Neogen2 Creations announced Star Lords in the beginning of August 2012. Star Lords, not to confuse with Steve Barcia’s Master of Orion prototype with the same name, is (also) a turn-based space 4X game for the PC. Neogen2 set the release date for Q4 2012 and is accepting pre-orders with a discount on final build and early game access since announcement day.
Neogen2 Creations is an independent game development studio, founded in 2005 by Mike Domingues. They account for 10 games in their portfolio, two of which commercial products: a football game and an adventure platformer.
Neogen2 announced Star Lords as an “epic-sized complex and dense 4X strategy game for the PC”. The features list include your usual space 4X game suspects: several races to play with, diplomacy, espionage, space combat, a randomly generated universe, research and trade.
On top Neogen2 proposes pirates (which are like mini empires on their own), minor races, leaders, slot-based colony development and domestic policies. Hot-seat (already present), Lan and online multiplayer with matchmaking is also envisaged to be included later.
But, above all Neogen2 brings back a feature that many 4X gamers love and that has been long forgotten: turn-based tactical combat. That’s right, good old TBS space combat with all it’s goods and bads. Yes, combat plays similar to Master of Orion 2.
Out of the list, at the moment, are important features like ship design or race customization.
With the introduction done let’s move on now to the juicy part. How good does Star Lords looks and plays at the moment (alpha v1.2).
Simple is good, but clean and pretty is even better
The UI is very simple and easy to use for the most part. Generally it’s easy to grasp what things are for and what you can do. The most complex screen is the colony management screen. It shows the planet info, the current buildings and the construction queue, but, Neogen2 was careful enough and introduced plenty of tooltips in this particular screen so it’s not that hard to understand what all those numbers and planet characteristics mean, especially if you’re familiarized with other games of this genre.
But, while this is a quite simple and easy to navigate-through UI it is still half way there on becoming a fully usable UI, not unexpected for an alpha version of course. Let’s say that it’s not very good looking at the moment.
Excluding all the missing art assets from this assessment, and some other assets which seem very primitive still, again all normal and expected for an alpha build, the UI still needs a lot of polishing evidently. Text needs to be more readable, we need more tooltips and something has to be done about those color contrasts. Dark blue on-top of black never works. Gamma correction also needs to be tweaked. That or the UI objects (ships, planets, other star system objects, trade lanes) need to be made more visible. Everything is too dark at the moment. Some cut-scenes, as little as they may be, would also be a good plus (e.g. diplomacy screen, invasions, colonization, news, tech progression).
Zooming, moving around and rotating the camera work reasonably well but there’s some extra work to be done here too. For instance, zooming out should take you further out so that you can grasp your neighborhood more comfortably. Rotating the camera is a nice feature but the rotation angle isn’t kept and always returns to the same default camera angle. I would keep the angle and reset the camera with some hot key, or at least give that option, otherwise half the point is missed.
I’m convinced that these UI faults, many of which minor but still important to address, are already in the devs’ minds and the whole point of going through alpha and then beta is to not only test things but also to complete the art assets and polish the UI as much as possible, or at least that’s my expectation. You still have plenty of time guys, make it prettier and more user friendly.
So, UI in the works aside let’s focus now on Star Lord’s gameplay itself.
Good old turn-based combat is back, but will it work better this time?
The game feels strangely familiar, in a good sense. I’m convinced that any person who has played other space 4X games, particularly more old school ones like the Master of Orion series, Space Empires IV or Star Trek: Birth of the Federation will feel right at home. It’s not hard to understand why. Both Star Lords’ strategic and tactical layers unfold in turn-based fashion, something rarely seen these days where, if memory serves me right, you have to come back to Space Empires IV (2000) to see something similar.
So, turn-based tactical combat is probably Star Lords’ strongest visiting card, as it’s something many space 4X gamers have been craving for a long time now. But, TBS combat is not without its share of problems or challenges, so it will be interesting to find out how Neogen2 creations has tackled (if they had or will) the old issues that plague this beloved tactical system. Issues like “who-goes-first-has-the-advantage” or the “high-number-of-ships-tedium” problem. At the moment ships can’t stack during combat, so, what happens when we’ll end up with massive fleets? Or will we not?
Actually, after playing two games, one with the Humans for about 75 turns and another with the Rasmuth (the awkward militaristic research guys) for 205 turns, I never played battles with more than 5 to 7 ships. The reason why is that at the moment things take a long time to build and in my game I was constantly being rampaged with enemy spies sabotaging my buildings and stealing my money every two turns. I had 2 agents assigned with counter-intelligence if you’re wondering. So, it was hard to get an economy going. But getting back to TBS combat, the initiative seems to be always given to the attacker but weapons don’t have a very big range, and ships can’t move long distances either (at least with basic technology) so maybe the “who-goes-first” issue got mitigated to some extent.
It’s too soon to tell if Neogen2 has nailed the combat, on the long-term I mean (on bigger games), but it’s quite enjoyable already if you happen to like to go tactical in turns that is, if not you can always hit auto-resolve.
It’s playable, in fact it’s very playable
Star Lords offers colony development, which is quite deep actually, something not always seen in space 4X games. The Colony Management screen is quite rich in the information it provides and quite as easy to follow as there are plenty of tooltips for this one. There’s planet info, special planet traits, population info, happiness info, a building queue and slots available for construction. But, don’t expect to be trading deuterium or having to check stocks, everything in Star Lords is abstracted to you. There are no specific resources to look for or trade or special resources that you need to have to satisfy a particular technology or unit. Everything is abstracted around how rich your planets are from “Poor” to “Very Rich” (and possibly other classifications) at good old Master of Orion style.
Neogen2 announced deep diplomacy and intelligence/espionage systems as another of Star Lords’ flagship features, and from what I’ve seen so far I think they will deliver, in fact they already do deliver to a good extent. I didn’t play big and full games yet but it was sufficient enough to grasp a more complex than usual diplomacy and espionage layer. There are two entities you can interact with besides other full-fledged empires like yourself. These are: Pirates and Minor Races.
Minor races are … quite minor actually in what you can expect to do with them. In fact, as of now, they seem to be useful only for trade, although Neogen2 states in the manual that they are “useful as trading partners among other things”. What these other things may be I don’t know yet, at least there’s nothing you can do with them interactively via the diplomacy screen at the moment.
Pirates are between Minor Races and Empires but much closer to the latter. In fact in some ways they are even more interesting than empires since you can request “special” services from them, which includes attacking other empires or paying for information. But they’re pirates, and so they are not imperialistic or expansionists by nature and should not expand much, but who knows what they are up to. So, Pirate clans will tell you that the best thing you can do is to benefit from their protection from deep space’s many dangers. They will generously offer their services and do the dirty work for you, for a small fee of course. As far as I can remember this is the most complex pirate system I have seen so far in a space 4X game.
Dealing with the other empires felt right to me. When I closed free trade agreements with them they sent freighters to establish trade routes. When an empire went to war with another empire I was friends with it was fairly easy to forge an alliance with them, as they surely were happy to get more hands to join the fight. They don’t contact you for ridiculous offers and are not predictable on the way they may accept or not your deals. Sometimes a race demands more than another and it’s up to you to find out why.
I was quite happy with diplomacy overall. I didn’t use perhaps 25% of all the options available at the moment (although I tested a good bunch of them) but I liked what I’ve seen so far. My only observation is that the game must give more feedback on what some deals mean and shed more light on which deals are currently active and with whom we established them. Forging a trade agreement is nice, and a research pact sounds good, but what exactly are we getting here? The manual clarifies this to an extent but a couple tooltips wouldn’t hurt. At the moment, there’s no way to quickly check which agreements you have and what exactly you are getting. This needs to be addressed.
Espionage, or let’s call it Intelligence, is also quite developed in this alpha build. It’s nothing too flashy or very attractive at the moment but it’s intuitive and simple to use. And it’s complex too, as the devs promised it would be. You can undertake many types of intelligence actions from several types of sabotage missions, assassination, funds stealing or information gathering. Agents have several characteristics which make them more suitable for certain types of actions, you have to take that into account when sending them on missions. You can recruit up to the agent cap, which increases with tech development. If you like to have many espionage/intelligence options then you will be happy, but again, don’t expect anything too flashy, for now.
Research is probably the game’s feature that needs more work still. I’m not saying the research system isn’t good. It’s just that at the moment it looks rather too simple and it’s not very appealing. Also, it appears as though there aren’t many techs available for research, possibly they will add more till final release but I wasn’t very excited overall with how research works at the moment. Not with the techs’ descriptions nor with the tech tree’s organization or lack of. It feels a bit messy at the moment, at least not organized in what we generally perceive as a tech tree. But, tech development is there, research labs are there, you can assign agents to sabotage your rival’s research progress and you can make research pacts. Seems like a solid base, but a lot of work is still needed here.
SL offers two layers of characters: Generals and Ministers. Generals are independent entities that can travel on their own or on fleets for a morale boost (that supposedly increases hit-chance and damage). They are expected to level up although at the moment I didn’t experience that, even after many battles with generals I didn’t see a level up. Have a look there guys. The other characters in the game are the Ministers, which provide production bonuses to the planet where they’re stationed at. Characters/leaders is always a welcome feature in a space 4X game. They help by providing more depth, to combat and economy development in this case, but also help on immersion if done right especially because they level up and you can feel how their progression is important and meaningful to your cause.
In the notorious features absence list, at the moment, is race customization, but above all ship design.
The ability to customize an empire’s characteristics is a very strong asset to provide to players in space 4X games, because it allows them to create a space faring race which they can relate to much more than with preset races for whatever reasons or likings one may have. It’s something Sid Meier doesn’t have to worry about. His job is much easier when he develops Civ games. In Civ the factions are real-Earth nations and ancient civilizations so it’s much easier for Sid to offer that immersion to players. Setting the name, flag, color, description or even a background story are easy things to do but above all it’s important to give players the ability to choose their race’s traits, if a game has that kind of support I mean, which I think is the case in Star Lords, so, I think it’s possible. This is a downside for now.
But, more important still is the absence of ship design, although the devs don’t exclude it entirely for later developments if there’s enough interest from the community: “If lots of people want [ship design] and it works well within the game then we will surely consider putting it in” ~Neogen2.
Ship design is not a 4X core feature but it is an important one, especially in space 4X games because it allows players to get creative and build their own ships, again so that they can relate more with the game. It’s my impression that the majority of people can live without ship design and still enjoy a great space 4X game experience. Though, however, it’s fairly obvious that a game that offers a strong ship design concept is always superior than the same game which doesn’t. It’s always a cost/benefit question, and it’s on the hands of the devs to decide if they can make it to ship design or not by December. In my honest opinion I don’t think they can pull it off without compromising the release date.
Some scattered observations and suggestions
The game offers domestic policies that you can change to tailor your favorite government style (or one you find more useful at a particular moment).
We get a good exploration feeling in the first 30 or so turns, when we explore the surrounding systems, but that feeling quickly fades away and you need to unlock a tech to give you more range to resume your exploration. I think scouts should reveal more from planets than just how rich or nice they are. I think some characteristics could be explored further while in-orbit. This would increase the exploration’s depth as you could choose from only to survey the system to know part of the story of go from planet to planet to know a bit more. But, there’s a cool feature thought out for the future (not currently in the alpha but referenced in the manual): space debris, which can be explored with a scout ship for valuable materials, artifacts or technologies.
You cannot hurry production at the moment, I thought that could be dependent on some tech unlock but after checking the dev’s forums apparently it was a design decision. Time will tell if it was a right one but usually it is better to let people hurry their production.
The mini-map is quite useful and you can actually navigate on it and even zoom in or out (just the mini-map itself). But, it’s quite hard to see ships in there. Actually it’s quite hard to spot ships anywhere in the game as there’s not a ship list feature implemented, so you may end up hunting for your ships.
At the moment there must still be some errors regarding how industry works because I’m having Poor worlds producing things faster with no factories than Rich worlds with factories, and their populations are about the same. Actually the manual is intriguing here. The devs say: “An empire’s industry output is divided by the number of planets that empire possesses so if you have a planet with low resources, the ones with more resources will have to make up for that one.”. Does that mean planets share resources somehow and that rich planets help poor planets? There’s nothing in-game at the moment that supports this but I did find it odd seeing poor planets producing things faster than rich ones…
There are a couple of outstanding music scores but overall music and sound effects are not remarkable at the moment, as not unexpected in these type of games. Race interactions sounds are nice though.
The alpha build (1.2) is quite stable, only had a couple of crashes. One when starting the game after setup and another when leaving a planet after ground combat. Yes, there’s ground combat. You send your armies in and they measure forces with the invading planet’s garrison in a progression kind of graphic. Similar to Master of Orion ground combat but much more rough and simple, as you can see below.
Albeit the game features’ include distinct races: “8 major races each with their own ship designs, technologies, unique traits and unique abilities” I didn’t find races to be different at all, except on their traits. As I said earlier I played with Humans and Rasmuth and they shared the same ship designs and techs, not completely sure on unique abilities, if that’s the faction traits then alright. But it’s just an alpha, gosh I tend to forget it :)
There are random events. Usually negative.
There’s a tourism concept. While it looks rather simple I think it’s quite elegant. There are planet traits that boost tourism and apparently you will have more or less according to your reputation or if you are at war. Tourism can also be improved with new techs.
It’s not clear how population affects colony production, if it affects it at all.
We can’t rename planets at the moment but I’m sure that’s something the devs can easily tweak.
The alt-tab transition needs to be much faster guys. At the moment it takes ages to go from Windows to the game.
There’s a lot going on in Star Lords already for an alpha build. This is not a dead game or game prototype or anything like that. It is already a very playable alpha with lots of rough edges still for sure but with many features that are quite mature already, which allow you to enjoy the game to a good extent. With a fine art assets layer added on top, extensive UI polishing and lots of balancing testing I’m positive that Star Lords can turn into a great space 4X game.
My impression is that Star Lords ties in many good things from previous space 4X games, especially from older games like Master of Orion, Space Empires IV or Galactic Civilizations 2. You can definitely spot some Master of Orion references (e.g. tactical TBS combat, abstract gameplay, planetary classification). And that is a good thing.
The devs’ promise to offer a living universe and deep economical and political layers seem to be holding to expectations. There is a lot of depth in the game alright and there are many things going on. The game doesn’t feel dead that’s for sure, far from it.
The game reached alpha but I think it’s still a bit far from finished. What I mean is that although it’s playable the devs must not feel like they can relax already. There’s a lot of UI polishing to be done, art assets to include and further testing is required. In fact I would recommend the devs to reconsider the Q4 2012 release date and take into account as much feedback as they can from the community. They are your customers, treat them like gods and you’ll get an incredible return. If ship design is put in than for sure Q4 2012 will not be enough time. Get it right fellows, take your time and give us the best space 4X game you can.
I highly recommend Star Lords for old-school space 4X game veterans but it is also a very promising title for all space 4X gamers in general. If it will be a great game for everybody it is still uncertain.
- Star Lords: Alpha 2.1 Released and New Screenshots
- Star Lords Announced – A New Complex Space 4X TBS Game
- Star Lords in Q4 2013 Published by Iceberg Interactive
- Star Lords Alpha on Steam in Dec 2013 and First Trailer
- Star Ruler 2 – Alpha Gameplay Footage With the Devs