In a recent editorial, I complained that Microsoft has largely stopped announcing or publicizing Windows Phone games in advance. Well, this week we have a prime example of that. Galactic Reign from Slant Six and Microsoft Studios has just showed on Windows 8 and RT with Xbox features and will appear for Windows Phone 7 and 8 devices (also with Xbox features) later today.
Microsoft teased the game back in October but made absolutely no mention of platforms, so nobody really knew it was coming, and especially not as a multiplatform release with connectivity features. But other than the lack of proper PR, a new game showing up on Windows Phone and Windows 8 with cross-platform asynchronous multiplayer is always good news, so we’ll stop complaining. For now.
Since the Windows 8 game launched ahead of the mobile version, we’ve already put several hours into it. Head past the break for our full impressions, plus details about buying the game on one platform and playing it from another!
Strategy in space!
As the title might clue you in, Galactic Reign is a sci-fi strategy game. It’s sort of a distant cousin to Skulls of the Shogun, only without the story mode. In fact, the 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.
Video killed the strategy star
Once the fleet is ready, the battle starts. Players don’t actually control the battles – they simply sit back and let their ships take on the opposing forces. Here’s where Galactic Reign differs from pretty much every other game out there. Instead of rendering the battle in real-time, the game renders the battle in the cloud. The results are then streamed to your device as a video. You can choose to ‘scan’ the video, which adds tactical overlays and allows you to jump to any point in the battle.
This video-based system allows Galactic Reign to showcase impressive-looking space battles on relatively underpowered Windows RT devices. However, the obvious downside is that players have to wait for the video to process on the cloud and then download. It’s not a fast system; the game actually says this process can take several minutes. You can start another challenge or play multiplayer while the video processes and downloads though. Once it’s done, you find out whether you won the battle and how many stars you earned.
Thankfully those unnecessary videos can be skipped or simply disabled in the Options screen. I applaud Slant Six and Microsoft for trying something new, but rendering videos in the cloud and then streaming them to devices is far too slow to be practical. Strategy fans would happily accept much lower-fidelity battles rendered in-engine – just look at Skulls of the Shogun and Spectral Souls. Faster is better.
Crossing platforms… in space!
Galactic Reign wouldn’t be much fun if not for its multiplayer mode. Online battles take place asynchronously, and the game does support matchmaking. Windows Phone and Windows 8 players can even compete against each other. We can’t test that cross-platform support until the phone version becomes available later today, but the experience should essentially be the same on each platform.
In multiplayer games, both players start at opposite sides of a galactic map. Each player commands up to four fleets as they move from planet to planet along the map. These fleets can colonize the planets they arrive on, as long as you have the resource cost to spare. It takes one to turn to successfully colonize a planet, at which point it adds to the player’s resource production.
To start with, you’ll only have access to a few types of ships, weapons, and accessories. To unlock new pieces for your armada, you’ll need to put resources into research. One turn later, the researched item becomes available to use. Since each ship is strong and weak against other types, it’s important to pack your fleets with a variety of ships and armaments. There’s no limit to how many ships you can add to individual fleets, though of course actually building ships costs resources too.
As both players move across space and grab up planets for themselves, they’ll eventually cross swords, so to speak. Occupy an opponent’s colony long enough and you’ll take it over for yourself. But when two opposing fleets run into each other, a battle ensues. Sheer numbers as well as a balanced assortment of ships will determine the winner. Check the results screen to see who survived and who lost a fleet from the encounter.
Achievements (also in space)
Given the multiplayer focus of the game, most of its 20 Achievements focus on the multiplayer mode. The long-term goal is to win 25 matches against other players. Several Achievements reward specific scenarios such as colonizing three worlds in one round, researching all technologies in a single game, and building 5 dreadnaughts in one game. Most will go down easy, but some will likely require a little boosting with a friend.
Windows 8 Impressions
Battle Academy mode. Note the grainy decal beneath my Gamerpic.
While I played Galactic Reign on a PC, it’s clearly designed with tablets in mind. The text messages stretch all the way from the left edge of the screen to the right, which is really uncomfortable to read on a 16:9 display. Slant Six should consider adding an option to view text in thinner columns for people who lack amazing peripheral vision. Also, the decals (avatar images) that players select to represent their multiplayer forces appear low-resolution and dithered on a 1080P display.
Another issue is the lack of proper volume control. The Options menu allows music and sound effects to be toggled on or off, but there’s no way to just adjust the game’s volume. I don’t want to turn my computer’s volume down every time I play a game. We can safely assume that the Windows Phone version will have the same problem – and we already know Windows Phone lacks independent volume control for games and apps.
Other than those issues, my only real complaint is the lack of a proper single-player mode. The turn-based strategic conquest found in multiplayer would work perfectly well against AI players. In all likelihood, the project just didn’t have the budget to develop proper AI or a story campaign.
Still, Galactic Reign’s asynchronous multiplayer battles are great fun. The ability to play against PC, tablet, and phone users should make for an addictive strategic experience. The trial version of Galactic Reign provides full access to multiplayer with a single alien race, so anyone can see if it's right for them. The full game costs $4.99 and provides access to two additional races. The Windows 8 game is a 195 MB download. Get it here from the Windows 8 Store.
One purchase for both platforms!
The Windows Phone 7 and 8 version of Galactic Reign will also cost $4.99 when it goes live. However, according to the game's official FAQ, players only need to buy one version in order to access it on both platforms! The only catch is that you don't earn Achievements on the other platform unless you buy that version too. Not perfect, but it's a start.
We’ll report back when the phone game becomes available, and look forward to a Windows Phone-specific review soon as well!