Emperor of the Fading Suns does something that is getting increasingly hard to accomplish: It breathes life into the stagnating and repetitive genre of space-conquest games. The game seemingly came out of nowhere - burdened with a cumbersome name, a publisher with no reputation for this sort of game, the worst ad campaign in recent memory (two ducklings and a cat sleeping in a basket... you figure it out), modest graphics, and a belated entry into an already over-crowded field. That it has emerged as a strong contender speaks volumes for its fundamental gaming quality.
EFS wasn't produced in a vacuum. The creators are Holistic Design, who as Holistic Dudes created some good computer games: Merchant Prince and Machiavelli (the same basic game), Battles of Destiny, and Hammer of the Gods. As paper game developers, they were central in creating White Wolf's major properties: Vampire and Werewolf games, as well as a good collectable card game, Jyhad. Holistic also designed an RPG world and system called Emperor of the Fading Suns, and it is in this rich universe that EFS (the computer game) is set.
The world of EFS is a medieval science-fiction realm in the tradition of Warhammer 40K and Dune: noble houses, warring factions, an avaricious mercantile caste, and a fearsome inquisition. As a setting, it's already a cliche, but EFS spins it magically and makes it work. At the start of the game, the emperor has mysteriously died, leaving a power vacuum that must be filled by one of the major players. The goal is to use force, wealth, and diplomacy to get the other leaders to elect you regent, and from there secure the throne as Emperor.
Unlike similar Civilization-style conquest games, EFS does not start on a blank map and force dozens of game turns of exploration, expansion, and military build-up before you have an empire. Instead, you begin with a small empire, a military force, wealth, and a general knowledge of the game universe. Some of the maps of these planets have been lost, leaving you with only a vague sense of their geography, while others are known to you.
Gameplay is broken down along familiar lines. There is research to be conducted in order to build new units and get certain advantages. As with other traditional elements in EFS, however, there is a twist: Technology proscribed by the inquisition may be researched, but could result in your excommunication. These are deadly, often psi-based techs, and the ability to delve into the darker areas of research is a great touch.
The main part of the game is played across a universe map and planetary maps. You can build a space armada and explore hidden parts of the universe, then drop units (troops, engineers, spies, etc.) on the planets and begin taking them over. Different buildings can be built or discovered on the planet surface, and form one of the keys to EFS. Ruins (both alien and human) often hide special relics with special powers, while the merchant league runs Agora (trading posts) and psi-lords dwell in monasteries. The player may build elaborate cities of factories, churches, mines, farms, chemical plants, palaces, and other structures, with a core group protected from orbital attack by a shield. Buildings not only produce units, but also resources necessary for construction and available for trade. The resource element of EFS can be quite complex, but is also badly explained in the lean documentation - making the included ability to turn it off a helpful option.
A strong diplomacy option, which allows you to cajole, threaten, or form alliances with the other leaders adds a good element of deviousness and politics to the mix to balance the trade and military aspects. The result is a game, much like Machiavelli, in which shifting allegiances and the fortunes of war make for an interesting mix. There's a lot going on here, with over a 100 units available for production, complex planetary landscapes, intricate trade and production elements, and an over-arching story of the noble houses and alien races.
The interface for controlling all this is acceptable if not outstanding, with some features taking more mouse-clicks than they should, and the graphics throughout are fine enough for the task. Several gameplay bugs have already been fixed in a patch that is now available, but some smaller ones still remain. There does, however, remain a major sticking point with EFS, and one that, until fixed, will keep it from being a success: The AI has no teeth. Difficulty is scaled by the extra number of trait bonuses given to the opposing houses, but no amount of trait boosting can make any of the noble houses act aggressively. In the cutthroat environment of EFS, these opponents should be a constant threat. Instead they twiddle their thumbs and bow easily to your will, ultimately removing a lot of enjoyment from the game. An e-mail head-to-head option is time-consuming and hardly a good solution to this, and online or net play would have helped immensely.
Emperor of the Fading Suns is a good game with a major flaw. It is simply too rich and well done to dismiss casually, but without a fix to the limp AI, the challenge for gamers will be minimal.