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By Azeebo10-02-2014
CrimsonE (editor)

The Defence

L30 Interactive
Iceberg Interactive
Release Date:

The Prosecution

Intel Core i7
AMD equivalent
Nvidia GeForce 9800
AMD Radeon HD 4850
4 GB
5 GB

The Case

Explore, expand, exploit and exterminate; a phrase first coined back in 1993 when referring to the classic, albeit relatively unknown, Master of Orion. Over the years, the name caught on, was abbreviated and the 4X genre was formed. With this new genre, Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire, and many, many more games were born. Horizon is the latest title to pick up Master of Orion’s glorious mantle, although it does a lot more than just that.

The Trial

Horizon is a game of grand strategy, nimble manoeuvring, crude politics, mass expansion and galactic domination by any means necessary. This is nothing new for fans of the genre, but what Horizon has done is wrap it up into two very distinct game modes. On the one hand, you have a campaign with a loose story that ties the universe together. It’s full of interesting lore and objectives with some victory conditions added and removed. On the other hand, you have a classic 4X mode whereby everyone starts on equal footing and there is no overarching story tying everything up. The mission mode is a bit more linear, whilst the classic mode feels much more dynamic.

Regardless of which “mode” you choose, you still have a robust universe generator. It allows you to control which races are present, which race you control, how many systems are in the universe, the average number of planets per system, the number of anomalies and more. Whilst each race has a set starting system, its location in the universe is random, as is its neighbouring systems.

Like a little ant farm.

Like a little ant farm.

When you first get into the game, it is easy to get massively overwhelmed as the sheer amount of information on screen is somewhat jarring. The vast emptiness of space is laid out before you, planets litter the UI, and numbers and buttons are everywhere. There is a decent tutorial you can enable which helps walk you through the basics of empire management, but it is far too clunky and allows for too much freedom. This may seem a bit odd, but I spent two hours playing the game assuming I had finished the tutorial, I accidentally clicked a button and the next stage popped up. I had already colonised countless planets, made relations with many species and even waged war, yet the tutorial acknowledged none of it, and forced me into relearning Technology. Freedom is great, but it would be nice if they held your hand a little bit more during the optional tutorial.

Once you get to grips with things, colonise your neighbouring planets, and start learning some new technology, it begins to feel great. The somewhat negative first impression wears off and you are left with endless possibilities. You begin colonising more planets, exploring more of the universe and then you become completely and utterly lost. Once your empire begins to expand, the sheer burden of managing it all is genuinely stressful. Unlike in games like Civilisations where each city can do one thing at a time, in Horizon each planet can do 15 things at once. You can construct 4 separate classes of ships, 6 types of infrastructure (each with varying levels), 3 orbitals and 2 defensive structures, none of which is slowed down by the construction of another. That alone is a baffling amount of information to take in, then you have to put into consideration that you have a bunch of technology trees containing an insane number of research options with each tree being able to focus on 1 technology without directly affecting other trees etc. There is just so much you can do each turn it boggles the mind.

What makes it all okay, however, is how easy it is to access all of the information you need, how streamlined it is to do all of these things. Ultimately, you get used to the management system Horizon has to offer. There is almost always something to do in Horizon, and it is incredibly easy to find out what that is.

Getting ready for some pew pews.

Getting ready for some pew pews.

Managing colonies is only one part of the game. There is a robust ship design tool that allows you to customise your various ship classes to your heart’s content. There are four classes of ships ranging from small to huge, with each class containing four slots, giving you a total of 16 ships to have on the “construction line” at once. Whilst you are limited to what each ship can be outfitted with by the “space” resource, it gives you enough freedom to make anything. Anything does mean anything, from specialised planet bombing ships to assault shuttles, to gigantic motherships brimming with plasma cannons and fighter bays.

You will inevitably encounter various xenos as you explore the universe, which opens up the option for diplomacy. Diplomacy is arguably one of the most important tools in the game. Unlike in other games where diplomacy is not really fleshed out, Horizon makes it pivotal to your success. Whilst your basic options like trade pacts, alliances and declare war are all present, friendships are very slow to grow, and require a lot of negotiation if you want to really reap the rewards on offer. Befriending other species opens up whole new technologies that would otherwise be impossible to learn, it allows for incredible wealth and lets you explore the galaxy unhindered. In times of war, you can request specific systems be protected, or invaded, giving you a much needed edge when it all goes to shit.

When all hell does break loose, you are presented with the tactical view. This is a close up of the system your fleet is in, and allows you to move and fire your ships in a turn based fashion. And while it is an interesting change of pace and perspective, it is easily the weakest part of the game. The combat is far from exhilarating or even remotely interesting. There are next to no tactics involved other than getting the enemy in your weapon’s arcs. It always boils down to who has the biggest ships; the tactics themselves are irrelevant. Luckily you can skip the battles and opt for an auto resolve, but the AI incredibly stupid, and this can result in entire fleets just being destroyed by a defence turret. The planetside battles are even worse, although it does completely remove the tedium of turn based combat. It boils down to watching numbers ticking down until one side is dead. With so much effort put into other parts of the game, it is a real shame that the combat feels so unfinished.

Sorry lady, your plastic surgeon sucks.

Sorry lady, your plastic surgeon sucks.

Horizon takes a lot of inspiration from older games in the genre, but they may have taken this inspiration a little bit too far when it comes to the visuals. In short, they are bad. The galaxy map itself is fine, but everything else is just awful. Everything from the pre rendered cutscenes and the alien models, to the ships in tactical view; they all look ugly, goofy and downright dated. The sound is no better, with repetitive music and the same few effects repeated over and over and over again. After many hours of play, the “style” does grow on you somewhat, giving you a sense of nostalgia, but it is not enough to cover up the presentation’s flaws.

The Verdict

Despite missing the mark on a few things, Horizon is a fantastic example of 4X done right. It does have a rather steep learning curve, but once you get over that hurdle, you have a great game waiting to be explored.

Case Review

  • Deep Space: In-depth empire management.
  • Play it Your Way: Multiple victory conditions.
  • Wonky Tutorial: Helpful, but slightly broken tutorial.
  • Is That a Mountain?: Steep learning curve.
  • My Eyes!: It is not a pretty game.
  • Auto-Resolve: Combat is rubbish.
Score: 3.5/5
EXplore, eXpand, eXploit, auto-resolve...wait what?


While the interest in space games waxes and wanes, at least where the big money is concerned, there are always smaller developers with dreams to make their own 4X games. Horizon is one of those medium range games and it shows, at least visually. That is usually one of the marks that you use to, counterintuitively, separate these games. The beautiful ones are usually really well made (with the dark exception of Sword of the Stars 2), the worse off are less impressive technologically, but can still pull off a few unexpected tricks (Stardrive!). Horizon...is playable, if you’re willing to look past the facade.

The thing is, 4X games draw you into the point where you’re playing for four hours, even though the last time you had fun was about two or three hours ago. You quickly get sucked into a quagmire of fun and intellectual involvement: having been fatigued from all the exciting decisions of the first hour, you spend the next two trying to make them happen again and, in the last one, trying to clean up the mess that you made because you were (but didn’t realize it) tired, and thus making it even worse. The effect is even greater in these cheaper games, and all because of some details with the interface that I can’t quite put a finger on.

Otherwise, it’s a good enough game if you need 4X on the cheap. The combat is interesting in implementation, with facing that really matters and more hands-on control than usual. The research system is also nice, as your empire isn’t burdened with researching only one technology at a time. On the other hand, scientists are still an abstract resource, and are redeployed as needed. The research system is mostly about improving what you have versus, the usual mad dash to buy a new, bigger gun. Still, it kind of takes away the thirst for new toys, and the same could be said about the ability to almost instantly build the biggest ship. One can only hope that if Iceberg sees further potential in Horizon, we’ll get a more polished sequel.

Score: 3/5
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