by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Have you ever noticed how no one ever talks about Master of Orion 3? It was so universally loathed that fans prefer not to acknowledge its existence. We met with StarDrive 2’s lead developer, Daniel DiCicco, last August and left with the feeling that a spiritual successor to Master of Orion 2 was right around the corner. DiCicco introduced his new game saying “People kept asking why I did not make StarDrive 1 play more like Master of Orion 2”. Shrugging, a smile formed on his face as he continued “So that’s exactly what I plan for StarDrive 2”. Eight months down the line and some 25 hours into the game, the end result speaks for itself: he wasn’t kidding.
Following into the footsteps of such an illustrious game is a tough ask. When it comes to 4X strategy games, the basics sure are simple enough: You, usually unceremoniously, dump the player onto a campaign map with a self-chosen race and in possession of a single colony - in space or otherwise. Next you tell them to go forth, multiply and conquer. But as with many things, the devil is in the details. Master of Orion 3 failed because it could not match the magical ambiance of its predecessors and felt positively devoid of personality. I’m glad to report that this is a trap that StarDrive 2 negotiates with grace.
Things already start off positively with the galaxy’s funky inhabitants: all the races from StarDrive 1 make their return. They are, in fact, pretty much a copy/paste job and that is hardly a negative. They are so imaginatively created that it would have been a shame not to. Most races are a little eerie, like the Draylok Council whose ambassador occasionally shifts out of phase, revealing she’s actually a skeleton in disguise. Others are super friendly, like the Pollop Symbiosis who not only - look - like weed, but apparently smoke it too. Each race has matching traits and personalities and the chances are good that you end up befriending the Pollops while constantly being at odds with the Cordrazine Collective.
Into the trenches
During the early stages, Daniel DiCicco’s own voice guides new players through the game. There’s something... intimate about knowing that it is the lead designer talking to you rather than someone hired for having an awesome voice but lacks connection with the game itself. Nice touch.
The instructions aren’t for show either. On normal difficulty, the game is pretty tough and it is important to understand how things work. You need to keep track of your population as they produce food, conduct research or construct ships or buildings. When you’re not zoomed in on a planet, you are scouting the galaxy for anomalies and habitable planets that can be colonized. And that’s just the peaceful side of things. Pirates, crazed Crystalline fleets and competing empires skirt your borders, often breaching them with reckless abandon. It may sound a little overwhelming but, luckily, the turn-based game flow allows for plenty of time to ponder your next move. What it does do is ensure that space’s empty looks prove very deceiving. Honestly, there is rarely a dull moment.
Boom, boom, boom
When you intercept an enemy fleet, the game changes into a pausable real-time mode. Being something of a Master of Orion purist, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this variation to its concept, but it turned out to be quite enjoyable. Ships engage enemy vessels of their own volition unless ordered to do otherwise. Weapons vary in strength and range, the latter of which brings a certain rhythm to each battle. Initially the empty space between two opposing fleets is filled with only a handful of blue or red streaks, each depicting a missile, ray or slug being fired at the opposition. As the ships near, fighters and short-range weapons join the fray and before long the entire battlefield is lit up by weapons fire, flaring shields and exploding ships. The scene is complemented by the deep “boom”, “boom”, “boom” sounds that serve as audible illustrations to high-yield torpedoes reaching their targets.
Deep gameplay, great race design.
Some small interface niggles.