At the Gates Review
Imagine sitting down in a concept car that has all kinds of awesome extras and amenities – things you’ve wished cars had for ages! But then you try to take it for a spin and a lot of the basic stuff that your beat-up sedan back home can do fine seem to be a challenge for this flashy wonder. Things like… brakes. That’s what At the Gates is to the 4X genre. Conceptually, there are so many reasons to be excited about it, but once you start playing it falls apart pretty fast.
Coming from Jon Shafer, the lead designer of Civilization 5, Sid Meier’s storied series is the closest point of comparison for this hand-drawn, turn-based trek through the early 400s CE. But where recent Civ entries have stuck a bit too close to familiar design space, At the Gates holds no cow sacred – and that’s the best thing about it.
You wind up facing some challenging, character-driven dilemmas.
One of the coolest new ideas is that faceless citizens and generic units are replaced with individual clans who each have interesting personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. Every job to be done at home and every unit on the map is trained from one of these clans, and you wind up facing some challenging, character-driven dilemmas because of it. If the blacksmith doesn’t get along with the court bard, deciding whose side to take – or not taking one at all – has meaningful consequences for your ability to maintain and progress your tribe.
The settlement system is also a refreshing break from many other 4Xes, in that you only control one settlement which can be packed up and moved across the map to secure new resources or escape unfriendly climates. This cuts down significantly on bothersome micromanagement and allows you to really explore and exploit the map without building a super-wide empire. The in-depth climate mechanics make these exoduses exciting and necessary. Every resource is finite until mid-late game technology allows you to create permanent resource-generating buildings, so you have to always keep in mind when you’re going to need to move to avoid starving.
Eventually, you’re able to settle down as a kingdom and the situation becomes a bit more like a familiar Civ campaign. The one other major difference I enjoyed was a trade caravan that arrives three times a year and allows you to buy and sell goods. This allows you to specialize your economy and not have to worry about producing every single thing you need. For instance, I could focus on breeding warhorses if I had good pastureland, and sell them to buy food for my clans and weapons to train my warriors.
The diplomacy system of At the Gates is simplistic as can be.
Unfortunately, these good ideas never get a chance to shine, sitting as they do on a rough-edged and sometimes outright broken core. The diplomacy system of At the Gates is simplistic as can be, without even the ability to even make trade deals for specific resources with other tribes. These AI-driven tribes also don’t seem to be pursuing any discernible goals, and in only one of the half-dozen games I played did they actually bother to attack me. Attacking them was unrewarding, too. I could get some resources from pillaging their stuff, but capturing an enemy settlement seems to simply not be a thing. Taking one over doesn’t cause it to change ownership, and you can’t even burn it them down to clear the space, so the defeated faction will just sit around doing nothing. Capturing resource-producing structures lets you take control of their clans and benefit from their output, but doesn’t expand your borders at all.
The ultimate goal is to defeat either the Eastern or Western Roman Empire, but fighting them is even more bizarre. Their legions seem to sit inert in their cities, waiting for you to come and beat them up, and I never once saw them attempt to take back an outlying farm or mine I had captured. I never saw them move at all, come to think of it. The Roman factions control a lot of land, and since settlement capture seems to do pretty much nothing for you, I found that actually getting to Rome or Constantinople and ending the campaign was a massive slog that involved sending armies back and forth between my home base – the only place you can heal – and the far-flung lands of the wine-drinkers.
The logistics of moving my armies across the continent and planning for the seasons was fun the first couple times. Having to take into account supply limits, terrain, weather, and even which clans can march on the same tile without getting into a spat makes At the Gates feel more like a game of logistics than of chessboard combat. And I really like that. But it became pure tedium after a certain point. How can a logistical simulator be enjoyable when you can’t set up functional outposts and capturing an enemy city doesn’t give you any lasting advantages?
Two of my longest campaigns ended prematurely due to consistent crashes to desktop.
And that’s when I was even able to make it to the titular gates. Two of my longest campaigns ended prematurely as I’d get consistent crashes to desktop when ending a specific turn. It seems like most of the other bugs from the preview build I played in December have been squashed, but this is a pretty major one that could cause you to lose hours and hours of progress.
At least it was usually nice to look at. The hand-drawn unit animations and campaign map are stylish, readable, and charming. Watching the map change along with the seasons is a fun, intuitive way to remind you that it might be time to start thinking about your winter food stores, or when the spring thaws are coming and it’s time to start planning raids. The leader portraits aren’t quite up to the standard of quality I’d expect even from an indie game, but they communicate the personality of the rival warlords well enough.
You can get pretty much any information you need without having to bring up info screens or overlays, and the interface is overall very clean and easy to navigate. A unique, nested tooltip system allows you to hover over any highlighted concept – even within a tooltip you’re currently reading – and bring up another tooltip describing it. This makes learning the ins-and-outs quite a bit easier than in some similar games. Still, you should expect a lot of restarts and plenty of trial and error while you learn the ropes.