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Starbase Orion Review

By on November 5th, 2011 2:38 pm

On October 12th of 2011 Chimera Software released their second iOS title named Starbase Orion.  This is great news for 4x gamers on the iOS as this genre is still rare on the Apple App store.  However, can Starbase Orion live up to its heritage where so many others have fallen short?

The developers of Starbase Orion have clearly stated that their goal was to develop a title that would be like Master of Orion with better multiplayer.  To be fair multiplayer in the days of Master of Orion 2 was still in its infancy and mostly consisted of packing your whole system up and trucking it over to your friend’s house and networking everything.

However, it is not an excuse today and Chimera is touting their multiplayer experience to be the one defining feature.  Their release comes on the heels of iOS 5, which was a major update for Apple’s mobile platforms and with new major updates comes new features and bugs.

The main body of this review was written just after release, however in order to give a more complete picture of Starbase Orion I have decided to finish my review once 1.04 was released.  So I will comment on the improvements since release and 1.04 as well.

After having the pleasure of putting Starbase Orion through its paces in the past couple of days, I am happy to report that Starbase Orion has gone and done exactly what it said it would!  Gasp, what? Adam mentioned in the preview article, Starbase Orion has taking the simplicity of multiplayer Warcraft 3 and improved upon the successful elements of MOO2 with better graphics.

The challenge for the developers must have been how to cram all the goodness of Master of Orion 2, stuff in multiplayer that can all be played on the iPhone and iPad?  Chimera Software has risen to this challenge, and if you will bear with me I will explain all the details of the game below with juicy screenshots.

Main Menu

Starting in the beauty of space, you find yourself at Starbase Orion’s main menu.  You can choose between the following game options:

  • Galaxy Size: Small – Huge
  • Opponents: One – Three
  • Difficulty: Easy – Impossible

The 6  Race Selections (and their traits) are:

The Isather are Battle Hardened, Industrious Individuals, and Sanction Piracy

The Vass have Shared Intelligence, Quick Thinkers, and Fertile Biology

The Cyban are Brilliant Researchers, Industrious Individuals, and Fantastic Engineers

The Drask as Galactic Navigators, Combat Pilots, Persnickety, and Proficient Farmers

The Humans are Freethinking, Charismatic, and Highly Trained Smugglers.

Custom race

I like to choose Custom races, and pick the following traits: ( I like smart and nerdy races that can research the best weapons first. )

You start with 10 points to spend on racial traits.

-6 Borderline Genius (+ 2 research per scientist).

-5 Brilliant Researchers (chance per breakthrough to gain access to additional technology of the same type)

-1 Large Homeworld (race begins on a Large homeworld, instead of a medium homeworld giving you more population and structures like in MOO2)

-2 Rich Homeworld  (race begins game with mineral rich homeworld) which speeds up construction, like in MOO2.

+4 Low Gravity Affinity (no penalty on low gravity worlds, increased penalties on normal and high gravity worlds.)  Figure I can negate some of these negatives with research.

(One thing I would like to see added is the ability to change your race name.  The developers stated that more customization is planned in a near future update. However,  recent updates lets you change your race picture by tapping the picture)

Once you finished setting up the starting parameters, you enter the main game screen centered on your starting colony. The map view is very nice looking, it is isometric and looks like a major developer designed it.  The production values are that good for a small development team.

(1.04 Update has added more information and nice lush looking screens for galaxy map information like military capacity, economy, food, and research)

At the top of your screen is the information panel that tells you your maximum fleet capacity, empire money, Stardate button, food income, and research indicator. The only tappable item up there is the Stardate button which acts like a news ticker for events that happen; click on the event will take you to it if applicable.  For instance, if you finish research and tap on the notification under the Stardate button it will open your Research screen.

At the bottom of the map are Galaxy, Empire, Military, Foreign, Research, Menu, and Turn buttons.  They all pretty much do what the labels suggests.

The Galaxy button is useful for pulling up information about planets you scout, and offers an easy way to sort them and send colonizers to. The list will update as you explore new systems and scout their resources and bonuses.

The Galaxy screen is now cluttered with many planets; you can sort this view according to Classification, Minerals, or Population and with or without enemies.  Once you find a suitable planet for colonization, you can simply tap on the text next to the planet and it will automatically send the nearest colony ship.  If it is out of range, the screen will let you know and you can find a closer system to expand to.

The Empire view is very much similar to MOO2’s, in that it shows all of your colonies and what they are currently producing, and how the population is assigned to either Food production, Industrial production, or Research.

Each population can be easily reassigned by tap holding on and dragging to the desired job.  So if your Food indicator is reading -1 (19), and you drag an industrial worker over to be a farmer it instantly updated to show you the outcome of the reassignment.

This screen is useful; you will find yourself referring to it often, because you can quickly scroll through all your colonies.  This can become quite the chore once your empire expands, however thanks to a faithful and beautifully rendered Empire screen it is very efficient.  Why fix something that wasn’t broke.

The planetary screen can be reached whenever you tap on a planet you control or colonize, and it shows how many planetary facility slots are available, a production summary, and you can also allocate workers within this screen as well. Notice the nice visual touch of different planetary environments that representative of their types.

Also buried within the Empire screen is the production screen for a planet which has three tabs Special, Colony, and Military.  While two of the tabs are mainly what can either be built on the colony itself or military ships and troop transports, the special screen has included some nice automated features.

On the Special tab this is where you can perform automated orders for your colony, or terraform if you have the technology.  You can specialize colonies by telling them to focus on Industry, Research, or Farming buildings, and Military.  You can also instruct your colony to convert its production into wealth for your Empire, or to hoard its production for use in a future project.

The last option is very cool because let’s say you are researching the next best thing in Missiles, however your Rich colony has nothing to build?  In the past you would just have it produce extra credits, however now you can store your production so when you finish researching that great new Missile and add it to a new design you can finish it much faster with stored production.

The Military screen is the place to locate and manage your fleets, again another faithful adaptation from MOO2.  This list is also sortable by ships enroute or in orbit, and strength and size.  A button that takes you to the Ship Designer is also conveniently provided.

(Again I would have loved to see an option to rename fleets, and I hope it is included in the customization update)

You can also access the ship design screen from the military screen, also from the planetary production screen.  Ship design is streamlined for better or worse to picking the hull class, by tapping on the ship itself, what weapon systems to include, and what ship systems.

Weapon systems are limited by what technology you have researched, and are categorized by Short, Medium, and Long.  Lasers are long range, while Gauss Cannons are short.  Ship systems include components that extend ship range, shields, and armor.

The most notable absent items are things that made MOO2 unique like Black Hole Generators, Stellar Converters, or even Space Shuttles.  While I wouldn’t characterize the ship design and technology aspects of Starbase Orion as anemic, they are not exactly all inclusive.

I can understand the design decisions that maybe went on behind closed doors, to streamline things, however these extra items are what gives the game more character.  We play these games because I would be willing to bet that we all enjoy high-tech stuff, watch the Discovery Channel and read Popular Science.  Give us the theoretical things that are talking about, like a Mini Gamma Ray Burst Cannon.  There has been some thinking put into the whole ship, design, and combat aspect of the game that I will cover later.

The next button is the foreign button, which is mainly for managing your spy Agents, and looking up foreign empire information like how many ships they have built, or colonies founded.  There is an info panel on the right that displays espionage events like spies being caught, and successful mission like successfully stealing a technology, or sabotaging a facility.

Spying is a nice feature, that I do not believe is too powerful to be abused nor ineffective that one could ignore it.  So it was a good feature to include, and I can foresee great multiplayer games where players are chatting back and forth about successful espionage missions.

One major difference from MOO2 to note here is that there is no diplomacy, except for your opponents to tell you how much they would like to relieve the burden of your colonies, I suspect the reasoning here, is that it simplifies multiplayer.  A real diplomatic system would have been a major plus.

The next button is Research, and this screen allows you to browse the technologies available for research and to pick your next Research project.  There are three major areas of research here, and they are Astrophysics, Military, and Civil Projects.  Each section starts with four areas for you to pick, and as the game explains, as you select topics the colored circle next to them change from Green , Yellow, and Red.

As you focus on one area, other areas turn red, and disappear from your options all together.  This is similar to MOO2 system, where you only had the option to select one of three techs.  Once you picked one, the only way to get the other two is through espionage or planetary invasion.  The creative racial trait in MOO2 was expensive, but allowed you research all technology in a topic therefore not losing any potential techs.

The only other way to get technologies you have missed will be to steal it through espionage.  This is accomplished in the foreign screen and you have no real control over what you get except to allocate more spies to the effort.

Tactical Combat in Starbase Orion is not existent.  Well I am lying, there is ship combat however you are only a spectator and the only way to influence the outcome is to give specific orders to your ships.

This gives some extra decisions and strategies to players as you need to carefully plan the best design to counter your enemy and what orders to issue in combat to take advantage of these differences.  Are you going to focus on Gauss Cannons and lots of small fast ships that can close in and minimize the long range damage they are exposed to by ships so equipped?  The following screen shows a wise choice for a Gauss equipped ship.

When two opposing fleets are in the same system you get a warning that there is a battle, and this is your orders phase.  You can issue to your individual ships to take advantage of their long range lasers and engage at long range if possible, and then to choose the largest target or closest target.  These decisions can affect the outcome, so choose wisely.

Another design decision I am sure influenced by multiplayer, is this type of combat system that is quicker.  It seems very difficult to overcome how to keep Tactical Combat interesting for multiplayer for a turn based game, which would then have to be played real time?

So I applaud the developers attempt to make combat more involved by including consequences for design and order decisions rather than just simply auto resolving combat like GalCiv.

Review Update (v1.04)

Now as mentioned before the time of this review was before release, and multiplayer was not possible pre iOS 5.  With iOS5 came Gamecenter and iCloud updates that added some new features the developer were already set to take advantage of.

Gamecenter allowed automated multiplayer matching, and therefore it is very convenient to participate in multiplayer games.  Once turns are submitted, they are processed automatically and the next player is notified of their turn.

With iCloud your saved games are automatically store in the cloud, and thus can be moved between devices or restored in an emergency.

Improved UI main screen that gives you an overview of how your economy is, or your research is being calculated.

Among the many issues and bugs post release in the shadow of the release of iOS 5, was the AI.  I simply played a whole game on impossible on a small galaxy with one enemy AI, and not once did it attack me.  Seriously problems to say the least, especially the claim of the developers that their AI won some recognition in a AI competition.

November 4th the latest update 1.04 came out, and after updating I setup the same game and settings as my last test game.  After about 30 turns I encountered the AI with their two scouts out, and immediately colonized a system next to theirs to create a border.

I also sent my only destroyer there in case the AI decided to invade, and invade is what the AI did.  Once colonized the AI immediately sent both of his scouts there, and after a couple of blockaded turns my Destroyer arrived to free my start up colony.  The results were not in doubt, however a better equipped destroyer (had extra armor) arrived and erased my defenses.  The game was pretty much loss, because I could not compete with the armor add-on, as I had not researched it yet.  Brilliant!

Conclusion

Starbase Orion has undeniably achieved its goals of providing an experience similar to Master of Orion with better Multiplayer. Many of the features in Master of Orion that is lacking in Starbase Orion were necessary in my opinion to facility multiplayer.

This is ok in my book, because a real human will provide the best challenge then even the best contemporary AI. The only features that are lacking aside from having to facilitate multiplayer are promised by the developer Chimera Software to include more customization.

Final statement: Buy it now while it is on sale!!

Starbase Orion

Buy at iTunes:
(iPhone linkiPad Link)

Space Sector score: 8.5/10
great
The Good:
– As close as we are going to get for Master of Orion on the iOS platform
– Well-polished graphics and attention to detail with lush videos
– iCloud save system, never lose your save games to device changing or emergencies
– Solid A.I. (Post Update 1.04)
– Streamlined game suited well for the iOS environment
– User Interface is top class that can be compared to Civilization 5
– Automation features streamline the turn based format in single and multiplayer
– Good sound effects
– Great replayability with custom race options, and multiplayer
The Bad:
– Customization features lacking. Custom Race, Colony, Fleet, Ship Design renaming (update promised)
– Repetitive music
– Lack of Diplomacy
– Combat not controllable, except for some basic orders
– Long turn cycles late game
– Technology Tree a bit light

Screenshots

Kyle Rees “Lordxorn” has been a Space Sector contributor since May 2011. Kyle is a credited tester on games like Distant Worlds: Return of the Shakturi, and Panzer Corps, and an avid World of Tanks player. See all Kyle’s posts here.

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26 Comments


  1. ZigZag says:

    Let me guess, you played as Psilons?

  2. Kyle "Lordxorn" Rees says:

    Actually I preferred to make custom race for MOO2 as well, which was like a super Psilon race. I never minded the low gravity world, and weak combat troops, to pay for creative and brilliant bonuses. I figure my tech would make up for the low gravity eventually, and even my weakling troops.

  3. Javaslinger says:

    Additional negative – Only available for Iphone/pad…. How about the bazillion Droids??

  4. Zeraan says:

    I also have a droid, would love to try this, but no iPhone :(

    Maybe I should look into android development, and convert Beyond Beyaan when it’s done to droid, then it’d be fair? :D

  5. Josh B says:

    iOS is huge install base, minimal fragmentation. I have colleagues who’ve recently targeted Android as a platform and regretted it. Making your software work properly across all the versions and hardware is a huge pain… let alone testing the software across the same.

  6. Jason says:

    That Comscore report from the slashgear link is ancient. Android’s install base is MUCH larger than iOS at this point and it is just going to keep getting bigger. More apps are selling for Android now even given the lack of maturity and the smaller library. Hopefully developers will start following the money instead of wanting to be hipster apple only shops. Here is a more recent article that discusses this issue if anyone is interested.

    http://www.intomobile.com/2011/10/28/androids-44-app-market-share-beats-iphones-31/

  7. eike says:

    After playing this a while now, I must say that the multiplayer is a failure. The game is so dead-slow-going, that games start with days to weeks without any contact to the enemy if you play e.g. 2-3 “turns” (including the turn compression which forwards to the next turn where something happens) per day.

    • Kyle Rees says:

      Yes this was a concern of mine as well, and I suspect that the PBEM type of game play may be to blame. While it is always a feature that many demand be a part of any 4x strategy game, I am leaning towards just leaving MP out of all 4x so devs can focus on a more robust single player experience.

      The problem is that 4x games are going to be inherently long even when design decisions are made to streamline game play. Starbase Orion devs have done a great job in ensuring this but when you look at the platform, in this case an iPad, who had time to submit turns immediately back once received?

      So games will naturally take more than one day, something the devs I imagine did not anticipate. Adam and I questioned the claim by devs that a MP game could be played out in half a day. The PBEM is not a format for the masses, and the hardcore war gaming market niche is proof of this .

      Maybe a MP format like Civilization where you do simultaneous turns and can save MP games to continue later? However the problem I see here is how do you continue a game with a stranger you only know through your first game of Starbase Orion? Maybe exchange emails? In this day and age of privacy issues this issue is sensitive to some.

      This is why, in my opinion MP should only be a feature included in Real Time games, because then the game could have been improved with optional tactical combat and a diplomatic system.

  8. SGT E.Rome says:

    @Adam, Since this game seems to be destined for greatness on iOS; any possibility it may get ported to pc? I HOPE SO! I don’t on any Apple products at the moment…..

  9. Elden says:

    I downloaded the app and played it just purely after reading your review. I loved it! It really brings back memories of MOO. And it plays extremely well on the ipad. I just wish there was more ships designs. But that’s mainly looks. :)

  10. Elden says:

    Just finished a game on hard for this. Man, its addictive. The AI is pretty good even on hard. I was getting my butt kicked and had to reload many many times before I finally won. Was a really hard fought but totally epic win. I played hard with 4 computer opponents, free for all. They were coming at me with proton torpedoes and ion cannons when I was still using nuclear missiles and lasers! lol

    • Kyle "Lordxorn" Rees says:

      I am glad you are enjoying it Elden. Mind if I ask if this is your first 4x Space Strategy game? If yes, how did you come into the genre? If no, what was your first one that got you into the genre?

      I am always interested to hear how people got into this genre, because for me it was pure accident when I took a chance to shell out $50 at Egghead Software on Master of Orion way back in the day.

      Now days I am alone among my face-to-face friends in my like for this genre, so I can guess you can say I am a lonely 4x gamer here in California. =/– – – =P

  11. Dan says:

    MOO 1 and 2 were the favorite games when a kid.
    loved the iphone app. it’s the first one I’ve seen worth paying for.

  12. Evan says:

    I’m pretty sure there was a really decent MOO clone for java, called rise of antares. I have no clue if java games can be played on Androids, or iphones for that matter, but if you’re hardcore fans and don’t own iphones, it might worth a look.

    On Starbase Orion…I don’t really like the graphic for humans, Vas and Draske are the best. Detail, but in similar games details count, even though they don’t come first. If you think of it, MOO humans are based on Sean Connery look-wise, so a safe choice would be for them to base theirs on Daniel Craig(apparently both tap in human global psyche). They could also make the representative female, as I see they don’t seem to have female leadership on any race.

    Just my 2 cents though. As I use android(Samsung Phone + Google Tablet), my opinion might not be useful.

  13. Mezmorki says:

    There have been a ton of gameplay additions since verion 1.04 when this was reviewed. We are currently at version 1.1.7. The biggest addition recently is a full diplomacy system that is pretty slick. Game might merit some re-attention?

    • Kyle Rees says:

      I will take a look, though recently I have loaded up the new version and did not notice signification amount of additions. However if you say the diplomacy they added is slick, then that warrants a re-look because that was one of the negatives. Perhaps check out the MP code and see if that has been improved, there were minor bugs.

  14. Mezmorki says:

    Take a look at the list of changelogs here:

    http://www.chimerasw.com/starbaseorion/forums/forumdisplay.php?fid=7

    There are substantial additions and improvements really to all aspects of the game.

    Among your other negatives:
    – diplomacy added
    – ship renaming added
    – custom races added
    – more techs
    – more combat orders added (the basic order structure for combat is the same; and not a negative in my view anyway)

    • Mezmorki says:

      Opps, hit the button by accident! The list above were negative points about the game that have been remedied with newer patches.

      Anyway, take a look through the changelogs, particularly for version 1.1.0 (huge improvements) and 1.1.7 (when diplomacy was added).

      I started playing MoO2 recently – and it’s really amazing how close these two games are at this point.

      Cheers and happy holidays!


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