Back in August of 2012, I wrote a preview of StarDrive, a (pausable) real-time 4X space strategy game for the PC being developed by Zero Sum Games. At that time, I was really impressed with the game’s vision and the passion of its developer. Quite a few months have passed since then, and I’ve been monitoring the game throughout its continued development. Since then, the gameplay has evolved numerous times, as many of the concepts and design elements have been implemented, tested, and then tweaked.
StarDrive has now entered open beta status on Steam, opening access up to anyone who purchases the game. I’ve now spent about 33 hours with StarDrive since the start of this year (and many more prior to), and with open beta now upon us, it seems like an ideal time to provide you with a brief update to our original preview. In this preview, I’ll be focusing primarily on what items have changed or been added since my original preview, as the vast majority of the gameplay elements described in my original preview still hold true today.
New Game Setup Options
At the time of my last preview, StarDrive was missing a lot of the options we’ve come to expect out of our 4X games. The game setup screen, aside from the race design portion, was rather bare-bones. A galaxy size setting was present, but that was about it. Thankfully, this is not the case anymore. The game setup window now includes many of the options you’d expect to see in a 4X game, including setting the number of players, game difficulty, and game pacing.
Another new option that you can select during game setup is a game mode called Ascension. This mode is an alternative to the sandbox mode, selected prior to starting a game, and involves working your way towards a centrally located planet and defeating its guardians, the remnant, before any other races can. I can’t comment too much on this mode as I’ve not spent much time with it yet, but I will definitely be spending some time with it by the time our review of the finished game comes out. On a related note, the quick battle mode I mentioned in my initial preview is no longer present in the game as of this time.
Race design was already present and well defined, but has since been updated and improved upon even further. All 8 races are now present and accounted for. Each of these races has a unique racial portrait/diplomatic video, diplomatic dialog, personality, unique hull designs across all ship sizes and types, unique animated ground troops models, and preset trait choices that uniquely identify that race’s background and playstyle. You can still modify and tweak whichever of these 8 base races you choose to play as, including the capability to change your flag design, color, faction name, race name, and most importantly, trait selection. Using a positive/negative trait point system, you can design your empire with whichever strengths you choose as long as you offset these points with weaknesses to balance your points out.
Several of the original traits have been re-defined or re-imagined since the time of my original preview. One of the more recent additions is a trait called Pack Mentality. Pack Mentality is a trait which provides a bonus, or reduction, in damage based on how many friendly ships are nearby. This is a trait the Vulfen, a race of space wolves, have by default, though you can of course add it to any race you choose during game setup. This particular trait allows a race to consider using many smaller ships and carrier class ships, even when faced with the huge capital class ships of their enemies.
Research and the Research UI
The research UI has been rebuilt completely since the August preview. While a fair amount of the techs are still the same, or very similar, the way this information is displayed looks much better than it once did. As far as UI changes go, the biggest enhancement has been the addition of a queue that allows you to schedule your research choices in advance. This was one of the common features StarDrive lacked for awhile, but it is now present and works great for those who like to plan ahead.
Research options have been expanded a bit and include a lot more choices then before. The trees have been reorganized and new techs have been added. Many of these new techs have opened up some new strategic choices in combat. For instance, one new item, warp inhibitors, allows you to prevent enemies from warping when near the ship. This can be used to prevent enemy escape or to blockade enemy ships. There are also new armor choices, new espionage and troop upgrades, starbases, planetary defense weapons and shields, and so on. All in all, StarDrive has tech choices that cover all areas of gameplay, but some of the trees have a lot of room for additions. There also are not currently race specific techs, although this has been discussed and could happen in the future.
As I just mentioned, in StarDrive, all of the races have access to the same tech choices. That said, there are differences in the hull designs you unlock that are dependent on your race, as each race has its own unique hulls. Since hull shape, available slots, and slot types can play a large role in how your ships end up being designed, these differences are more then just an art replacement.
While on the topic of research, I’d also like to mention that there are some hidden technologies, and even hidden technology paths/trees within the game. These techs, once unlocked, add an interesting twist and may provide the player with some significant advantages depending on certain situations. Not all of these are unlocked the same way, so it’s hard to tell if I’ve found them all yet or not.
The galaxy feels more alive
StarDrive has made great strides towards making its galaxy feel more alive. One of the primary ways I feel they’ve done this is by adding unique anomalies on certain planets. Often these anomalies are the remnants of an ancient shrine or an abandoned mine. These anomalies, once found, will need to be visited by some of your ground troop shuttles in order to discover what they contain. I’m not sure exactly how many different items they can contain, but I’ve been pleased to find numerous artifacts that can enhance your entire empire, as well as ancient warships and technology. Aside from these anomalies, there are quite a few other surprises present in the game that I’ll let you discover for yourself.
As it turns out, some of the best planets are going to require a fair bit of effort to colonize. These planets are often protected by a remnant race that is armed with formidable warships by early game standards. If you can avoid war long enough to spare a fleet to defeat these guardians, the planets tend to be some of the best available. However, often times I’ve found myself reluctant to do so when I know some of the AI are anxious to swoop in and attack at any time.
Well, how do I know the AI has ill will towards me? Typically, the AI race in question will have already told me via a not so pleasant diplomatic meeting that my defenses are pathetic. In some cases, they may have even have declared outright war. In these situations, moving your fleet to take a great planet can present a risk, as an invasion force could be coming in just outside your sensor range. Once you meet the Opteris, a robotic insect like race that seems to hate everyone, you’ll probably hate how they ruin your plans as much as I do. You’ll also grow to appreciate the Pollops, a plant like race that almost always seems to desire peace. At times, they may be the only race not sending invasion fleets your way.
A lot of other elements also make the galaxy feel alive. Watching transport ships fly back and forth amongst your empire, along with your troop shuttles and warships, and all the ships orbiting planets, add a nice touch of life to the vast openness of space. On the right side of the UI, you will often receive messages about empire wars, planet captures, and planets experiencing an axis shift that adjust their climate as well. The stats windows even display how much success specific ships have had out in the field of battle, so you can track how many ships a particular member of your armada has destroyed, for example.
Make no mistake though, there is certainly room for many more elements that could greatly enhance the game experience. Pirates are still very rough around the edges and are relatively imbalanced, minor factions (only one currently) seem to be very much a work in progress, space monsters don’t exist currently, and galaxy events consist primarily of planet axis tilts and hyperspace flux. On the promising side, we may see a news robot, mining, and maybe some of these other items before release.
As indicated in my original preview, Espionage was a bit of a mess initially. The system was somewhat unintuitive and didn’t work as well as originally intended. StarDrive’s espionage system has since been completely revamped, and it now allows you to hire agents that you will send out on missions against your opponents. These agents can train to gain levels, and these levels increase their chance at success when tackling more difficult missions. Aside from training, they can also sabotage, infiltrate, rob, and even incite rebellions at higher experience levels. On the other hand, any agents not assigned to tasks are automatically assigned to defensive duties, and this is an important consideration.
The AI is no stranger to espionage anymore, and you’ll need to have agents ready to thwart their efforts against you. If you’re lucky, you’ll find out who is up to no good within your empire. I tend to prioritize these races for invasion, as a way of saying thanks, of course. Overall, the new espionage system offers a nice alternative way to really mess with your opponents, even from afar, and even in times of peace.
Federations are a new feature that has just recently been implemented. The basic idea is that you can ask your allies to join a federation, which you will lead, essentially combining your forces. These types of arrangements take time however, and in addition to being more powerful than your ally, you will have to solve any outstanding issues they have and prove yourself as a worthy ally for a long period of time. Once formed, your former ally’s troops, planets, technologies, etc, all become yours to command for the remainder of the game. For example, when I asked my ally to join my federation, he informed me that I would have to eliminate another race he was at war with first. I was pretty motivated to do so, as I had already received word that two enemy races had joined together in their own federation. Eventually, I was able to merge him into my empire, but my opponent also formed a federation with not one, but two other races, and this set the stage for a rather intense showdown.
Other improvements and thoughts
StarDrive has been undergoing a lot of changes on a monthly and even weekly basis. I’ve tried to hit the highlights, but I’m also going to bullet point a few other changes worth noting.
- Improved UI across the board – but I’d expect a lot more UI changes as more people test things out
- Mods are fully supported and encouraged by the developer. Some are already in development
- Stability is greatly improved
- AI is much better at espionage, attacking, and defending than before. They will bomb and invade your planets given the chance
- A few secrets and other events are already present and really enhance the 4X experience
- Additional features are still planned prior to release
Final Preview Thoughts
StarDrive has come a long way and had undergone significant improvements. It is recognizable as the same game I played back in August of 2012, but at the same time feels completely new and different. A lot of the features or gaps that I once found have been filled and finished, and at this point the game offers an enjoyable experience. While there are of course bugs still present, with more and more being patched every week (even on weekends), they don’t tend to completely halt a sandbox game in their tracks like they used to. In a recent game, I was able to achieve victory over the course of quite a few hours/days and encountered only 1 crash. Your mileage may vary of course, but this is far less than I used to encounter. I will say that you should expect to encounter some bugs, but once reported, they don’t tend to stick around very long.
One note of caution for those considering the open beta. There is not currently an in-game tutorial that will walk you through how things work. While StarDrive does contain some in-game videos and written instructions, they are almost all a bit out of date. While I have been playing for quite some time now, and have become quite familiar with the ins and outs of the game, a new player is going to have quite a bit to learn on their own. There are quite a few videos from the closed beta period on Youtube with new videos now being recorded every day, as well as many helpful people on the StarDrive forums if you are in search of answers, but in some cases you will have to perform some trial and error. Once you can overcome some of the learning curve, things get a lot easier to understand and you’ll start getting more enjoyment out of the game.
In my last preview, I had some very optimistic thoughts about StarDrive. I am happy to report that I still do today. StarDrive may be entering its open beta stage, but it’s development is likely to continue for a long time to come. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, I’d highly recommend you bring them up on their forum as it will help make the game better for all of us. I look forward to seeing its progress and reviewing it when the initial version exits beta status. For now, I’m going to go back and defend my empire, which is currently under attack by two invasion fleets.
StarDrive is currently on open beta and is available for pre-order. If you’re interested in getting instance access, buy it at GamersGate with 17% off (you’ll receive a Steam key).Subscribe RSS
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