“Space”, Douglas Adams tells us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is”. But if videogames are to be believed (and that might admittedly not be a desperately clever rule of thumb), most of space is filled with ugly space creatures blasting seven bells of extraterrestrial dung out of one another in great big fancy-pants spaceships. Of course, one of these races of ugly space creatures is invariably mankind. So it is with Gemini Wars. The basic premise sees two human civilisations fighting an interstellar war of independence while the inevitable aliens get set to join in halfway through.
Gemini Wars is the product of Camel 101, a small indie studio, and Iceberg Interactive’s continuing commitment to publishing the efforts of the smaller gaming studios is really something commendable. Their willingness to let the little guy have a shot is a net gain for the gaming industry, and gives us as gamers more choice than we’d otherwise have.
Kindly editor and Game Debate father figure Felix said something funny to me the other day as we sat in his oak panelled library. He adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles, stroked his Siamese cat, took a small sip from his aged cognac and favoured me with a warm smile. With that, he produced a review copy of Gemini Wars from the sleeve of his robe and spoke the words “I think I would enjoy this game myself, as I am a fan of 4X games”.
Well, I’m afraid in this case Felix had been misinformed by the marketing. Because Gemini Wars isn’t really a 4X game, although at first glance it looks like it might play like Sword of the Stars or something. No, actually, it’s an RTS, with all of the familiar tropes that come with it. Build mining bases to make cash and research bases to get research points, tech new buildings and weapons, build new ships, then rush the enemy. Each map is broken up into jump points, each representing somewhere you might like to build a new base of some sort. Usually, at the start of a map, the enemy holds most of these and you have to chip away at each one bit by bit, in order to break through with a strong enough force and enough spare cash to build a new base and establish some defences before the enemy counterattacks. Travel between jump points via hyperspace is pretty speedy but it takes time to recharge a ship’s hyperdrive, so if you jump into the midst of the enemy by mistake, you’ll weather a stern beating before getting the chance to jump back to safety.
All of this building up defences at each waypoint and then making a concerted push to capture the next in the sequence reminded me a great deal of Unigine’s Oil Rush, also put out by Iceberg Interactive. Gemini Wars has the same tower defence elements and strategic thinking.
Sadly, there are many things that just don’t quite work in Gemini Wars. Now I’ve said before that this is an indie game put out by a small team, and that warms me to it, it really does. But due to a couple of unfortunate design decisions, omissions and mistakes Gemini Wars just isn’t really all that fun to play.
Firstly, while there’s a pretty strong back story which is obviously a labour of love for the design team (there’s a free comic bundled with the game), the translation into English sort of ruins the suspension of disbelief. Surely there are jobbing writes out there who’ll just add a bit of polish to your writing for a reasonable price? If your audience is primarily English-speakers, this seems important to me. When a military outpost commander sends a communication to an allied fleet saying that he’s ‘a bit stressed out from all these enemy attacks’, I can’t help but feel their choice of words is just a bit off. Nothing like a large-scale strategic invasion of a military sector to harsh your mellow, dude. Spelling and grammar errors abound… it’s just a shame, as I’m sure a halfway-decent writer could have it all tidied up in an afternoon.
Essentially, you’re building bases and ships, and then sending the ships out to fight other ships. There’s not really a great deal of innovation here over what we saw in Command & Conquer. The first Command & Conquer. Sure, there’s research, but even then it’s just a case of building a research base then picking a few new ships and weapons as they become available.
Gameplay is really slow. You may capture an asteroid field, then need to move your construction ship halfway across the sector, then wait for your minerals to accrue, then build a mining outpost, then build about fifteen turrets around it, all before you even start thinking about your next assault. All of this has to take place at real-time, and so long as your fleet is capable of defending itself you can sit there for ten minutes at a time, just waiting for something to happen. Graphically, it’s less than perfect, although there are some nice lighting effects from time to time, and the starfields can be quite evocative.
It would have been nice to have been able to redefine some keys, too. Gameplay requires constant switching between the zoomed-out map (used for hyperjumps) and the focus map for dealing with each jump point, and I would have really liked to have the map toggle keyed to a mouse button. Some of the commands didn’t always work, either – I learnt quickly to always check after lasso-selecting my ships to make sure it had actually done what I’d asked.
When all’s said and done, if you like slow, thoughtful space RTS games, it would not be too hard to recommend Gemini Wars if the price had been a little lower. As it is, the £24 price tag is just a little high for a game with so little polish or innovation. For 12 quid, perhaps, I’d say maybe give it a try.