StarDrive 2, close yet so far away.

Bearmen? Yes bearmen.

Bearmen? Yes bearmen.

Stardrive 2 makes no effort what so ever to hide that it is trying to be a successor of Master of Orion. This is what attracted me to the game, that long dead franchise killed by Hasbro/Infograms/Atari or whatever you want to call them is one of my favorite of all time. As a result this game is heavily based on the game mechanics of Master of Orion 2 but it is also much more.

The Basics

This game is pretty much a standard 4X space game with all the content and graphics you would expect from a AAA title when this kind of game was a product of such budgets. The graphics are great and the art is excellent. It is without question several tiers above the typical indie game you see trying to compete in this genre.

The gameplay is typical 4x. Start with a single colony and build, research, expand, fight wars, and converse and deal with AI players. Space combat is real time, ground combat is turn based, and the strategy layer is also turn based.

We also have a kind of a lighthearted feel to this game. Numerous references to science fiction, Master of Orion, and even other video games like Baldurs Gate and Wing Commander are common.

futurama

Oh look a Futurama reference.

 

Strategic Gameplay

The strategy map.

In the strategic gameplay you have a basic 2d strategy map. Since the early 2000s developers have been experimenting with 3d maps in this genre, while nice it generally gets confusing so it’s nice to see a return to a simple map layout. Each star contains multiple planets and when you zoom in the transition to solar system view is seamless. Unlike Master of Orion 2 for example you can move your ships anywhere not just to stars, intercept anyone, and travel as far as you can get with the fuel that you have. This layer of gameplay works quite well and is fun, I like it quite a bit more than the Galactic Civilization 2 or Civilization system of moving your ships through squares.

Owlwoks. Yes that is the name of a race in this game.

Diplomacy at first seems very interesting. Each of the races have their own unique dialogue and flavor personality.  It is, as shown in the screenshot, capable of reacting to your actions and giving you offers to reflect them and they let you know when you are making them mad. The races are also all very well designed and look great. Unfortunately that’s where the good here ends.

The AI uses diplomacy in very limited ways. To make demands of you, to ask for tech trade, and occasionally offer a treaty like a trade treaty. I played through two games and above is the only screenshot of an AI offering me a nonagression pact. This is the same limitations the genre has seen in years with no advancement made, and it’s only been getting worse (see Civ 5). Except in this game there is no cooperative agreements like you would see on games as old as Master of Orion 2. There is only non aggression pacts and they expire rather quickly. Getting the AI to sign any agreement with you other than trades is a also pain.

The “tolerance” feature while allowing balance in terms of tech trades is very annoying.

One feature in diplomacy is “tolerance”. It’s effectively a limit on diplomatic dealing you can do with the various races in the game. If you are frequently doing deals or trading with a race you will use up all these points and you will not be able to do any more deals. Then you have to wait a large number of turns until you have enough free points to do a deal again. I suspect this has to do with limiting how much techs can be traded with the AI. However this effectively cripples any diplomacy options you have. Sign a trade treaty and try to trade some tech? Well now you won’t be able to get a non-aggression pact for until like 15 turns from now. It’s an interesting concept but in my opinion not a very effective one.

Other than this there isn’t any interaction with the AI aside fighting them. Since the diplomatic options are very limited that’s pretty much eventually all this game boils down to, a game of conquest. It’s very one dimensional in this regard.

There are no victory conditions. Unlike Master of Orion 2 where you have multiple victory conditions, or a game like Civilization 5 there are none on this. Want to play as a “peaceful” race and beat the game? Can’t be done. To win you must conquer every system or decide yourself you got to where you want to go and quit playing the game kind of like how people play games like Crusader Kings. For a modern 4x game this is very rare and old-school. However like the diplomacy system it is a very simple way to approach “victory” in a game that definitely needs improvement. Games have moved beyond such simple concepts in the 90s.

Events are a positive highlight of this game.

 

Strangely there is a very modern aspect to this game, events. The events are rather frequent and there are numerous kinds. For example they could be the appearance of a wormhole. In one game I had a wormhole discovered near one of my plants and it opened up into the territory of Vulfar (Wolf people).  They declared war on me and it had an interesting Deep Space 9 dynamic of fighting people through a wormhole. I enjoyed this quite a bit. Another great one is “uplifting” creatures. Uplifting is a sci-fi concept where you use technology to make an animal sentient. For me it was elephants of all things. I got this option when i hired a hero that was capable of researching technology to do this.

Rise of the Pachyderms

The results, elephant citizens.

Colony and empire management is similar to Civilization and a direct copy from Master of Orion 2. Each citizen has a job and you move them into a column that produces food, production, or science. Then you can build either structures or ships. It is rather simple and kind of a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” aspect to this game. Most everything can be done from the empire management screen above however you can go to the colony its self and see a more detailed view as below.

Colony management.

Research is simple. You have tech levels and you pick one tech you want to research from that level, you do not get the other two. You can get the other techs from trading or making a custom race with the creative trait which allows you to research all 3.

Ship design

Ship design is picking a class of ship and just dropping what equipment you want and where. Certain weapons have different arcs of attack but other than what section they are in placement doesn’t really matter other than how deep they are inside, outermost items obviously get hit first. Unfortunately combat has balance issues and as a result is fairly one dimensional which kind of ruins this otherwise excellent aspect of the game.

There is one extremely annoying part of the strategic layer. Every so often you get a news commentator telling you about what’s going on in the galaxy. They explain events and wars between races. It is extremely annoying. Each bit of text that pops up makes a noise and it’s harsh/loud it also happens very often. I was forced to disable it.

Space Combat

In this game space combat is the only RTS element. It works similar to a Total War type game. You start with two sides in which you can place your ships how you want you begin and then you fight. You can design your ships to bombard enemies from a distance, get up and close, have all forward facing weapons, or get in the middle and broadside everything like an 18th century war ship. Several strategies seem viable however right now the most powerful seems to be just bombarding the enemies with long distance weapons. There seems to be some balance issues that need to work out because using this strategy i’m able to defeat most enemies. In my first play through, however, i went in the opposite direction and was doing well. That was until I started facing massive enemy fleets with tons of fighters. The AI frequently plays this way. I then switched to using long range “artillery” weapons and pretty much remained undefeated. This kind of spoiled the game for me and I hope they rectify this soon in a patch.

The space combat has very high potential. Enough so that they even have a kind of skirmish mode where you are faced with challenges you must defeat using the combat system. Unfortunately it is unrealized potential, at least for now.

Ground Combat

Ground combat on this game is very reminiscent of Heroes of Might and Magic. It’s a turn based grid setup. Through the game you can acquire heroes that can participate in the combat as well that offer various special abilities. There are, however, numerous issues with it and it’s unfortunately very easy to exploit.

Issues I Have With This Game

I enjoyed this game, it’s addictive and fun, however i’m finding issue after issue in it. The game, like the previous Pillars of Eternity I reviewed, is stable. I have no issues with crashing at all. Over Pillars this has no corruption of save games or anything of that nature as well. However the bugs are numerous to a point where each time I play it I find something new. It is easily one of the buggiest games i’ve played in a while. On top of that there is a lot of balance issues.

First off, ground combat is the most buggy aspect of the game. If you aim to shoot one of your own characters and you are on a map with walls your “bullet” will go through the wall and potentially hit an enemy on the other side. Some times, inexplicable, you are given control over the enemies troops. The AI’s battle strategy is also ALWAYS rush the players side with everything. If you play defensively you can absolutely crush them. Alsoaesthetically, despite in beta screenshots different equipment showing up on the troops they do not and everything looks the same. You can equip the units with all kinds of different tools and weapons, however because the combat AI is so simple minded the best approach is to load everything out with armor and guns and you are good for almost any encounter. The only time I’ve ever been beat by the AI here was when they heavily overwhelmed me.

The AI builds very large fleets, and game engine can’t seem to handle battles like this. When you engage them the game slows to a crawl on my system even on the lowest settings to a point where I can’t control anything. On a game where you should be controlling your ships this is crippling. However since the game’s balance is way off I haven’t had an issue. Load up on artillery ships with mass drivers and gauss cannons and you are good and can just tell your ships to attack and take your hands off the keyboard. At combat finish larger battles take forever to conclude and load the victory screen relative to the smaller battles.

Battle statistics are nice, plus your ships level up and can be awarded medals which act as bonuses.

 

The bugs are also not relegated to the combat systems. I had the “assimilation” trait and took over a planet at max technology. It researched both the “future” techs in the same category and I could never research them again. How the game normally works is that you research the tech, to get the bonus, and you get another “future” tech after it kind of in an infinite loop. This is only after you researched everything.

Overall

Overall while this is a fun game unless you are really starving for a Master of Orion 4 or another 4x game I would avoid it for now. Wait at least until a patch comes out before you purchase this. The bugs are numerous, what initially seems like a very promising game becomes another disappointment.

Pros:

  • Detailed 4x gameplay
  • Space combat is fun and has potential
  • Tons of components and possibilities in ship design.
  • Design is very aesthetically pleasing
  • Game has good genre awareness and can be humorous.

Cons:

  • The bugs and balance issues are a huge disappointment.
  • Diplomacy is excruciatingly simple. Does anyone put thought into this aspect of these games anymore?!?
  • The AIs talk and look different from each other but seem to all behave the same. You have to kill them all to win anyways…
  • Game is victory by conquest only, no other options.
  • The games “news” system is extremely annoying.
  • Due to balance issues, ai behavior, and single minded victory option the replay value right now is very low.