The last couple of years have seen a much braver Paradox. Like a nerdy Swedish caterpillar, they’ve emerged from their chrysalis as a beautiful and multifaceted butterfly of games publishing, still your one-stop-shop for mind-bogglingly complex historical simulations but now also flitting distractedly between genres, pausing just long enough to suck a little nectar before moving on.
Do butterflies actually do that? I have no idea. So instead, let’s talk about the tautology that is Ancient Space. A single-player RTS that tells the tale of the crew of the Ulysses II, a star cruiser that ventures into an area of the galaxy known as the Black Zone in search of a previous scientific expedition, and a species of semi-legendary space whales. Along the way, unsurprisingly, you’re beset by pirates, aliens and just about anyone else and his cybernetically-enhanced dog.
Space, while ancient, is not perhaps as vast and endless as you might think. In fact, in many cases it actually feels sort of cramped. Each level is imaginatively designed, and stuffed with big rocks, ruined space stations, and all manner of space junk. Despite the fact that you’re commanding a space fleet of capital ships and swarms of fighters, there are even indoor levels, which kind of confuses the scale a little. You don’t really expect there to be secret rooms in a game about capital ship warfare, but there absolutely are.
Ancient Space subscribes to the paper-scissors-stone-lizard-spock school of game design. Each ship or squadron has a size ranging from small to extra-large, and also a different damage output against each size. So it’s mostly a case of matching these values together so that your small bombers are harassing the large enemy ships that can’t hit small ones to save their lives, and so on. Most of your ships have a light dusting of special abilities as well. For instance, your early-game light bombers (yawningly named ‘invaders’) have a missile barrage which is effective against pretty much anyone but requires a little cooldown. Frustratingly, selecting a mass of these bombers and selecting the missile barrage ability causes only one unit to respond, meaning that for any kind of heavy assault you’re going to be selecting these abilities for each individual unit.
Some units are significantly more effective than others. I found myself relying heavily on about five different types of craft to the exclusion of all others, with excellent results. Corsairs in particular – boarding craft which can be used to capture enemy vessels and convert them to your side – are perhaps a little overpowered. See, they freeze the enemy craft while they attempt to board, so if you chuck a handful of the blighters at an enemy invasion force or a cluster of defence turrets (which they can also board), you’ll completely disable these units, allowing plenty of breathing space for the rest of your fleet. Nevertheless, units tend to die a lot, particularly the littler ones, so your mothership-come-unit-factory is usually pretty busy. There’s a fairly low cap on the number of units you can have though, so it’s a little like keeping the conveyor belt going to throw more units into the intergalactic meat grinder.
Maps are divided into sectors, connected by alarmingly convenient short-range wormholes. Even indoors, these wormholes connect different areas, which presumably would make office worker toilet breaks dramatic and exciting. With the wormholes and the sheer volume of space debris, levels can be pretty linear considering you’re supposed to be in all this ancient space. Later on you’ll get access to a unit that can make itself into a temporary wormhole that allows you to bring units in at unexpected locations which is a fun addition, although it can allow you to circumvent certain mission goals and completely spadge the mission, frustratingly requiring a reload.
Clicking your units around in this huge 3-D space can take a bit of getting used to until you realize the Big Secret. It’s not actually quite as 3-D as it’d have you believe. Moving the camera up and down it’s soon made apparent that space is pretty narrow on the old up-and-down axis. For the most part, this saves you from trying to click on a spot in the distance and having your ships just plummet downward due to the 3-D-ness of it all. For the most part. Not always. In fact, pathfinding can be a chore, particularly with the aforementioned corsairs, who can get nice and close to the enemy units before forgetting just how to effectively board them.
The music is pretty good, ranging between valiant space fugues and creepy dirges with a little unexpected Arabic influence dolloped on top. The voice actors are apparently a selling point, being a rogue’s gallery of people who have been in sci-fi movies (and whom, without the movie names that are inevitably parenthesised after their names, you’d possibly not be able to identify). Despite these biggish names, there’s a tendency for them all to… pause dramatically… while talking in the… cut scenes. Like a… whole cast of… Captains Kirk.
I sort of liked it, though, despite its idiosyncrasies. Maps were pretty, pickups are used as a source of in-game lore in a way that sort of helps draw you in, and the between-mission powerup system is, while perhaps a little one-dimensional, still capable of providing a few interesting options. I don’t think we’re going to be talking, or even thinking about Ancient Space for very long, but combat is occasionally tense and engrossing, and I enjoyed my time with it well enough.