Jon Shafer, lead designer of Civilization V, has spent the last seven years working on a 4X strategy game of his own called At The Gates, which puts you in control of a barbarian tribe during the last days of the Roman Empire. There’s a lot of exploration and expanding to be had, but also suffering.
I mean that first in the most literal sense. This is a tough game to get into, and it’s utterly unforgiving once you do. At The Gates is a rough, raw and unpolished thing to play; even by genre standards it’s unattractive, with an almost unfinished user interface and incredibly basic, almost prototypical visuals.
But a lot of the suffering is also by design. This is a 4X game that borrows elements from roguelikes and even survival titles, asking players to forage for supplies and hoard food reserves on a procedurally-generated map, so that when the winter months come your people don’t all starve to death.
Like most 4X games, At The Gates starts real slow—something the game at least acknowledges in the tutorial—before your expansion, training and building starts kicking in (in a nice twist, you only ever get one main settlement in the game, with most other construction being camps and other temporary structures). Even when it starts humming in later years, though, I was rarely enjoying my time with it.
This might sound shallow for a hardcore PC strategy game, but At The Gates’ visuals are a big disappointment. The game is utterly devoid of any charm or character, and clicking through it’s menu screens feels like travelling back in time to 1998. The big 4X games of today, from Civilization to the Endless series, have shown just how important a bit of personality can be to encouraging a player to keep skipping through the turns, and At The Gates’ lack of it makes the whole experience feel incredibly dry.
Not helping matters is a languid AI that’s content to merely exist alongside the player, occasionally popping up for a chat/threat but most of the time happy to just take up space on the map.
All of which is a shame, because there are some very cool and interesting ideas here. Instead of just building faceless units, for example, At The Gates has you recruiting tribes, each of which has a leader’s portrait and a series of traits. You then take those tribes and train them, so you need to adjust your unit roster to the strengths of your people at any given time. Think Crusader Kings II’s characters mixed with XCOM’s class assignment.
I also appreciate the focus here. 4X can often be a sprawling genre, but as we’ve seen before, it can be at its very best when it narrows its gaze. Like Colonizations’ treatment of a time and place, At The Gates benefits from picking a specific historical period and zooming in, which lets it be a bit more daring with its mechanics (like foraging) in order to serve the context.
In terms of the experience matching the tone of the design and the setting, At The Gates may well be a perfect fit! The onset of the Dark Ages was a rough time, so it makes sense that a game set during their arrival would be a struggle. But it’s just not for me. I like my 4X to be a bit cleaner and have some character to it, so found At The Gates too much of a slog.