Rome wasn’t built in a day
History is very important to Jon Shafer and there is a lot of History in At The Gates, Jon’s newly released 4x strategy game. Clearly there is the setting, being at the fall of the Roman empire. But the development of this game has had a long and, perhaps, turbulent past also.
It has been almost 6 years since Jon and his small team were crowd funded with over $100k to build this game. It is not surprising it was so popular, coming from such a strong pedigree. As a child, Jon was a prolific modder for Civilization III and was hired by Firaxis whilst still in college. There he worked on a number of Civ IV DLCs and, most importantly, was the lead designer for Civ V, which was released when he was just 25 years old. Quite an achievement for someone so young, particularly when it is the definitive franchise for the 4x genre. IGN scored it 9/10 and reviews are “overwhelming positive” on steam.
Building a game worthy of putting his name on (the game’s full title is Jon Shafer’s At The Gates) would and should take time. Having only 3 core people on the team, with Jon being the sole full-time member, certainly slowed it down. As too did Jon’s short stint working at another game developer. Those community backers have had to wait what must feel like an age. So is this game worthy of Caesar himself, or destined to be thrown to the lions?
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end
ATG is both incredibly familiar and very different to its Civ predecessors. Everything looks and feels as it should, with a hint of homage to its ancient forebears. This is particularly the case in its art style, which reminds me of my early days playing the original. This is not a bad thing and, indeed, the nostalgia hits me in the right spot. The music is foreboding, lonely and strong, with a clear Gladiator feel to it. It is beautifully crafted but disappears all too quickly, leaving long periods of purely ambient sounds.
But this is more than just a walk down memory lane. Jon has clearly decided that the Civ series is by no means perfect, and, although every instance likes to tweek the status quo, the more things change, the more things stay the same. ATG is a much more personal affair, and attempts to make the city and its inhabitants more real and less of a number crunching exercise.
Throughout the game you will have a single city and it will not be stationary. Resources, such as food and iron, are depleted but required for survival, let alone expansion. Moving your settlement to warmer climates, for example, may help secure a more consistent food source. It will certainly placate the clansmen who do not relish the cold winds of the north.
The concept of a single city has historic precedent and links back to Civ V, where Jon introduced the concept of city states into the franchise, one of his more popular ideas. Being in control of one certainly focuses the mind. Civilization is about conquering the map; ATG is about securing and managing it. And this is a key difference that at least attempts to change the tempo of the game.
In your first few turns, Civilization has you building a standard and rarely changing list of buildings. That allows you to create a new settler, which starts the process again. ATG has you desperately looking for a source of food or a resource to trade. Winter is coming, and the survival of your city is not guaranteed.
It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience
But it is the clan system that is this game’s key differentiator. Your workers are not drones or clones but groups of people pledging themselves to you and your city. Each comes with a personality that makes them more or less suited for certain roles and they have opinions on what those should be. Ignore a desire, and production will fall off.
Each clan can undertake a profession in 1 of 6 different disciplines, which follow reasonably standard tropes. For example, honor professions are generally for fighting but there are nuanced roles within honor that will affect other stats. Generally though, each discipline is rounded down to fighting, exploring and various types of crafting.
Some of these professions will produce an avatar on the map, showing the clan is out in the world doing their work. Others are settled in the city, such as bakers, and will not appear except when looking on the clan page, ready to be deployed into a new profession. This is required periodically, particularly once resources are exhausted.
However, I do find that clans join too often, making the early game in particular rather frantic. You start with 3 clans but will have as many as 40 nearer the end game. Attracting clans is based on your ‘fame’. But you tend to get a new clan every turn at first, which is far too many. They don’t seem earned or even necessary when you are still a fledgling nation. It also feels counter-intuitive as city states should grow faster and have more ‘fame’ when they are larger. We should have a greater grind.
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall – And when Rome falls, the world.
It is at this juncture that I start to feel the game loses its way to a point. ATG is supposed to be a personal experience where I feel the growth of the city. It should feel earned and magnificent, and the inhabitants real. I should see the great aqueducts, the races at the Hippodrome and mobs rioting at the foot of the senate. But everything still feels like it comes down to stats and number crunching. My city does not feel lived in.
I find myself, of all things, missing the UI of old Civilization games where I could watch a Wonder be built. A glorious vista and a beaming sun rising over my city, even when it is one out of many. In ATG, I get a growing disc of control and a busy list of clans. I just don’t feel inspired.
Perhaps it is not the game itself that should inspire me but the promise it certainly holds. Sid Meier’s Civilization was and is by no means perfect. It is an idea. An idea that has grown over time. It has been built on, fallen and been built again. The core concepts have stayed the same as a building block on which the future was built.
Jon Shafer has already built more than his fair share and perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. He may be in a similar situation to Sid Meier back in the early 90s, with solid foundations and a dream for the future. But 6 long years have passed and I can’t help but feel that more is needed now. Civilization was built in a different time and was undeniably revolutionary. ATG is fun and has some interesting ideas, but it is far from starting a new age in 4x gaming.
Jon Shafer’s At The Gates was developed by Conifer Games and this review is based on version 0.9.9.2. It is currently available for download for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux on the Humble Bundle site and on Steam.
*The Mommy Gamers received a copy of the game for review purposes. This article also includes an affiliate link.