Other than some Civ games, it has been a long, LONG time since I have played a strategy game of the 4X variety (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate). When I was approached to review StarDrive, I was at first apprehensive. Would I be in over my head? Would decades of racing games, FPS, RPGs, etc. have molded my brain into something that couldn’t handle a 4X title? Do I still have the patience that I once did as a kid, when I last played Master of Orion?
Turns out, the answer to the rhetorical questions above are both yes and no. It’s no secret that gaming has eschewed a long drawn out learning curve in favor EXPLOSIONS NOW!!!!! but once I sat down and actually gave myself some time to properly learn this game (no small feat considering I have a 1.5 year old and a pregnant wife) it turned out a pretty decent game. No, it’s not perfect and has its fair share of issues, but for people who are OCD micromanagers, I can’t think of a better way to spend your time.
Stardrive’s concept is pretty simple: build a mighty space empire and rule the galaxy. The implementation of that is far from simple, however. Since it has been so long since I have played a 4X game, I went into StarDrive basically as a fresh-faced noob. Imagine how disappointed I was when I discovered that the tutorial, even though there options for videos, ended up being page after page off non-interactive slides. Impatience = 1, Tony = 0. Jumping into the game without reading the tutorial is a bit overwhelming, but as long as you don’t mind figuring things out along the way with some trial and error, that seems to be the better way to go.
StarDrive is advertised as a 4X game that takes place in real-time, but the promise of “real-time” is not exactly that. Obviously there is no way that you can wait “real-time” for a planet to colonize; that would just be silly. Instead, the concept of time and turns are tied into a timer, which is constantly ticking away. Your turns are based on a certain number of seconds, and things like shipbuilding, colonizing, etc. all take a certain number of “turns” (etc. seconds) to complete. In this sense, the game never pauses to switch turns, and things are always trucking along, non-stop (though you can pause at anytime, a welcome addition).
At first this is no problem. You start with nothing more than a few ships and a colony, and almost endless time on your hands to learn the game and explore. As frustrating and time consuming as it is to basically sit there not knowing what to do, jumping in and trying different things out will yield results, and with that, a sense of accomplishment. In my playthrough, I basically screwed around enough to learn how to shipbuild, colonize, manage my resources, explore, conduct diplomacy, and wage war. It’s like an onion where it’s layer after layer of depth, with some occasional crying thrown in.
Shipbuilding seemed boring and complicated at first, but actually ended up being one of my favorite aspects off the game. At the start of the game when your resources are low and you haven’t research technology yet, you’re stuck with a bunch of smaller ships with a very limited arsenal at your disposal. Think of this as a “tutorial” mode to shipbuilding. It’s a great opportunity to cut your teeth on all the intricacies of of the system, and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
With shipbuilding, you are presented with a number of ship types, each with it’s own size and number of grids which make up the hull. You can place components in these grids like a bridge, power conduits, hull plating, weapons, etc. Depending on the size of the component, you either use up one square on the grid or multiple squares. There have been a few occasions where I wasn’t paying attention and plopped down a part that “erased” a bunch of other parts I had laid earlier. Grrrrr. Regardless, when you start to acquire bigger and bigger ships, shipbuilidng starts to eat up more and more of your time. It’s not uncommon to to spend hours designing components for a massive capital ship. Micromanagement indeed.
Another aspect of the game that I enjoyed is the diplomacy. Early on the in the game, you’ll be approached by a number of different species. Rather than follow a numerical value for your relationships like so many other games, StarDrive takes it up a notch by assigning varying values of trust, anger, and fear. As expected, these are affected by your dealings within the galaxy, how aggressive you are, and the choices you make when “talking” to these difference aliens. Of course, as you’ll learn very quickly, there are always going to be certain races that start off not liking humans. And try as I might, there was no way I could avoid war. Eventually, it was going to happen.
When you are thrust into war, you better make sure you have enough ships and resources or you are in for a very short conflict. My first playthrough resulted in an accidental war as I selected the wrong dialogue choice. Nothing happened at first, so thinking that I dodged a bullet, I start exploring and colonizing planets. What do you know, I apparently muscled in on some planets that were inhabited by the very species that I had just pissed off.
The actual war part is a lot of fun. it’s really carried out no differently than most other RTS games with the only real difference being the ability to take control of any single ship at a time. That really wasn’t something I used too often, as the ships are somewhat cumbersome to control. If you have a massive fleet, this is where StarDrive truly shines, as it’s quite a thrill to be issuing commands to group after group of your ships. Nothing screams “POWER” more than having a massive, death dealing fleet at your fingertips. This extends into ground combat as well, though it is much less satisfying. It’s not that the ground combat mechanic is broken or anything; there’s just nothing exciting about watching some troop icons moving around on a grid. Plus, most of it is AI controlled.
Graphically, the game impresses. It’s not meant to be a photorealistic “Heavy Rain” type of experience; in fact a good portion of the game takes place in the empty starkness of space, punctuated by stars and a few planets. When you zoom out further, it’s even more empty. This actually adds to the overall ambiance of the game, as it goes a long way to show just how vast the galaxy is and how small your part in the overall scheme of things is. Planets, nebulae, stars, ships, stations, etc. all look decent enough to where you don’t really notice the graphics. When you’re in the midst of a large battle, however, the graphics explode in an awesome display of colors and explosions. In fact, it caused my computer to hiccup once or twice, which is impressive considering my rig is not exactly a weakling.
The shipbuilding interface looks surprisingly low-res, but that’s not really a problem. The diplomacy scenes are probably the best and most unique looking of the game, as not only do you see a variety of cool looking alien species, but also some really gnarly environments, complete with semi-animated backgrounds that warrant a second look. It almost reminds me a bit of the Doctor Who episode from the first season of the relaunch, “The End of the World,” where The Doctor and Rose are introduced to all different kinds of aliens.
I know I’ve written a lot of reviews for a number of different genres where I end it with “This is not a game for everyone…” I’ve done it on everything from sim racers to JRPGs, but in this case, I REALLY mean it when I say “This is not a game for everyone.” It isn’t. It takes a world of patience to play this game, and it’s not going to hold your hand even when teaching how the game works. StarDrive isn’t hard in the “Dark Souls” sense; it’s hard in the sense that you will sit at the opening screen not knowing what to do.
This is not to say it’s a bad game; it really isn’t. I enjoyed my time with it, and yes; I’m the idiot that had to contact the developers to ask some dumb questions. Just consider the fact that it is a very intricate, slow moving game that makes even games like Civ play like Black Ops. It’s an immersive, huge game world where you alone will control the fate of your entire race.