When I was in college, I took the few dollars I had to take a tram down to Denver’s 16th Street Mall and buy Master of Orion 3. It had been a decade since the original game released and my thirst for a suitable replacement for the game that started it all had not been quenched by its dull-looking, detail-oriented sequel. I took that rusty-colored box home and I struggled with it for hours. Unlike its predecessors, MOO3‘s learning curve was unforgiving and I blamed myself for “not getting it”. But one only needs to keep “not getting it” so many times before it’s obviously a game issue. As I mentioned in my review for the bland Endless Space last year, developers are trying to pay tribute to the genre by making games that try way too hard to cram in as many details as possible and, minus the budget, lack the showmanship to compensate for it. This has lead to the continuing march of space-based 4X games that appeal to the hardest of core and totally ignore the approachable charm that made this genre so great. Sadly, StarDrive is the latest link to this terrible chain.
Lost In Space
StarDrive begins as any card-carrying 4X game does with a colony ship and a scout to explore the galaxy and claim your first home away from home. It’s in these fragile first moments of any long-term strategy game that a 4X game is determined, but it’s also where StarDrive is at its most baffling. With a tutorial on-board that amounts to little more than a PowerPoint deck, figuring out your first few moves is more puzzle than strategy. Unlike those who are actually in a position of power, the game makes no attempt to push any decisions on you. For example: if you let it, you’ll never ever have to research anything. It also means you’ll never advance beyond the galactic stone age. Your civilization is slow to grow without a pre-determined (or derived, rather) path to success, meaning you’ll get mired in the details, rather than the action.
Starting out, you’ll need to send ships out into the ether, but in being able to explore every corner of the game from the very first moments, you also face the risk of aggroing militaristic AI races and random baddies. Success here feels accidental like a GROW game, rather than any intuition on your part. Subspace projectors allow your ships to travel faster and are a pretty big deal, so why not make them automatically construct by default? You can! In fact, there are many things you can automate in this game, none of which are vital to your operations, but feel like a game design Band-Aid. As you settle upon alien worlds, you’ll find many are in a virtual stasis until you develop key technologies, which can only be reached at a snail’s pace initially, even when stealing those research points away from vital projects.
Broadcasting Into Nothing
Not helping anything is StarDrive‘s terrible interface, which has two major problems:
As I mentioned in my hands-on with the beta, the game doesn’t scale well. Details and buttons are incredibly small. The game makes little effort to call out your assets, so managing fleets – a huge component of the mid- to endgame is a chore. Oh sure, moving them around is pretty easy once you have them assigned, but picking out what amounts to space dust amongst the scenery is a huge pain.
The second problem, which is among the game’s biggest crimes, is that the game isn’t intuitive. Like so many other games it could’ve learned from, StarDrive throws everything at you except the kitchen sink. There are stupid little buttons everywhere. Some static lines of text are actually dynamic buttons. There are inconsistencies between screens. You can’t access your ground troops via the colony management screen, only through the galactic screen. Did you know that space marines are a vital asset to your empire that you should build early on and you don’t need a transport to move them? Does the game explain that? Does the game explain much of anything? One cannot simply “figure this game out”, with an emphasis on the “simply”. Even after I complained about it in the beta, I was still able to build spaceships that could not move, the ship’s editor was more concerned that I had filled every square in the design template than if the ship would work at all. The game is rife with many mysteries in its moment to moment operation and offers little in the way of assistance.
A Lonely End
Iceberg Interactive’s business model of snapping up tiny 4X games like this and releasing them unfinished in hopes of building some cache is flat-out bad and it’s a shame that developer Zer0 Sum was unable to get things right, whether it was in the design or the execution, both of which are fatally flawed. No one should have to apologize for StarDrive. No one should have to be the guy that has to say that if you dig down deep enough, you’ll find some flawed gold. There shouldn’t be a “time to spreadsheet” in these games. I’ve read so much about how overcoming the game’s idiosyncracies is a major portion of its fun. No, it sucks. I’m not an advocate of copying games outright, but seriously, just copy Master of Orion at this point. That game was fun, this isn’t. I shouldn’t have to keep beating myself up about StarDrive before it becomes a good game.