combat there's a dynamic speech system too. Pilots will chatter snippets of dialogue randomly - and hopefully non-robotically - stitched together, so your ears as well as eyes will have a sense of how the battle's going. Also, no more form responses to unit orders - instead of the olde world 'YESSIR' or 'MOVING OUT' or tedious repeat pun, you'll get something like "Acknowledged, Daniels heading to Sector B."
It's a lovely idea, and I hope it works out in practice - the cynic in me worries it's going to sound staccato, like a train announcer. "The… starship currently arriving at…Orbital Station… 8 is the… Plasma… Warship…from…Orion's…Nipple…28." Hopefully not though: "we want the player to feel it's really his fleet, his people in danger, not just some icons," says Overhagen.
All the right ideas here, I think, though the early build I saw still has a ton to add before release in the first half of 2012. Also promised is "a strong multiplayer focus" for at least eight players, and hopefully sixteen depending on technical issues. There's two-man co-op too, with both of you building up on civ in tandem, plus an alternative, Supreme Commander-evoking multiplayer option called Emperor Mode in which you have an avatar - which'll grant enormo-boosts to anything you place it near, but means an instant game-over if it perishes.
Oh yes: and if you want to play it entirely as a turn-based game, you can auto-resolve battles. This pleases me, as I hate to be distracted from an elaborate construction project by an entirely different discipline. I'm a builder, not a fighter.
Update: here's Gametrailers' recording of another LOP briefing at Gamescom: