Like a crushing metaphor for life, space exploration has proven to be a titanic disappointment. No first contact, space battles or hidden archaeological wonders. No replicators, holodecks or lightsabers. Just a few snazzy photos, a slightly dodgy robot and some admittedly very funny but quite puerile rover tracks. Our naive dreams outstripped our limited ability. The same could be said of Horizon.
Set in the not too distant future, you take the helm of humanity (for the tutorial at least) just before first contact with the Kor’tahz, a race proclaiming to be the progenitors of the other races you’ll encounter later on. A few of them have got a bit uppity, it seems, and humanity’s help is needed in teaching them a lesson. What you do with this information is entirely down to you - you can pursue or ignore the quest and it’s the first of many to crop up as you explore the galaxy. It provides a nice variation to the typical 4X format without forcing you down some linear narrative. Having said that, some quests are too vague to be of interest (“please explore 20% of the galaxy, we’ve lost our magic crystals”) while others give dubious rewards; after handing over a cure for a planet-killing plague, for example, I got a thank you and the promise of some telepaths for my ships. Woopee! I should have patented the vaccines instead...
The main screen that you’ll be seeing a lot of is basic but functional. A two-dimensional star map stretches out across the screen with all the systems you can explore, colonise or conquer. Over time, as you meet other species, systems are colour-coded to show the lay of the land. Some menus are well ordered - there’s one key report for colonies, fleets and planets which is incredibly useful - but others are less intuitive, like the drop-down menus for ordering ships around. Combining them into fleets, say, or getting them to orbit planets can be tricky at first but shouldn’t take too long to master. A few extra options, like digging a planet’s surface, make exploring more interesting - there’s a chance you’ll unearth ancient tech in the same way that Civilization’s tribes might divulge their long-lost secrets. In reality, however, rewards are few and far between. If you do manage to find something, it’s not at all clear what the benefit was - a one-off boost to research? An entirely new tech? Horizon gives you no hints and it’s something of a recurring theme. It’s easy to see a list of planets you’ve discovered, but not who owns them. It’s simple to review what happened in a turn, with a handy list of hyperlinked events, but you can’t tick off the points you’ve addressed. All of these things are symptomatic of good ideas which lack a bit of polish.
Once you start to expand there are two flavours of colonies: military outposts to keep tabs on an area, and colonies proper. Colonies can establish buildings but their number is capped, so you have to plan ahead if you want an industrial powerhouse, trade centre or tourist trap. Again, it sounds nice but actually constrains you to a paucity of buildings with little deviation from the preset archetypes. It’s pretty dull and unrealistic when you consider games span hundreds of years and a little variation would have improved the strategy no end.
The bottom line for any production in Horizon is your central Treasury. All items, be they buildings or units, need capital to get started and then your regular turns-to-build queue takes over. With enough money you can rush construction which makes establishing a powerful colony very easy with the right funds. It’s also potentially game breaking for two reasons: it’s very easy to build a strong economy very quickly and, once you have this, it’s even easier to steamroll the opposition like some perpetual motion machine. In one game I quickly researched communications technologies which increased my diplomatic skill. I used this to acquire monetary aid from everyone I had met up to this point. The aid let me invest in trade and research techs which, respectively, increased my revenue and improved my research. A virtuous cycle had begun which turned my backwater human alliance into the Bill Gates of the galaxy. Strategic genius? Possible, but unlikely, especially when you consider that factions who were praising my strong economy didn’t bat an eyelid when I carried on asking for monetary aid.
This is indicative of a few problems with the game’s AI. While diplomacy is not entirely broken, the system is very simple and it’s difficult to gauge the AI’s motivation - they might declare war or request an alliance out of the blue so their motives are never clear. Making requests of your own is always met with a curt ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without elaboration. This issue is compounded for trade agreements which themselves are turn-based; you offer up something, for free, and then make a request which can be accepted or rejected. There’s no guarantee you’ll get anything in return of course, and if you ask first your request may be rebuffed. Extra diplomatic options for allies are pretty useless too. During a tricky war I asked two separate allies to attack a colony and, despite their promises, no reinforcements arrived. It doesn’t mean diplomacy’s impossible, just a bit random.
Should diplomacy fail (or succeed, depending on your play style) war will break out. And oh boy, are you going to be disappointed. Space combat is terrible. Ships each have a turn to act and the battle ends when one side is victorious or twenty rounds of turns have elapsed. Issuing orders from a wide view is necessary because of the scale of the encounters but difficult due to tiny ship icons. This is exacerbated by a minute ticker-tape summary of the turn’s events which is too small to be legible. Weapons and damage are area-specific so it’s essential to position ships with a right-click, but the system is haphazard and unpredictable. You’re never quite sure if your ship will turn as intended. Battles can really drag on and you can automate them but this effectively removes warfare from the game. It doesn’t make Horizon dull to play - I still enjoyed building and spreading my empire - but it does lead to long periods of planning and managing without exciting battles to break things up. The almost Zen-like ebb and flow you get in 4X games really suffers from this, particularly in the critical and often most enjoyable stages of exploring and expanding. This improves later on when interesting techs have been discovered and your economy has its wheels turning but by that point you may have already checked out.
It’s just as well the ship design feature is limited as you don’t feel as invested in taking your creations for a spin. You can have sixteen designs on the go at one time (four specifications for four different classes, ranging from Scouts to Motherships) and slots for Weapons, Core and Special items can be filled with techs you’ve unlocked. Until you get well down the tech tree, however, there’s little point to specialising your designs. You can only build one ship of any one class at a time (per planet) which can be frustrating at times. You can’t build a Colonizer and Assault Ship simultaneously, for example, because they’re arbitrarily lumped into the same class.
Horizon’s tech tree is one of its better features. As you begin in a ‘real world’ scenario, you’ll start off with a few familiar techs such as nuclear engines. Research is split across six areas, such as propulsion and construction, and you can focus on specific areas. New technologies are uncovered through breakthroughs but can only be utilised with further research, which lets you apply them. Carrying on your research will refine the technology further still. Propulsion engines are one of the earlier examples you come across - you start with nuclear and can refine that technology, before eventually discovering (for example) hydrogen engines which have much better recharge rates and capacity.
This is a departure from the tech-trees many players have come to rely on, and love, as there’s no telling what breakthroughs will lead to - just as in real life. No-one knew how important Euler’s conclusion to the Seven Bridges of Königsberg conundrum would be for the development of the internet, for example. You invest in something you think might be useful but then it might shoot off into something unexpected. I stumbled across Replicating (yes, like in Star Trek) because I was funneling points into production-boosting Robots. The level of randomness is quite entertaining and does throw up some interesting options; should I keep investing in this old tech, because I’m halfway to the top level, or switch to this better one that I’ve only just discovered? It can be frustrating to abandon something you’ve poured research into and makes the pain of scrapping an old army, in place of newly available units, all the keener, but it certainly makes you think. Upgrading fleets is at least a simple process - orbiting a space station improves the components to the current level, which is a nice touch.
I was deliberately facetious at the start of this review. I would never in seriousness describe space exploration as a disappointment of any sort and, to an extent, the same is true of Horizon. There are certainly enjoyable features and it’s nice to have someone attempting innovation but a few things fall flat while others struggle to shine. It’s a pity not everything succeeds but hey, that’s the beauty of doing something new - you’re heading into the unknown.