Jon Shafer’s At the Gates review – a 4X experiment more fascinating than fun
One of the first tutorial pop-ups you’ll get in At the Gates – and there aren’t many – warns you that this is a “hard, slow game”. It’s not the warmest of welcomes but that’s not what At the Gates is about. This is a game about surviving gruelling winters and, slowly but surely, expanding your economy and influence against the odds. There’s nothing wrong with that; hard games are often the most rewarding, and slow ones can be soothing. The problem, however, is that it’s less hard than it is exasperating, and less slow than it is straight-up catatonic.
The setup in At the Gates is pretty standard 4X stuff: choosing a faction – with the only one available at the start being the vanilla Goths (more are unlocked by conquering or allying with them in-game, which is a nice touch) – and then spawning, with very little, in a random position. The structure, though, is surprisingly different: you get one Settlement for the entire game, and instead of buildings within it, all of your economy is built around people, or Clans.
At the surface this is a neat idea – you’re playing from the humble beginnings of a hunter-gatherer tribe, not a grand, imperial civilization – and so bringing the human element of early civilization to the fore makes sense. The problem is that in practice, as with so many things in At the Gates, it just doesn’t quite click. You start with one Clan – a single unit – and you need to train them in a profession, like Reaper or Gatherer, that falls within one of six disciplines, like Agriculture. You need to unlock the profession first, by studying it from the tech tree, and then once you’ve studied it you can begin your little unit’s training.
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