Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ascendancy (1995)

Date: 1995
Developer: Logic Factory
Publisher: Logic Factory

System Requirements:
 - 486DX/33MHz
 - MSDOS 5.0
 - 2x CDROM
 - VESA compatible SVGA
 - 8MB RAM

Where to purchase?

 - Unfortunately Ascendancy is not sold anywhere digitally, so your best bet is Amazon or Ebay looking for use copies.  There used to be an iOS version, but this was taken down a few years ago.

Today's game is a change of pace from my previous outings of the past few weeks.  After playing mostly action games for my initial posts on RPDG, I'm going to slow down and play through Ascendancy, a 4X space strategy game.  Before starting, let's get some acronyms out of the way first: 4X stands for eXpand, eXterminate, eXplore, and eXploit, these being the primary driving motivations behind the gameplay in these kinds of games.  Like many of these kinds of games, Ascendancy is a turn-based strategy game (TBS), in comparison to something like Command and Conquer, which is a real-time strategy game (RTS).  Sometimes I find ATBA (Acronyms To Be Annoying), but in this case it is helpful to know this stuff ahead of time.

I have limited experience with Ascendancy from playing the demo way back in the 90s, so I'm going in to this game fairly blind.  But I do enjoy these kinds of galactic conquest games, so I'm looking forward to it.  Let's fire it up!

- Development -

The story of Ascendancy is also the story of The Logic Factory, the development and publishing company that developed the game.  While The Logic Factory had lofty goals of developing further games beyond Ascendancy, their fate is inexorably linked to their first, and best, game.  To begin, The Logic Factory was founded around 1993 by two brothers: Todd and Jason Templeman.  The two brothers were soon joined by Thomas Blom, and these 3 formed the nucleus of what would become The Logic Factory (from I could find). 

Their first game sounds like it was always going to be a scifi, space strategy game.  In an interview in 2012, Todd Templeman eloquently describes his fascination with spaces and the infinite possibilities of life.  He describes being a huge fan of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and wanting to convey that feeling of discovery and wonder into a computer game.  I liked this quote by him:

If you asked us what we could possibly hope the ideal customer reaction to our game would be, it would be that it was primarily fun, but also somehow a real game design that offered a glimpse into that desire we all have somewhere inside of us … a chance to truly explore and discover the universe, and all the impossible variety it likely holds.
   - Todd Templeman link

Other influences he mentions in that interview are the novel Ender's Game and Sid Meier's Civilization, another 4X TBS grand strategy game from Microprose released in 1991.  Mr. Templeman also describes how creating a 4X game allowed the designers to create a framework from which the gamer could then weave their own narrative without the typical constraints of storytelling found in adventure games or RPGs.  This open style gameplay is a hallmark of 4X games, and it was around the time of Ascendancy's development that 4X games were really starting to come into their own and developers were branching out to try new things in the genre.  To understand Ascendancy, we should go back and look at the beginning of the 4X genre to see where it was at the time of the game's release.

The first major retail 4X game I could find was Reach for the Stars by SSG, released in 1983 for Commodore 64 originally, then MSDOS sometime after 1985.  There were of course games before this that took place in space or involved strategy or involved economics, but Reach for the Stars is the first game that modern gamers might recognize as a 4X game.

Reach for the Stars
After RFTS, the next big space game was Spaceward Ho!, released for MSDOS in 1990 by Delta Tao Software.  I mention this game mostly because it was commercially and critically successful and so really kept the momentum of 4X games going.

Spaceward Ho!
 1991 saw the release of Sid Meier's Civilization, the game that served as an inspiration for Ascendancy and other strategy games for decades to come.  Civ is and was a juggernaut, ushering in many "Civ-clones" and bringing 4X strategy games to the mainstream.  Civ introduced people to the "one more turn" syndrome, where players wanted to keep playing just one more turn, until they realized it was quarter to three AM in the morning.  In 1993, developer Simtex took the formula from Civ and roughly applied to space in the revolutionary game Master of Orion.  Master of Orion became a big deal of a game in its own right and spawned its own clones, something which you could consider Ascendancy to be.  After Master of Orion and Civ, the flood gates opened and the 90s saw many 4X games released, some good and some bad.  The list is long, but some notable examples are Space Empires, Master of Magic, Stars!, Emperor of the Fading Suns, Imperium Galactica, Pax Imperia: Eminent Domain (actually a sequel to a MAC game released prior to Master of Orion), and the list goes on.  Some of these games are classics and some, like the remake of Reach for the Stars in 2004, are the opposite of classics.

Master of Orion
 Ascendancy was released in 1995, right in the middle of this 4X game explosion.  It received positive reviews from what I remember, PC Gamer gave the game an Editor's Choice.  One major complaint was the AI, which was found to be just...stupid and wimpy and not a challenge.  To remedy this, Logic Factory quickly released a patch, titled "Antagonizer", that replaces the executable of the game and greatly improves the AI.  I will be using this patch to the play the game.

After the release of Ascendancy, Logic Factory had high hopes for its next game, a sequel to Ascendancy, and an RPG titled Seeker.  Their next game was a bizarre strategy game called The Tone Rebellion, released in 1997.  This game was just...bizarre.  You control armies of floating jellyfish to conquer other tribes of jellyfish while also fighting off alien enemies called Leviathans.  I don't believe the game sold well,and it would be the final game developed and released by The Logic Factory.

The Tone Rebellion (otherwise known as The wat Rebellion)
Around the time of the release of The Tone Rebellion, The Logic Factory began developing a new 3D engine called the "Hydra Engine" that was to power their next game, Seeker, and also Ascendancy II.  Neither of these games ever came to fruition.  The Logic Factory seemed to flounder in and out of existence for the next 15 years, occasionally hinting at upcoming games but never releasing any concrete evidence.  There were briefly calls for play testers for Seeker in the mid 2000s, and Ascendancy was released for iOS on 2011, but pulled in 2012.  It was in 2012 that Todd Templeman gave his interview that I took the quotes from above, and in that interview he hints heavily that Ascendancy II is in the works.  But after 2012, Ascendancy was pulled from the iOS App Store and The Logic Factory's website has since gone offline.

This is a sad end to what was apparently a very creative development house.  Their two games they did release were innovative and at least Ascendancy is still well regarded today.  I would have really liked to see Ascendancy II based on what they did with their first two games.  But although we will never get the sequel I want, I can still go back and play and enjoy their first game!  Which is what I intend to do now...

- The Game - 

As I mentioned above, I'll be using the Antagonizer patch that improves the AI in the game dramatically, but I am otherwise not using any mods or other addons.  Starting up the game in DOSBox brings me right away to the main menu.

There isn't much to it, I'm surprised there are no options anywhere, I guess all that is taken care of in the installation?  I skimmed the manual so I am going to skip the tutorial and jump right into the game.  But first, let's watch the Introduction:

Not bad...The music is really, really good.  I recommend checking it out on youtube to get a feel for the atmosphere of the game.  It really sets a great mood of exploration and the great unknown.  The animation is fine for its era and it introduces one of the species in the game.  So its an OK introduction, made better by its fantastic music.  I couldn't find who did the music, but they deserve kudos.

Clicking "New Game" brings me to a screen where I can choose my species and set up the galaxy I'll be playing in.  I can set the size of the galaxy (by increasing the density of stars), choose the number of species, set the overall hostility level,  and choose my color.  Scrolling through the species, I am given a brief paragraph description of each but not any kind of definitive indication of differences or benefits of choosing one species over another.  For example, here is the description for the Minions:

The Minions are a mysterious group of robot creatures controlled by an unknown extra-galactic super force.  They are hideously strong and quick.
I assume if I choose them, I will have fast ships?  I do like the names though.  Some examples are Snovendomas, Dubtaks, Oculons, and Nimbuloids to name a few.  Speaking of Nimbuloids, I've decided to go with them as my species.  I am playing on a Dense galaxy (one step below the max - Very Dense), 5 species, and neutral hostility.  My color is green.

My species - the Nimbuloids

I am Expert Builders
 Ah, after I selected my species and pressed "Begin New Game", it brought me to a further description of the species and now I am presented with their species special ability: Expert Builders.  Hopefully that means I can build structures and ships faster, which should be helpful, especially in the early stages.

I am playing as a gaseous species and my vision allows me to see karma(!).  They would do great on Earth at posting on Reddit.

And here is the first gameplay screen I see:

It's fairly self-explanatory, but for clarity sake I'll run down what some of the buttons do.  The top right arrows advance either one turn (one day) or advance turns continuously until a notification stops time or I hit ESC or another button.  Below the turn arrows are buttons to bring up lists of planets, ships, the research screen, my special ability screen where I can opt to use my special ability, and the diplomacy species screen.  Below all the labeled buttons are the red/orange map movement buttons that allow me to turn and scroll and zoom in the galaxy screen.  Below those are color coding buttons.

The way the game works is pretty simple as well from I can tell.  Each dot on the galaxy screen represents a solar system.  Solar systems are connected by Star Lanes, which are the lines extending out from the dots.  This is the only way ships can travel between solar systems, the Star Lanes act like roads between cities.  So let's click on my home solar system and get a look at it:

My home system, the..."Chippendale" system...huh

Here is my home system, the Chippendale system.  I didn't choose that name, it was randomly already named that.  There are 2 planets and 3 star lanes.  Chippendale II is my home planet, the other planet, Chippendale I, is uninhabited.  I think one of my first priorities will be to colonize Chippendale I.  This screen is also pretty straight forward.  I can advance turns from here with the buttons on the upper right, get lists of ships, and move the map around.  Similar to the main galaxy screen.
Double clicking on my planet brings me to the planet screen:

Alright, here is my home planet.  For some reason that is unexplained, my home planet only has a single colonizer building and no other evidence of civilization.  What have I been doing for the past million years while I was evolving into a space faring race!?  Anyway, on this screen at the top are squares representing, from left to right, the planet's research ability, industrial ability, population producing ability, population, and current building project.  Below those squares is the planet.  Each square represents a building location.  The color represents which building would work best there.  Green means population producing buildings would be best, red is industrial, blue is research.

You'll notice there are no numbers.  This is absolutely KEY to Ascendancy.  There are apparently NO numbers anywhere.  Everything is represented by changing pictures and...intuition.  So as my industrial output on this planet grows, the building in the industrial square at the top of this screen will be to grow into a complicated factory, which represents how the industrial output of the planet is growing.  Similarly, as the research ability of the planet grows, you'll see a research picture in the research square get more and more complex.  Same with the population "plant" in the population square.  The total population square, with all the green circles, is a little more complicated and kind of involves numbers.  The total number of green circles is the total potential population.  The total orange little guys represents how much population I have right now available to be working on something.  The little red guys represent population that is already occupied working on something.  So right now at the beginning, I have 2 total population, only 1 of which is already occupied working.  So I have 1 available population to start a project.  So let's start a project.

I'm going to build a factory

The game recommends I build a factory on the red square, so that's what I'm going to do.  After starting my factory, I press ESC to get back to the main screen and then go to my Research screen.

The research is laid out in a branching tree and all species share the same tech tree.  I have three starting options right now, and I am going to go with the Orbital Structures research so I can get going on building a colony ship.  That is always important in these kinds of games.

After selecting my research, I decide to check out my special ability, which it turns out is not quite ready to be used yet.

Now I am ready to end my turn and go to the next day.  Except I have 30 days until my factory is done on Chippendale II, so instead of clicking Next Day 30 times, I just hit the advance turns button and let it fly through the 30 days until I am automatically notified that my factory is done:

Next up is a laboratory

My laboratory only takes 17 days to complete, so already my factory is improving my build times I think.  After the laboratory, I built an Agriplot to increase population, but then I temporarily ran out of free population.  So I will have to wait for a few days until I have free population to begin a new build project.  In the meantime, I finished by research and I can choose something else.

A motor seems important to have
I also was notified I am ready to use my special ability, but because I don't have any free population to start a new build project, I have no building projects to use my special ability on.

Advancing the game a few more days opens up a free population spot, so I opt to build an Outpost, which increases my population growth rate I think.

Notice it says it will take 40 days to build.  That's a long time!  BUT I have my special ability to use.  After using my special ability, let's see how long it will take now:

Nice...7 days
That's a pretty handy ability to have I would say.  It brought my build time from 40 days to 7.  After a few more turns, I've researched Orbital Shipyards, so after my Outpost is done I am going to build a shipyard so I can get going on building my first colony ships.

A few more levels of research after a bunch more turns brings up this notification:

Time to get going building a ship!

Shipbuilding interface
Just like the rest of the game, the shipbuilding interface has no numbers to tell me what systems are better than others.  Instead, I rely on the fact that certain technologies are only available after more research.  So the farther you get down the research tree, the better the technology is.

The interface has a bunch of squares, each of which can hold a ship component.  Each ship needs at least one engine, one powerplant, and one Star Lane drive to move between solar systems.  The rest of the squares I am going to fit out with colonizer modules so I can colonize a bunch of planets.  The more engines I put in a ship, the farther it will go per turn.  The more powerplants I put in, the more times I can fire a weapon.  Speaking of weapons, I haven't researched any yet so I am not going to put any in my ship yet.

Ship fitted out

After 89 days, I am greeted with this message.  My first ship!  Let's take it out for a test spin:

Huh...that didn't move very far.  That's OK though, I am using the most basic engines afterall.  My first order of business is to take a star lane and investigate the nearest solar systems.  I also immediately started another ship to take off exploring in the other direction.

After a few more turns/days, I arrived in the nearby Bindacia system:

5 planets is pretty damn good, lets take a look and see what kind of planets there are.

That is looking really good.  The red and green planet is a cornucopia planet that is the best kind for colonizing.  The giant brown/grey/green planet is also a good planet.  As an extra bonus, the cornucopia planet has xeno ruins on it:

I can build research on these ruins to open up advanced technology that is further down my tech tree.  I'm going to immediately move my Colonizer 1 ship in orbit around this planet to colonize it.  Because I have such a crappy engine, it takes almost a whole week just to move into orbit, but I finally make it.

My first colony!
I then move to the bigger planet and create a colony there:

I am all powerful
I am going to do something now that some people consider heresy but I consider necessary.  I am going to turn on an "auto-manage" AI function that allows me to let the AI manage building structures on the planet.  This will free me up to focus on building ships, building planetary orbital defenses, and colonization and war.  In comparison to other 4X games, Ascendancy does not have population morale or other factors that can play a large role in the planetary side of the game.  As such, which structures you build on the planets does not play a very large role in the game so I can content to let the computer handle that.  So from now on, I'll be laying down a colony on a planet and then letting the AI take over.  The only areas of planets I will be dealing with will be ship building and orbital defenses, which are quite important later on in the game.  

AND....I quit the game and forgot to save.  Dumb Dan!  Super.  Well...I'm not redoing all this.  So I am going to start a new game with the Nimbuloids.  My home system will have a different name, but otherwise things should progress about the same.  I'll just ahead to where I was about in my previous game.  Now my new home system is the Amoroso system:

Back to square one!

My new home system only has 1 star lane, which is nice because it makes it easy to defend.  On the other hand, the system on the other side of that star lane has 5 planets but they are all garbage:

What am I supposed to do with this little rock?
Even though these are terrible planets to colonize, I need to have some kind of presence in this system since it is right next door to my home system, so I'm going to go ahead and colonize one of these planets in the Wattsenfax system.

Not an ideal second colony
Next to the Wattsenfax system, I've discovered the Algorond system which not only has a nice large cornucopia planet, but also a red star lane.  These are star lanes that take over twice as long for a ship to traverse, so systems at the end of these kinds of lanes can make a nice defensive system since it can take longer for enemies to send ships to attack the system.  I'm going to set up a colony here.

Notice the red star lane and nice planet right above the sun
After more exploring, I discovered a large system that has a bunch of the worst planets.  These kinds of planets are basically just large moons, all of their squares are black which indicates nothing can be built on them until much later in the game when you get terraforming technology.  For now, I am bypassing these planets completely.

I'm not ready to build on the moon yet
By now I have built my second colonizer ship and I am working my way through the research tree and exploring the nearby systems and planting colonies on every viable planet I find, and even on some less than viable planets.  Here is a new colony of mine on a planet in the Discord system:

It's not great but it is in a strategic system at the intersection of a lot of star lanes, so I need a presence there.  The early game is what I love about these kinds of games.  Creating colony ships and sending them out to explore nearby systems and hope the Gods of random numbers bless me with good planets nearby is really fun.  I like the randomness that adds a level of unknown exploration to each game.  You never know if the next system over might have a huge cornucopia planet or possibly the home planet of a hostile alien race.  The sense of exploration is a large part of what makes these kinds of games fun.  

Ascendancy seems to be a game that really focuses on the big picture strategy instead of planetary micromanagement.  I can see myself ending up with an empire that contains dozens of solar systems, and wars with enemies will come down to who controls key systems.  It should be fun.  But before I get ahead of myself, I am enjoying exploring and snatching up planets.  My early goal right now is to find one or two systems at the very edge of my empire that have large, lush planets that I can use to establish an industrial powerhouse base far from my home planet.  I should be able to then use those new industrial bases to build new ships and expand even further outward.  

Alright, investing in education pays off!
A friend?
I've made contact with my first alien species, let's see what they have to say:

The Fludentri
It looks like I have met the Fludentri, a gelatinous appearing species.  Interesting.  I wonder if they would be interested in an alliance?

Whelp, I guess not.  They sure do have humility though.  Come on Fludentri, have some confidence.  You are bright enough to have become a space faring species.  I have confidence in you and I'm sure we'll be good friends as we explore the galaxy together.

Uh...uh oh
 A few turns later and the Fludentri contacted me...

 We just met and they are declaring war on me!  Come on!  Dammit, this could be bad.  I have not built any warships and only a few of my planets have planetary and orbital defenses.  Stupid jello looking backstabbers.

Here is a look at my empire as it stands at the start of the great Nimbuloid-Fludentri war:

My systems are green, Fludentri systems are orange.  The little triangles represent ships.  So right now the Fludentri have one system right in the middle of my empire and 2 groups of ships gathering in that system.  So a good ideal for me to do would be to fortify the surrounding systems and begin making ships with weapons and to find where the Fludentri came from and fortify the systems along that route.  

I think I'll call it a day for now and conclude this Part 1 of Ascendancy.  I'll continue my war with the Fludentri later on in Part 2, so stay tuned!

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