Review: Jon Shafer's At the Gates is the epitome of mediocre strategy games

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There are few things more annoying than a clearly unfinished game being released to the public without being held under a beta title. Unfinished can mean a lot. It could be anything from being a completely broken mess to simply not having enough content. Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is most definitely a case of the latter, although, it is far from immune from the former, too.

Kickstarted by former Civilization head designer Jon Shafer back in 2013, At the Gates is a traditional 4X strategy game. What once looked like another potential Kickstarter disaster eventually saw a formal release, albeit five years after its original release date. You would think that with so many years of development under its belt, At the Gates might very well be a special kind of strategy game. With five whole years behind it, we could be experiencing a well-polished love letter to the genre. Sadly, this is not the case.

Instead, we are left with one of the most mediocre titles I’ve played in recent memory – crushingly so. Primarily focused on resource management, you’ll spend most of your time with At the Gates finding optimal ways to harvest the lands for all its natural goodness. There are some interesting mechanics that bounce off this primary focus; seasons change throughout the years which affects what resources are available. However, all of this feels pointless due to a huge, crippling oversight.

At the Gates provides no challenge at all. While your competing AI may be artificial, intelligence is a skillset they are lacking in. It’s bad enough that they’ll practically never engage with you, but even worse is their inability to defend themselves. There’s very little stopping you just strolling into an enemy capital ad taking it. Effectively, this means that strategy isn’t required in a supposed strategy game to win. Just attack until everyone is dead. Rome may not have been built in a day, but At the Gates’ low difficulty means you can crush it in just a few minutes.

Considering the lack of multiplayer options, the game’s useless enemies become a series problem. If you want to enjoy the experience even slightly, you’d have to really revel in the competent empire building mechanics to justify a purchase. Sooner or later though, you’re going to run out of content to expand your empire with. There’s no end game here.

As a substantially inferior empire builder to cheaper alternatives, such as Europa Universalis IV, and a lack of challenge, replayability and terrible balance, there’s really nothing here to enjoy. The early and mid game flow is executed well enough but there’s an incredibly poor end game. You never feel like you’re working towards anything meaningful – you’re just building for the sake of building. It doesn’t help that At the Gates also suffers from some pretty horrendous bugs, too.

To give credit where credit is due, there are still some positives that shouldn’t be completely neglected. While I wasn’t completely sold at first, the watercolor art style starts to really grow on you over time. It’s extremely clean and it never distracts you from focusing on your empire at all times. There are points where the art looks rather budget, but it never looks bad.

Watching the dynamic seasons evolve is definitely the game’s highlight. It evokes a real sense of the time investment you’ve put in as you witness years come and go. Combined with the seasonal gameplay, which can utterly destroy your plans and cause you to adapt to different environments, this really is a unique take on the genre. There are even some really cool touches like rivers freezing over and becoming traversable pathways for your units. Its little things like this that show a great deal of care and time has gone into all those years of development. It’s this that makes At the Gates’ obvious downfalls so frustrating as a player. They got a lot of the small things right but failed miserably on far more important game aspects.

At the Gates could have an extremely good 4X but as things stand there’s just way too many fundamental oversights to ever recommend it. Version 1.0 is a lackluster strategy game but considering how strong the core of the game can be, there’s definitely some juicy potential hidden deep down. It could easily take in excess of two years of regular updates before At the Gates actually reaches its potential and justifies the price tag but for now its a definite avoid from me without an unlikely huge sale or price cut.

More about the topics: At the Gates, Civilization, Jon Shafer, RTS Games

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