“Hey, you should check out GoG during the Steam Sale weeks as well! They have these timed offers where you get games for free!” It were these words, two weeks ago, that repeatedly brought me to the hallowed home of the Good Old Games. Free games were promised, and free games, delivered… but while hanging out there, I couldn’t help but notice GoG was also running a number of frankly ludicrous deals on a whole bunch of other games. There’s something about high discount percentages that short-circuit my brain’s ability to engage in protracted reasoning.
And this is how I found myself suddenly in possession of The Last Federation, a recent entrant in GoG’s possibly-Good definitely-not-Old Games line. I read three bylines about how it was a game about interstellar politics, I noticed a few glowing user reviews, I saw that it was currently 40% off, and hey, suddenly, it was mine. I know so little about it. I didn’t even see who created it!
I guess I could look up this game’s creator before we start… orrrrr….
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, Low. Mechanical, High…ly confused.)
I’ll tell you, though: jokery aside, I’m actually pretty interested in The Last Federation. The bylines and the user reviews painted it as an interesting experience in space-strategy and 4X, placing the player in the role of an independent agent instead o- hold on a moment, is that… is that an Arcen Games logo in the corner?
Oh. That is, err…
Let me make the following prediction about The Last Federation: it’s going to have an incredibly interesting setup, unique and engaging and capable of immediately drawing me in on promise alone, that will be washed out within the hour by poor user interface design, awkward controls, and an avalanche of meaningless, hard-to-interpret numbers that’ll make even a mountain goat with a PhD stumble.
Long-term readers of my column may remember I reviewed another Arcen Games title, Skyward Collapse, not too long ago. In this review, which also references AI War and A Valley Without Wind, I posited the ‘Arcen Games problem’. And let me just quote myself directly, here:
‘The Arcen Games problem’ is basically that these games […] tend to bury you under piles of information you don’t really need while simultaneously withholding the kind of information you could really use. When you’re provided with screen after screen of resource stockpiles, soldier combat modifiers and building requirements, but you can’t find a simple one-line summary of ‘this dude is effective against this dude’ or ‘this building is needed to provide these effects’, that’s the Arcen Games problem.
I’m hoping The Last Federation will be the game to overcome this theory, here. I’m really, really hoping.
Anyway, back on non-hypothetical track, I’ve arrived at The Last Federation’s main menu. It looks alright! Lots of spaceships, a few buttons, picture of a hydra in the lower left corner for some reason.
I leaf through the options, which aren’t nearly as destructively confusing as I’d initially feared. The graphics and audio options are basically what you expect for a game like this: limited, but basically functional. There’s also an ‘Extra’ options menu, which hides mouse panning and zooming behaviour — for some reason — and stuff about applying unlock codes. Really, the only options menu that scares me is the ‘Game’ options menu, which hides gems like this:
I have no idea what this means, yet… but if I know my Arcen Games, I will be told what every individual bullet point here means, over time, in exquisite detail. So let’s jump past all that, ignore the mandatory achievements section, and jump straight into starting the actual game.
Attempting an Advance Start nets me a The Last Federation warning: “If y’all don’t know what you’re doing, better stick to the Quick Start instead”. Alright, fair enough. Which makes it all the more confusing that the Quick Start, in turn, actually asks me for game-determining input before we even start.
And oh, look: colour-coded difficulty levels, hiding half a dozen numerical modifiers each.
Yeah, you know what? I’m going Normal/Normal on this one. I’m slightly perplexed by why ‘Normal’ combat difficulty gives my flagship ‘2x health’: surely, everything in Normal should be the default value? By virtue of it being the Normal setting? But whatever, fine, I’ll roll with it.
In a brief, seven-slide-show, The Last Federation’s backstory is explained. I am the last of a vanquished race of interstellar conquerors, the prior dictators of the solar system, a real bunch of dickbags. I alone survive because I went renegade: I fled to deliver the secret of space-faring technology to one of the races my kind were suppressing, which means I wasn’t on our planet when a moon was rocket-forced into it.
The race I crash-landed with wasn’t exactly about to trust one of their former oppressors, obviously, so they put me in captivity while they worked on figuring out the technology I had brought them. Or, well, that’s what they thought: in reality, I was biding my time, waiting for them to work their way around the technology and create a ship with space-faring capabilities… so I could steal it, and escape.
My goal? The creation of a unified federation of planets, ensuring that nobody will ever be major dickbags to each other ever again. And yes, I’m well aware how odd it is to start my five-year mission of peace by stealing my captors’ first, best prototype spaceship. It is really such a good idea to start a mission of unifying politics by way of grand theft flagship? I can imagine that at least one of the races I’m envisioning in my new Federation is going to have some serious reservations vis-à-vis trusting me.
Ah, well: what’s done is done. I’ve stolen the Prototype Executor, and now the Acutians are in hot pursuit. All… heads, I guess, battle stations!
“I outclass these dudes so severely that there’s really no risk of losing. Might as well use this opportunity to get acquainted with my new ship.” As far as ludonarrative tutorial justifications go, I’ve heard worse.
So what am I looking at, here? A black-and-green spaceship, with what I assume are Standard Sci-Fi Spaceship Shields. Some rocks and a planet in the background. Minimap in the top right, stats in the top left, unit information in the bottom left. So far, so good.
“Welcome to combat”, chimes a cheerful tutorial popup. It goes on to tell me that combat is simultaneous-turn-based: everyone plans out orders, then time moves for a few second, and that’s a ‘turn’. Turns consist of two parts: giving movement orders, and giving attack orders.
Movement orders are easy: moving the mouse around in this phase draws a line from my ship to wherever I’m pointing, indicating the exact (maximum) distance I can move. The tutorial suggests I move closer to the Acutian ships I can see by zooming out, ships similar to mine but more black-and-yellow-green than strictly black-and-green. So I do so.
Attack orders are slightly more complicated. My ship possesses three weapons — a Minigun, an Energy Blaster, and a Gravity Lance — each with different damage values and characteristics. So the Minigun is better against small targets, the Energy Blaster chews through shields, you get the idea. Every turn, I can select one of them to fire. Next, I have to give firing orders. ‘Fire At Will’, ‘Fire At Specific Targets I Indicate’, ‘Fire At This Specific Point In Space’, or ‘Don’t Fire’.
By mousing over the enemy ships, I can see which of weapons will do how much DPS against them. Right now, the Energy Blaster is the best selection… but these guys are currently shielded, which means that’s what the damage is counted against. Once the shields are down, maybe another weapon will be better against the hull? Only one way to find out.
I plot my course, select the Energy Blaster, and tell the ship to fire at will. Time moves forward! The Acutian ships close in on me, and each of them releases a wave of ten small interceptor craft. Damnit! I bank to starboard, and tell the ship to focus fire on the Acutian main ship: destroying those is my main priority, and it doesn’t look for all the world like those little blips can hurt me anyway.
I move! They move. I shoot! They shoot. Damage numbers flare up! I have no idea if they’re high or low, but they’re definitely numbers!
Combat goes on for a few turns. The Acutian interceptors and plasma balls slowly drain my shields, but my Energy Blaster demolishes theirs. Soon, the shields on one flagship fail, at which point I switch over to the area-destroying Gravity Lance.
It is at this point, as I’m getting close to destroying my first enemy flagship and advancing the combat, that The Last Federation points out the objectives bar at the top of the screen. Specifically, that it points out that I have different victory conditions in this fight: I can either destroy the Acutian flagships… or I can dock with their science lab, provide them with some advanced technology, leave their ships intact, demonstrate to them that I’m not just a mindless conquest monster, and leave without killing anyone.
Wait, what? That sounds like a way better option! Particularly given my lofty political ‘Federation’ ideals. Game, why would you wait until I’m halfway into murdering my robo-captors before pointing out that I can totally give peace a chance?
One downside to the non-violent way out is that it requires sitting still at the science outpost for a while… while the Acutians are still very much in the business of shooting me. The Last Federation takes pity on me, however, and unlocks ‘flagship power management’ for me: basically, I’ve just been given the option to divert all power to shields, ensign… my own third head! Gratefully, I do so.
Sure enough, peace prevails: I dock with the station, upload the technologies, and leave. The Acutians like me better for it. Though not much.
At which point I reach the solar map, and The Last Federation hits me with this welcome screen.
“Don’t worry about creating the Federation yet. Just, you know, become more powerful for a while!” Err… alright, The Last Federation, I guess. Your suggestions sound like they might have merit. Are you going to tell me how to do any of that stuff? You know, the whole ‘gain Credit’, ‘get powerful’, ‘deliver technology to what I assume are some other space races’ thing? Maybe in a tutorial box following up on this one?
No? You’re not actually going to do that, then? Just ‘hey, now get better’, and then I’m left to my own devices? I see, I see.
I’ve just been Arcen Games’d again, haven’t I?
I stare at the solar map for a while. Eight planets, each with different icons at the top, and… numbers. A whole bunch of numbers. Some of the numbers are red, while other numbers are white. What is your deal, numbers? And why doesn’t anything appear to be moving?
Oh, but wait, what’s this? At the top of the screen, I see two quests laid out before me. Alright! Now my language is being spoken. Both quests will time out in about ten minutes, but that’s okay, because time doesn’t appear to be moving. And I can only pick one…
What do I do? I can either help the orange Andors improve their compatibility with their planet: my Computer Report — whatever that is — tells me that I could be worried about the effect this could have on these guys’ plans for global conquest, but the Andors assure me they’re, like, totally peaceful, man. Or I could help the purple Boarine get spacefaring technology by shooting down some weird alien ships in their atmosphere: Computer tells me that’ll make these guys like me lots, that they’re well-suited to their planet and they’d make strong allies, and that I’ll get cool bonus ‘Hydral tech’ if I do the mission right.
Help a bunch of chumps get better at forever being lame on their own planet, or help a bunch of already cool dudes get to space faster? Yeah, let’s pretend I’m thinking about this.
The Boarine quest involves shooting down some Acutian ships: accepting it immediately teleports me into a battle map. There’s no peaceful way out, this time, so yeah: I just blast the Acutian ships into space-rubble before they even understand what’s up. They don’t particularly like that, and the Andor are pissed off I left them to their own devices, but the Boarine hail me as the Number One Cool Dude In Space now. I’ll take that tradeoff.
Back on the solar map, I find myself orbiting the Boarine homeworld of Leto now. The Last Federation suggests that I take a look at the lower left corner of the screen, which holds a planetary action UI. There’s a lot of buttons I can click, here: read my logbook, talk to Computer Advisor, look at race relations and the racial power grid… look at planet details for Leto, engage in Friendly or Hostile Acts, talk to the Boarine Regent on Leto…
That last one sounds neat, let’s do that.
Race relations in The Last Federation are expressed through Influence. The Boarine have 30 Influence towards me, which means they think I’m a swell dude. They have 0 Influence towards all the other races, because… well, they haven’t met any of them yet. The Boarine are only the second race into space, as of right now.
Additionally, there’s also the Credit resource the tutorial talked about earlier. I’m not entirely sure what this represents, but on this screen, I can see I can use these Credits — assuming enough Boarine Influence — to get the Boarine government to do certain things. For instance, with the 800 Credits I own right now, I could advise them to accelerate the mobilization of their warships! Or if I had around 3000 Credits, I could suggest they colonize one of their planet’s moons!
Why would I want to do any of that stuff? Man, beats me. Maybe it’ll be cool?
By messing around a little, I figure out I can gain both Credits and Influence by performing helpful acts for the races. For instance, back over at the Acutian homeworld, I can help my erstwhile oppressors with fighting space pirates. Or I can work on constructing spaceships for them, because they’d totally trust me on that. I can even work as an intermediary between them and the Boarine, improving both races’ views of one another.
Interestingly, when I fly over to the Andor homeworld (for damage control purposes), I find I can’t do any of that stuff just yet. Rather, the only really beneficial act I can do for the Andor is to provide them with the gift of space-faring technology: they’ll pay me a hefty Credit sum for it, and as with the Boarine, the Andor will forevermore think of me as That Cool Guy What Got Us Into Space.
Getting the Andor spaceflight technology involves a brief mission, where I have to avoid spy drones launched by the Acutians and the Boarine. I guess the current space races don’t like it when I uplift new people? They can’t really stop me either way, but I guess I’ll want to not sour their opinion of me anymore.
After getting the Andor to space, I’m given access to Helpful and Hostile Acts for their planet, as well as to their Parliament. Interestingly, while the Andor government works according to the same basic rules vis-à-vis Influence and Credit as do the Boarine and Acutian ones, the in-depth setup is way different. There’s a whole system here of parties and elections and prognoses that… I don’t really know what to do with, I guess?
Before I can do anything with this parliament, however, The Last Federation hits me with an extended tutorial on technology research and development, which… is an aspect of the game I’ve only now unlocked? The associated information barrage is complex and rapid, but as far as I can follow, it boils down to: races can research technology, for many different kinds of benefit. I can help them research technology, and trade technologies between races. Some technologies also benefit me! Most don’t.
I don’t really know what to do with any of this information. So instead, I uplift the grey alien-like Skylaxians into space. Then, I help them fend off some pirates. Everyone hates pirates! Destroying pirate bases makes literally every race like me, even the ones that aren’t into space yet.
After doing so, I unlock ship special abilities. And flagship customization. And the Black Market. And bribery. And geopolitical fancy data analysis. And, and, and…
At this point, I find myself becoming unsure. Every other mission, The Last Federation ‘unlocks’ some new functionality or the other for me. Am I… am I still in the tutorial? I started out fairly confident about my abilities and my tasks, but the endless barrage of new information and new functionality has left me a little reeling. And I haven’t even seen anything related to any Federations yet!
Alright, tell you what: that’s my new goal post. I’m going to play until I find mention of this ‘create a Federation thing’. Then, I’m going to create one. And then, I’ll get back to you. Hopefully, by the time I’ve completed the task the game is literally named after, I’ll have a good enough overview of the systems involved to say anything more interesting than ‘and then I unlocked another thing that I don’t know what it does’.
Be back after I rule the universe!