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Horizon: Alpha First Look Preview

By on July 5th, 2013 6:38 pm

Horizon is a turn-based space 4X strategy game for the PC that we’ve been following for quite a while now. We started covering it in 2010. Development dates back to 2006 (at least). Horizon is part of our ”Sci-Fi/Space Games You Can’t Miss in 2013” list, a list we reserve for interesting titles to check out in the year in question.

A couple of days ago, dev studio L3O and publisher Iceberg Interactive opened “instant access” pre-orders for Horizon on Steam. The game is still in Alpha state, so it’s not finished yet. I played this Alpha version (v0.0.2.30) for some hours. Here’s a preview on what to expect and some first impressions.

Horizon in a nutshell

Horizon’s main features include turn-based tactical combat, ship design, deep colony management, systems with multiple colonizable planets (where the planet is the management unit), free movement (no starlanes) over a square grid galaxy map, a central storyline with events and missions associated with the lore and the storyline.

At the moment, you can only play with the Humans against ten other alien races. Raffi Parsekhian, the main developer, stated however that they plan to give the player the option to create a custom race at some point in the future. Concerning customization, right now the game allows you to setup the number of stars, maximum number of planets, number of habitable and special planets, number of anomalies and a choice between “classic” or “normal” scenario, where all races start equal in the former, while races start with the default storyline settings for each race, in the latter case.

Horizon - Game Setup

Game setup options - Not all options available at Alpha (v0.0.2.30)

The general idea behind Horizon seems to be to offer a standard 4X sandbox experience, with its open play style, combined with a central storyline with events associated with the game’s lore. All this in fully turn-based fashion, meaning both the strategic view and the tactical combat play in turns. You can certainly spot references to other turn-based games. For instance, the 4X classics Star Trek: Birth of the Federation or Master of Orion 1 and 2. In this last case certainly evident in the galactic news, tech breakthrough screen, systems with multiple planets, turn-based combat and the ship design system with different weapon mounts, for example.

First impressions

At first, I felt a bit overwhelmed. I didn’t get immediately how to move fleets around and how to accomplish things in general, and I felt quite uneasy when I first saw the colony management screen. The UI doesn’t do a very good job in terms of usability at the moment, with some window panels overlapping others (which you can dock/undock by the way – something I don’t particularly like). There’s also lots of mouse clicking going on, required to undertake most basic actions, and tooltips are certainly not enough yet. Well, it’s an Alpha anyway.

Horizon - Overlapping windows and multiple clicking required

Overlapping windows and multiple clicking required for basic actions at the moment

I also didn’t like to have to see a report window show up every time I hit end-turn, something I couldn’t turn off, which actually translated into two clicks per end-turn. That may change in the course of the game development though (I hope).

So, it wasn’t love at first play I can tell you. But, these games hardly make a great first impression in any case, except for a few exceptions. What really counts in the end is the amount of depth provided, and the quality of such depth. And, fortunately, Horizon seems to have plenty to offer, already at this stage of development. Hopefully not too much though. I’ll explain what I mean with that further ahead.

How does it play?

So, after completing the nice tutorial I felt slightly more comfortable with what I had to do afterwards.

Let me start with Diplomacy, a mechanic I feel is already quite fleshed out. I made contact with a few races but could only initiate negotiations with one of them, the only one that was in contact range, which is a nice idea. Negotiations felt right, perhaps it was a bit too easy and too fast to reach the alliance state at the moment though. But, overall, diplomacy seems to work. You have all the normal options, including an uncommon mood layer (the mood you approach the other faction) which sounds quite interesting.

Horizon - Diplomacy is certainly going in the right direction

Diplomacy is certainly going in the right direction

The research system is quite peculiar and interesting. I would dare to say novel. First you discover new techs, through events or diplomacy gifts (the two occasions where I discovered new techs) but the game manual states other ways to discover techs (through archaeological digs, mission quests and advances on other technologies of that field). But, you can’t do anything with techs right after you first discover them.

First, you need to study them, and eventually you’ll make a breakthrough and can start using them at their most basic level, more precisely at level 1. Then, after that, you enter in a process called tech “refinement” where each time you make a breakthrough on that tech, it upgrades one level for extra damage/range or whatever the effect, and there seems to be many refinement levels available.

Horizon - Although not pretty, the research system is rich and interestingly novel

Although the screen isn't pretty, the research system is rich and interestingly novel. Promising.

You can also decide to focus your research on a particular field and further on a particular tech in each field. I think the tech system is quite solid and rich, however the UI still needs a lot of work as sometimes it’s quite hard to grasp things due to so many numbers presented. And information is also too condensed. I’m convinced that it’s mainly a presentation issue.

Now, about the deep colony management mechanic. While it’s hard to grasp what everything does in the colony management screen at first, after a while you do get the hang of things, especially after you discover how to obtain feedback from every option (not via tooltips but with the use of right-click and the shift key – it pays off to read the manual and to do the tutorial). It took me a bit longer to understand how production works however. Production in Horizon is a function of industry capacity. More industry capacity means more production, and faster building. Ok, that part is easy.

What’s not so obvious is that you can actually build four ships at the same time, as each planet has four ship building queues, one for each size class (small, medium, large, huge). But – and that’s where I lost it at first – you can also build/upgrade your facilities (farms, entertainment, research, trade, more industry) all at the same time that you build your ships, as long as you have the cash to do all this that is. Moreover, all those simultaneous constructions don’t compromise the number of turns each individual construction takes to finish. In other words, each construction is independent.

Horizon - Colony management is deep, perhaps too deep without AI's assistance

Colony management is deep, perhaps too deep without AI's assistance?

Humm. I finally understood that your planet’s industrial capacity allows you to build everything at once. And, more industrial capacity translates into faster building. Ok. So, what this means is that when you’re not building everything at once you are effectively not taking advantage of all the industry potential you have in that planet. In other words, you’re wasting production potential. Of course, money is the constraint here. Everything costs money. So, you need both industry capacity and money to build things.

Only time will tell if this colony management system is fun in the end, I mean to be able to build so many things at once, up to four, six or even ten or (theoretically) more items in a single planet all at the same time, as money allows. One thing that concerns me is that, while the colony management seems deep, it’s perhaps too deep, and that may work against the game in the long run.

It’s too soon to tell, but I felt a bit overwhelmed by just having to manage five colonies spread over four star systems. What was I doing again? If I felt that already, how will I feel when I control ten or even twenty systems? And, there’s no governor/AI assistant to delegate planet management to at the moment, or at least a similar system to serve that function that I could grasp. Perhaps a better way to manage all colonies, an overall UI overview screen should be available in the future?

Horizon - Controls aren't brilliant at the moment but combat is enjoyable

Controls aren't brilliant at the moment but combat is enjoyable

Space combat, at the moment, seems to be what you would expect for a turn-based tactical system. But, I feel that I only scratched the surface here. I spotted crew experience, an initiative system (faster ships move first) and that ship direction also plays a role. But, there seems to be much more to it.

I didn’t like the controls though. Instead of pointing and clicking for ship selection, the devs implemented – or at least that was the single way I found to do things – a button action system where you need to click a button to say you’re done each time you finish moving a ship. Then you hit the button again after the next ship ends its turn, and again, instead of allowing the player to select ships immediately and automatically switch to the next available ship. I guess most of this annoyance could be solved with hotkeys, or by allowing ships to be “selectable” by left-mouse click, which is not available at the moment to my knowledge. But, although the controls are not that intuitive, combat feels right for a turn-based game.

If you played Master of Orion and Master of Orion 2 you’ll feel right at home regarding the ship design system, since it’s quite similar to both systems combined. However, while it seems functional, the UI screen is not that appealing, but that’s mainly an aesthetically thing perhaps, because everything seems to be there. Horizon divides ship components between core, weapons and special categories. You can maintain four designs per class, for a total of sixteen available designs.

Horizon - The ship design screen could be more user friendly but it gets the job done

The ship design screen could be more user friendly but it gets the job done

Summary

I think Horizon’s current build (v0.0.2.30) is quite reasonable for what to expect for an Alpha version, which is an incomplete but already playable game that offers a somewhat enjoyable experience, at least to the extent I played it, which was for about 6 hours. But, I think it was enough to understand that with the right amount of polishing, especially concerning the UI, this title can become a very enjoyable game when finished. If you are all for turn-based 4X games, and enjoy a more old-school gaming style in particular, then there’s a good chance you’ll like it.

I particularly liked the tech system. Novel, deep, interesting. And, the diplomacy, ship design and colony management systems are already very functional. I’m afraid I didn’t play enough to have a good grasp on how the AI plays as of yet. What I’m concerned about though is with the game’s management scope, which seems huge, since you can colonize multiple planets on each system and there’s no governor AI to assist you on mid/late games. I fear that the game can become quite micro heavy by then if the UI is not improved and there’s no assistant AI.

“What makes this game special?”, you may be asking. I would say the storyline with missions, which feel like quests, are uncommon in 4X games. That’s an interesting feature. Also, the event-dependent tech progression, opposed to all techs known from the start, to be found in the large majority of other 4X games, that’s also a nice touch. The turn-based tactical combat system is also something we haven’t seen for a long time in space 4X games and I think this one has a lot of potential. Emphasis was put on initiative (faster ships move first) which should help mitigate the “who-attacks-first-wins” issue in games with turn-based combat like Master of Orion, for example.

Graphics, music and sounds are only modest at the moment, so, if eye candy and lavish sounds and music is what you’re looking for in a game you’ll most probably be disappointed. Of course, nothing stops the game from having better aesthetics on release.

As always with alphas, pre-orders and pre-purchasing, if you don’t intend to support the devs, and don’t plan to participate on the game’s evolution process with your feedback, it’s probably preferable to wait for a later game stage, beta perhaps, or until the game is officially released. At the moment, while certainly playable, and enjoyable to some extent, Horizon still seems far from a finished product, as not unexpected for an Alpha. However, L3O seems to be heading in the right direction.

Of course, we’ll be monitoring Horizon’s evolution very closely and we’ll let you know as soon as there are major new developments.

\Edit: Regarding stability and bugs, I report no bugs or crashes in the time I played, which was for around 6 hours distributed over 80 or so turns.

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24 Comments


  1. Jeff P says:

    Thanks for the in-depth preview. I didn’t read any report of bugs: does that means there were none or the bugs themselves were over-shadowed by GUI and game design weaknesses?

    In any case, I will take your advice and wait until the game is more developed before taking the plunge.

    Thanks again!

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, I report no bugs in the time I played, which was for around 6 hours distributed over 80 or so turns. At least none I could grasp. Also no crashes.

      I updated the preview with this information.

  2. salvo says:

    well, I played the tutorial first, and had no problem at all to grasp how to use the UI. Indeed, I find it very clean and intuitive. Sure, it needs some more info and on some parts fewer clicks. But as everyone knows, it’s alpha, so I’m pretty confident they will improve it.
    The colony management screen is OK in my opinion but what ths part of the game needs to ease late game management is a central management window where you can issue construction orders. At the moment you have to click each single star and each single colony to check if there is something to do. Of course, the end turn summary does help as you can directly access the colony screen from there. In any case I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all, it’s a bit too much work at the moment due to the absence of such a centralized colony management tool.
    The colony development isn’t so deep to get the player overwhelmed, I’d say, it’s rather wide as you are not limited as in other games to just one thing at the time. While this approach is more realistic – and for this I prefer it to the common linear models – it may initially confuse some players (which don’t bother to play the tutorial or read the manual :-))
    I agree witgh the tactical combat though, having to click end turn for each single ship each time isn’t really a good solution, I think at the moment it is one of the main UI weaknesses.
    All in all, I’d say that I like the game though it surely needs a lot of work still and refinement and maybe some breakthrough :-) I think it may be one of those games which some love and others hate for whatever reason. Th tech tree for example, I love it as it models gamewise pretty well how technological advance works in reality, it’s a dynamical model contrary to the static one as in most other games where the players is presented from the beginning with the entire tech tree. This common model is raher uninspiring to me as it takes all tension from this part central of a 4x game. But there are a lot of people who like having the whole picture from the start so they can plan exactly which path to take. So, they will probably dislike this aspect of the game. The same is true of the colony development. I think this game requires a player some kind of openness as it does some things in a different manner that many would expect. That’s why I like this game, for my part.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, as I also said in the preview, a management window of some kind that centralizes all colonies is indeed required. That or some other system that gives you an overview of your all empire at a glance. Right now, colony management leaves you feeling overwhelmed, because at the moment, as you say, you have to click each single star and each single colony to check if there is something to do. And, there can be a lot happening as the game allows you to build many things at the same time on each planet.

      So, I think more needs to be done to make you feel in control of things. I think that’s a crucial aspect in a 4X game, especially one with deep colony management. They should have time to make it right though, that’s what Alphas are also for in any case :)

      Regarding the tech progression dynamic aspect, I like both approaches: the all known from the start, and also this more dynamic way to discover techs, dependent on events. I think Horizon’s tech approach is refreshing and should be interesting to explore further.

  3. drillerman says:

    Adam,
    Off Topic! Over the last couple of days your website has become very slow and unresponsive. I also keep getting messages saying “a script on your page is causing it to unresponsive”. This is the case for my office PC and my home PC. I live in Surrey UK.
    Cheers
    drillerman

    • Adam Solo says:

      Ok, thanks for this feedback. Let me know if the slowdown problem persists in the following couple of days. You can reach me here.

      If anyone else is experiencing site slowdows, unresponsive behavior or the message “a script on your page is causing it to unresponsive”, please let me know.

  4. Towerbooks3192 says:

    Yes! Another TBS space game!! Too bad I have my hands full and though tax refund is coming, I have little time to enjoy the upcoming big ones (Civ V brave new world and Europa Universalis 4).

    Kind of took a break from usual 4x and played HoMM3 for now, I am avoiding 4x as of the moment since I can’t get rid of my habit to overthink stuff like get X tech in Y number of turns or really calculate stuff. I wish I could get rid of the habit and just return to enjoy all my 4x games.

  5. Lens Flares Suck says:

    In two years maybe this will be a fun, polished game. And maybe I’m a Chinese jet pilot.

  6. Brad says:

    Not bad for an alpha version. Particularly with no crashes! Might be kind of cool if the colony administration/management window became a function of rsearch. For example, improvements in computers or communication opens better, more efficient, administration options. I hope this game works out well upon completion.

  7. Keith Turner says:

    Looking pretty good thus far based on what I’m reading and have seen in their videos. I’m a bit worried on the micromanagement front based on what you mentioned in the review. This being an Alpha, a lot can and will certainly change though.

    If I understand correctly (having not played the game), it sounds like the combat UI/selection is done the way it is (with having to click done each time) due to the initiative system. Since it isn’t a my turn, your turn, type of combat system but rather an initiative based one, you can only move whichever ship of yours whose initiative has come up. Sort of like the system used in Fallen Enchantress, for instance. Perhaps a sliding list showing the queue/init order somewhere on the UI would help make more sense of things. Fallen Enchantress has one in its tactical combat that runs down the left side and which makes it easy to follow whose next in line.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Good point about the initiative system, which helps explain the having to “click done each time” to some extent. However, shouldn’t the next unit be selected automatically after your action? So that you shouldn’t have to hit “done” every time? And, even if something extra could be done after moving or firing I still don’t find the system attractive as it is now. But, as I said in the preview, maybe an hotkey “d” for “done” would help mitigate the issue.

      Heroes of Might & Magic, for example, also had an initiative turn-based combat system (faster units attack sooner) but there you’re done after moving or striking, or whatever the action you do (at least in the second installment), and the next unit (friend or foe) starts its turn automatically. I think that’s a much more elegant solution.

      • Keith Turner says:

        I agree, that would be a better solution, good point. It should auto advance to the next unit when you can’t take further action.

        • Adam Solo says:

          Yes, it shouldn’t be too hard to implement that, I guess. And, it would help a lot in the combat flow. So, if they implement hotkeys in combat, and an option to auto-advance to the next unit if no further action is possible on the current unit, I wouldn’t have further complaints regarding combat for now.

  8. Jeff P says:

    There is a You Tube “Let’s Play” video of first part of the tutorial for the game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nA1O1Gmdio. It looks pretty good, particularly for an alpha.

    Interestingly, I checked the Steam forums, which are famous for trolls trashing new games. Not so much for Horizon: most posts have a wait-and-see attitude, with very few OMG! THIS IS HORRIBLE! posts.

    I still won’t buy an alpha, or beta build (I play games, I don’t play with them) but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Horizon.

  9. JohnS says:

    While this one doesn’t look like my type of game…

    I wanted to take the time to tell you what an excellent job I think you do with your website. I’ve bought several games I never would have been aware of, but for your coverage of them. I visit your site far more often than IGN, or gamespot, ect…

    Keep up the good work, man. It really is appreciated.

    JohnS

  10. Fishy says:

    I couldn’t resist buying this after seeing the inspiration from Babylon 5 and reading some of the back stories for the races, also supporting a fellow indie dev in my type of game.

    First impressions for me were actually pretty decent for an alpha. I agree the interface needs a bit of turning and streamlining somethings seem to take a few to many clicks to do. I liked the initial feel of the game though, the story, environment, exploration and setting has quite a lot put into it (or you can tell what is planned if it’s not quite ingame yet). I’ve haven’t spent more than an hour or so with it but i’m definitely looking forward to it been more complete.

  11. Jeff P says:

    I sure hope Horizons comes together: MORE (which I foolishly funded on Kickstarter) issued another disquieting update. The barely intelligible text makes me suspect they lost the English-speakers from their team. Also, they have kicked the release date to late 2014. I don’t mind a delayed release date if that means the final product will be worth the wait, but I don’t have much confidence this will turn out well. No new screens or graphics to show, and they issued a “help wanted” plea for foreign-language translators and for supporters to “…please don’t fight with each other” in the forums.

  12. Harry says:

    What no Terraforming?? You did not mention it..
    I am dissapointed..
    That was the most fun for me at Moo2..

    Somebody please release the Moo2 code and do some graphical renewment..

    I am now greatly dissapointed from : endless spasse, Sots2, Pegasus bug, Star drive, star ruler…

    Comon whats sohard to copy the best of Moo2.. And make it more lively.

    Distant world tried something new and was quite fun for some weeks.. But thats not the moo2 feeling.

  13. y8 says:

    Wooo great details about the game… Thanks

  14. Alastair says:

    Great article. Felt it answered my questions most effectively.

    Was intrigued by the thing after seeing it on Steam… and in a bit of a dither about whether to pick it up. Think this article (and the tech system!) have tilted me over the line to a yes.

    Thanks very much for taking the time to write this.

  15. bremen067 says:

    Doesn’t work on my system, and a fair number of others, from what I’ve seen on the Net. The dev is no help, I have tried all their suggestions, and they won’t give a refund for selling me a non-functional product. And the middle finger to STEAM for washing their hands of the whole thing.

  16. Russ says:

    Hi,

    first of all, great web site, just found it :)
    Secondly, am new to whole 4x game type, never played any Master of Orion games but have played most other similar games. Big fan of HOMM series, Star Control 2/UQM etc.
    Have to say I really love it so far! Works fine on my Windows 7 64 bit laptop after buying from Steam.
    Will write more if anyone interested but I think it’s a great game :)

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