by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
My beard is grey
Finally, we get a new Master of Orion. It has only been 20 years since the last one (shush, I have taken great pains to forget that absurd third game). Commissioned by a Tank-MMO company, it is perhaps a little odd that it is not unpleasant to play. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s not great either. It’s not really MoO. Before I explain why it isn’t, let me backtrack a little for those of you who are still in full possession of their hair and lack grey in their beards.
Master of Orion wasn’t the first 4X game, but it was the first to be named as such. A classic 4X game sees the player nurture a budding civilization to greatness, dominating over all others in one form or another. For Master of Orion, this means exploring and colonizing space while waging war with other races. Well, maybe not always waging war - you get the picture.
The new Master of Orion does a lot of things right. Visually, it masterfully captures the light-hearted Master of Orion spirit with colourful, alien looking… erm… aliens and outlandish ship designs. In the dark setting of space, there’s nothing wrong using a somewhat cartoony paintbrush for the aesthetics, and they are spectacularly beautiful. Equally impressive is the interface. Everything works smoothly and it’s refreshing to be able to whizz through the various menus and screens quickly without any hiccups at all. The layout makes sense too. Everything is where you would expect it to be which is important in a game where you will administer an empire consisting of hundreds of planets. I would have preferred the MoO 2 colony management style, simply because no one else is using it, but I understand why the developers have elected to use a rotating planet with a list of buildings instead.
Espionage has been reworked into something that I would not mind seeing in future games. Rather than giving a bunch of spies orders to either spy on another empire or defend against their spies, you get to be far more specific. The number of spies remains small and manageable, and spies that aren’t conducting counter-espionage can be given specific missions like stealing research, inciting revolts or even stalling research. Being able to halt research for ten turns on Mentar Prime, home of the Psilon scientists, is a nice little achievement.
Unfortunately things go downhill, or should I say downplanet, from there?
Combat is a disappointing affair. There are dozens of great 4X games out there that do real time combat. Master of Orion could have set itself apart from the bunch simply by being true to its turn based roots. Instead, it did a “me too” and went with pausable real time. In the original games, you could spend half an hour or longer figuring out the best strategy to defeat your opponent. You designed ships for specific roles, giving them special tech that you would seek out and deploy during the battle when the time was exactly right. Identifying that one powerful ship and targeting it with a Black Hole Generator made you feel powerful and in control. Being the first to field ships equipped with a Stellar Converter and obliterating the enemy with their now obsolete ships was glorious. Combat in Master of Orion should be about going into a battle you have no right to win and working your brain to the max, exhausting every ability of your ship and come out on top despite having been massively outnumbered and outgunned. You’ll find none of that here - your influence in combat is hardly felt at all. What you get instead is meaningless combat soup where ships trip over each other and blanket the screen with spiffy looking special effects. The one with the biggest fleet wins, and your great designs and smart strategies never come into play.
Building ships is equally uninteresting. Each ship has slots that you can fill with base components such as engines and shields, slots that can be filled with weapons, and slots that can be filled with special equipment. Visually it looks nice enough but you never get the sense that you are designing anything. Come to think of it, that fits very well with the combat in which you never get the sense that you are influencing the outcome. *thud*
Another unfortunate choice is the star lanes. When I first had my ships zipping along them, I thought the tactical application of the choke points and using these as an anchor for battle stations could be interesting, but it’s just not. You’re doing far more micromanagement than you need to. The battlestations are the first thing to go in battle and every fleet just takes far too long to get anywhere. More damning still, it removes every element of surprise that used to be there, especially when the scanner range technology wasn’t that sophisticated yet.
Space, space is empty
Despite sporting some of the best production values in the genre, Master of Orion feels empty and repetitive. Once colonized, every planet feels the same except for its size and suitability for either research or ship production. Moving ships, administering planets, it all starts feeling like a chore before long, the visual beauty forgotten. Features that could have livened things up a bit, like fleet admirals and planet governors, have simply been left out. Some of the things that have made it into the game have been implemented poorly. Pollution, for instance, is a major nuisance that forces you to rescue planets before the waste snuffs out the population on a regular basis. And the original, choice heavy tech tree has made way for a run off the mill affair from which you will get new technologies that hardly ever seem to matter.
The AI doesn’t do much to make things more dynamic either. It is fairly smart when it comes to colonizing and building good sized fleets but it is rubbish at actual warfare. I just came out of a game where I was the only empire to be at war with the Psilons when I found a humongous fleet sitting on the other end of a starlane. It was eight times the strength of all of my fleets combined, yet the Psilons had not made a move against me for 50 or more turns. Before that war, I had already wiped out the Silicoids whose ships refused to combine in a large enough force to deal with mine.
Not very MoO
Master of Orion 2 was a tough act to follow and I don’t blame either NGO or Wargaming for missing the mark. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that the game never had a chance. The only reason I can think of why we’re having to deal with real time combat is because Wargaming forced the issue and made the developers put it in there because, well, Wargaming does multiplayer. To make things even more comical, multiplayer tactical combat was left out completely at launch. If turn-based combat was too complicated to program, I guess multiplayer battles proved to be too difficult as well.
I went into Master of Orion fully aware of that though. I love any type of 4X, was still excited, and had an open mind. I was cautiously optimistic about the game when it first came to Steam’s Early Access - a very vocal community sprung up around the game and my hope was that they would help steer the game in the right direction. Hardly any of their recommendations made it into the game. As a result, Master of Orion is a mobile-game-depth “me too” game that is beautiful and serviceable but ultimately uninteresting.
There are games out there that are more Master of Orion than this Master of Orion.
Great production values, visual style raises the bar.
Very samey, gameplay doesn’t come close to the bar.