EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by William and Sergio
previewed on PC
The first two Master of Orion games set the bar for the 4X genre dizzyingly high and they are still being played today. Wargaming scooped up the IP and promised us a proper reboot, producing a game that would stick close to the originals.
In this preview we take a look at the new Master of Orion from two different perspectives. Sergio is a MoO veteran, William is new to the franchise. We will look at some of the basic mechanics behind the game and zoom in on the controversial decision to drop the turn-based space battles, among other things.
I have been a fan of the 4X genre of games ever since Civilization came out on my Amiga 500. I did briefly play the original Master of Orion but was so hooked on Sid Meier's masterpiece that my mind had no room for it. The games were rather similar, but whereas Civilization had gamers conquering the planet, Master of Orion went beyond Earth for an attempt at ruling the galaxy. The reboot brings back this premise and sees both humans and aliens vie for the power to rule the stars.
I was excited about a reboot at first but I have to conclude that it is much farther away from the original games than we were promised. The new Master of Orion isn’t a bad game but I think longtime fans will only enjoy it when they are willing to see passed all that is missing. Considering that it has some of the original developers working on it, I feel a need to be a tough judge and will give it the same treatment as every other game in the genre, which is to compare it to Master of Orion.
William on Empire Management
After selecting your race, you start with a single planet, much like starting with a single city in Civilization. To grow, you'll want to colonize nearby planets. Planets aren't always immediately habitable and finding suitable ones can take some time. Planets are rated in three different categories; Size determines the maximum possible population, Biome (type of land - tundra, forests, arid, water etc) determines the suitability to your race and Minerals determine the level of resources available and thus the speed of production. Certain planets have a special trait, like an abundance in gold that increases the taxes you will receive from the population. Once colonized, planets can then be used to produce buildings for income, defence, research as well as produce fleets for attack.
Fans of 4X games set in space will be very familiar with empire management in Master of Orion, not in the least because this is the game that fathered them all.
Sergio on Empire Management
To start positive; The new Master of Orion is a visual feast in all aspects but the standout graphical improvement was made on the campaign map. Space looks positively gorgeous and hits all the right notes. Colourful and warm, the galaxy feels like a thriving and inviting place with tiny little animations on the fleets and monsters that roam it. More importantly, it feels ready to exploit.
4X games are notorious for the amount of time players spend in various screens and menus. In many games the menus feel bland, taking away from the experience. Navigating through Master of Orion, managing, improving and colonizing planets is so wonderful it doesn’t get stale. Beautifully designed screens, quick access to every aspect of the game - it is clear that a lot of thought and work was put in the interface and it pays off, big time. This is the smoothest empire building experience you will have had, period.
Sure, there are a few small niggles but I have a feeling most of those will be fixed before the game’s final release. One thing I do hope is improved upon is planet specialization. The number of slots for production workers is very restrictive which removes the production-powerhouse specialization entirely.
William on Star Lanes
To explore their surroundings, players can only travel via nodes. Each planetary system is connected to a handful of other systems - sometimes even just one - and accessing neighbouring systems potentially requires using the star lanes that connect the nodes. This form of travel does limit the direction from which you can access enemy controlled systems, but can also be used as a defensive tactic, as you can post guarding ships or fleets on nodes of the systems your race controls.
Sergio on Star Lanes
I can live with the Star Lanes, even if they take out a huge chunk of freedom of movement for your fleets, as well as some of the deeper strategies found in the original games. The idea that star lanes create choke points does indeed work and they have some merit for defensive strategies. Defending your territory requires a lot less vigilance as you only need to blockade a handful of choke points. There is absolutely no way - around - an empire to reach an available or undefended planet in enemy territory. The devs will say that you can offer an open borders treaty but these aren’t easy to obtain unless your enemy is terrified of your empire - which is as it should be. I don’t, however, buy the devs reasoning that not having star lanes is to the advantage of the player because the AI cannot defend everywhere at once. The AI in the original games made me work hard in defense of their planets. Don’t tell me that it is impossible to mimic an AI designed 20 years ago.
Sergio on Ship Building
Ship building is a little too restrictive. In the old games you could design to your heart’s content. The available room aboard the ship was pretty much the only restriction. Now the ships are divided into three sections; Core System, Weapons and Specials. The first two sections are ok but the Specials restrict you to a handful of slots - too few to build really tight specialized ships, at least not until you hit the really big ones. I loved being able to cram a ton of defensive measures on a small ship and equipping it with limited weapons to act as a damage soaker, or creating a lightly armored ship loaded with specials that could hinder enemy fleets in the early rounds. These sort of strategies are simply not in the cards anymore and that made me a bit pissy: the more choice I had, the more restrictive the game started to feel. This had its impact on combat as well.
William on Combat
I'm actually a little disappointed by the current combat system, mainly because it is overly simplified. After moving onto a node that is occupied by an enemy fleet, a screen previews the battle by giving a predicted outcome. From here you have two choices - you can choose to Simulate the battle, or take control of the ensuing battle.
Early on these battles are somewhat farcical, with one ship taking on another ship - whichever ship has more firepower wins. As you get further into the game though, fleets become bigger, and some basic tactics can be applied, such as flanking the enemy with speedy ships as your heavy hitters attack down the middle of the circular battlefield. This all happens in pausable-real-time and with such a small battlefield battles do not last long, regardless of which strategy you decide on. As such, it mostly comes down to whichever fleet has the greater strength.
That strength is partially dictated by your Command points - a familiar game mechanic in strategy games that restricts the size of your army. Not having enough means your fleet will run inefficiently which results in a huge reduction in income as your taxes are used exponentially to fund your fleet. Of course, you'll need a fleet if an enemy (including space pirates) is encroaching on your systems.
Sergio on Combat
The devs keep saying that the battles are awesome. Their reasoning is that it no longer takes 15 minutes to play through a battle but if you read and listen between the lines they are actually saying that the combat was designed to work in multiplayer. This is not strange if your boss is one of the largest online gaming companies in the world, right? But MoO - was - about 15 minute battles. It was about entering a battle as the underdog and spending a fair amount of time to think over every move and win because you outsmarted your opponent. That’s all gone.
Now, the real time battles anonymise your ships. You have all these cool offensive technologies but none of them really matter. Remember running behind in the power race, getting the Stellar Converter years ahead of your enemies and coming out on top after all? Gone. Remember seeing a beam make a ship tremble apart or completely bypass the shields? Gone. A beam weapon is a beam weapon, a missile is a missile and there is nothing to distinguish between them other than the total power dealt. Oh there might be some differences but the short duration of the battle will ensure that you will never notice. You can engage some specials during the battle but most of the time the battle is over before you get to use them. You can’t even select single ships - they are grouped by type. All of it combined translates in a combat system that is simply not interactive enough to appreciate battles.
William on Diplomacy
If you're familiar with the Civilization diplomacy mechanic, then you'll be right at home with diplomacy in Master of Orion. Once you have met an opposing race you can interact with them. Trading can be a focus - especially trading technologies - as well as treaties that allow movement through each other's systems. Once you are on friendly enough footing, alliances can also be formed.
I found it annoying that there is no ability to submit a counter proposal to an opponent's initial proposal. Another race may offer a certain amount of credits for a particular technology and if you feel that this is a little on the low side, there is no option to negotiate. Instead, you need to exit discussions and then begin discussions again from your side, often making them unhappy for dismissing their deal. If you are the initiator, you - can - ask the opposition for what it would take to make the deal happen. Odd.
Each of the opposing races act differently when in discussions and you do require a bit of tact when trying to deal with certain races. One race may be quick to anger, whilst some of the other races are a little more lenient when it comes to diplomacy.
Sergio on AI and Diplomacy
Right now, the AI is terrible. Star Lanes or not, the AI does not confidently defend and completely ignores obvious opportunities to punch through the player’s defenses. The AI is passable at empire building but not fantastic.
I’m glad to say that things look better on the diplomacy side. The Galactic Council needs a little more balance but looks truly awesome. The interaction with AI players could be initiated a little more often from the AI side and allow the player to make counter offers, but the feel of it surpasses even that of the fantastically done Stardrive which already was a remarkable achievement.
At this early stage, Master of Orion does show some promise, but I believe that there is still room for improvement prior to the full release.
Combat should be a major portion of Master of Orion but isn’t - it is too simplified for my tastes and can largely be ignored. In the battles I've been in so far, all have basically been determined by the fleet with the best stats. It hardly seems necessary to go through combat manually - it is better to save time by clicking the Simulate option.
Elsewise, I'm looking forward to seeing what is added to the game as development continues. Except for combat, everything is polished, including the clear visuals and the full voiced dialogue.
I am amazed at Master of Orion’s production values - the voice acting alone sets the game apart from its peers. A big kudos too to the developers for making the game visually - feel - like the original two games. Master of Orion oozes personality and comes with a significant level of polish. Yet a good game is not built on production values alone, and mimicking a game visually is not the same as “remaking” it.
The terrible AI and the empty combat suggest that there is a long way to go for this new Master of Orion before it can replace the original games as the genre standard. While I am sure the AI will be improved before release, I am disappointed to say that we should not expect a shift to turn-based. It is unfortunate to see that a team that is so obviously passionate about Master of Orion, so readily dismissed what was perhaps its most compelling feature: lengthy, punishing combat sessions that made you feel like a true champion when winning them.
Despite it not favourably comparing to its predecessors, Master of Orion - is - on the path to becoming a decent 4X title. If you can forget it was initially marketed as a “close to the originals reboot” and able to see it as “just another 4X game in space” then it is worth the purchase.
There are no guarantees - but we'd bet our own money on this one. If you're going to take a chance with yours, odds are good this one will deliver.