Short for explore, expand, exterminate, and exploit, 4X is the term for hardcore strategy games that had a surge of popularity in the mid ’90s. Ascendancy was one of the more notable examples of the genre, just below the landmark title Master of Orion, and is regarded as one of the best. Now available on your iPhone largely unchanged, 4X fans will find this a brilliant addition to their app library.
It’s important to note that a game like Ascendancy requires a particular sort of gamer to appreciate it. This isn’t a particularly attractive game, with simplistic planet and star map graphics. The gameplay is slow, even by turn-based standards, and it has a remarkably steep learning curve. On top of that, the interface is also incredibly unintuitive.
What Ascendancy does well, and has since it was first released in 1995, is create an endlessly customizable sci-fi playground. You choose from 21 wildly different and creative species, the likes of which you’ve likely never seen in games or movies. Parasites, gaseous creatures, mushroom things, and more exist in a setting where the insectoid and reptilian species are the closest thing to familiar.
Behold, the land of the Chippendales.
Each race has different strengths and weaknesses, along with unique special abilities that give them a leg (or tendril, or spore) up against the competition. One can bestow temporary invulnerability on one of their colonies, for instance, while another species can travel much faster in space. Since the game is all about species supremacy, using your chosen race’s strengths to full advantage is key.
The goal is to expand your species from their initial homeworld to as many new worlds as possible. How you do this is where the intricacies of the game come in. The obvious method is total domination. Certain species are better geared for war than others, but by researching better ships, armor, weapons, and other technology, you can focus on simply wiping everyone else out.
Alternatively, diplomacy plays a key role as well. When aliens contact each other, there’s a dialogue tree that lets you offer to unite, trade technology and information, or start a war. Ascendancy isn’t an RPG, though– it’s more like a board game. While the scope can be huge, those wanting a smaller sci-fi journey can simply opt for fewer worlds to explore (a smaller board) and less alien AIs to compete against.
Quicksilver tadpoles, prepare to die.
Like most strategy games, the gameplay focus is on building things, like structures, research, technology, space ships, and population. There are three areas of developmental focus to attain your goals of domination. Research is the fun stuff that lets you take to the stars and stay there, while discovering new tech all the while. Industry is the stat that tells you how quickly an individual colony can complete new projects you assign them. Prosperity is the marker for how fast a planet’s population grows, which you’ll need to build units.
You start on your homeworld, slowly building different types of structures, but once you reach space, expansion rockets forward. It’s basically the same actions for each world, but how you expand and where is up to you. Since every new game is randomly generated based on your initial choices of star density and the aliens involved, Ascendancy has great replay value.
On the interface side, the game feels more comfortable on the larger iPad screen, and it is a universal app. That said, getting the hang of navigating the maze of screens is far more troublesome than it should be. Zooming in on the map is limited, and the screen doesn’t shift its orientation if you put your device on its side. Plus, the help icon is always there in the upper-right corner of the screen, and it’s a life-saver for newcomers, but a more in-depth tutorial would be welcome.
Finally, at $7.99, Ascendancy is a bit pricey. Even though it costs a fair amount of resources, we think high-minded players will get their money’s worth.