Come to space! Fight lizard-things!
Okay, so I’ve taken a look at the 1994 Amiga “conquer the galaxy” indie game Colonial Conquest 2 and I rather liked it. So, given that I decided to take a look at a game I rescued from my local Oxfam Music a couple of months ago, the 1995 “conquer the galaxy” commercial PC title Ascendancy and see how the two compare.
Both games basically have exactly the same mission – settle and conquer planets and beat piss out of your enemies whilst doing so. In fact, when starting out the two games have some striking similarities. As with CC2, Ascendancy splits each planet up into a series of squares on which facilities can be built to create food or industrial output. Whereas in CC2 “idle” workers produced science, here science is produced in facilities. Each facility, whether food, industry or knowledge “occupies” one free colonist and free colonists must be available in order to keep building (since the building process itself occupies a colonists time); this means that in order to keep building the player might have to wait until a new colonist is produced (which is dependant on food output). In addition to these, various other facilities can be built on planets with which it can attack nearby spaceships and defend itself from invasion as well as sundry other abilities. As I said, when it all boils down to it the way planets are developed in CC2 and Ascendancy is actually quite simliar and demonstrates just how much of an influence Sid Meier’s Civilization was on turn-based strategy gaming.
Where Ascendancy becomes a quite different game is in how it handles everything else. Let’s start with the planets themselves. CC2 gave us an extremely simple “galaxy” of several dozen planets scattered around space in the Anacreon mould. Ascendancy completely does away with this sort of thing and goes for a much more realistic galaxy model. Instead of a scattering of planets we have a scattering of stars and each of these stars has a number of planets orbiting them which can be colonised (meaning that you and an opponent can both have colonies in the same star system – more on that later). Not only that but these stars have fixed “star lanes” between them by which spaceships must travel meaning that the galaxy isn’t quite “open” from the start; the player must wrest control of nearby systems to secure the path to further away ones. The game displays this galaxy (the complexity of which is decided by the player – you can play in a galaxy of a dozen stars or absolutely loads) in a 3D wireframe model which the player can spin and rotate; it’s all rather nice.
Two rival powers face-off in an uncontrolled system. That'll be my ship on the left. After naming all my warships "Space Bastard" I settled on the more conservative "Killer"
Another big difference is the combat and the fleets. Ascendancy is designed to keep ship numbers down and it does this via a rule meaning any empire can only control a certain number of ships: two for the home system and one for each additional system controlled. Note that this is systems controlled, not colonies; you can have five colonies all producing merrily away in one system but it only gets you one additional ship. Also if you have a colony in the same system as an opponent then tough – that makes it an uncontrolled system for both of you. If you think this sounds f*cking stupid then you’re right. It annoyed me that I could have around nine planets in my empire and yet only produce five sodding spaceships. Even China’s probably got five sodding spaceships by now and this is nine planets!
The reason for this is probably the way the space battles occur. In CC2, the player builds massive fleets, sends them into battle and the computer works out who comes out of it alive and who ends up as little bits of metal giving any nearby planets a nice shiny new ring-system. In Ascendancy, the battles are strategic affairs fought between these big hulking-great ships. You can’t just send them into battle, you have to tell them where to maneuver, which weapons to fire, when to put their shields on etc etc. This is all quite good fun, especially when more advanced weapons are developed meaning more thought has to go into the fight than “move, shoot, shoot, dieyoutwat!” and to be honest it would be pretty dull with loads and loads of spaceships. Still, nine planets, five ships… tsk.
A nearly-developed planet. The different planet's type and size determines how much you can build and what facilities perform best.
The way technology works in this game is also different. CC2 had a very simplistic technology system whereby scientific progress was linear and each new level brought the same advances each game. Ascendancy, however, uses a technology “tree” similar to that used in Civilization. This means that the player gets to choose which tech to pursue each time and depending on what is chosen new technologies may be open. This non-linear scientific progression has a greater sense of discovery in early games and prevents later games from feeling too “samey”.
And talking of Civilization, the way that game dealt with opposition powers has obviously also had a big impact on Ascendancy. As with Civ, there are a number of different factions to choose from (various alien races rather than nationalities and none of them human – we can assume that this is a galaxy far, far away) and, unlike the Mechs in CC2, hostility is not inevitable. The game features a fairly advanced form of diplomacy (more advanced than the original Civ) which allows for peace treaties, war, alliance and exchanging of information about star routes discovered. So, this game isn’t total war – expansion and dominance is about hedging your bets and making alliances as well as trashing those you’ve made an enemy of.
So, despite some basic similarities these two space-conquest games are actually pretty different. Which one is better depends on what sort of game you’re looking for – if you just want to fight battles and build things and don’t want too much complexity then go for CC2; if you like to micromanage a bit more, take control in battles and prefer diplomacy to endless slaughter then Ascendancy is more likely to tickle your fancy (I’m not sure how appropriate that phrase is for a wargame, but anyway…). Oh, and I know this sort of thing isn’t supposed to make too much of a difference but Ascendancy really does look and sound really nice even if you can’t seem to turn the music off.
I picked-up Ascendancy for £2 from my local Oxfam Music; as far as I know it’s not been released as freeware so all I can suggest is that you go looking for it. If you want to make it work on a modern PC then DOSBox (which I used) is your best bet.