Reviewed: December 7, 2003
Released: November, 2003
A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away, you are a color. Locked in an endless struggle, the Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, More Vibrant Blue, and White empires cry out for your leadership in their expansionistic desire to conquer various grids. Will you be Blue? Red? Perhaps Green. Either way, the choice is yours, but choose wisely—the futures of the grids are in you hands!
Welcome to Pax Solaris and the stripped-down world of independent games. While you won’t find stunning, pre-rendered intro movies, a plot, or such extravagancies like… music, you will find fun, challenging gameplay. A space-based, RTS take on the classic “Risk”, Pax Solaris manages to deliver a deep strategic experience in an unassuming package.
The concept behind Pax Solaris is simple enough: You choose an empire, are presented with a map of interlinked planets, and must conquer your enemies. Much like regions on a Risk board, the planets in Pax Solaris only have access to a few other planets. Drawing further comparison to Risk, Pax Solaris does not feature the tech trees and different of most RTS games; your army in Pax is purely represented by numbers denoting the size of a given orbiting a planet.
Of course, there is a good deal more to Pax Solaris--the game’s real strategy comes from the different attributes that each planet has as well as a huge number of very cunning and diverse levels.
Planets in Pax Solaris come in a number of different colors and types. For instance, a red planet grants orbiting fleets defensive bonuses while yellow stars crank out new ships at a very high rate. This means that the stars you control, fight for, and how you use them, makes all of the difference. For example, after carefully examining a map before starting the war, one can usually find key defensive stars that, if well protected by your troops, will allow the player to construct a powerful frontline. Then, slowly securing the stars on one side of this line, the player can use these non-defensive stars to build new ships to strengthen their fleet until it is ready for “the big push”.
However, massive fleets slowly spreading across the playing field is not always the best option. As two empires fight, a number of ships become incapacitated. Once the battle is over, these incapacitated fleets fall back to the next connected friendly planets and are ready to fight again. This means that these newly repaired vessels can strike back before the winning side has time to build sufficient defenses. The result is that the newly won planet has fallen immediately back into the hands of its original defenders.
That may make advancement in Pax Solaris sound futile but in reality, it just makes the game that much more challenging. Aside from the obvious choice of simple pouring insurmountable forces around the new conquest to defend against or simply deter a counter attack. A player can also note weak spots behind the target planet and fight their way to them. With all escape routes cut off, the crippled defenders are utterly destroyed and a large portion of the enemy’s fleet is now gone for good.
Further adding depth to Pax Solaris are the white stars. White stars exist in multiple places at the same time; any unit placed on a white star will appear everywhere the star appears on the map. These stars are incredibly complex to deal with, whether you control it or not. As the controlling empire of a white star, you now have access to points across the map that can be a huge advantage. However, this star is also surrounded by a vast number of enemy stars which means that defending a it requires tons of ships and makes its use as an offensive launch point difficult. As an empire near a white star but not in control of it, you must heavily guard each bordering star which in turn ties up ships that would otherwise be fighting. Essentially they are an enigma and must be treated differently depending on which map you are playing on.
This brings us to Pax Solaris’s greatest strength: its maps. The variety available and the different strategies they require are quite astounding. Some maps and split up into easily defended pockets of stars, others are pure chaos where every attempt to advance will land you in the center of many enemy stars and then there are a few that fall somewhere in between. Aside from the map construction itself, starting points also make each map a new experience. Some maps will start each empire with a single star, which creates an initial mad rush to grab natural stars. Other maps will start each empire with an equal share of the map. Most intriguing are those maps that start one empire with the vast majority of the map but a heavily spread out fleet while the other empires only have a single star but one with a very strong fleet that can wipe out huge chunks of their huge, poorly defended enemy in the blink of an eye.
The result of everything mentioned above is a deceptively deep game. This is one of those rare games where strategy is boiled down to its essence and is oftentimes far more challenging than the base building, recourse collecting, war of escalation gameplay that most RTS’s offers. Do you barrel ahead as one would expect? Do you open a hole in your front line to allow the enemy through where they will quickly spread out and then crush them in their thinned out state? Do you surround the enemy and then slowly clamp down on these hostile pockets of stars? The choices are quite numerous and after an endless wave of C&C, AOE, and War Craft clones, Pax Solaris is certainly a nice change of pace.
It should also be noted that Pax Solaris is very multi-task friendly. Pax runs in its windowed mode by default, will pause when another window is brought up, and will pick up where you left off should you need to shut it down for awhile.
I won’t pretend that graphics mean nothing to me and that it’s all about the gameplay; I ran back and forth in Morrowind’s water every chance I had. Still, I can be realistic, see Pax Solaris for what it is (and its $15 price tag), and judge this category in a “relatively speaking…” manner. With that mentioned, the graphics are just fine.
The interface has a welcoming, Window’s XP-ish style with large, rounded buttons and is easy to navigate. The in-game graphics are simplistic but colorful and pleasant on the eye. Unlike the majority of our reviews, just check out the screenshots, pretend the stars are twinkling, and you know all there is to know.
Click on a button and you are rewarded with a clicking noise. The end.
Pax Solaris offers around 30 different maps, a map editor, four difficultly levels and a tracking system that shows which maps you have beat on which difficulty setting. Obviously, purely as a single player experience, Pax Solaris offers gamers more gameplay for $15 than most retail games do. Furthermore, Pax Solaris offers a “Hot Seat” mode, which allows 2 players on the same computer to play the game in turned-based fashion on a two-player map or a real-time/turn-based hybrid against the A.I. on any map. Lastly, Internet play is offered only by IP, so you may need to sell a few of your friends or coworkers on Pax first (not that you’d play at work, of course).
If you’re in the market for a deep strategy game that is quick to pick up yet challenging and deep, Pax Solaris is well worth checking out. So long as you do not get caught up in the lack of 3D graphics and obviously low production value, you’ll almost certainly enjoy yourself. I’ve never been a fan of numbering reviews so in case you’re looking at the scores and wondering, “what?”, the “Overall” score is purely me asking myself, “On a scale of one to ten, how much fun did I have.” Hopefully other strategy fans will check Pax out and agree with my conclusion.