With Polaris Sector, Slitherine and developer SoftWarWare are out to make their mark in the 4X genre - eXplore, eXpatriate, eXsanguinate, eXcommunicate.
Or something like that.
More seriously, the large number of existing 4X games makes this a particularly tough genre to break into. Most do essentially the same thing, adding this twist or that on various game mechanics. The standouts are those which shift the paradigm, making significant and unique change-ups to everything all at once. Otherwise, it's just altering the spices for a very similar bowl of stew. In some ways, Polaris Sector takes a strong step forward, while in other areas it's just shuffling along with the crowd.
POLARIS: GOING WHERE EVERYONE HAS GONE BEFORE
Galaxy creation is straightforward and reasonably customizable. There's a decent range of pre-set galaxies, each of which you can alter for warp-tunnel density, number of stars (capped between 800-900), and how three-dimensional you want the resulting game map to be.
You'll notice that common gameplay options found in many other 4X games are lacking or absent here, such as victory goal variety. The difficulty options are wholly lopsided, even "Normal" still giving the player doubled rates for food and mineral production. There's no such thing as a straight-up, balanced game of Polaris Sector, the game is either cheating on your behalf or the AI's. These drawbacks are partly offset by "external threat" mode, which refers to a late-game boss whose defeat nets an instant win. It's been done, but at least it provides some variation.
There are nine races you can play, none of which are very impressive to be honest. They're all stereotypes of one sort or another, with character models right out of Uncanny Valley. The Human, for example, is essentially Christopher Walken playing the villain from a late '90s CGI cartoon. Quite a bit of thought went into each race's backstory, but because their stats are customizable you can render all of that non-canon with a few clicks.
A major strike here is that there are no options for creating an entirely customized race of your own. Usually the design philosophy behind such limitations is to promote the default races as engaging, unique, and having a good story to make up for the loss of player agency. Star Control would be a prime example. By contrast, Polaris Sector presents its races almost as a decorative afterthought.
Once you've got your galaxy, gameplay and racial preferences in order, there's no fanfare, preamble or cutscene to set the mood. You're plunked directly into the game map, hovering over your new empire's homeworld with the time tool on pause so you can start issuing orders. If you didn't read the manual first and now find yourself a bit lost, hit escape and save, because that's also where you'll find the tutorial.
BREAK OUT THE NOTEBOOKS
Steel yourself though, as that tutorial is a single long series of connected mini-lectures which require you to complete various interactions before continuing. The style of presentation is more like a college lecture than anything else, so either memorize it fully or take notes... yes, seriously. If you've ever played the Hearts of Iron series, or at least heard of its learning curve, Polaris Sector isn't that tough, but it's getting there.
There is a built-in link to YouTube-based video tutorials: a small black-and-blue icon, in the extreme upper right of the start-menu screen, which is already reliant on a largely black-and-blue palette. There's no other indication of purpose until you mouse over it. In any case, there aren't many of these, and they seem more focused on marketing Polaris Sector than explaining it.
WHEN AN INTERFACE IS IN YOUR FACE
Let's wrap up the last two concerns with Polaris Sector, so we can finally get to the good stuff.
First, don't even bother with the map's Rotation option. There's maybe forty-five degrees of play in it, plus it's prone to sticking for a moment when you hit the arc limit. The effect is more like wiggling the galaxy than anything useful, anyway.
Second, the sound controls are a bit of a pain to find. One version is in the launch application, right alongside language preference and screen resolution settings. Once in-game, you'll find a somewhat more limited set in Settings under the Global tab. Both instances pair the sound options with dozens of unrelated options for various gameplay tweaks. With a bit of shuffling, there seems to be no reason sound couldn't have gotten its own tab, but as it stands the arrangement is more than a bit obtuse.
Yet in spite of the annoyances and limitations mentioned to this point, a well-woven mesh of technology, economics, espionage and combat lurks beneath. The bulk of development effort and polish definitely went into Polaris Sector's core mechanics.
LET'S SCIENCE THIS THING
A lot of 4X games have a common problem when handling tech development: the tree can often be sussed out for "the best" line of research after a few games. Once that happens, subsequent playthroughs tend to get very samey. That doesn't seem to be the case with Polaris Sector, thanks to a multi-tiered level of complexity.
There are two main kinds of science here: Fundamental (general theory) and Applied (practical use). As your labs generate science points, their efforts are distributed according to your slider settings. This multi-tiered system provides a lot more flexibility, although it also means you'll want to do some extra reading to understand where that flexibility will take you. For example, the Applied Science of Complex Design allows research into the specific technology of Atmospheric Domes, critical to colonizing non-Earthlike planets. Simplifying research to target specific techs is also easy: just select what you want and hit the Set As Priority tab, automatically shifting all research toward that goal.
Some of the more esoteric sciences also require specialized types of research, only possible on worlds with particular anomalies. Artifacts and unusual events are another by-product of exploration, adding to the rewards for more risk-minded players.
The biggest problem you'll have is that there's no actual tree to look over, making it a bit of a pain to plan ahead. Still, it's definitely an interesting stab at something new.
It's two of the pillars supporting 4X game design: eXploration and eXploitation. If you're not out there searching for prime star systems and dropping colonies on them, then you either came to the wrong neighborhood or you've got one of those strategies "so crazy it just might work" going on.
For everyone else, be advised that almost nothing on this screenshot exists just to look pretty. Systems are color-coded by star type, which determines what kind of worlds you're likely to find there, which is handy for planning scout missions. On the center-left is a summary of your empire's stockpiles, and whether they're gaining or losing at a glance. Blobs of color outline the borders of your fledgling star-nation, each colonized world bearing its faction symbol. Yellow triangles mark systems you can reach but haven't been to, while greens show worlds which can be colonized with your current technology.
Note that not every world is worth putting boots on, especially in the early game. Then again, sometimes you just have to drop a thousand luckless bastards on some desolate rock to serve as glorified gas-station attendants on the warp line to someplace better.
Whatever your reasons for extending borders, your first decision will be to set a general development focus for that world. Be it agriculture, industry, research, mining or a balance of all four, the capable AI governor will do what's needed to make it happen. Alternately, "micromanage" is also a policy choice, so anytime that world needs a decision made it will pop up in the events log at the top of the screen. Tailoring your headache tolerance was never so easy!
Zooming in, there's a couple more things to cover before we move on. First, those colored wedges show what kind of economy each world is specialized (or balanced) for, and how close it is to being fully developed. The homeworld shown here started the game with a maxed out Balanced economy; you can see two others working on agriculture and science respectively. That's a pirate fleet at delta Lyra, which has recently arrived to plunder the good farmers of Aladfar. That's the danger of putting all your shipbuilding efforts into scouting and colonization, without investing in a squadron or two of corvettes along the way!
Each world can also have an Initiative set for it, most of which are designed to help balance productivity against worker unrest. Do the people love you as they would a god? Then as long as they're so happy, Augment the Work Day (+50% to Production)! Are they burning you in effigies made from their shredded draft cards? Perhaps it's best to give them a taste of Utopia (drop Production to zero). Population control, food rationing and strip-mining also included, El Presidente.
In practical terms, Polaris Sector's economic system is nearly identical to many of its genre competitors, but with a keen eye towards minimization of hassle through an exceptionally streamlined and convenient interface. All without eliminating the choice of taking it all over yourself, if you really need to wring free every possible drop of economic efficiency.
ESPIONAGE AND DISINFORMATION
Did you notice that lone alien freighter zipping in and out of your systems, just a few months before they declared war and sent in their main battle fleet? Refit one of your own with modules for scouting or subversion, and pay them back with some sabotage behind enemy lines!
Refuel from their own stocks, pick up on planetary events, incite a riot, steal tech or even sneak a bomb aboard their new prototype cruiser. The Subversion Module unlocks these options and more for any freighter carrying one, though your supply of fake Groucho glasses is limited. Once it runs out, you'll need to return to base to replenish the Module.
Not the case with passive spying, which merely requires installation of a Scouting Module. Once you develop the Camouflage Module you may even be able to sit there in an enemy system, undetected as the data slowly flows in. Over time, a better and better picture of the target empire's territory, fleets and other secrets will be yours.
Of course, there's a counter to that too: both you and the AIs can send one another disinformation... which, curiously enough, is hidden in the "Other" tab of the Settings menu. Whether empire-wide or system-by-system, fleets and economies can be misrepresented as stronger or weaker than they actually are. Don't believe everything you read in the morning holo-paper...
EXPLOSIVE DECOMPRESSION AND YOU
Bluff and propaganda will only get you so far. Inevitably, someone's going to show up on your doorstep. If you don't have a fleet, even the most peaceful-minded types are liable to walk in like they own the place. Especially if they have a fleet.
There's been plenty of games where you build a bunch of ships, throw them at the enemy, and they slug it out with little or no control on your part. This is not one of those games. Your ship designs, your tactics, and your maneuvers are what settle the hash. You can hit Auto-Resolve to finish things up any time you like, but if you do you're missing out on a lot.
Yes, those are the ranges and arcs of the various weapons on those ships. In this case, they all happen to be mounted on top-deck turrets so they have 360 degrees of fire, but pretty much every hull type except Fighter is multi-decked. Weapons mounted down below will have arcs restricted by the fact that your ship is in the way. This means that just running in with all guns blazing is usually not the optimal tactic. You'll want to maneuver to bring maximum firepower to bear while minimizing what the enemy can throw back at you. It's often better to leave a gun or two off your ship if it means being able to pile on another engine for some extra speed.
Caution is doubly valuable when fighters (especially those launched from carriers) are in the mix. Twenty of the little buggers are hard enough to kill, without the forty missiles they just overwhelmed your corvette's point-defense lasers with. Worse, their energy signatures are low, so unless you're mounting scanners you won't even be able to see them until they get in close.
That's before you even get to the tech itself, where one type of weapon often counters or complements how another is used. It does you no good to concentrate on armor improvements to the exclusion of shields, if you run into the kind of energy weapons that ignore armor entirely.
All of which means there's no perfect ship design. Proper squadron tactics and fleet operations can defeat a disorganized mass of technologically superior opponents.
While you're at it, don't forget to beef up planetary defenses. Ground combat is pretty abstract, but a couple of marine detachments will help avoid the embarrassment of losing half your empire to a single fast freighter loaded with battle koalas.
THE A.I. ARE BASTARDS
Speaking of which, yeah, they really are. Even the ones with pretensions of moral supremacy.
Diplomacy itself is nothing special, but in strategic terms these jokers play for keeps. You will rarely meet anyone unwilling to just grab systems if you can't immediately protect them. They scout your borders out looking for backdoors, they throw diversions and feints in hopes of drawing your fleets into a bad position. They're often willing to withdraw when seriously outmatched, instead of fighting to the last missile launch.
In short, they're a seriously welcome challenge, even if they do look like they came out of Binkley's Anxiety Closet.
Polaris Sector bears the hallmarks of being developed for its mechanics first and foremost, with story elements tacked on afterward. There doesn't even seem to be an in-game "Polaris Sector". However, if you're looking for good gameplay in the 4X vein, you'll find a challenging, brilliant gem serving as this game's heart.
TechRaptor was given a Steam code for the purposes of review. Polaris Sector was reviewed on Windows 7 for the PC.
Solid, complex and engaging gameplay with a substantial learning curve. Marred by sloppy story elements, an exceptionally dry tutorial and sometimes-kludgy interface design.