Millennia Hands-On Preview: One for the History Books
Paradox's new 4X strategy game redefines history and tries to do the same with its genre.
Traditional 4X strategy games can feel a tad monotonous at times. How do you keep a game feeling fresh and interesting when essentially after your first hundred hours or so you know exactly what path you'll need to head down in order to achieve victory? Well, if you ask Paradox and the team behind Millennia, the answer to that is to flip history on its head and give us as many what if scenarios as possible.
Millennia at first appears as your typical 4X, grid-based strategy game. You'll settle your city, collect resources, and hope that your opponents don't get too far ahead of you before the time eventually comes to fight against one another. However, all that changes when you seek to enter a new age. You see, Millennia is a game built around its Ages, which encapsulate a broad period of human history. That's if you go down the regular line, that is, but on the other end of the spectrum you have some Ages that take a completely different direction for the world. What if humanity stuck to steam power, for example? What if the world was engulfed by plagues? These are the options that you and your fellow players can explore, diverting human history from its normal course and heading down a new path.
Some of these paths will be a different kind of history, while others are described as Catastrophe Ages. These sound bad, but you don't necessarily want to avoid them at all costs. The farms that you can build during the Age of Plague, for example, can give you some serious food buffs for a good period of time. It's worth mentioning as well that whoever gets to an Age first will decide the course of history for the other players, so if you're really looking to screw with someone's plans, or you want to advance your own, it's best to think ahead so you'll be able to take advantage of the Age you're heading into. About 10 Ages make up a game, meaning you'll have plenty of chances to explore other options in history.
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The only irk I had with this concept was that it does seem to become a problem later in the game, as it seems that once a player has locked in a certain Age tied to a certain victory condition, everyone else will be forced to pursue that same condition, otherwise they'll just have to use the old tried and true method of taking over everyone else's cities. Of course, I didn't get the chance to play this far into the game, so I can't speak about how it'll play out, but it does sound like it rewards a player for steadily snowballing and then getting the Age they want rather than making the endgame a bit more of a free-for-all when anyone could truly come out on top.
This isn't to say I disliked the Ages idea. I actually found Millennia to be an incredibly refreshing strategy game when I played through it. The depth on offer here is sure to please any long-time fan of this genre, but it doesn't overwhelm you with options. If you want to just have your empire chugging along without micro-managing every detail, that's perfectly fine too. Again, the Ages are the way in which we see the most change from the other mainstays of this genre, and they do a wonderful job at keeping the game feeling fresh and doing away with monotony of other big players. You don't necessarily follow a single path with technology, therefore you won't just have wars where everyone is rocking the same army setup. The armies and units are also varied enough and can serve multiple purposes. Rather than just have my hunter unit be another archer for my army, for example, I sent him to set up a camp within my borders, which helped get food and furs.
There are also a good deal of diplomacy options. Of course, when you're playing with friends you can use your silver tongue to convince one rival to attack another, but with the AI Millennia lets you send off envoys, creating alliances without just throwing gold at a smaller state. This is just one example of how you can keep the peace abroad and within your own territory. When it is time to go to war, though, there are ways to get the jump on your enemy. Set up an outpost right next to their borders, and get a great point to begin your invasion. You'll have to be careful, though, as if your plans are spotted, you could be dealing with a counterattack soon enough.
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Paradox will have to show us some more of Millennia before I can start to pass judgement on it, but from the short time I got to play at Gamescom, I can say this is the most refreshing 4X strategy experience I've had in a while. The Ages will mean that no two game is the same, and will create some memorable moments as you and a rival head towards two different Ages at the same time. Otherwise, it contains all the depth and customisation you'd want from a 4X fantasy, with an attention to detail that leaps out at you right from your first moments looking out across the map.