Reviewed by: Guest_Jim_*
Reviewed on: May 9, 2013
Every other week it seems a new rumor from a reliable, yet unnamed source leaks concerning one next generation console or another. No doubt these rumors and the eventual hardware releases will reignite the PC versus Console debate (as though it has ever ended). Those not overly committed to one side or the other likely agree that really, it just boils down to what game or genre you are talking about. Some genres are best played on consoles, and some are best on PCs. Perhaps the best example for a PC genre is the real-time strategy, RTS, genre and certainly its 4X variant.
Standing for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate, 4X games are characterized by large gameworlds, the need for players to quickly annex what resources they find, and then prove their superiority over their opponents through conflict or diplomacy, depending on what the developers decided on. Along the way to victory, players often must manage their economy, feed and defend their people, while also researching new technologies to improve their effectiveness at fulfilling these tasks. Balancing these demands often require micromanaging your empire, which 4X gamers typically enjoy, but gives the developers the awkward task of designing simple-to-use interfaces to micromanage without simplifying the management.
Enter StarDrive, a new, independently developed 4X game with some novel ways of approaching micromanagement. These, if not its outer-space setting, are what set it apart from other games of its genre. A fairly obvious example of this is its 'Shipyard' functionality (which will be explored in greater detail later) that allows players to customize the contents of any ship hull, buildable by their race. Want a Titan-class ship with only fight bays on it, or a Corvette-class that has all of its weapons on one side, for powerful broadside attacks? Just make sure you have the power plants to drive it all.
Is StarDrive the 4X game you have been waiting for, or does it exhaust, exasperate, and excoriate, execrably? Read on to find out.
I'm going to use a different structure for the review this time, as the structure of a 4X game is so different from that of the shooters I have reviewed in the past. Like many other games, if not all games, in the genre, the first step to starting a new game is selecting who you play as. In this game, different races have different characteristics and abilities, such as high fertility to increase population growth, or honesty to decrease espionage effectiveness. They also have very different appearances and histories, from samurai space bears (Kulrathi) to molluscs (the Cordrazine) that have enslaved the Owlwok race.
If you like the look of one but the characteristics of another do not worry, the characteristics are not rigidly assigned to the portraits. You are given eight points to assign to these characteristics, with positive characteristics costing points and negative characteristics offsetting those costs. Of course if you change the characteristics, the description of the race will no longer apply.
Take some time to read what the different perks are because some can be very powerful. For example, I like combining the 'Cybernetic' and 'Astronomer' characteristics, which replaces the need for food with a need for production and gives you information on numerous systems at the beginning of the game, instead of having to scout the planets out. The 'Cybernetic' perk costs the full eight points, and rightly so as it enables very strong economies throughout a game, while 'Astronomer' lets you get a jump on colonization, the next section of the review.
Colonization is easily one of the most important parts of any 4X game as misplaced colonies can cost you valuable resources. To help the player best expand their empire, StarDrive has two features not always found in similar games. One of these is a screen to view every known planet, and sort them by name, fertility, richness, and population (all factors important to optimizing resource use) and the other is a one-button colonizing solution. Instead of having to manually trigger the construction of a colonizing ship and then order the unit to the planet, you can press the 'Colonize' button next to the planet on the planet list. Until you cancel the colonization order or colonize the planet, a shipyard in your empire will continue to produce colonizing ships and send them to that and any other planet you have selected.
Once a planet is colonized you are able to set what resource, food, production, and research, the population should focus on. Food is needed for the population to survive and grow; production is what allows the colony to add buildings and generate money; and research just adds to the empire's research point pool. Early on it is possible that one of these resources is stuck at zero or in the red, but you actually may not need to worry about this.
A curious addition to colony management is the ability to select where buildings are constructed on a planet's surface. What is curious about this is that there is no apparent reason to put them anywhere specific. It is not as though research facilities placed next to each other will perform better. Perhaps the function is just there for those micromanagers who have a specific design for their colonies.
One of the ship classes you are able to build when the game begins is the freighter, and you can set these to transport food and production from planets with excess to those in need. If you would rather not be concerned with managing a fleet of freighters, you can set the AI to do it, and it will also build new freighters as needed. As you research the larger freighters though, you will have to tell the AI to use them; it will not switch to the larger ships on its own.
Another task you can give the AI is to build 'Subspace Projectors' between your systems. These allow your ships to cross the galaxy faster and without using up their power reserves. No movement within your own territory costs energy. One annoyance about these projectors though is that there is no easy way to build them yourself, and at times you will want to. The AI appears to only want to build them from one system to those nearest it, so if there are systems between two of your planets, projectors will not be automatically placed between them. Manually placing them throughout the galaxy though is not particularly difficult, it is just not as intelligently implemented as it could be. By this I mean I would like to have the ability to simply select the two systems I want to connect and then have the optimal placement of projectors filled in.
If you would rather not micromanage your colonies, you can put governors in charge and simply tell them what to focus on with a dropdown box. Leaving your mouse over the selection will tell you what it means.
Occasionally the planets you colonize and find have anomalies on them, such as remnants from previous civilizations. Landing and producing troops on the planet allow you to explore these anomalies and either find a powerful artifact that affects your stats or releases a horde of dangerous aliens. Sometimes both.
I can easily say I enjoy these tools the developers have created. With them you can effectively run your empire almost without looking at the gameworld itself. From the planet list you can jump to the Empire view, which allows you to manage the resources of every planet you control and is just a double-click away from the colony overview window. The only reason you need to visit the home screen at this time is to set the AI controls or issue orders to ships. Of course once you find your first opponent, things change.
Diplomacy and Espionage:
You are not alone in the galaxy and when you learn that, very likely your first response is going to be relatively diplomatic. At least until you have a few armadas.
Diplomacy in StarDrive is a little lacking, compared to other 4X games I play, but it is not bad. When communicating with another species your options are to declare war, discuss things with them, such as asking about their history or if they have any grievances with you, and starting negotiations. The negotiation options are fairly standard as you can create trade treaties, open-border treaties, non-aggression pacts, as well as trade technology and colonies. Helping you handle the negotiations are three bars on the left of the screen that measure trust, anger, and fear. Also you are able to control the tone of negotiations; pleading, respectful, and threatening. I am not entirely sure how effective the different tones are because I have not had much need of them. The one time I tried threatening my opponent into accepting a peace treaty, it refused, even though I had already destroyed its fleets and knocked out many of its planets. This is not altogether surprising though, given who the opponent was.
Somehow the random number generator kept rolling that I should play against the Opteris; a cybernetic species that is concerned only with probabilities. If they believe they can kill you, they will declare war, end of story. The Pollops are the complete opposite it seems as in the game I am playing against them, they are actually coming to me to request trade and open-border treaties. Basically, each species has its own personality and knowing the differences can greatly help with negotiations, or at least knowing what their next move is.
Overall the diplomacy system works, and I find it hard saying much more than that. It is not very innovative and lacks some features (trading money and ships) that you can find in other 4X games.
Of course sometimes diplomacy fails, so you have to be more devious in how you get what you want, without turning to all-out war. Now is the time to turn to espionage, which, conveniently, is controlled from the diplomacy window. (This is not the window you use to communicate with opponents but where you contact them.) Agents are acquired by pressing the 'Train New' button and paying some money. New spies will have a star across from their name, indicating they are level one. To increase their level you can either send them on a mission, where success will progress them, or pay the money to train them. Though training is very likely to succeed, there is the risk that the agent will not learn anything or even be killed in an accident. Still, it is the surest way to level up your agents.
With a suitably leveled agent, you can start sending it on a number of missions, each of which takes so long to complete and cost so much money. The most useful for me have been the 'Assassinate' missions that take out enemy agents and 'Steal Tech' missions, and they are definitely useful. I have played other 4X games with espionage in them but I cannot recall any being quite as satisfying as StarDrive. The missions complete somewhat quickly, do not cost all that much, and really can turn a war around. During peace time you may be researching technologies to improve your economy and colonies, so your navy may be weaker than your opponents. Steal some tech and catch up quickly. Only thing that could make it better is if an 'Incite Rebels' mission could get a planet to turn to your empire.
Economy & Research:
From beginning to end of any 4X game, you want to carefully monitor and manage your empire's economy and its research efforts. In the Colonization section I mentioned the trading component of the game and the ability to set a colony's focus on specific resources, which is already acceptably deep, but the StarDrive economy is still deeper.
This, like other 4X games, offers the player the ability to purchase buildings and units, instead of spending the time to produce them. StarDrive adds the twist that you need not only the money, but the production resources at the planet to purchase something. That means you cannot simply dip into your coffers to upgrade a fresh colony with the most advanced buildings. Instead you have to wait for the production resources to build up over time or have freighters bring it in, and then pay for the stored resources to be used. This may be an inconvenience if you like being able to deck out a colony in a matter of seconds, but I feel it adds a nice touch of realism and balance to the experience.
Another touch of realism is how taxes work in the game. Like any game with taxes, the amount collected depends on the amount of production going on, and different tax rates can affect your empire. Higher tax rates can lead to rebellion, but of course with too low of a tax rate, you go bankrupt, so you will want to balance things carefully. That is not the dash of realism I am referring to though. In StarDrive taxation affects research and production, with higher taxes reducing research and production points, and conversely lower taxes increasing these points. If you want to swell your money reserves, go ahead and do so, but remember that while you collect money, your opponents can be collecting technologies and amassing powerful, advanced fleets. You cannot buy technology and you cannot simply buy ships, so if your opponent is sufficiently advanced, they will destroy you.
The research experience in this game is both well-crafted and lacking. All but 'secret' technologies are immediately listed on the various tech trees and clicking on the icons will add them to the queue. That sounds like a fairly standard setup, but I am always surprised by how other games actually use less intuitive or less advanced approaches. Sadly though, StarDrive does not live up to its own potentially at this point.
When you queue up items to be built at colonies you have the ability to reorder them through arrows or click-and-dragging them. For some reason the latter method is missing from the research queue. This can be somewhat annoying as reordering longer queues will take longer because of how you have to keep finding and clicking the up and down arrows.
The other, possibly greater, example of how research is lacking in this game is the lack of any climax to it. There is no grand, final research project to complete, so when everything is researched, there is nothing left to do. At this point there is nothing to do but remove the focus on research from all of your colonies (not hard to do from the Empire window) and also remove every research building in your empire. These buildings cost money to keep, and since they are no longer being used, you might as well remove them. Another way to put it is that there is no real sense of satisfaction from researching every technology. Unless you rushed through the research, your opponents may not be far behind you, so you will likely not get the satisfaction of being like a god compared to them. (Doesn't everyone like that?) By the way, it is possible to rush through the research by collecting so much money that you may reduce taxation to zero, and give a nice boost to research, without going bankrupt.
Ships, Fleets, & War:
With a name like StarDrive, you would expect that ships are a primary component of the game, and you would be correct. Before we get to what makes StarDrive special though, we have to go through what makes it like other games. If you already know what other games are like though, just skip the next paragraph.
When you start a new game you have access to small freighters and small fighters, which are not particularly useful at the time. Only through research do the fighters become much more than the cheap unit you can use to explore the galaxy. Of course research will also unlock bigger and better ships. Corvettes, frigates, cruisers, battleships, and titans, along with medium and large freighters will eventually populate your navy. As there are multiple kinds of weapons, including energy beams, ballistics, and missiles, there are variants of each ship with the different armaments. It is important to note that while battleships and titans are offensive juggernauts, they are also very slow, due to their size. If you want a fast fleet, you do not want anything larger than a cruiser.
What really sets StarDrive apart from many other 4X games is the control you are given over your military. Perhaps the best example of this, if the least powerful within the game, is the ability to manually control any craft in the game. Using the WASD and F keys (F is for faster-than-light travel) you can pilot a ship through the entire galaxy, and I do mean through it all. Ships, platforms, and space stations are not limited to being within a certain distance from planets. If you want you can amass a giant fleet in deep space, with the support structures to maintain them.
The more powerful examples of your control over your military are your ability to arm your own ships and how fleets are created.
The shipyard is where you have the, at times daunting, task of designing your ships. Smaller hulls like the fighter, corvette, and even frigate are pretty easy to manage, but battleships and titans can take a long time to get right. (I have been staying away from designing my own space stations.) Ships are comprised of three basic compartments, with one hybrid. Engine compartments, marked E, are the only places you can put engines, and only engines and power conduits can be placed there. Internal compartments, marked I, house components such as power plants, fuel cells, ordinance storage, and more, while Outside compartments, marked O, are where you place your weapons. Some compartments are marked IO because they can accept both internal and outside components.
There are a lot of components you can install in your ships, but really it is just the weapons we are interested in here. Late game you have a large variety, as lasers, phasors, fusion beams, ions beams, flak cannons, artillery, torpedoes, rockets, and missiles all become available. Some of these weapons, such as the artillery, can only be placed in-line with the ship's core, but many are on turrets. Being on turrets in StarDrive does not mean the weapon can spin around to hit a target, where ever it is. Being on a turret means you, the player, get to set the direction the weapon's firing arc faces. This is accomplished by selecting the weapon on the ship, so you can see the arc, and drag it to where you want it to be. Hitting Tab or the Arcs button in the upper right will reveal the firing arcs for every weapon on the ship, but you are not able to change them from here. This is not a bad thing though, because if a large number of arcs are overlapping, grabbing the one you want may not be easy.
If you are not interested in completely designing your own ship, but still want to have some control over its armaments, you are able to load up the base designs in the game and manipulate them. Fortunately the developers were kind enough to program it so when you replace one turret with another (say replacing a fusion beam with a laser beam) the arc remains. This is very useful if you just want to upgrade weapons, but otherwise leave the design alone.
Now that you have your ships designed, it is time to assemble your fleet and start blowing stuff up! But, assembling your fleet is a little different than in many other 4X games. As 4X games are a variant of the RTS, it is not surprising that many 4X titles use a grouping mechanic, like what you find in RTSes. The mechanic is fairly straight forward; you take a bunch of built units and with the right keystroke, you assign them to a group that you can call on and command. StarDrive, however, reverses this mechanic as you can design the fleet before any ships are built for it. While this may sound like a bad design, because it takes more time to create a fleet, it enables other mechanics that are very useful.
When designing a fleet, the ships you have access to are given on the right, collected by their hull type. Click on the ship you want and click again on the grid to place it in the fleet. These ships do not need to be built at the time you do this, but you can access the ships you already own through the 'Owned' tab on the right.
As each ship can have very different armaments, the optimal attack strategy for these ships may also be very different. Clicking on the ship icons in the fleet view will allow you to assign different behaviors to the ships, such as circling targets, making straight passes, or holding still and rotating to keep the target in front. You can also set the behavioral preferences for the individual ships, such as operational radius, target size, and how it prioritizes targets. Do you want to go after the enemy ship with the most damage output or the most armor?
Perhaps the most useful aspect of this fleet design mechanic is that you can build to a fleet. Once you design the fleet, hit the 'Requisition' button and you can assign currently built ships to it or trigger the building of new ones. The build command is then sent to multiple colonies capable of the task, so work can be done in parallel. I find this makes it much easier to maintain fleets during prolonged battles or wars as with a few clicks, destroyed ships can be replaced without having to configure their behavior settings.
Of course, what is the point of a space navy if you do not destroy stuff with it? Luckily, there are plenty of targets. Opposing races are obviously one target, but you will also come across two other spacefaring enemies; pirates and the Remnant. The pirates seem to only ever occupy one system and the first time they meet you they try to extort you for some of your money. If you pay them, they largely leave you alone, but if you want to have a colony in that system, you will have to destroy them.
The Remnant are a different story, and in a sense represent the only story the game has. They are remnants of a long dead civilization, but powerful drones are still guarding certain planets. Once you have the right weapons though, they are fairly easy to destroy. Once you do destroy some, you will get a message that your researchers want to examine the wreckage and the 'Secrets' tech tree is opened. Not going to share more than that though, since it is a secret.
Combat is, on its own, nothing special. There are plenty of other space-based games with ship-to-ship combat out there already, and some of these have one feature StarDrive does not; 3D combat. Combat is completely two dimensional, and while that may seem like a step back to the games of yesteryear, ask yourself how much you would enjoy designing the entire volume of a titan-class ship, instead of just a cross-section? As impressive as three dimensional combat would be with the ship design and fleet design mechanic, the complexity of it all would be overwhelming for many gamers and likely many developers.
Aggravations, Bugs, & Criticisms:
This is an odd section to have in this review, but a necessary one. StarDrive despite being released, is technically not a finished game, so it still has some issues. Many of the game-breaking ones have been fixed though. For example, during the beta the game's threading was screwy, so late game everything would slow to a crawl and only restarting the program could help. Even then, it would only be a matter of time before the bug struck again. Since release though, this issue appears to have been fixed.
I believe that well-designed games are ones you can sit down and just start playing. The experience should be intuitive so a manual should not be required. StarDrive achieves that for the most part, which is good because the only manual I have seen for it is outdated and incorrect. According to it there is supposed to be a way to create a quick fleet from a group of ships, but that feature either was removed or the manual represents what the developers want the game to become.
Once you have constructed a fleet though, you may run into a curious logic problem. As in many games, different units have different speeds, so typically groups will be made to travel as fast as the slowest unit, with some option to have every unit go at their maximum speed. StarDrive is no different in theory, but there does appear to be a way to break the group movement logic. If not all of the ships have assembled in one place yet, they will all move at their own best speed. If replacement ships are on their way to the fleet and suddenly you need to move it to another system to engage an enemy, the ships already assembled in the fleet will arrive at different times, which may result in losing ships, because there was not enough firepower or other targets to support them. The only way the player can work around this is to send the fleet to a position far enough removed from the combat to not immediately engage, and then wait for the slower ships to arrive before moving in.
Something I failed to mention in the earlier section concerning combat was the ground combat you are able to take control of. I did not mention it for two reasons; I have not found myself using it much and it is not well implemented, especially compared to space combat. When troops are in orbit around a planet, you are able to order individual troops to land or that they all land together. Once on the surface, you are able to control them or leave that to the AI. Once they are done on the surface though, recalling them is less than intuitive. The command for them to launch is given to each troop, individually, by clicking on the unit, whereas the button to land the units is located above and to the side of the screen. Admittedly, this is a minor issue, but it does stand to reason that the orders to land and recall a unit should be near each other, at least to me.
A rather useful feature in this and many 4X games is the ability to change the speed of game time. There is a limit to this, though, of four-times speed, but it can be disabled through the options menu. However, each time you load the game, this resets. On its own, this is just an annoyance but something about the graphics engine causes me a degree of aggravation. Ideally I would be playing this game at my monitor's native resolution and in a borderless window, which is supported by the game. The problem is that changing any setting in the options menu affects the window. The window shifts slightly and, in the case of the borderless window, elements of the desktop, such as the taskbar, are now being rendered on top of the game. The only solution I have found is to run the game at a lower resolution in a window. That way when the window shifts due to a setting change, I can simply move it back.
One final issue I have found is in a reference you may be able to read in some of the screenshots. The fleet editor window has a box indicating the existence of an 'Auto-replenish' option, to have the game automatically construct new ships as needed. This function, from what I can find in the game and online, does not actually exist. At least not yet, which leads into another issue that is understandable, but does not upset me.
Some of you may beleaguer this game and perhaps its developers for not including a multiplayer system. While I can understand this stance of the players, I also understand why this feature has been delayed. The developers needed to get the game out, and with many other issues to tackle (such as the threading issue mentioned earlier), multiplayer capability was pushed to the list of post-release features. It is coming, but the developers had other issues they felt needed to be addressed first. This is not an ideal situation, but this is the best solution to it, at least in my opinion.
Graphics & Performance:
Since the graphics quality for the entire game is well represented by screenshots, you can just look at these to decide if they are good enough for you. They are good enough for me, though I do also believe that a 4X games does not need graphics that will melt the best computers out there. What matters is performance and this game performs quite well, even at high game-time multipliers, when everything is accelerated to save real-time. There was an issue with late-game performance during the beta, but since a day before release, I have not experienced this.
Extra Screenshots & Video:
After a game ends, you are taken to a screen to view how the game progressed.
A word I use sometimes to describe a gameplay experience is 'solid.' What I mean by this is that the experience was well crafted, both in design and implementation. If a game is not solid, then that could imply a number of things. In this case it implies that the game is lacking in polished and consistent execution. As the previous section clearly points out, there are still many issues with the game, and these must be considered when reviewing a game. Indeed there are many games that people refuse to buy or play because of a single issue. The only hope for the developers and publishers is that the issue is fixed before people move on to the next title. Fortunately for StarDrive, none of these issues appear to be game breaking, just potentially deal-breaking.
Should you avoid this game until a later date, when the issues I have listed, and others I am not aware of, have been fixed? Only you can decide that. My own recommendation is that if you enjoy micromanagement in 4X games, you should get this game. If you enjoy innovative games that put more control at the players' fingertips, you should get this game. Many of the features in this game I hope will one day make it into other 4X franchises.
I cannot say this game is solid in its present form, but I would call it firm, if you will allow me to. Much of what it is lacking is the result of it not living up to its own ambition, and not because the game itself is mediocre. The developers are working to address many of these issues though, and sooner or later they will succeed and make this a truly solid game. At that time, it will be very easy to recommend StarDrive to anyone who enjoys a good 4X game.