The best turn-based games allow you to control an entire domain either through automated control or through in-depth micromanagement. The original StarDrive took things a bit further by taking the game to the stars – but it had its share of problems. Does StarDrive II address these and improve on the original? Let’s find out.
What if the speed of light wasn’t a constant? In the real world, until some clever fellow proves otherwise, that’s what we have to work with. As the old saying goes, “Physics isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law”.
In the world of games, though, we can stretch the rules somewhat. In this world, the known laws of physics are just a starting point. The speed of light was constant, too, at least until the StarDrive was discovered and we learned how to traverse the universe at speeds greater than light itself. Consequently we’ve come to know the universe is a strange and wonderful place. This description almost feels like an understatement when it comes to the other races we’ve encountered!
There are Vulfen (Wolves), Owlwoks (Owls), Kulrathi (Bears) and more oh my! And during our time traversing amongst the stars, the universe has taught stars has taught us one insurmountable truth, conquer or be conquered. That is the premise behind zer0sum’s new strategy-based game where you eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate (4X), StarDrive 2.
The way players will do this is by first selecting the race they wish to represent. After you have chosen your race you must now decide what specific traits, be they positive or negative but never both from the same tree, your race will have. These traits ensure that neither you, nor your opponents, will be perfect.
Once these details have been fleshed out you can than customize the map size (which is procedurally generated), the richness of the planets, how many habitable planets there are and a few other things. All of these features allow you to choose how complex and how difficult you want to make the game but it also ensures each game is unique.
As is tradition for most 4X strategies of this kind there is no story campaign. The best way to describe it is that each game is a skirmish with random events to provide micro-stories but none of them provide an overarching narrative. For a game that offers no multiplayer I expected it to have something other than conquest to keep me interested until the end but it doesn’t. This lack of engagement had me almost putting the game down early on.
As I soldiered on, I found myself enjoying many of the advanced features. The biggest one for me was the ship building. I spent several hours customizing ships, micromanaging my planets all because this game is much more intuitive than its predecessor. The micromanagement features are not as robust as they are in other games. Such as you can only set an empire wide tax rate so you can’t tax individual planets at different rates. This is a major inconvenience when you consider that taxes have a direct impact on your populations happiness and not all planets are going to be as happy with your regulations.
The previous game menus were clunky; it was difficult to find specific information and there were sub-menus that just didn’t need to be there. This time around there is only a mild learning curve, which made this a much more enjoyable experience. The only difficult thing I needed to learn had to do with the ground combat. I just couldn’t ascertain at what range the rifles would work so it was trial by fire to figure it out. Once I did have it sorted I realized how much more strategic ground combat was and enjoyed it much more. All in all this was the only instance I was truly confused by the game and that is a major improvement.
Speaking of improvements, since the games release there have been several updates to enhance, tweak or just plain revamp many of the games features based on feedback from players. These kind of improvements were missing from the original and it made many kickstarter backers feel betrayed for the lack of support. While I wasn’t an original backer, I did purchase the game early on and I was generally unhappy that things were broken and further upset that a sequel was in the works before the game had been fixed, when it had been promised it would be.
With that out of the way I can honestly say that StarDrive 2 is an amazing game. Sure, the previous game had its faults and was cut down in its prime but this is a superior game in terms of gameplay, engine and features. I can’t say for sure but I think many of the problems in the original game were due to the engine. The decision to use the Unity engine was probably the best decision the developers could have done. Without that change none of the other improvements could have been made.
These improvements are also why this review is coming at you a little later than usual. When I first started playing many of the diplomatic features were spartan or the AI was very unbalanced on what they could offer you vs what you could offer them. This changed with an update focused on almost nothing but Diplomacy and added the open-borders treaty. There isn’t a lot of call for it I grant you but it was something I was trying to take advantage of in one game but couldn’t understand why it wasn’t there. This radically changed how the game played diplomatically so it was something I wanted to dive into.
The update did balance out many of the problems I felt were present but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. The biggest advantage an AI player has over the player is its use of spies. In almost every game I played I would get 2 or 3 messages about spies being intercepted in my borders, being rooted out as a mole or my tech being stolen every 10 turns or so.
This is a big deal because you can’t research everything in the game and I like the idea of trading for tech. This will negate that disadvantage because when the AI spies get caught, the only retaliation you can invoke will damage your relations with that government. There is no limit to how many spies a government can have, at least I never reached a unit cap, and even if you’re friendly or allied with the AI, they will still send as many spies as they can against you. This made many of my late games more about controlling my secrets than it was my military assets.
This late game problem became more apparent when I realized that the AI could move much faster across the stars then I ever possibly could. There was an update to make Easy mode easier and if you’re new to the series, I encourage you to play it even if you’re a veteran of 4X games. A feature that I feel that should not be missing from any 4X game is the option to set your victory conditions. If you’re a player who likes to win through diplomacy or race to the end of the tech tree to win, you can’t do that in StarDrive 2. The only victory you can achieve, as far as I could tell, is through domination. The only other major balance problem I encountered was with the auto-resolve for ground and space battles.
At the start of each battle there is an option for the game to auto-resolve the battle, giving you a percentage of success and failure, or you can take command of the battle yourself. A space battle is very easy: All you need to do is tell the units where to move or what target to engage and they autonomously make it happen. With that in mind, I figured battles that said I could win easily would be an easy victory but they turned into a major loss. This happened battle after battle. There were even instances where it said I would lose but the auto-resolve told me I had won. When I went back to try and see if I could mitigate my losses by manually playing, I lost.
During these space battles and managing my planetary assets I was continually impressed by the level of detail in the game. This is a very stark improvement over the previous game. The stellar gasses in the background, planets and beam weapons are what genuinely caught my eye. The only disappointment was in the ground units but that isn’t the focus of the game.
I think many of the sounds are carried over from the previous game but they are still unique and interesting, especially for the alien races. The rest are average and didn’t provide anything memorable. The music is probably the worst feature in this game. It isn’t very long and it loops constantly, it would be best to turn it off and put on an internet music station in this game.
In the end, StarDrive 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor not only in gameplay but in ease of use. Unfortunately it can only offer solitary and probably not a very memorable experience but at its current asking price of $30, it is fair price for admission.