The space strategy genre was tailor-made for me. Build massive fleets, conquer the galaxy, refresh. It seems so easy in principle, but why can no one make a good one? Why are developers so content to throw imagination out the window and set poorly-constructed real-time strategy games against starfields and nebulae while little, multi-colored icons plug each other with little lines of laser fire? Have we learned nothing in twenty years? Gemini Wars is yet another title by a small-time developer playing with my emotions, failing to provide the goods.
The most popular space-based RTS of the past decade or so has been Stardock’s Sins Of A Solar Empire, a title I didn’t get into for a big reason: it went too fast. In Sins, you developed your fleet over a sea of individual star systems in matches that could last for days. Unfortunately, somewhere between the hazy tutorial and its quickly overwhelming nature, I never fully sank into the game. It seemed like a solid title, and it found a passionate audience to feed it, but I was once again left cold without a game to call my own. Gemini Wars fails for opposing reasons: it’s slow, ugly, and poor.
If Gemini Wars had a time skip option, it’d probably get one or two points back on its score. The tutorial is a pedantic, unskippable slog that hints at something great but never cashes in. Ships crawl across space, leaving you to wonder if you’d accidentally tapped the Turbo button on the front of your machine. The first mission gives you just enough time to cut up a pumpkin pie, douse it with whipped cream, and consume it before any enemies appear without ever touching the mouse. When you finally get to tackle enemy vessels, you’ll be hard pressed to spend less than three minutes destroying any of them, even with a fleet of frigates. If the game weren’t so interested in flanking you with pirates and enemies, you could probably just watch the game play itself.
Nothing you see here is pretty, whether it’s the graphics or in actually playing the game. From the heavily artifacted intro to the animations and ships themselves, there’s no charming visual hook in Gemini Wars. Rarely does a sense of grandeur or impressiveness emerge from the game. The less time you see a human on stage, the better. You can skip the cutscenes, but you can’t skip the irritable banter between rejected StarCraft (1998, not 2010) portraits voiced by some guys doing their worst chain gang dialects. Descending into the campaign, you play Captain Cole, an officer emerging from exile because… I don’t know. Your job, at least initially, is to fight The Alliance through a series of rote missions involving transport duty, minor base building, and so forth. Many times, these missions rely on you to remember where enemies spawn and place units appropriately instead of any actual strategy. The script was also written by a twelve-year old. I can’t verify this, but I swear I wrote something similar to the entire game’s dialogue when I was that age.
One of Gemini Wars’ best features are the sub-divided arenas. A solar system will feature several planets and asteroid belts and your forces can warp between them, allowing you to bottle up and manage conflicts. This isn’t a new feature by any means – Conquer: Frontier Wars, Sins Of A Solar Empire and several others have done this very thing – but there’s a spark of originality in how the game refuses to provide discrete boundaries between them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well either visually or functionally. Zoom far enough out and the system is easy enough to use. Warp to this place, warp to that place. Zoom in too far, however, and ships will actually take the slow route between distant points without ever engaging their warp drives. It’s maddening.
The game doesn’t seem very interested in many of the features that have been added to the real-time strategy genre over the past fifteen years, as if this game were locked away in a time capsule right before the original Command & Conquer released. You can’t give unit-producing facilities a rally point to send completed units. When a unit is constructed, you have to wait thirty seconds as it emerges from the factory before you can select and deploy it. You can’t add units to a command group without selecting ALL of the units in the group and re-assigning it. There is no formation command to keep your groups tight nor is there a way to navigate by waypoints or set patrol routes. Individually, these are just picking nits, but together, they remind me of an era when you had the option to connect to other players via IPX.
There’s also the weird hitches. When I set the game’s resolution to 1920×1080 in the main menu, I’m no longer able to select any of the buttons that let me play the game. For some weird reason, you’re required to register and sign into an account before you can play. When telling groups of ships to move, some ships will simply ignore you. If your fleet is near an enemy, but you want to move them to intercept another enemy, they’ll turn to move, then promptly ignore your order so they can continue to gnaw on their original ship. You can send groups of ships near an enemy and they’ll simply park right next to it and not fire a shot, but in other instances, they’ll see enemies at a distance and draw close to fire. Okay.
Oh, If Only…
The more I played Gemini Wars, the less I liked it. All of its issues reduce the game’s ambition to a gloppy mess and the world is, yet again, left with another poor space-based strategy game. It’s going to take far more than a massive bug fix to get this bird ready to fly, Gemini Wars needs a complete overhaul.