When indie studio Camel 101 sent us the above CGI teaser for their upcoming space strategy game Gemini Wars, they managed to tickle my weak spot. Here was a pretty impressive-looking video from an indie studio, which simultaneously evokes memories of Freespace 2 and every sci-fi geek's Viagra: space battles.
But this was no space combat simulator, so I had to know more about the game. Would it be like Master of Orion or Galactic Civilizations? Or perhaps more like Haegemonia: Legions of Iron or the forgotten Conquest: Frontier Wars? Cautiously optimistic, I contacted them for more information. Little did I know that what Camel 101 told me would lead me to believe that Gemini Wars might just be the potential Sins of a Solar Empire beater to look out for.
At first glance, Gemini Wars does share some similarities with Sins of a Solar Empire in terms of how planets and systems are handled. But its structure and design are where the differences show, and shine. This being a space RTS, you probably know what to expect: a map with interconnected systems, resource gathering, shipbuilding, space stations, and lots and lots of space battles.
Contrary to most games of the type, resource gathering and production are not based on planets alone. The orbits of planets and giant asteroids do serve as productions centers, but the player has to claim and secure his section of space by going out and harvesting resources from mineral fields. This leads to a more Dawn of War-type of economy: care for your bases, but focus on taking to the field while protecting strategic areas to provide you with a steady flow of income. Sit back, and you'll lose momentum and eventually be overwhelmed by opposing fleets.
These strategic hotspots don't just serve as part of your mining operations though. A system in Gemini Wars can comprise many planets and asteroids to produce from, and mineral fields to mine for resources. But these locations in space also serve as waystations for moving your fleets.
Ships have a hyperspace drive to jump between places in a system, but they can only jump that far before they have to recharge their drives. These jumps are not instantaneous, but according to Camel 101's Ricardo Cesteiro, they are very fast. If you've played Sins before, you know what to expect. In case you wondered, all ships have the same hyperdrive range and recharge rate, so you won't have stragglers to wait for.
The result is a design that centers around the player managing control over such strategic hotspots, in order to keep clear lines of supply of new ships to the front lines. You'll also want to keep far-off locations within range of your military might, because you don't want the enemy to take out your remote mining operations just by removing the single weak link in your supply chain through the takeover of an intermediary waystation.
Alternatively, if you lose the most direct path to an important planet and the enemy takes out one key hotspot in the path to that planet, you may be forced to take another, longer, path. That in turn may cost you enough time for your opponent to quickly strike that planet with a secondary fleet. As the game is fully real-time, you'll have to keep a close eye on developments lest you send out a reinforcement fleet too late, only to have it arrive at the shattered remnants of your precious defenses or production center.
Any RTS veteran will know what this means: a strong static defense or a mobile defense fleet at key strategic areas and the need to balance offense, R&D, economy, and defense. As Cesteiro describes it: "Strategic points must be captured, or else the opponent will have the initiative and win by numbers. We think this is the coolest way to play a wargame -- building an army and using it to capture territory, and having multiple possible warzones in the far away resource fields."
Although mixing the Dawn of War-style economy with space RTS essentials might make you think that this relegates planets to a number you'd hotkey and build ships from, planets serve as more than just production centers. "A certain planet can give a bonus to Frigate class ships' shield strength, or a bonus to Destroyer class ships' missiles," Cesteiro notes.
While hyperspace travel serves to move your fleet around within a system, wormholes connect the systems themselves. Gemini Wars features a story-heavy single-player campaign which attempts to make you care about the narrative -- a pretty ambitious task by any measure. Because really, when was the last time you cared about the story in a space RTS or 4X game?
The campaign will start you out as a fleet commander who has been exiled for three years after an incident which left him as the sole survivor. A conflict between two factions, the United Space Federation and the Alliance of Free Worlds -- you've seen Firefly right? -- leads to your character being called back for duty. A third faction enters the fray at some point, but this one is as of yet shrouded in mystery.
You start out in command of a few small ships and a few R&D projects in a small scenario; think single planet orbit or single system. As you progress through the storyline, you'll unlock new R&D projects -- which in turn lead to bigger and better ships and upgrades -- and raise your population cap by capturing planets in order to expand your fleet.
However, the storyline missions are "standalone" in that you don't carry over your built-up fleet to the next mission. R&D projects you research do carry over though. So don't go and spend an hour at the end of one mission to build up a giant fleet when you have one planet left to conquer, just so you can breeze through the next five missions. There will be none of that. Later missions will see you fight for control of multiple systems, so expect the campaign to build up to full-scale galactic warfare.
Of course, galactic warfare means that space combat is all-important. Combat in Gemini Wars is handled in 3D on a 2D plane. That means no shift-moving ships to different planes in space a la Homeworld, but more of a Conquest: Frontier Wars or Empire at War style of combat. According to Ricardo Cesteiro, the general controls are somewhat similar to Sins which should help players get acquainted easily enough.
Tech-wise, Gemini Wars is shaping up rather nicely as well, with PhysX support for ship disintegration and everything. After all, everyone likes to see big ships break apart and explode -- even if they are yours. The game also features a "cinematic camera" for those who want to just sit back and enjoy the show.
While no space strategy game is complete without fast frigates, lumbering battleship behemoths and pesky carriers, Gemini Wars doesn't want you to forget about marines either. The marines in Gemini Wars can board enemy ships to quickly shift the flow of battle in your favor. Being the cornerstone of few quick-and-dirty Master of Orion 2 strategies, it's about time marines made a proper comeback in space strategy without merely being an invasion force.
Finally, Camel 101 wants you to really care about the story. But it can be hard to convey a more personal feel for dramatic events when you're looking at a map of space. You could argue that games like StarCraft do it though in-game communication between characters, but you're still pretty close to the "ground" in that game compared to the emptiness of space.
So expect plenty of CGI cut scenes to provide more depth to the story and the main characters, as well as a means to show you that marines -- who you won't see boarding a ship in detail -- do mean serious business. While cutscenes may not be the most original way to expand a story, I've had a soft spot for them ever since the first Command & Conquer. As long as they look good and include spaceships exploding, I can live with that. It's also nice to what an indie studio can come up with in terms of cinematics.
As a guy who spent countless years playing these kind of games and watching sci-fi movies and series, Gemini Wars comes across as a game that quite simply seems to be taken from my hopes and dreams for the space RTS genre. It seems to draw inspiration from the games and media I hold close to my heart, throws them into a magical mixer, and ends up with something that could improve and rejuvenate the genre in a way that the introduction to Tritonin changed the lives of the Jaffa.
Having said that, I haven't actually played it yet. Still, there are some games where everything just seems to click in your mind, and this is one of them. If Camel 101 can pull it off -- and I really hope they do -- they may just have a gem in their hands that might one day be named in one breath with classics like Imperium Galactica, Sins of a Solar Empire and Homeworld.
Gemini Wars is tentatively scheduled for a Q4 2011 release.