Technology - 46%
Presentation - 66%
Design Theory - 69%
Gameplay - 78%
Story - 65%
Value - 83%
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the Exodus Wars IP its a table top miniature based war game set in a dystopian future. In this future humanity – having banded together to colonize the stars – has been fractured by a civil war; between those who still believe in a common goal for humanity and those who are more interested in securing their position and taxing the average person to oblivion while they do it. This is familiar story for fans of science fiction, table top gaming and real time strategy alike and if you come from any of these groups it may be worth having a look at Membraine Studio’s latest offering. They are a Sydney based game development team that has been working to bring the table top game to the PC. The result of their hard work is, at the time of writing this, in the early access stage and it is Exodus Wars Fractured Empire.
Its not the first attempt to bring a table top miniature war game to the PC by a long shot, the Dawn of War series immediately jumps out as an example; however in most instances the response is to try and take the IP and squeeze it into the template of a real time strategy game. While this is the simplest way to tackle the problem and provide a smooth game play experience you are left with many inconsistencies which will irk at die hard fans of the table top iterations. Possibly the most common complaints are of beloved units that are dropped from the game as infeasible or that work in a very different manner to their table top counterparts. That isn’t to say this is a bad strategy, there is a lot to be said for indulging in a little compromise in order to bring the rich flavour of a well established back story to a wider audience; It is however not a brave strategy. The team from Membraine Studios, table top gamers themselves, have taken a very different route with Exodus Wars Fractured Empire, in an attempt to create something much more unique.
The main thing that sets Exodus Wars Fractured Empire apart from its predecessors, is the effort that’s gone into trying to capture, not only the back story, but also the feeling of playing on a table top. Play is broken down into turns; each player decides where and how far their unit will move, taking into account any penalties that will arise from moving too far, or benefits reaped from holding fast. They then decide on what kind of attack stance to take and the initiative will pass to the other player. This simple turn based style makes all the difference in capturing that particular strategic feel of a table top game; as opponents take it in turns to manoeuvre for position and gain an advantage over each other. This dynamic, in much the way of a table top rule-set, provides a solid core to which more complicated rules can be added; retaining initiative, unit specific rules, suppression and the general rock paper scissors of unit stats. It also leaves a lot of room for growth, both from the developers and the inevitable additions bought to the game by the modding community. Another major difference between Fractured Empire and your average RTS is the army list. Instead of building military units on the fly in game you pick and choose the forces you will fight with before hand. The army builder is simple and intuitive and all of the units stats are clearly laid out for you along with their attached point values. The player is then left to strike a balance between having the flexibility of lots of cheap “Line Infantry” that can run around the battlefield securing objectives, or a few of the super heavy high point units like the “Enforcer Heavy Tank”.
Bear in mind though that even mighty death machines can be bought down by a combined assault and stacking suppression against them can be a very effective tactic.The turn-based objective driven environment also makes tactical decisions more important, you don’t play to annihilate your opponents, you play to win objectives. If you attempt to wipe your opponents from the map you are likely to run out of turns doing so. Likewise if you attempt to capture every objective you will spread yourself too thin and become unwieldy and easily out manoeuvred. Shrewd decision making is the name of the game, know when and where to make sacrifices and learning how much you can achieve in a limited time frame. This gives Exodus Wars Fractured Empire a very different feel to many of the competitively played RTS titles such as Starcraft where games can be won with a high level of mouse speed and advance knowledge of build orders.
There are other considerations to bringing a beloved table top franchise to the PC, and one of the key things that is missing currently is the creativity involved in the hobby. Fighting against an opponents who has very much made the army their own, either with skilled modelling, or painting it in the garish colours of some old nail polish they found, is replaced with fighting the same familiar looking armies over and again. It is worth baring in mind however, that in the current pre-release build there is room for the addition of some customization and the Membraine Studios team have listed it as one of their goals, time permitting; so we shall have to see how much of it is implemented into the final build.
This customization leads on to what will be one of the most important factors in deciding the future of this game – the community that grows around it. Any game’s fortunes can rise and fall on the strength of their communities but if the makers hope to capture that feel of a table top hobby then it will gain additional importance for Exodus Wars Fractured Empire. The ability to build and boast upon the strength of a “beardy” army list is a core element to table top and a solid forum for this to take place outside of the game itself will be equally as important as capturing the right feeling within the game.
The ideas Membraine are having are right in terms of what they are attempting to create, but there are still a lot of graphical glitches in the game; bizarre flashing experiences which seemingly want to trigger epileptic fits; units getting caught on the terrain and moonwalking in place for a few seconds while they attempt to catch up with the rest of their formation, that sort of thing. Whilst I wouldn’t give Exodus Wars Fractured Empire higher than 50% for technology right now,the game is still in beta so it’s worth bearing in mind the majority of these faults will be ironed out before the game is on general release.
From the perspective of someone who is a veteran of table top (although not Exodus Wars itself) I’m excited to see how this game develops. While playing, it was easy to imagine using tape measures to direct my units around the board and the clatter of a handful of dice accompanying the staccato of units gunfire. I wont say that polishing isn’t needed, a playable tutorial in place of a series of videos immediately springs to mind, but the Membraine Studios team has built a solid foundation and is currently on target for rolling a natural 6 on their “create a digital version of a beloved table top franchise” roll.