Every so often, I get the hankering to play some strategy-filled Civilization V, which satisfies the craving as only a 4X1 strategy can. Zero Sum Games’ StarDrive, a game of exploration and conquest that takes place on a slightly larger scale, looked as if it would be able to compete for my attention in the strategy department – at least on paper. It’s definitely an ambitious project, with a number of really great features and wonderful political interactions; but it fell slightly short of my expectations, and resulted in some mild frustration from time to time.
StarDrive is an interesting animal. For one thing, the game is a turn-based strategy, but it’s also real-time. Basically, a turn is a fixed unit of real time, which means that the only way to catch your breath is to pause the game (although, you can actually give orders during the pause). I enjoyed this particular game mechanic; but it’s not immediately clear how many seconds an actual turn is unless you count it off while you’re playing. One of the odder things about StarDrive is the lack of a good tutorial. Instead of videos (which are referenced by the game), players are limited to some static information cards. I found that these really didn’t impart much to my understanding of the game.
The single-player campaign starts you off by asking you to choose a race (each of which has advantages and disadvantages) and set the game rules. After that, you’re thrown right into the action of colonizing the galaxy. Every planet has the potential to support one race or another (not every planet is suitable for every species); each planet can also produce a set amount of resources that can be used, stockpiled, or shipped off to other planets. Like Cities XL, you can actually create planets that do nothing but support other planets. For example, you can grow crops one one plane, and then you can ship those crops to another planet in your empire that you have earmarked as a research colony. It’s a neat way of balancing out your resources and labour.
Meet Winnie-the-Pooh’s well-armed cousin.
In your travels around the galaxy, you will inevitably encounter other alien races. Each of them has unique characteristics, as well as their own way of communicating. It is pretty easy to see that a lot of work went into creating these other civilizations. When interacting with other creatures, it is important to be mindful that there are three variables to consider: trust, anger, and fear. Each of these elements affects your dealings with others, and it is a challenge to discover the protocols associated with each race – and to not run roughshod over others’ sensitive spots. A mistake in etiquette (or a slip of the mouse pointer) could cost you a valuable relationship. Even though a lot of races have a surprising amount of tolerance, errors in judgement and cursor placement will most likely have you running back to your last saved checkpoint.
Movement about the universe is fairly open, and can be accomplished by mouse clicks (to deploy your ships in a direct manner) or by actually flying your shop around using the keyboard. This unhindered movement really serves to demonstrate how large the playing area is. It also offers a stark contrast to colony development on planets, which is carried out using a tile-based system on a grid. Combat is also similarly aligned, with the ability to select groups of ships to move and attack based on sets of commands; some of the space battles can be fairly extensive and awesome to watch thanks to some spiffy graphics, great sound effects and creative character design (although some of the larger battles may cause even an impressive rig to chug along). Planetside, though, the combat is carried out -for the most part- automatically. I definitely favored the exciting space battles over the somewhat tepid land skirmishes.
The tech tree is not complicated; but, it takes a long time to fulfill.
One of the neat features that makes StarDrive very compelling is the ship-building system. Designing your own ship is a fun and surprisingly addictive subroutine of the overall experience. The types of ships that can be built, as well as the components list, are dependent on the race that you chose at the beginning of the game. That beings said, the functional groups are essentially the same. Building ships is as easy as selecting a template and adding pieces – just keep track of the fact that some components are necessary, while others have dependencies on certain parts. Ship-building is not everyone’s cup of tea; but if you are anal-retentive and like to squeeze as much functionality out of your ships as you can, then this mode will keep you smiling.
As your empire grows, things start to get more complicated. I mentioned before that each planet is unique, and produces a different amount of resources; juggling these resources to ensure that your realm sits in a comfortable equilibrium with itself can be pretty taxing to do manually. Luckily, there are some brilliant automation systems that make life easy. For instance, you can actually assign ships to explore on their own, or take certain types of cargo to colonies that are running low. You can actually run planets automatically by giving the leader of each planet a template to fulfill (research? farm? military?). It definitely makes life easier to have these systems available.
Holy crap! That bear is huge!
For each awesome aspect of Star Drive, though, there is something that drags it back a step. Take the story, for instance – there really isn’t much of one. There are a number of races to play as, but they aren’t really that different from each other, which takes away from the replay value. The real-time/turn-based hybridization really kicks the pacing of the game in the gonads; you are guaranteed to spend lots of time waiting for things, especially since you start off the game missing some key technology that will take many turns to research – turns that translate to minutes of nothing. Aesthetically, there are some glitchy bits that take away from the slick presentation of the game; also glitchy: the controls, which are be finicky, and can cause you to destroy carefully laid out plans. Random encounters with precursor aliens and other races really don’t seem to add much to the overall experience, making the player feel like they have wasted time. This is all very frustrating and makes the game feel like they pushed it to market too quickly, leaving the consumers with a title that is not quite finished.
StarDrive is a game with a lot of potential – potential that really needs to be fulfilled to take this game from tolerable to stellar. While it feels incomplete, the parts that work, work really well! Beautiful visuals combine with a great UI to make for an enjoyable run through the single-player campaign. I am on the fence about recommending this, save for the fact that Zero Sum actually takes the time to listen to complaints; oh yeah, and the game is only $30 on Steam, so that makes buying the game a little easier on the conscience. I’m hoping that the developers fix some of these issues and add multi-player to the mix. If not, then the re-playability of StarDrive is cast in doubt.