In recent and upcoming 4X strategy games, developers are putting extra effort into innovating and pushing the sub-genre of strategy games forward. One of the most prevalent ways these types of games can expand is by combining with other genres, like we’ve seen in XCOM or in the upcoming Lemnis Gate. With that in mind, will Mohawk Games’ Old World be a well-preserved artifact or will it crumble to dust?
Unlike most 4X strategy games that usually cover millenia worth of history to capture the grand experience of developing a robust empire, Old World is instead set squarely in Iron Age Antiquity with an emphasis on the Mediterranean. This approach makes the game feel slightly smaller scale, but also more detailed in its city building, as well as additional unit variety for more diverse armies.
Players will follow the traditional 4X formula of settling cities, developing settlements, constructing improvements and wonders, recruiting troops, researching technologies, enacting laws with the unique addition of building a dynasty, managing the ruling family of the player’s chosen civilization, and engaging in a myriad of random narrative events. The objective of the game is to complete ten ambitions or achieve the maximum number of victory points through cultural development.
This approach to victory makes choosing a path far more flexible and puts more control into the hands of the player with options to change or switch things up based on the evolving state of the game. Certainly a refreshing approach compared to Firaxis’ specialized victory conditions in Civilization, which generally incentivize a single path throughout a playthrough. The added benefit of Old World’s victory system is that it models the “messiness” of history where the development of civilization wasn’t a stable cut-and-dry or predetermined affair.
Where Old World really shines is in the sheer customizability and healthy numbers of modes for single-player and multiplayer. It’s almost absurd what players can do to tweak and experiment with how they want to play with the wide array of turn style options in multiplayer being especially noteworthy and much appreciated. And if all the customization options are too overwhelming, players can simply load up the default settings, play the prepared scenarios or the constantly updated games of the week for more of a puzzle-like challenge.
The seven civilizations of Old World — Assyria, Babylonia, Carthage, Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome — all feel distinct enough with unique faction-specific units, starting techs, and political families to warrant at least a few playthroughs. However, there are a couple of historical oddities that break immersion and some missed opportunities that dampen the game’s bold choice of setting.
Starting small, there are a few unit cards and models that are completely out of place for their faction, specifically the Greek Phalangite unit very clearly utilizing Roman equipment, making it difficult to accept the game’s initial historical premise. In addition, while the choice of Philip II of Macedon as the starting leader for Greece has its merits, this unfairly shortchanges pre-Macedonian Iron Age Greece and in turn limits Greece’s design potential as a faction.
More contentious, however, is the complete lack of a Celtic culture representative, instead having the only Celtic tribe – the Gauls – be simply a minor faction, which is an unimpressive and lazy choice. Moreover, the choice to focus on the Mediterranean for the umpteenth time is a tired and uninspiring decision, while the lack of Iron Age India and China limits the game’s faction variety.
From a presentation standpoint, Old World is a mixed bag, especially in its visuals. While by no means ugly or horrible to look at, it’s definitely dated with the graphical style feeling like a cross between Civilization 5 and Age of Wonders 3 (both from the former half of the 2010s). More importantly, though the map design is more realistic than Firaxis’ most recent 4X offering, the muted colors, few model scaling options, and limited helpful map overlays makes the map harder to read, which can lead to misclicks, eye strain, and general annoyance.
The audio design is better with a fitting ambient soundscape, effects, and varied and thematic music. Old World has no voice acting, but luckily the random events aren’t too dense with text and the writing is enjoyable due to its narrative style. One odd gimmicky choice regarding music is that it’s tied to players researching the Drama technology, which makes the game sound empty and dry until they do so, though they can still manually go into the in-game options menu and turn on tracks, but it’s needlessly fiddly.
Unfortunately, the biggest issue in Old World affecting every aspect of its design and gameplay is the game’s overall poor accessibility found in the atrocious tutorial and overstuffed UI, which makes the game feel far more complicated than it actually is. 4X games are known for having many moving parts and synergizing systems and the sorry excuse for a tutorial (a series of pop-up messages) in Old World is going to make players, especially newcomers, spend way more more time than is necessary trying to figure out how the game works rather than engaging in strategic decision-making.
There’s a nice system of cascading tooltips, which gives easy access to information throughout the game, but it’s not an effective stand-in for a well-structured and in-depth tutorial. Without it, the massive number of tooltips might as well have been written in unreadable hieroglyphics.
The in-game encyclopedia isn’t much help either as it feels incomplete with some important entries absent or lacking text altogether. All of this gives the impression that the developers either tailored the game solely to 4X veterans or didn’t spend enough time on the user experience.
The UI, while by no means horrible, feels cramped with its many tiny icons with menu readability suffering as a result. On the whole, the UI does its job, but it will frustrate players when they least expect it. The hallmark of a good user experience is that it helps the player not only in the obvious and easy-to-access components, but also in the smaller or less vital areas of the HUD.
Old World’s gameplay does fare better, but some of the new elements to the 4X subgenre don’t quite hit home. The game’s best components are the city development, combat, and orders system. Not to mention the inclusion of characters and random events, which adds a level of role-playing to the fun empire management is a refreshing mix.
Due to the focused nature of Old World’s setting, there’s been more time spent on giving players access to a wider range of improvements to place within their borders, meaning greater potential for experimentation, city specialization, and granular control. The only design issue in city management is the presence of a discontent or unhappiness system, but a complete absence of happiness. It seems like happiness has been rolled into the culture rating of the city, that or the developers may have an unfairly cynical view of city development throughout history.
Combat follows in the footsteps of the Civilization series where only a single military unit can occupy a hex, meaning when armies meet, wars can turn into sprawling affairs or localized engagements of elite units, especially in the later stages of a session. The variety of units and the effect terrain has on combat makes the system engaging and tactically compelling. Refreshingly, the AI isn’t half bad and will regularly use surprising, albeit sometimes irrational or overly aggressive, maneuvers.
The biggest success of Old World lies in the introduction of the orders system as a new resource mechanic that adds a fresh layer of command management. Orders only affect units and character actions, serving as a reflection of the political capital, influence, and personal attention bandwidth faction leaders had in history.
The entire system incentivizes players to prioritize certain sectors of their empire, making difficult decisions at difficult times and is an excellent addition to the strategic decision-making dimension of the game. Orders are primarily tied to the new Legitimacy rating, which denotes how famous, successful, and personally influential the leader is, but disappointingly it doesn’t do much more than giving the leader a thematic title, passively improving family opinion, and dictating the number of orders players get per turn.
Technology and law systems are both serviceable, however, the tech research mechanic feels somewhat padded with a lack of interesting technologies reflecting the period, as well as the odd choice of making research a semi-randomized affair. Enacting laws works well enough but the whole idea of binary choices with little nuance at this point is an outdated and uninteresting system, which limits player control over empire management.
Families, characters, and dynasty management all make a welcome appearance in Old World and form the narrative role-playing core of the game. However, though conceptually the addition of such features to the 4X formula are excellent, in practice the design implementation is a bit shallow as characters don’t actually have much to do, political families don’t feel like autonomous or semi-autonomous entities with their own political agendas, and dynasty management can be crudely described as a child production mechanic to gain bonuses and avoid defeat (players lose if they have no heirs). The prevalence of random narrative events does prop all these elements up, but holistically the success of these systems don’t quite measure up to the game’s ambition.
The worst gameplay component by far is diplomacy, which is an utter garbled mess, made even worse by particularly poor UI design and the lack of a clear tutorial (I can’t stress enough how vital of an issue this is). The developers seem to have decided to make diplomacy more character-centric rather than state or government-centric, which is certainly an interesting take, but since characters can’t really do much in the first place, diplomacy feels empty and pointless.
From a performance standpoint, Old World succeeds with flying colors. For such a small development team, the game has an excellent options menu that would make plenty of AAA games blush. The game also runs well and isn’t too taxing due to its older generation graphics, so players that have recommended specs or lower should be able to run Old World without too many issues. I did encounter a few annoying bugs, such as unit action queues getting stuck or menu buttons greying out briefly, but nothing game breaking. Another annoying issue is that the save system has been implemented in an odd way and may leave some players scratching their heads for a bit.
Old World is definitely an ambitious project coming from an equally ambitious studio, but the game’s success doesn’t quite live up to said lofty goals. While most elements have been improved and new systems have been introduced, it’s clear that more time needed to be spent on refinement, especially on the newly-introduced character systems. Most importantly, the game’s accessibility is highly suspect with an egregiously poor tutorial system, which risks the game becoming lost to time as a niche competitor to the Civilization series. On its own merits though, Old World is a passable recommendation for strategy fans and veterans of the 4X sub-genre should definitely give this one a try.
A PC key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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While the game has interesting concepts and ideas, some odd design choices and an atrocious tutorial hamper Old World’s ambition.
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