StarDrive is wholly a 4X strategy game, a genre that I have noted in the past for enjoying its depth and challenges. This new one comes from developer Zero Sum Games, and I must say first and foremost that I felt a little overwhelmed with this title.
Being overwhelmed initially is a fairly standard quality of the 4X genre. This time around though, the overwhelming feeling left me clueless in spots and hopeless in others. The game offers a tutorial on the main start screen, offering a 20+ page guide to the game, detailing how to control ships and colonies, build said ships, manage economies, and how to effectively attempt running a fledgling galactic empire. I didn’t take any notes (a mistake) and jumped in after reading and found myself bewildered after the first few steps.
Starting the game, players pick from one of the many races available. They are modeled after different animals, sci-fi and fantasy staples, and good ol’ humans. Each race also comes with their own set of racial bonuses/detractors, but these can be customized while selecting, allowing players to pick any race and play whatever style they’d like regardless. Players immediately start the game with their home world colonized, a colony ship, and a scout (or more depending on the racial bonuses). From there, everyone is free to play the game as they’d like. Want to win with brute force? Start researching new and terrible weapon and ship technology to create the stuff of space nightmares. Diplomacy is also an option if players would rather create a unified, galactic alliance and bring everyone to heel under the same banner. Given this kind of open replayability and race choices, not many playthroughs will be alike.
Once the first foundations are laid, that is when things become a little tricky. Colonizing just any old planet is not a good option if players would rather spend more of their time focusing on research or exploration – that poor colony will be in short supply of food/production and it will fall to dust quickly. Remedy that with cargo transport ships! Or better yet explore and find a perfect planet five systems away that takes 5 minutes to fly to on the game’s standard speed setting. The hunt for that perfect colony world is much like modern scientists hunt for an earth-like planet in space – they haven’t found many. The benefit of StarDrive though allows players to colonize planets at will (assuming their species can) and build on from there. However, if a colony is not productive initially, it takes a lot of effort to get it off the ground and prevent it from ending up as just a bunch of empty buildings on a faraway planet.
Diplomacy is also very interesting to handle within the game. Encountering a new race brings the game to a standstill while players discuss the weather or possible treaties, or even badmouth other races if they’ve all met one another. Be careful trying to negotiate peace or trade agreements – approaching a species in the wrong demeanor (you can pick between respectful, threatening, or pleading), and it can mean major consequences as they descend upon players with vengeance. Oh, and expect to hear from the neighbors every so often too – I continually received random reports of my “weakness” in some playthroughs. It bugged the hell out of me, even though I’ll admit the different species look fantastic and are a blast to talk to. Each race has their own approach to the galaxy and different mindsets and it’s interesting to see how they all differ.
Aside from the nice design and look of the various species and the fantastic look of the galaxy at large, the most immediate concern I had with the game is in regards to the interface. Slow and rugged and I felt constrained trying to quickly maneuver around the map and jump back to colonies or other screens. The research queue alone was very difficult to understand at first and trying to see what I was gaining with each new tech level, but it felt difficult to just pull that information. The same went for some of the other menus, like the ship design area and even the diplomacy itself.
Thankfully even with a clunky interface, managing the colonies felt very similar to other titles, namely Civilization. This was the easiest interface to utilize in the game, even if it was one of the more difficult ones to pull up sometimes. Bringing up the colony screen and then selecting a unit or building for production (and for buildings, placing them on the map) and then going on your way was laid out directly. It also allows players to switch the focus of the colony quickly, changing from focusing on food production to ensuring research is completed in a more timely manner. Hiring a governor for each colony is also a nice option, letting players devote more time to being on the front lines if some serious stuff is doing down, but I always found myself handling all of the affairs – it let me keep a better eye on the happenings of my colony and I never worried about some rogue governor going a bit overboard on his directions.
However, the best part of the game for me? Designing my own armada of ships. From the small fighters up to the large dreadnought-styled behemoths, I easily spent most of my time in the ship design pieces of the game, clunky interface and all. Building ships became even more fun once I made it further into the technology trees and opened up new ship weapons, designs, and components. Keeping a well balanced ship that has enough power and weaponry to leave a planet in a glowing, plasma dust is a dream that can easily come true with this kind of power at my fingertips. Fancying myself an amateur designer (I should not be allowed around games like Spore); I threw a lot of effort into creating these magnificent cruisers that would crush my enemies.
Sadly, that was not really the case. On top of balancing my continuously weak empire and maintaining a strong military standing, I never could seem to win any battles. My armada would jump in from the neighboring system, a dozen or so ships at times, and proceed to go toe-to-toe with the AI. I’d watch the fireworks : one by one my ships exploding brilliantly against the backdrop of space. Spectacular defeats one and all, even with all of my effort in ship building or design. Maybe I should give up being an amateur ship designer…
In all honesty though, the game’s battles in space seem like a slow pirouette; expect to watch both sides of the conflict continually circle back and forth in an attempt to bring their weapons to bear properly, unleashing furious salvos that never really seem to hit on-screen but cause serious damage to ship shields and armor. And expect it to be a tough thing to watch – the enemy AI, even on Easy, is fairly difficult to overcome. This even includes the various rouge units players can expect to meet in various systems, many of which I lost more than a few ships to.
Ultimately though, StarDrive tries very hard to capture the awe and feel of some of the more well-known 4X titles. It doesn’t necessarily do a fantastic job in the process, but there are a lot of good, key pieces to the game that I did enjoy. They are just hidden behind bad UI and constraining controls and one of the steepest learning curves imaginable. Players looking to expand their repertoire and love 4X games will no doubt enjoy StarDrive, but for many it’s not going to be a first choice, or even fourth or fifth.
Note: The StarDrive review was written based on the PC version of the game provided to us for review.