Galactic Reign is a Microsoft game that was co-developed with Canadian developer Slant Six Games that pretty much came out of nowhere when it appeared on Xbox Windows Phone 7 and 8 and Windows 8 and RT last week. For gamers who have yet to upgrade to Windows Phone 8, another Xbox game that runs on the previous OS is always a blessing. And cross-platform multiplayer is something we can all appreciate, regardless of which Windows Phone we carry.
Last week, we posted an extensive impressions piece about the Windows 8 version of Galactic Reign. This week, I’m back with a full review that covers both versions. Read on to find out whether or not this sci-fi strategy game has universal staying power.
Launching into multiplayer
Although Galactic Reign does have a minor single-player component, it’s primarily a competitive asynchronous multiplayer game like AlphaJax. As such, gamers must enable an internet connection to even play the game. It’s odd, but seems to result from the title’s heavy reliance on cloud computing.
Thankfully the experience of creating 2-player multiplayer matches is largely effortless. The game supports both matchmaking and inviting friends via Xbox Live or email. (Check out our forum thread for people to invite!) Rather than using an ugly generic interface for Xbox Live invites like Battleship and several other titles, Slant Six went the extra mile and crafted an interface that matches the rest of the game. You can even jump to specific letters on your friends list, greatly speeding up the process of finding the right friend to invite.
After selecting an opponent, you’ll choose the map and your multiplayer race. The game offers eight maps, each of which has a significant impact on the flow of a game. In games created by matchmaking, map selection is automatic instead of manual – presumably to prevent one side from having an unfair advantage.
Galactic Reign offers three races to choose from. They differ in what units and equipment they can access. The Zorn are the most unique of the bunch as their Factory units launch expendable drones in varying numbers (up to 450 from a dreadnaught) at the beginning of every battle. Thus a few high-level Factories can overwhelm an opposing force that hasn’t prepared against drone strikes.
Battle beyond the stars
Maps consist of a series of interconnected planets. Both players typically start on opposite sides, although certain maps throw combatants right next to each other. Initially, each player owns a handful of planets which produce a quantity of resources each turn. One of your goals is to colonize more planets in order to increase resource production. To colonize a planet, you’ll need to dedicate one of your four fleet units to the process for one turn, forsaking moving or attacking, as well as investing a portion of your precious resources.
Maps also contain three larger planets that produce not just resources but also Victory points. The first player to reach 25 Victory points wins the match, so controlling as many large planets as possible is key. On top of that, you’ll also need to research new units, build new units, and battle enemy fleets – all with the limited quantity of resources you receive each turn. Players don’t retain unspent resources, so you’ll always want to build new units with the leftovers before submitting your turn.
Whenever one player’s fleet encounters an opposing fleet, the two sides clash. But instead of controlling the battle, it happens automatically. Victory thus comes from a combination of superior numbers and having units that are strong against the enemy’s units.
You can view the resource value of an enemy fleet before attacking them, but not the actual contents of the fleet. Well, a number of icons next to the resource value represent the fleet’s makeup, but I honestly can’t make hide nor hair of the icons. The devs should have allowed players to tap on the icons to view a legend or something.
The really unusual aspect of the battles is that they are computed entirely in the cloud as opposed to the game client. And rather than an in-game engine, the game renders the battle in the cloud. The results are then streamed to your device as a video. Players can choose to ‘scan’ the video, which adds tactical overlays and allows you to jump to any point in the battle.
The actual creation of a single battle video takes several minutes. During that time, you can play other multiplayer games or single-player challenges, so you’re not stuck staring at a loading screen for minutes on end. But the video creation is still far too slow to be practical. They’re neat to watch a couple of times, but the vast majority of players will want to disable them in the Options menu before very long.
Left: Blueprint selection occurs in both single- and multiplayer. Right: A multiplayer map
Galactic Reign’s only single-player component here is the Battle Academy. This mode presents a series of 60 challenges, all aimed at teaching players the relationship between the game’s various ships and weapons.
Each challenge starts out with a fleet-building phase in which players first create blueprints for ships to use in battle. The assortment of ships and equipment they can be outfitted with varies from challenge to challenge. Once a blueprint or two has been selected, the ships can then be built. You get a certain amount of resource units to spend. Simply tap the plus-minus button on a ship or adjust a slider until your points have all been spent.
Put simply, I found Battle Academy extremely unengaging. The real fun of the game is moving across a map and making choices, never knowing just what your opponent will do on the next turn. Instead of a dinky challenge mode, the game should have included a proper single-player campaign. If you’re like me and don’t care for Battle Academy, you can at least find solutions for it over at True Achievements.
Big screen, small screen
Researching new units unlocks them for the duration of the match.
Remember how Skulls of the Shogun looked significantly better on Windows 8 and XBLA than it did on Windows Phone? Well, Galactic Reign doesn’t have that problem. Both phone and tablet versions look pretty much the same, although the Windows 8 game packs more content onto the screen thanks to its increased resolution. For instance, the multiplayer game menu lists 6 games on the phone screen simultaneously and 12 at once on PC. The UI is otherwise identical, making it easy to hop back and forth between two versions with no extra learning curve.
The experience of jumping back and forth is pretty awesome, actually. All player data is stored on the cloud, so leaderboard data and player customization is shared between both games. Start playing a multiplayer game on the phone and you can continue it on the PC and vice-versa. I love that because when I’m working on the PC and a push notification of a new turn comes in, I can just accept it right there without having to reach for the phone. But if I’m not at the computer, the phone gives me access to the game. It’s an ideal setup for asynchronous games that Microsoft will hopefully continue supporting in the future.
Of course, the similarity between both versions means that the same problems that exist in one also plague the other. Neither version allows users to adjust the sound volume incrementally; you can only toggle music and sound effects. As a result, I have to turn down my computer’s volume or my phone’s volume every single time I play. Also, while the text such as tutorials and status messages reads fine on Windows Phone, it stretches far too widely across the screen on PC and tablet, leading to eye strain. In that particular case, changing the UI up a bit would actually be for the best. Finally, there is no way to communicate with other players in either version.
While buying Galactic Reign on one platform unlocks all of its content on the other platform, you have to buy both versions if you want to earn both sets of Achievements for a total of 400 GamerScore. It’s not a perfect system, but still better than having to pay for each version no matter what.
As for the Achievements, some players will find it difficult to legitimately score 25 wins for ‘Master and Commander’ legitimately. But it’s super easy to boost with a friend since either side can resign at any time. Of course, since the whole point of this game is multiplayer, boosting 25 wins and then moving on (as I’ve seen some friends so already) would be missing the point entirely. Still, check out Arsenic17's Achievement Guide for tips.
The strategic element of Galactic Reign is very well designed, making for an engaging multiplayer experience. You don’t lose anything by actually losing (unlike AlphaJax’s awful ranking system), which keeps the game fun instead of high-pressure. And the ability to play on phone, tablet, or PC makes checking in and completing turns especially convenient.
However, a multiplayer game is only as good as its community, and that’s where Galactic Reign has issues. Over the last week, most of the players I’ve challenged through matchmaking have yet to make their first move. You can have up to 20 games going at once, but it takes five days before inactive players can be forced to resign.
See, Galactic Reign is a game I could play all day. But I’m completely at the mercy of my opponents – if only one or two make a move in a day, and they don’t make any more moves that day, that’s all I get to play. A game like this needs a large player base that doesn’t seem to be there. The demo allows full multiplayer access with a single race, but I’m not sure many people are even trying the demo. Microsoft has utterly failed to promote this game, so people who don’t visit Windows Phone and Windows 8-oriented sites like ours have probably never even heard of it.