Yesterday started out like any other day. I woke up an hour late, skipped taking a shower, and strolled out the door with my 8x Windows Phone in hand. What could be more normal?
And when a burst of boredom hit me sometime around noon, it was pretty normal for me to jump into the Xbox Marketplace and hunt around for new titles. The storefront was full of the typical garbage, but one title, Galactic Reign, seemed to be gaining traction among users. Why not download the trial, right? Little did I know I was about to be blown away.
Sexy interstellar combat
Galactic Reign will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played Sins of a Solar Empire, Alpha Centuri, or even Advance Wars. Players choose a species (the Protoss-ish Alkari, the Terran-like Sundogs, or the Borg-esque Zorn) then immediately jump into a match against a friend or a random, live opponent. Players are dropped onto opposite sides of a galactic map, and each is given four small fleets to explore and colonize available star systems, or to upgrade with various research.
Colonizing takes up an entire turn and costs cash, but colonies produce income over the long term. Exploring can uncover enemy positions, but if can also throw your fleets into unanticipated danger. And while research can pay off with monstrous ships and abilities, the resources consumed may go to waste if your adversary sniffs out and counters your tech tree.
The match ends when one player exceeds 25 Victory Points, earned by reaching and holding powerful Artifact Planets (three total). The majority of the game therefore involves a mad dash to settle these precious planets, followed by feints and blitz maneuvers to pull/push opposing forces out of these valuable sectors. Along the way, careful resource management and fleet composition planning are key to routing the enemy in combat. Speaking of which…
J.J. Abrams is officially jealous
Instead of real-time combat (which wouldn’t really be possible in a cross-platform turn-based strategy game), Slant Six opted to take a more Advance Wars-style approach in Galactic Reign. But instead of animating zero-gravity struggles with corny, badly executed cartoons, this game’s battles are rendered as cinematic HD video. How is that even possible on a mobile phone? It’s not. All combat footage is created on remote cloud servers, then downloaded to your device as film-quality cut scenes. Ships look absolutely stellar* and hundreds of them can be displayed actively engaged in combat at once.
As gorgeous as it all is, you can’t control anything that’s happening once you initiate a fight. But what you can do is activate scanners during the war footage to analyze enemy vessels. Since you can’t normally snoop on your adversary’s ships during exploration, this is an excellent chance to find out what your foe is up to and how you can best counter it.
It’s not Starcraft, but…
While Galactic Reign doesn’t reach the levels of white-knuckle strategic clashing that an RTS does, there is plenty of depth and tactical nuance involved.
Good news: every player begins every match completely equal, with no microtransactions or grindy EXP systems to determine who has the upper hand. Additionally, each species has its own strengths: the Alkari have the most tech options, the Sundogs sport the most resilient ships, and the Zorn can opt for drones or hacking as viable tech trees.
While rushing directly at Artifact Planets may seem like the best strategy, doing so limits colonization, which hurts end-game economy. I’ve had matches where I won in a few turns by locking down every core system early on, sure. But I’ve also succeeded by taking all the unimportant planets, mining them for credits, and smashing into the Artifact hub with a massive fleet when my enemy was at 24/25 Victory Points!
There are plenty of mind games to play, too. Moving a weak squadron of fighters to the edge of opposing territory is likely to invite the company of a fleet of hostile gunships. But if your opponent doesn’t know you’ve got a Dreadnaught warping in from a neighboring system (you’ve kept it out of combat to limit his knowledge), he’s gonna be hurting next turn. Likewise, you can feign a retreat from an important Artifact Planet, only to smash back in next turn with the four separate fleets you had waiting nearby. Pulling off strategic wins like is exhilarating and the shiny, jaw-dropping cinematics sure help elevate the epic feeling.
Cross Platform Fun
Last but not least, Galactic Reign is 100% cross-platform between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. So if you buy it on your Nokia 920, you’ll have it available on PC for free (and vice versa). There’s no extra charge (unless you want double the achievements), and your interstellar space opera sessions carry over between all your devices. While I’m surprised and mildly disappointed Galactic Reign isn’t available on Xbox 360 (yet), it’s great being able to start a campaign at home, then continue conquering the universe while I drive my car or at work while I’m foreclosing on people’s houses. Asynchronous action means it’s short enough to play on the go, but multiple parallel battles means the action doesn’t have to stop if you don’t want it to.
If you’re running either of Microsoft’s newest operating systems, you need to pick up Galactic Reign pronto. After that, the only thing you’ll have to figure out is how you’re going to beat the unstoppable Sundog armada amassed by that “WiNGSPANTT” asshole.**
* All puns intended.
** No but seriously, I haven’t lost a match yet.