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StarDrive (PC) Beta Preview: Finally, A Space-Based 4X Game With Some Spunk

Posted by on March 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm
Once you zoom in close enough, the spectacle of space battle comes into full effect.

Once you zoom in close enough, the spectacle of space battle comes into full effect.

StarDrive, a new space-based, 4X-style strategy game, started its public speaking life as a humble $7,000 Kickstarter at the tail end of 2011. Not only did it meet its goal, but it do so nearly three times over and won the publisher guidance of Iceberg Interactive, who gave us last summer’s bland Master of Orion-like Endless Space. Now in a public beta, available if you purchase the game through Steam, I got a good hands-on with this little empire builder.

Audiences with neighboring civilizations are always a treat.

Audiences with neighboring civilizations are always a treat.

Like its contemporaries, StarDrive lays on some tutorials to get you into action. By proxy, games like these can’t be simple, so they tackle the learning curve in a variety of ways. Here, you’re given a few video tutorials that seem silly to begin with, but actually do a decent job of laying your first moves and your future role. That’s not to say that you’ll be native before you ever start a campaign, but the game’s design is simple enough that you won’t need a persistent helping hand (it does have some opportunities, which I’ll explain later). StarDrive is a turn-based game that masquerades as a real-time game, something closer to Pax Imperia than Master of Orion. Like any good 4X title, you’re given a few scouts to send off to explore the immediate galactic cluster and a colony ship to plunk down a second settlement. You can order your ships around or assume manual control with your keyboard, something I didn’t find very useful, but may be more interesting in complex battles.

Colony management keeps things relatively painless: you build Biospheres to make more of the planet habitable which allows you to place more advanced facilities. Something odd: the game sorta makes a deal over the fact that your colony is based on a grid, but you don’t pick where your modules get built, something that would be an interesting mini-game as you try to link multiple modules together to maximize their output. Dunno, just a free idea. You can choose a variety of archetypes to steer the goals of the colony, be they labor, research, or agriculture, or you can control them manually. Production is similarly easy to queue and your time spent in these screens is thankfully small.

Spaceship design is fun, but needs a few safeguards.

Spaceship design is fun, but needs a few safeguards.

Another major component in expanding your empire is ship management. Not only will you lead your fleets, you’re given the opportunity to build these ships from scratch from a variety of platforms you can research. I generally shy away from these sorts of things because it seems silly to pour so much time into a ship that will be replaced as soon as next-gen technologies become available, but StarDrive makes their assembly pretty fun. You’ll be required to place a cockpit or command deck, some engines and a power source, connect these components with power couplings, then fill each tile on the template before you can officially build your design. This again seems like it could be another fun mini-game where you need to have a ship working end-to-end, making sure every component is snug, secured, and connected, but not quite. You’re only really required to place a cockpit and fill the template with, well, whatever. This means in no time, you too can also build, as I did, an expensive colony ship with no propulsion to speak of. What can one do with such a behemoth? Nothing, in fact. You can’t even scrap it because it can’t propel itself to the nearest shipyard. I’m sure they’ll work on this.

StarDrive never bogs you down with details, which allows you to focus on the macro elements of the game. Research is fine, but could use a little more showmanship. Diplomacy is fun to watch because of each race’s animated portraits, but they don’t respond to whatever diplomacy is happening in the bottom of the screen. A critical issue that needs to be addressed is the interface’s scaling. At 1920×1080, everything in the game is really small and inconsequential. It’s easy to get lost in this space. Ship battles are fine when you can track them down, but finding your ships at all on the galactic sheet can be a pain. Another example: ship design required some extensive squinting at ship templates. In short, it would be fantastic if this beta allowed developer Zer0 Sum to present information better.

I like where StarDrive is going. I hope it’s not too late to make some of these changes, because some of them are sorely needed, but at its core, StarDrive is a fun experience that simply needs a few more rounds under the buffer to make it one for the history books.

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