Looks like MOO
I vividly remember the disappointment that was Master of Orion III. The third installment of the popular series could not recapture the near-magical spirit of its predecessors. Instead, it offered a cold, boring experience often likened to working in a spreadsheet by disillusioned reviewers and gamers alike. Its failure spelled doom for Turn-Based Strategy as larger publishers shunned anything to do with the genre for years to come with possibly the only exception being Civilization.
Fortunately, smaller publishers were quick to jump into the gap left by their bigger peers, with mixed results. Armada 2526, the latest Turn-Based Strategy offering from Iceberg Interactive, makes no excuses for wanting to be ‘the new MOO’. While not quite there yet, the series is certainly off to a great start. Hold on, wasn’t there an Armada 2525? Yep, there was. Developer NTronium are calling 2526 the spiritual successor to Armada 2525, which is fair when you consider that the studio is headed up by 2525's chief designer, R.T. Smit.
Your species is not known for its…
In Armada 2526, players take control of one of twelve unique races, each determined to become the dominant species in the galaxy. The game ships with four campaigns, offering some specific goals for those who crave them. Personally, I find campaigns in grand strategy games such as these to be too restrictive so I spent most of my time on random maps.
Upon entering a new game, you are given a single planet, some cash and a humble fleet to get you started. The in-game tutorial is nothing to write home about but most of the game’s interface is easy to understand. Nearby star systems have already been explored and are categorized into six types: Ideal, Habitable, Icy, Barren, Irradiated and No Planet. Given the right technology, colonies can be founded in each of those, even the systems where there is no planet at all. Of all twelve races, only the Cryokon have a preference for a specific environment, favoring Icy planets above all others.
Most races only have a handful of special traits and most of these seem to focus on population growth and research abilities in certain areas. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Positive traits are balanced out by negative ones and in some cases, such as with the Hoon Yon for instance, are mixed up to such an extent that playing that race feels like a very daunting task before you even start. For those interested in other goals than global domination, the game offers a nice twist over the usual fare: rather than offering the same goals for every race, each race has its own set of goals. For example, the Jellution earn their victory points through research and population happiness while the Klurgu are scored based on the size of their population and the number of enemies killed.
The ‘uniqueness’ between the races does not end with the racial traits, goals and outward appearance, though many differences feel rather insignificant. Granted, some races such as the tree-like Walden fly odd contraptions that look like nothing so much as broken off branches or uprooted trees but they still perform the same roles as, say, human ships. And even the Walden dip into the global ship pool for many of their strongest vessels. Why on Earth a huge sentient tree would feel comfortable in a human designed missile cruiser is beyond me, but in the grand scheme of things this can easily be forgiven. Research is even more limited. You will be hard pressed to find more than a handful of different items between the races in a tech tree that spans well over a hundred technologies.
Running an empire
Once you have familiarized yourself with your direct surroundings, it is time to give orders to your ships, production facilities and research centers. Finding and grabbing suitable planets early on is vital so your ships have their work cut out for them. Production centers can be set to upgrade themselves in order to build more technologically advanced structures or to build the already available structures. Obviously you need cash to build structures but there is something else that limits a possible building spree on your new planets: population. Buildings need workers. If there are no free workers, you can’t add buildings to your colony. Fortunately you can transport colonists between planets, something any strategist will put to good use forging his empire.
While production and exploration are straightforward, research is a little… bewildering. There are eight research areas, ranging from Bio to Weapons and Psychic research. Basic research centers can be built on your planets and upgraded to specialized in a particular field for to increase their output 3, 6 or even 15 fold. The points generated by basic research can be distributed by sliders but this otherwise interesting feature becomes obsolete by the specialized centers too soon to be of any real use.
You will be playing this into the wee hours of the night.
Odd tech trees and simplistic battles.