A little while back, I did my final video covering The Last Federation, the latest spacey strategy game by Arcen Games. In discussing how I felt about the whole thing with my girlfriend, together we came up with an idea: written summaries of review/let’s play series to wrap everything up. This way, the site gets more written content (as much as I love doing videos, I need to flex these writing muscles as well) and it adds something of a finale to a review that hopefully everyone can enjoy (as not everyone can watch the videos). Basically here’s how this is going to work: When I finish a linear game, or feel spent by an open game like The Last Federation, I’ll write one of these articles to try and tie it all together. Therefore, after the cut, please feel free to dive into my final thoughts of the base game of The Last Federation (I’ll likely revisit it with its expansion once that’s out of beta) and thanks for reading.
Choices that Don’t Feel Like they Matter
A good game presents the player with interesting choices. At first blush, you might think The Last Federation (TLF from now on because I’m tired of typing that out repeatedly at this point) gives the player an abundant amount of choice in how they proceed from the start of the game, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The problem here, and it takes a little time to see this, is that the choices you have to make a lot of the time don’t affect much in the end. Maybe a small bump to research here or a few ships to an armada there, ultimately. Overall, however, most of the non-combat choices you make — which is a major portion of the game — such as helping with the environment or making new political friends feel so small and incremental that it feels one would have to make hundreds, if not thousands of these choices to really make a dent in the game’s progress, as these civilizations will keep on keepin’ on with or without your help.
When it comes to decisions that result in a combat mission, such as giving spacefaring technology to one race or helping another with a pirate base, these decisions feel like they do carry a bit more weight. These decisions, however, result in combat, where we face another raft of decisions that feel random and unfocused. Combat, at least in my experience, boils down to a numbers game of who can survive the longest. Now, ultimately that’s true in any video game conflict like this, but when you see the numbers hovering over you each turn, it kind of ruins a bit of the magic. There’s also not much in the way of real tactics or strategy here, at least it didn’t feel like it. Pick a direction, pick a target, shoot shoot shoot. If you have a special ability available, maybe choose one of them. Rinse, repeat. Folks I’ve talked to about this game say, when they see some of the combat, that it reminds them of Drox Operative. I could see that, but Drox is an action RPG with much more focused, intimate combat. This combat is likely trying to feel more grand and sprawling, but ultimately it just feels like something of a mess.
Ultimately, while the game is littered with choices for the player to make, eventually they feel rote rather than interesting, and it really takes a lot of wind out of the game’s sails. This is further hampered by…
A Frustrating Lack of Direction
So in my games, I tried to help races that kinda didn’t hate me as much as the others, but that was a purely arbitrary decision. I could’ve spun my wheels even harder, and for a longer period of time, to bring a race that truly despised me up to kinda sorta hating me a bit. The ultimate goal in this game, if I recall, is to make an alliance — or a federation — with enough races to claim control over the system and help bring peace and order to the galaxy. That sounds all well and grand, but once that tutorial is over, I had no IDEAAAAAA how to go about that. I mean sure, I could have purchased some political influence here and maybe help build a police force there, but eventually, I began to wonder WHY I was even making these choices. Where they really helping, I wondered? Eventually, I got to a point where I stopped caring, unfortunately. The decisions I was making barely felt like they mattered, and I wasn’t even sure which direction they were pushing me in.
Eventually, I tried to focus onto one facet of gameplay, whether it was helping one race politically, crushing pirates in combat or so on. Eventually, I ran into problems here too because…
The Multi-Faceted Gameplay Too Unfocused
TLF is basically several games wrapped into a big burrito of gameplay. Mmm….burrito…..
Sorry, anyway, you have multiple thingies going on here. You have this amazingly deep and detailed simulation of this solar system, these varied races, their wants, needs and goals, their political systems and so on that is truly incredible to behold. The amount of data simulated here is just fantastic to dive into, and I could see this being used in some theoretical sociology class, if such a thing existed (if it does, I’m unaware). Then, you have this…what I’m going to call “choose your own adventure” style game of planetary and political intrigue in which you select choices from a menu to spend twelve months working on research, or ten months building an armada, or two years working for the police to help keep the planet’s population secure, and so on. This kind of thing is fun, but ultimately, as mentioned above, the decisions feel less and less like they matter as the races and their attitudes become more entrenched as the game goes forward.
Finally, you have the combat layer, which is an actiony-turned-basedy thing that is fairly limited in terms of actual tactics, since it all boils down to “move here, shoot that” over and over again. Sure, a lot of space combat games can be boiled down to that same formula, but they HIDE that sort of thing well behind story or flair. No so here, where it’s basically go here, do this thing, see the numbers and then do it all again. Like other portions of the game, it eventually feels rote more than enjoyable or engaging.
This left me with a game featuring all of these facets, yet not fully sure which one it wanted to focus on. If the GAME isn’t sure which facet of gameplay I need to focus on, how the heck will I be able to figure it out? I wonder if the game would’be been better served focusing on one type of gameplay and either ditching the others entirely, or making them purely optional? While combat can be resolved automatically, for example, it’s still intrusive enough to get in the way of the rest of the game even if you wanted no combat at all. What ultimately makes all this so frustrating is because this game is…
A Lovely Idea Buried in Minutiae
Up until this point I’ve been a bit harsh on TLF, but it’s not for lack of caring. Just the opposite, really. I honestly LOVE what they’re trying to do here with all of these divergent systems. I adore what they’re trying to accomplish, truly, but it’s so buried under layers of minutiae. Whether it’s the numbers game, the lack of meaty choices or the overwhelming combat, the fact that there’s something truly fascinating going on here is just diluted by the actual gameplay of it all. It feels like the scale was tipped too far into the simulation column and not far enough into the gameplay column. What I mean by that is that this is an amazing simulation brought down by problematic gameplay, ultimately. The balance between what it’s trying to accomplish and how much fun it is to actually play in practice is way, way off, and it’s a damned shame, because this sort of ambition needs to be rewarded, and I so don’t feel like I’m doing that here.
Ultimately, The Last Federation will likely work well for a select group of folks. For those it clicks with, they can likely be entertained by this game for years, as that’s how deep it feels like it can go. For those it doesn’t click with, like me, I’ll just stare at it’s remarkable simulation of systems, people and attitudes from the other side of the glass, gawking at its wonder but ultimately moving on to something that feels more focused, satisfying and complete.
Now as I write this, there’s an expansion in the works which is currently in beta, and I of COURSE am going to try it out. Whether it will deal with the issues I hope I’ve successfully outlined here, I’m not sure, but one can hope. Until then, I’d keep a wary eye on this one. If you look at the videos of the game in action and find it clicks with you, then by all means dive in! Otherwise, you might end up as frustrated as me by what could have been, which isn the type of memory you want of a game in the end.