Review: Solarmax 217 Jun 2014 0
“Is this it?” Solarmax 2 doesn’t make a great first impression. It seems like a singleplayer RTS streamlined so aggressively that the game was sanded right off.
You’ll ferry pretty little colored lights (your spaceships) from planet to planet in a small solar system. If your pretty little lights stay on an unoccupied planet long enough it becomes yours, and continuously generates more pretty little lights to play with. If your pretty little lights encounter pretty little lights of another color they’ll fight, popping and flashing until one side either retreats or is obliterated.
That description may be too condescending. Let's try again. Solarmax 2 truly is a nice-looking game. The ambient music, subtle sound effects and understated visuals make galactic war appear downright lovely. Still, it all seems awfully trite -- at first. Until, eventually, you find yourself having fun in spite of yourself. There’s a nuance here that isn’t evident right away.
Ultimately, Solarmax 2 is always about shuffling those little spaceships around, but the clever level design means you will often face new challenges which demand interesting strategies. Will you prioritize seizing control of a warp gate (which lets you zip around the galaxy at light speed) or is it more important to solidify your holdings close to your home planet to speed up ship production? When should you abandon your war-torn territories in pursuit of greener pastures? What do you do when two opponents gang up on you? What about three?
The small maps and quick pace require you to make these decisions in seconds. A stage rarely lasts longer than a few minutes.
It might remind you of the training exercises described in the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, which constantly featured new twists on an established challenge. Like Ender, you’ll find the odds increasingly stacked against you. You’ll feel pretty clever when you claim a victory in the face of overwhelming opposition using only your wits, despite the game’s simple shell. A minor complaint: the minimalist tutorial does not make it obvious that you can use the slider at the bottom of the screen to choose how many troops to allocate to an attack. Maybe it will be clear to you. It wasn’t to me.
Solarmax 2 is helped along by a generally capable AI. It feints, strikes your weak points, retreats when it is outgunned. Eventually you’ll learn its quirks and how to exploit them, but it is usually smart enough to make sure your victories don’t come cheap.
Even with the surprising strategic shadings this is still a pretty bare-bones offering. It feels like a very nicely-made Flash game, perhaps because it is one. Solarmax 2, like its predecessor, is freely available on Newgrounds and Kongregate and sundry other web game portals. Touch controls are vastly preferable to a mouse in this case, and the portability of the mobile version is nice, but yeah. This is a game you can play for free in a browser. So if this review leaves you feeling uncertain, at least you can try before you buy.
Perhaps the best compliment I can give Solarmax 2 is also my most damning criticism against it. It makes me want to try Galcon. I haven’t played that iOS stalwart, which from what I understand served as this game’s inspiration. I do not know how much has been copied wholesale, or what new twists Solarmax 2 adds to the formula.
I suspect Galcon’s multiplayer focus could well make a game of simple strategic space-bashing stay fresh a whole lot longer than I enjoyed Solarmax 2. For all of this game's charm it just does not have enough meat to earn a spot on my iPad for long.
Solarmax 2 is a perfectly pleasant way to kill a few hours, but its pretty little lights will never reach the stars. Gamers looking to conquer a galaxy will want a title more worthy of that ambition.
Solarmax 2 was played on an iPad 2 for this review.