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?
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.