Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire Early Access Preview

By Chris Abele 20 Oct 2014 0

This is a review based on the Early Access version of the game, of which I have been a tester since fairly early on in its inception, having played the new build of it every couple of months for an hour or so and fed my experiences back to the development team via their forums. This preview discusses the current status, as well as what it could ultimately be. Being an Early Access title, it?s a bit buggy at times and does not yet have the full set of features, but that?s to be expected at this stage. 

What it could become, however, is rather more interesting.

 

Concept

The official advertising blurb: 

Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire is a 3D turn-based strategy wargame that puts you in brigade-level control of futuristic infantry and armored companies, as well as huge super-vehicles. This is warfare on a massive scale that will appeal to those who enjoy games that provide both a strategic and tactical challenge, such as the Total War PC game series or tabletop games like Warhammer 40,000. Featuring a unique, streamlined command system for fast-paced battles with Chess-style alternating activations, customizable armies, and simple -- yet deep -- strategic and tactical play, the game tells a story from the Exodus Wars, a bloody civil war fought between the Guild and the Royal Empire of Man. 

For those who are familiar with tabletop war games, Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire is a version of the 6mm-scale Exodus Wars miniatures game, translated to PC. If you remember a PC game called Epic 40,000: Final Liberation, from the 1990s, this is probably the closest comparable game. In Exodus Wars there are two factions available: the Guild Legions and the Royal Empire of Man. The Guild Legions are roughly comparable to Warhammer 40,000?s Space Marines with tank and super-heavy tank support vs. Imperial Guard with Titan Legions/Knight Titan support. It?s played with hundreds of troops rather than thousands, but the battles can still be rather epic. 

For those not particularly familiar with Games Workshop or the Epic/6mm scale, a good comparison would be the Total War series battles, but turn-based rather than real-time. One side sports huge tanks and elite soldiers in armoured suits (think less flashy Iron Man armour), while the other side has big bipedal mechs (Ed 209 on steroids) and many poorly armed conscripts.

 

Gameplay

Exodus Wars has a ?you-go, I-go? activation-based mechanic rather than discrete turns for each player, with each player alternating in moving one formation of units at a time. This has a more significant impact than you might expect, and as it?s virtually all positive, to the point where I now find it strange this hasn?t been more widely adopted (that said, it?s not uncommon within tabletop gaming and they are not the first to do it, although they may be unique within computer gaming). 

This mechanism of alternating activations adds a lot to the tactical depth. You have to choose what order to move your troops in. Do you implement your attack plan immediately or focus on interfering with theirs? Do you use your best troops first or risk being out-manoeuvred to get vulnerable troops out of danger? It is also, I suspect, a great leveller of skills: you can see the enemy plan taking shape, so you have a greater chance to counter it; however, knowing this, your plans become more complex as you try to prevent your opponent from doing the same. 

The alternating activations mechanic is easy to grasp and helps to prevent both landslide victories and painful humiliation, so it?s easy on new players. The ultimate result is that its more about the grand strategy than any single powerful unit attacking at a crucial moment, which is always welcome in a strategy game. 

I played tabletop wargames some 15 years ago, but, having no prior knowledge of this particular gaming system, the in-game tutorials, while basically a selection of YouTube lets-play videos, did a good job at explaining the gaming system. The tabletop necessity to know and refer to reams of numbers and stats was joyfully absent. The stats exist in a booklet if you want them, but there is no need as the strength and purpose of the units are clear just from the visuals, cannon-style guns for anti-tank, machine guns for infantry. The game doesn?t break any new ground here, but there?s no real need to. 

The available actions that your troops can perform are pretty standard fare: stand and shoot well, move and shoot ok, move lots and shoot poorly, move far and don?t shoot. Each of the movement ranges and fire range are displayed with concentric circles around the selected unit, and you can experiment with where you move to before committing, so this all works well and should prevent irritating misjudgements of range. Line of sight is also a factor, so hiding is possible, as is cowering in cover to make your troops harder to shoot. 

And if cowardice is your thing, you?ll be pleased to hear that morale is present and, at times, your troops will run away if sufficiently scared. This is measured with a formation?s suppression, which was a new concept for me. Units take suppression each time they take casualties, or even when simply shot at but unhurt. This represents them taking cover, and the more they are suppressed the less they can shoot back. It?s an interesting addition and presents opportunities for tactical depth. In terms of more advanced elements, there are two: Overwatch, which allows firing during the other side?s movement (which most will be familiar with), and Close Assault, which are short-ranged firefights. Close Assault firefights allow each side to hit each other simultaneously. An adjacency bonus also exists when nearby units lend their firepower to yours. Close combat is planned but not yet implemented, so overall this looks like a promising range of options, with most of it currently present and working. 

Before the battle, you get to choose the composition of your army. The battles have preset points limits and each formation of units has a corresponding cost. You get a nice little preview of the unit on screen to boot. It would be nice to see the army arrayed before you as you add more to it, so you can gauge it at a glance and perhaps show it off to others, but you only get a list of units rather than an image of them arrayed, which considering the visual medium that inspired it would have been an nice addition. 

There are two problems however. One is a bug ? being in development, unit selection and giving orders doesn?t always work as is presumably intended. It doesn?t kill the game for testing purposes, but you do sometimes have to try several times to get your orders followed, and this will have to be resolved before release for it to be a viable game. 

The second is the units available to choose from. Again it is in development, but, there are currently only 10 different units split between the two factions, which can basically be categorised as two types of unit, infantry and tanks/mechs. As one would expect, these are countered with anti-personnel and anti-tank weaponry respectively. Strategy is therefore limited to advance to shooting range, shoot at most applicable target. It is therefore difficult to properly test the tactical acumen of the AI as advanced manoeuvres aren?t really possible at present. The AI does put up a reasonable resistance and it does pay attention to the take-and-hold objectives, but as long as you don?t do anything too stupid, winning at present is essentially a question of the luck of the (non-existent) dice rather than tactics. 

Hope comes from the tabletop game however, as a quick scan of the miniatures on sale on the Exodus Wars website shows factions with 30+ different units, ranging from tanks, infantry, artillery, snipers, bikes, aircraft, heroes and commanders, and even cavalry - so there is room to diversify the unit selection to extend viable tactics, and ultimately extend the fun and longevity of the game. If each side can be developed to having a choice of 15+ units each, the tactical depth will increase accordingly. That is, however, an important ?if?, and not just because it?s still in development. While the Guild are well-stocked, the opposing REM faction only has 12 unit types on show, which could limit the variety posed for that side. One of these units, the big walker shown in various screenshots and the introductory video, was I believe actually created by the PC game dev team and then replicated in miniature form, so it appears they have at least as degree of creative licence to build upon the armies, rather than merely translate existing IP, which is promising. 

There are also two further races on the website so there is room for expansion, and I suspect talented modders could make expand it further in short order, but this will all depend on popularity of the game and, being an indie developer of a niche genre, I wouldn?t expect more than two official factions to be present - certainly not in the first instance, anyway.

 

Graphics

The graphics are what you expect from an RTS. Up close the infantry look decent, albeit identical, whereas the tanks are currently the same models from early testing and probably need a new lick of paint. You spend most of the game with a birds-eye view of the battlefield, though, so this isn?t too important, and is somewhat fitting considering the tiny models which inspired it. 

The battlefields, however, look surprisingly good and are a step up from the Total War series, and this is probably the strongest visual aspect of the game. With rolling hills, valleys, forests, craters, dramatic sunsets on the horizon and hints of other planets in orbit - it all sets the scene admirably. It could, however, do with some greater contrast. You can see where hills and craters end, but a greater range of colour would be welcome. The desolate pockmarked Mars-like landscape of the Desolate battlefield, for example, is basically 50 shades of brown, so more could be done here to distinguish key areas. Zoom in and you get foliage, sandbag emplacements, razor wire, tank traps, and any casualties inflicted remain on the battlefield as a smoking testament to the carnage you oversaw. The drawback, however, is that it doesn?t hugely affect the gameplay other than to occasionally block line of sight or provide a cover bonus. 

Simply getting out of firing range or killing the enemy first is the most viable tactic, and unit deployment is dictated by the location of take and hold objectives rather than the flow of the land and the most advantageous route to take. The introduction of new unit types may change this, or resized maps, but I suspect it will need the density of features such as craters and sandbags to be increased before the terrain demands you incorporate it into your plan. A greater variety of such terrain features - say buildings, defensive structures, wreckage and such like - would also help create some atmosphere, as well as add colour. 

The user interface is uncluttered and crisp, with options to minimise some boxes, and most of the screen is dedicated to the battlefield rather than a range of buttons and mini-maps. Fans of statistics may want more details on their unit?s abilities, but it does give you a nice text summary of what has just happened so you don?t need to rely purely on visual cues of things blowing up. It would be nice if it snapped to the location of the action, though, during your opponents move. 

The colour pallet of the units is a fairly subdued collection of grey, beige, dark blue and so on, to go with the battlefields? muted green, brown and snow. The overall affect is units that don?t jump out at you like their tabletop equivalents, so the detail is only appreciable when zoomed in. This does mean they look more realistic and more camouflaged, as far as sci-fi can look real, but they could benefit from greater contrast to help them pop. 

The red or blue symbols denoting a unit?s type and faction are the best way of identifying your troops, which, while practical, doesn?t really create any attachment to your units or draw you in, so I would prefer brighter colours on the units themselves and leave the realism to mainly the battlefield itself. 

Visually, there are currently some bugs. Units can face the wrong direction or hover above the ground, but these should be addressed before launch, and some bugs are to be expected at this Early Access stage.

 

Longevity

This is hard to judge. As mentioned, the current selection of units limits what you and the AI can do. Three Skirmish maps allow some variety, as does being able to design your army, and to adjust the size of the armies. Right now, there?s only one type of scenario available- Take and Hold/King of the Hill-style -- but more may be coming. The Campaign is a series of staged skirmish matches following a linear story, starting out as a small skirmish and building up to larger confrontations. It?s nice that an indie game would have a campaign, but it?s unlikely to be where most of the fun is to be had. Skirmishes, and hopefully multiplayer, if they implement it, will be where you spend most of your time. 

A large battle could take about an hour, so it?s much quicker to play than tabletop games. Multiplayer will, however, heavily rely on the number of players, which can be very hit or miss, and with an indie game will likely necessitate having a set time period for players to meet up, or arrangements between friends. Then again, considering the potential length of the battles, playing with friends may well be the best bet anyway.

 

Overall

Ultimately, it?s an enjoyable and accurate adaptation of tabletop wargaming on PC, and a must-have for fans of the genre. All the building blocks are there, it just needs fleshing out and a few bugs squashed to become a great game. 

Early Access is worth it if you want to support the developers or be involved with play-testing and feedback. If not, you?re better off waiting for the full release. 

The £14.99 (US$19.99) price is in the right bracket. Questions remain over how many units will make it into the release version, if sales will make multiplayer viable, and if modders will come on board to adapt it to the myriad of sci-fi genres that are just crying out for an equivalent game - which only time will tell. 

The Exodus Wars: Fractured Empire website is here.

 

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