When I look up at the sky at night, one thought eclipses all others: I really hope there are badass bears in space. Bears are natural spacefarers, and that is a known fact. They don't require oxygen, can travel faster than the speed of light, and they build really rad spaceships.
Developer: Zero Sum Games
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Released: April 26, 2013
Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit
While most 4X games don't start getting really interesting until one has gotten to grips with complex systems and settled into a rhythm where they aren't constantly baffled, StarDrive is at its best in the beginning.
The beautiful art -- exemplified by imaginative alien ambassadors in the diplomacy screens and the vast expanse of space with its twinkling stars and slowly revolving worlds -- relaxing electronic soundtrack, and the promise of conquest and expansion are all fresh at the game's start. It's a period where the game still has potential, and one has yet to be browbeaten by bugs, dreary combat, and the serious lack of an endgame.
So StarDrive has its fair share of problems, and yet I desperately want to like it. The 4X genre is not a prolific one, and StarDrive is clearly a labour of love; an ambitious title with some genuinely interesting elements.
StarDrive's galaxies are beautiful celestial canvases, filled with unexplored stars and untapped potential. In the tradition of all 4X games, one of the first orders of business is to set a scout ship to automatically explore the galaxy.
There's a diverse set of worlds ripe for exploring, from giant barren desert planets, toxic worlds, fertile edens primed for colonization, and worlds hiding ancient artifacts. Once these planets have been discovered, their stats are revealed.
Generally, the best worlds to colonize are able to hold large populations, fertile, and mineral rich. Which of them are appropriate for a burgeoning colony is easy to see, and simply by clicking "colonize" a colony vessel will immediately be queued up in the build list of the homeworld.
Eventually, if your scout bumps into an alien ship or world -- or if alien scouts enter your territory -- diplomatic relations will begin with that alien race. The various races, though a bit few in number, are delightfully irreverent and bizarre. From hideous Cthulhu-like megalomaniacs and narcissistic owl slavers to the aforementioned bear folk, it's a menagerie of peculiar species. The rulers all have exaggerated, sometimes comical personalities, and their design is one of StarDrive's highlights.
Unfortunately, interaction with the other races is extremely limited. Diplomacy amounts to making trade pacts, alliances, and declaring war. The only nuances are the existence of some bars that denote the other leader's attitudes towards you, such as how much they fear you, and one's ability to alter the tone of requests and demands, allowing players to tailor them to each particular race.
Rather quickly, relationships between alien species either end in an alliance or war. Empires that you aren't allied with will look for any excuse to get in a scrap, and they'll take offence at the slightest provocation. I guess that's one way to ensure that people get to fiddle around with fleets and combat, two of StarDrive's apparent draws.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
StarDrive's tech tree is split into a variety of categories, like weapons, physics, colonization, and so on. Within these categories are increasingly advanced tiers, requiring more and more time and research points to discover.
The technological advances are humdrum and lacking any sort of flavor, and exist only to give players ship components and buildings. There is a "secret" tech category, though it's not exactly secret, since it's right there in the middle of the list. From it, special technologies can be researched based on the creations of the advanced alien antagonists known as the Remnant.
There's a paper-thin narrative running through StarDrive involving the Remnant, but it's not in the least bit engaging, and merely serves to create a reason for there to be lots of annoying ships guarding choice planets.
Although worlds can be upgraded with buildings and space stations unlocked through research, there's rarely a reason to specialize worlds, as the plodding pace gives ample time to just plonk down one of every building on each planet.
As one's empire expands, it becomes increasingly clear that it's nothing but a collection of rather bland, characterless worlds, only important for their statistics. There's no reason to even remember a world unless it's especially productive.
Resources are split up into money, food, and production -- it's a simple system, and players will likely get the hang of resource management quite quickly. Money is generated through taxes, which reduces production, while food allows colonies to grow and production allows them to construct improvements and ships.
Worlds start off needing a bit of a boost, so a spot of inter-empire trading must occur. Cargo vessels can be sent to transport goods between worlds, and they can conveniently be set to do this automatically. Populations can be put to work generating either food, production or science, and the greater the population (and the planet's natural resources), the more of these things it will generate. They can be stored, exported, and imported.
So, getting a trade network started is as simple as setting one planet to export, another to import, set cargo ships to automatic, and watch as they start to supply the rest of the empire. Unfortunately, the default cargo ships are awful, and even though they can be redesigned, planets will keep churning out the original, dated cargo ships.
Some planets will have anomalies on their surface. When a scout checks such a world out, the anomaly is discovered, but more effort is required to actually investigate it. These anomalies might end up being ancient artifacts, special buildings, or even a Remnant ship. It gives players more reason to travel all over the galaxy, but it also means they'll have to participate in the awful ground combat, fighting everything from skeletons to tanks, to investigate it.
Occasionally a less developed non-player race can crop up, and should the appropriate technologies be unlocked, a first-contact scenario plays out. The worlds of these races tend to be extremely rich and large, so they make tempting targets for would-be conquerors.
War and conquest makes up a lot of StarDrive, as the other races have a penchant for aggression, and thanks to the limited victory paths (conquest or making a giant alliance with all the races) it's really the focus of the game.
The combat and ship design elements of StarDrive were pushed to the forefront, and while they do make the title stand out, it's not always for good reasons. Pointlessly, individual ships can be controlled using the W, S, A, and D keys, but combat generally takes place between large fleets, where it's far more efficient to command them as combined forces and designate targets with the mouse.
Combat looks better than it actually is, with sometimes vast fleets dancing and spinning through space, unloading laser cannons, mass drivers, and missiles at each other. In practice, it's unresponsive, buggy, and not very engaging. Often, battles will be lost just because a fleet won't act in the way it's meant to.
Ships can be grouped together to make them act as one unit, even travelling at the same speeds, but it never plays out like that. Some vessels might bugger off at top speeds, leaving the slower ones behind, and by the time the stragglers arrive, their eager comrades might be nothing but debris in space. In actual firefights, they seem to fire wildly, going all over the place, rarely acting like a single fleet working in tandem.
Ships can be more effective if care is taken with their construction, though. StarDrive has a robust ship editor that, while not as deep or flexible as that of Galactic Civilizations II's, allows for lots of experimentation.
It has two major flaws holding it back, however. The menu and feedback is obstinate in the extreme, possibly the worst part of the already muddled UI -- it's downright fiddly and poorly explained. There's a long list of ship stats that are affected by adding or subtracting modules, and beyond realizing that green is good and red is bad, it's a pain in the arse trying to figure out what tangible impact one's redesigns will have.
Even more infuriating is the need for every single slot on the ship to be filled. Don't need any more fuel, power, or weapons but don't want to add any more components for fear of increasing the mass and making the vessel less effective? Fuck off and fill every slot or you can't build it. There's seemingly no reason for this, and the whole experience devolves into a really annoying jigsaw puzzle.
For a one-man effort, StarDrive is impressive. It's huge, looks great, and it has a nice balance between automation and micromanagement. Lamentably it's also buggy, with crashes and glitches raising their head frequently -- though admittedly less now, since it's been out for almost a month -- explains its systems poorly, and it becomes extremely boring only a couple of hours into a game.
It doesn't add anything drastically new to the genre, and thus there isn't much reason why you should get it when titles like Galactic Civilization II are better and cheaper, or the contemporary Endless Space -- for all its flaws -- offers a more unique take on the 4X experience.
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