Rebellion is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a real-time space-based 4X game where you gradually spread the tendrils of your empire out from your home planet into the galaxy at large. It features battles with first dozens and then hundreds of ships all blasting the titanium out of each other with mass drivers and lasers, while swarms of fighters and bombers flit in and out of the fray. It has a staggeringly comprehensive research tree, with no chance that a player will be able to complete all of it in a single game. It even has vestigial trade, diplomacy and culture elements. It should be right up my alley.
And yet, and yet. I bought Rebellion – pre-ordered it, actually – over a year ago. The seventeen hours Steam says I played indicates I invested a fair chunk of time into it. I couldn’t tell you anything about those seventeen hours, however, because it turns out Rebellion is spectacularly bad at leaving any lasting impression on the people who play it. It doesn’t have any of those memorable moments other 4Xes have: the time I launched a massive amphibious invasion of Persia to stop them from building the spaceship in Civ V; the time I spat in the face of the council’s declaration of a single galactic leader and fought a doomed war against impossible odds in Master of Orion; the time I played the undead in Age of Wonders and turned the entire world into an ash-blackened wasteland populated by skeletal monstrosities. One of the strongest elements of the 4X is that you end up constructing a story around your empire’s rise to power; it’s a critical part of the genre that’s almost completely missing from Rebellion, and it’s worth exploring the reasons for its absence since it explains why what is otherwise a very well put-together game can leave me so cold. Cold enough to not bother reviewing the thing for over a year, anyway.
Rebellion is played out over a map of one or several star systems. Planets, asteroids and other anomalies are scattered around each star, connected to each other by jump nodes. It’s your job to capture these hunks of rock for your empire, but since there can be literally hundreds of planets on the larger maps in Rebellion keeping track of everything would be a major pain if it hadn’t adopted one of Supreme Commander’s most lasting innovations: the strategic zoom feature. By using the mousewheel you can zoom all the way from a closeup of a single fighter squadron all the way up to a view of the entire star system. I should mention here that Rebellion’s zoom feature is just insanely good for something that basically uses one button; it intelligently identifies the things you want to zoom in on and centres the screen on them — and will even track them as they move if you give it no further input – and it never does anything you don’t want it to. It’s a masterpiece of design. However, it might also be Rebellion’s Achilles heel.
You see, the downside to including a strategic zoom in your game, as useful and necessary as it might otherwise be, is that players will often spend the majority of their time zoomed all the way out so that they can see what’s going on over the whole of the map at a glance. This reduces all the planets and asteroid fields, all of the nicely modelled frigates and cruisers and starbases, to just a big mush of icons. And icons, alas, do not tend to have a whole lot of character or personality about them. Even when you’re zoomed in to planetary scale your ships will just show up as a huge morass of icons because ship icons never go away. Once again this is a decision that’s been made for a sound reason, but this time the reason is that ships in Rebellion are next to impossible to identify by their appearance alone. They’re lovingly modelled and when they get into a scrap the battle effects are pretty impressive; unfortunately most of the time you’re not zoomed in enough to notice any of this, and when you are the thing that you do notice is that they all look rather… samey, making it difficult to discern between a flak frigate and a repair vessel. This isn’t just limited to identifying units in the heat of battle, either; you’ll find yourself mousing over icons in the research and build menus too because you have no idea what these things are or what they do. The basic military ships are just that bland.
One seeming exception to this rule are the capital ships, which end up being the workhorses of your fleet. Capital ships are hero units which have their own population cap, are much tougher than normal ships, and take many more resources to build. They’re worth it, though; you could build eight or nine light frigates for the cost of one battleship, but the battleship could probably take them all out with little trouble and get a nice wodge of experience into the bargain. Capital ships gain levels and additional abilities the longer they’re around for, so even though you’ll only have three or four of them at any one time the rest of the fleet – which can consist of a hundred smaller vessels – exists to support them, and not the other way around. Keeping capital ships alive is important, and it’s not uncommon to go through an entire four hour session with the same battleship you started the game with. A nice touch is that they’re all given individual names, too, so differentiating them is a little bit easier than it would be otherwise.
However (and of course there was going to be a however) while figuring out which of your two battleships is which is not a problem, figuring out the difference between a battleship and the six other capital ship types in the game kind of is. It’s not immediately clear by their appearance, it’s not immediately clear from what they’re doing on the battlefield because special abilities all pretty much look the same, and it’s not even immediately clear from their descriptions in the tooltips. Battleships fight and carriers carry fighters, but the rest of them have roles that are very poorly defined and it can be difficult to identify exactly what niche they fit into or why you should buy them over something that just shoots lasers or launches things that shoot lasers. It makes target prioritisation difficult, too; fights in Rebellion all too often devolve into two blobs of ships smashing each other to bits, and the only real action you can take is focusing your fire on one capital ship at a time, but deciding what exactly you’re going to be shooting at is next to impossible because you have no idea what anything does. The best you can do is just target on the basis of which ship has the lowest health and hope the thing you just blew up was important enough to cripple the enemy force.
I’m not saying this is always going to be a problem – given enough time with the game and each of the three races you’ll eventually manage to learn what all the ships are and what they do. That particular knowledge curve is a steep one, though, and it’s one that I haven’t managed to successfully scale despite those seventeen hours I spent playing the game. As a result my games always have a general atmosphere of confusion about them; there might be nuance to the combat in the game but I don’t know where it is and Rebellion doesn’t seem all that interested in telling me. The same is true of planets and planet upgrades. You have a limited number of logistic and tactical slots per planet which vary on the planet type; a full-sized planet will be able to support a large industrial base while an asteroid can only build one or two factories at best. While there is some flexibility built into the system what exactly you use a given planet for is mostly going to be dictated in advance by how much infrastructure it can support. Planets are where you build your ships. Asteroids are where you build your research labs. And choke points are where you build your fortifications, since starbases – your primary fortification building – are agnostic of planet type; every other defensive building you construct exists to support them in a fight, since they’ll just melt away once a Titan comes knocking.
Ah yes, the Titans. Factions in Rebellion can build two types of superweapon. One is a static cannon that can fire from star system to star system, with varying effectiveness depending on what your specific gun does (the Advent one in particular is terrible since it fires culture, which does nothing unless your opponent has been completely ignoring culture). The other is a Titan, which is exactly what it sounds like: a huge, tough and very expensive starship with a whole bunch of unique abilities and enough lasers to outgun an entire fleet of smaller ships. The relationship of Titans to capital ships is the same as capital ships to normal ships; once a Titan is built, the rest of your forces fade into the background as this mobile juggernaut of destruction roams around the map smashing up anything that looks at you funny. Each player can only build a single Titan, but if it’s properly supported that Titan is capable of killing everything that’s thrown at it except the following.
- Another Titan.
- A fully-upgraded defensive starbase.
Starbases won’t kill Titans but they’ll at least slow them down for a while to give you enough time to bring in reinforcements; it takes time to redeploy a fleet in Rebellion so delaying an attacking force for five minutes while they chip away at a starbase’s shields is very valuable. Stopping a Titan mid-rampage is damn near priceless, which is why – although they are capable of doing other things, like spreading culture or trading – you only ever upgrade a starbase’s weapons and armour. Spending the limited number of starbase upgrade slots on something else is just not worth the tradeoff.
Now, it’s undeniable that Rebellion’s starbase/Titan confrontations are quite memorable. It’s absolutely nail-biting watching the enemy fleet slowly wear down you starbase’s health and hoping the relief forces get there in time. Unfortunately it does doom the game to that single dichotomy and no more; it’s easy to tech up to Titans, and if somebody techs up to Titans you have to tech up to starbases, and so you’re doomed to spend most of your resources on one or the other. I’d like to play a game where some of the other modules on the starbase got used, but unfortunately the rewards from diplomacy and trade, while considerable, take too long to fully mature – especially when you can achieve the same result with normal logistics buildings instead. Anyway, the main effect of all this is that planets end up being rather samey; they’re either ship construction with some starbase defences, or trade and research with some starbase defences. There’s no terrain or unique improvements to inject a little bit of variety into the mix, and visually they’re nothing to write home about either, as the look of the planet itself does not change with its increasing population density. Planets therefore don’t feel like places, as they don’t have the same personality as cities in Civ or colonies in Master of Orion.
And that’s my major complaint about the game writ large, really. It’s a triumph of cold mechanistic design over character; there are few features of Rebellion which I could point to and say “This is a bad idea, period,” but no matter how good those features ultimately are they end up being sadly wasted when the game’s remote nature and confused visual design rob the emergent narrative of the 4X of any meaning. Rebellion is a game which has reduced the clash of mighty fleets to watching two blobs of icons merge into an incoherent mess, and where expanding the empire to include a new colony has all the impact of claiming another square on a chessboard. It’s not entirely without charm and I’ve squeezed some fun out of it in multiplayer with friends, but playing single player games is a distinctly chilly experience that always seems to end in anticlimax as that expected 4X narrative hook never quite materialises. And as far as space 4Xs in particular go, while Rebellion has far fewer holes in its overall design than Endless Space I still think I’d rather play a game of Endless Space. In single player, anyway.
(Of course I’d still rather play MOO 2 over both of them, but that’s something we’ve been over on this blog before.)