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The Rise of the Indies

It is no secret that PC gaming has been dormant the last few years.  As the next-gen consoles gobble up more and more developer time and budget, PC gamers have been left wanting for quality titles.  Oh sure, we get our share of the goods, via so-called ‘console ports’, but as any PC gamer knows, a console port will always be, shall we say, ‘developmentally limited’ compared to what PC gamers usually expect from their games.  No doubt about it, the last few years have been hard on the oldest gaming platform of all.  Could this the end of PC gaming as we know it?!?

If the following titles are any indication, the resounding answer is a definitive “No!”  Embracing the age-old battle cry of “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself!”, an expanding number of indie studios, many helmed by old-school PC gaming enthusiasts, have been at work busily crafting titles to restore the former glory of their favorite platform.  Mindful of the lessons of the past, while firmly embracing the contemporary art of game design, these indie studios could well launch a new era of innovative PC gaming as they fill the vacuum left behind by the departure of the big studios.

With that in mind, here are the top 10 indie titles I think every PC gamer should cheer with anticipation (in no particular order):

Elemental: War of Magic

Stardock has always been a friend of old-school PC strategy gaming.  Their multiple award winning Galactic Civilizations I & II are testament to this dedication.  This is why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Brad Wardell, Stardock’s CEO and President, is now putting the final touches on a game inspired by Microprose’s Masters of Magic.
 
Elemental: War of Magic will be a 4X turn-based fantasy strategy game that will put the player in charge of creating a customized sovereign who will use his magic to bring life and civilization back to a devastated world.  Combining elements (ahem) of both RPG and strategy gaming, Elemental will have the player questing, exploring, expanding, exploiting and exterminating in a rich fantasy realm (guess that makes Elemental a Q4X game).  Quests will be varied and will offer players all sorts of risk and reward, while the 4X part will include all the depth and chrome PC gamers expect from strategy titles.  For example,   Elemental will include an “endless” tech tree that will give players all sorts of possibilities when designing military units.  There is also a very deep magic tree from which players can learn spells to both smite their enemies, as well as reshape the very landscape itself.  Best of all, players will get to see their sovereign, and his unique army of soldiers and recruitable NPC adventurers, eviscerate the enemy on turn-based tactical battlefields – there’s no RTS clickfest here!  Add in Sins of a Solar Empire-like strategic zoom, plentiful diplomacy options, dynastic politics and - this being a proudly PC exclusive title - a host of modding options that should see a veritable flood of user-made content, and Elemental: War of Magic could well have PC generals affixed to their armchairs for months to come. 

Expect Elemental: War of Magic on August 24.  For more information, visit here:  http://www.elementalgame.com/

Star Ruler

4X science fiction strategy games have always been a mainstay of PC gaming and 2011 will offer two new titles.  First up:  Blind Mind Studios’ Star Ruler.  Hoping to bring much needed innovation to the often staid 4X genre, Star Ruler will include a number of exciting new features, including procedurally generated galaxies (yes, I said “galaxies”) and a “web-like” research tree.  However, most exciting for would-be starship captains is the inclusion of detailed ships comprised of individual components that can be “compromised, destroyed, disabled, repaired, and renovated”.  Yes!  This amount of ship detail should work nicely with Star Ruler’s promise of “massive ship battles” that will be fought in real-time with particle effects and directional damage. 

Star Ruler is expected to dock on August 21.  For more information, check out our interview with Blind Mind Studios or visit the official website here:  http://starruler.blind-mind.com/ 

Sword of the Stars II: The Lords of Winter

Kerberos Studios has just begun to reveal details about their full-fledged sequel to the cult classic Sword of the Stars and I am already excited.  Entitled Sword of the Stars II:  The Lords of Winter, this new 4X sci-fi game will feature a few twists on the original’s classic turn-based/real time hybrid gameplay. 

To begin with, like Star Ruler, SotS II will now feature much more detailed ships that will be comprised of systems and subsystems, all of which can be targeted, repaired, etcetera.  What this means is that vessels will no longer be so fragile that you need a blob of them to win a battle.  Rather, the new ship mechanics is promising much more thoughtful and tactical combat, where it will now possible to win the day with a few properly configured ships.  Another change:  space terrain!  Instead of the planetary scrimmage line of the original, SotS II will have much larger planetary systems comprised of such terrain as asteroid fields, moons and more, so now you’ll need to find your enemy before you can kill him!  Add in the gorgeous MARS II graphics engine and a new race, and SotS II is set to be yet another coveted title from Kerberos Studios. 

It’s early in the development cycle, but knowing the perfectionist attitude of Kerberos Studios, I fully expect Sword of the Stars II to be another flagship of interstellar conquest.  Expect Sword of the Stars II in 2011.  For more information, visit here:  http://www.paradoxplaza.com/games/sword-of-the-stars-2

Naumachia: Space Warfare

Counter-Strike in space - how does that sound?  That’s what I thought, and like you, I can’t wait for this spaceship shoot ‘em up from Italy’s own AureaSection.

Naumachia will be a fascinating mix of fighter and tactical fleet simulation, all set in a multiplayer environment.  Players will begin as lowly fighter pilots in frenetic multiplayer battles.  However, as they rack up kills, they will find themselves being promoted up the chain of game, going from a lone pilot, to commanding a wing, and then even a capital ship!  With each promotion, the player’s role will change to suit his new level of authority, so while a wing commander (I think I heard that name before) will be concerned with keeping his pilots in the fight, a capital ship commander will be focusing on the big picture, giving orders to fighter wings, other capital vessels and, of course, his own crew. However, if a player wants to leave the bridge to get in on some dogfighting action, the game won’t stop him!  AureaSection is promising different multiplayer game modes and a single player campaign, so this is a multiplayer title that should have some legs to it.

While there is a lot yet to learn, Naumachia sounds like it could well be a space jockeys dream come true.  The release date is to be announced.  Find out more information here:  http://naumachia.aureasection.com/

Xenonauts

As a PC gamer, I am betting that when you learned of 2K’s remake of X-COM, you probably were more miffed than overjoyed.  Sure, this might well be a fine game in its own right, but X-COM it is not.  The original X-COM was all about thoughtful turn-based combat and NOT about FPS action set in some type of retro-1950’s environment. 

Fortunately, fans of the original will have a friend in Goldhawk International’s tribute game, Xenonauts.  While there might not be a lot to go on at this point, the game does seem to be heading in the right direction.  Xenonauts will be a turn-based game that utilizes an isometric battlefield, which is certainly a step in the right direction.  Add in some fog of war and line of sight mechanics, and things sound even better!  Xenonauts will also include base building and research, as with the original, along with squad management and an action point-based system.  Where Xenonauts will differ from the original game, however, is in the inclusion of a terrain editor and map builder, advanced AI, varied mission objectives, a cover system and a fresh Cold War setting circa 1979.  Hmm…I wonder if there will be any probing? 

Xenonauts is expected by Christmas 2010.  Learn more here:  http://www.xenonauts.com/index.php

Closing Comments: 
PC gamers finally have a light at the end of a long dark tunnel, one created by an indie community that is stronger and more imaginative than ever.