StarDrive 2, from developer Zero Sum Games and publisher Iceberg Interactive, has now been released roughly 2 years after its late 2013 unofficial announcement. With StarDrive barely six months out of the starting gate at that time, the idea that this game was in development brought about a lot of controversy. Many fans of the genre had very strong negative feelings about this decision, and we reached out the developer to discuss these feelings, this decision, and the future of the StarDrive franchise. In a later announcement, a 33% discount on StarDrive 2 was promised and has been delivered to owners of the original game.
What’s in a Sequel
StarDrive 2 is a rather whimsical single-player space 4X game. If you played StarDrive and disliked its tone, you need to know that the space bears are still here and still typing on their keypads. StarDrive 2 borrows and expands upon much of what StarDrive offered. A quick look at some screenshots will show that many of the art assets have been reused. A deeper look will show that many aspects of the original game have also made a return, such as the setting, races, and ship design system. Nearly every system has been tweaked and refined however, so while both games may include research, espionage, and diplomacy, how these systems are executed is quite different.
This game’s DNA contains a fair bit more of 1996’s classic Microprose game, Master of Orion II, than its older brother ever did. In some ways, this has introduced some radical differences. The biggest difference is a switch from real-time to turn-based as its central mechanism for all aspects except space combat, a move likely to please MOO II fans, but perhaps less welcome to those who appreciated the original’s RTS feel. Another very significant and controversial difference is something basically unheard of within the space 4X genre, the introduction of turn-based deterministic ground combat.
Far, Far, Away
StarDrive 2 includes essentially two modes: a sandbox mode, and a battle arena mode. The battle arena scenarios make up a very minute part of the game and actually feel a bit tacked on. Of the three scenarios included, only one features any attempt at storytelling, and all three can be completed in less than an evening’s time. A couple of them do unlock unique ship skins usable in the sandbox mode, so there is at least some reward for completing them. There is an editor also available, should you decide to create custom scenarios, but to date I haven’t seen any developed or shared and frankly I don’t anticipate seeing many in the future.
When it comes to space 4X, what people really want is an epic sandbox where they can play out their own custom space opera. To help facilitate this, the game comes equipped with 9 pre-set races, 1 of which, the Chukk, is completely new to the series. You can also customize these races, and this system of adding negative and positive traits works in a similar manner to StarDrive, which in turn works similarly to MOO II. Aside from the more mundane bonuses you’d expect to find, there are also some choices that can more drastically impact how you play the game. While some of these are used by the preset races, some new mechanisms, like the ability to sacrifice citizens to a god in exchange for economic benefits, are nowhere to be found unless you explore these customization options.
No space epic is complete without a setting, and in this regard you’ll be given several options to customize the galaxy you’ll be playing in. Tooltips are present throughout and make it easy to understand just what impact each of these settings may have. You can adjust the number of stars, the general quality of planets, the shape of the galaxy, the difficulty of the AI, and the difficulty of neutral threats. For an even wilder experience, I recommend trying the randomize personalities toggle. It’s quite something to come across the usually peaceful Pollops and discover they are suddenly evil expansionists this time around.
Teaching you how to play
Tutorials and tooltips are an increasingly important aspect of any PC game. The more complex the game, the greater the importance. StarDrive 2 offers a narrated tutorial that fits seamlessly into your game, regardless of how your unique galaxy has been generated. It walks you through nearly all aspects of the game, and also guides the player to look at the in-game guide at any time should further information be desired. It is also smart enough to detect and account for some common issues, for example colonizing a barren world. Rather than let you starve to death, the tutorial chimes in and guides you through the creation of freighters. It goes on to explain how food and citizens can be transported between colonies. Throughout the game, tooltips are also present almost everywhere.
So there IS life out there
The early stages of space 4X games typically consist of exploration and expansion as you seek out new planets and try to build up your economic base. In contrast, I feel that fantasy 4X games, which have unique locations to uncover and quests to solve as you explore, help immerse the player early on in a way the empty vastness of space does not. Well, as it turns out, it is possible to introduce a bit more excitement into exploration after all.
What StarDrive 2 has proven is that space exploration doesn’t have to be boring. There’s more out there than just planets to discover. As your ships explore your surroundings, they’ll uncover mysterious locations on their scanners. Derelict ships with signs of life, comets soaring through the galaxy, cloaked pirate bases, and mercenary trading posts all serve to prove that the galaxy is a happening place after all. These aren’t just static discoveries either, as many offer player interaction and decision making. They may even lead to further investigation using ground or space forces. There’s a wide range of rewards to collect out there, and it’s up to the player to decide if they want to collect them.
Aside from mysteries, there’s also life beyond just your primary rivals. There are space monsters, pirates, and even a return of the Remnant from the original StarDrive to contend with. At times, these can seem unfair as they can strike you quite early. In a show of decency though, they tend to only take out a few freighters, perhaps blockade a planet’s production for a bit, and then return from whence they came. Should you dislike these neutral threats, it is possible to reduce their presence significantly during setup. Defeating them does offer decent rewards however, and they do offer an opportunity to earn some valuable experience before you get into an actual war. There’s other non-violent life out there as well, including neutral races who happily live on their homeworld. Their juicy, juicy homeworld. Hold on though, before you drop ship your troopers, it’s worth having a chat with these guys as they often have some unique benefits for those willing to negotiate.
If I have one complaint about these events, and indeed I do, it would be that I wish there were more of them and that their presence was a bit more random. Currently, it seems the same events are present in nearly every game, and the magic of discovery fades once these events and their rewards become too familiar. There are a small subset that appear to be designed to appear directly near the player’s homeworld, and this leads to a predictability early on that I feel detracts from the experience. However, I must state that some events are tied to circumstances and characters that aren’t always present. Despite having played for many hours, I was still able to uncover a couple of surprises. I just wish these weren’t so overshadowed by the repetitive presence of the others, as these discoveries are one of my absolute favorite aspects of this game.
Needle in a Haystack
No empire can hope to achieve galactic domination without a strong economy. Finding suitable planets is not always an easy task, as planetary conditions can vary wildly. Planets range in size, climate, minerals, and gravity, and your race may thrive or struggle with certain conditions depending on their traits. It’s also important to seek some variety, as fun loving oceanic planets may provide a great source of food, but will typically suffer from poor production capabilities.
There are also random factors that can vastly change a planet’s overall value. On the negative side, planets can be affected by things like ice ages, EM fields, ghosts, fire elementals, storms, and acid rains. Some of these can be solved through special research projects, while others may require terraforming or other drastic measures to remove. On the positive end, the remains of ancient civilizations can leave behind mining equipment, shipyards, habitats, and androids ready to do your bidding. Planets can also contain underground oceans, cave systems, tropical beauty and exotic features that grant them special bonuses.
Some planets contain special resources such as spices, delicacies, and chemicals that are so important that they impact your entire empire. For example, just having a single source of spice provides a 5% weapon damage bonuses to all of your ships. For each additional source of spice, you continue to increase this bonus by 5%. Should you reach 4 sources, you also get a special exploitation bonus, which in the case of spice is an additional +1 research for every scientist you have in your empire. Given the stacking nature of these bonuses, and their additional exploitation bonus, obtaining these resources and denying them to your opponents is key to building a successful empire.
Till the Soil, Pound the Anvils, and Read some Books
A successful colony often begins with an exceptional planet, but it only comes to fruition through the tireless work of your citizens. Using a simple drag and drop system ripped straight from Master of Orion II, you will assign your citizens with tasks to provide the food, production, and research you need. Should you keep them happy, well fed, and protected, they’ll also procreate, add new citizens, and even pay you some taxes. All they ask is that you let them have some personal space, and by all means, keep those filthy outsiders off of their planet. Yes, even in the future, racism is an issue, though rumor has it that your scientists may someday have an answer.
Labor output can be easily seen through the use of a tooltip that conveniently lays out exactly what your output is and why in a full line by line accounting. If your race is exceptional at farming, has a governor inspiring them, or has any other sort of farming enhancements, be it man-made or natural, you’ll see it listed there. While farming and research are very straightforward, production is a bit more complex unless you’re familiar with the pollution system from MOO II. Pollution is a nasty side effect of heavy industry, and it will reduce your output significantly if not dealt with. I’ll leave you with a tip to help handle this situation, and it’s asteroid belts. Since these lack an atmosphere, all pollution is vented to space, and this allows you to create some truly unrivaled production centers on them if you’ve researched, or perhaps stolen, the proper technologies.
Speaking of technology, the research system’s inspiration is clear. It’s an identical system to MOO II. It has different branches of research, each with multiple tiers, and you’ll only ever be able to research one item from each tier. The others in that branch and tier are lost to you forever unless you can trade for or steal them from other races. In some cases I found this decision easy, but in others it can be quite difficult. In a way, this helps drive diplomacy and espionage, and also makes each playthrough feel a bit different.
Everyone is your Frenemy
Despite its lofty intentions, diplomacy is ultimately about getting the upper-hand on the opposition. Sometimes this means mutually beneficial agreements can be made, but in reality you and most especially the AI are always secretly looking out for number one. The AI in StarDrive 2 doesn’t really try to hide this either, as except in the easiest difficulties they will make sure almost every trade and treaty works to their advantage. They are ruthless, and this is why sometimes it’s best to just send in the spies and let them do what they do best.
Diplomacy isn’t just about what the leader wants though. It’s also about what the people want. You may want to trade your best technology away frivolously, but your people may not want you sharing it with those repulsive Chukk. Diplomacy is about taking things slow, building up a relationship, and paying tribute. A whole lot of tribute.
The game has options for your standard set of trade agreements and tech trading. Another addition which is pretty unique is the foreign exchange, which allows you and the other race to trade a citizen. This increases relations and also gives you one of their race to use on your planet, but this can also contribute to that ugly racism problem I’d mentioned.
Unfortunately, while diplomacy does add some innovating tolerance mechanisms, it also lacks some rather crucial options. Alliances, both of convenience and mutual respect, are a well established thing in times of war, but they are no where to be seen here. In fact, there’s no way to truly protect or support another empire within the game at all beyond giving them goods and technologies. I’d like to be able to sell or give them some of my cruisers, or at least get some guarantee that the techs I’ve traded them will help in some way. There’s also no way to tell an AI to exit your claimed territory, and often they will colonize one of your systems without penalty.
Smiling at your opponents while your spies secretly sneak out with the plans to their latest technology may not be admirable, but Espionage sure is effective. You can bet they’ll be doing it to you. Spies can be used both offensively and defensively to steal techs, spy on their fleets, and spread propaganda to increase their diplomatic approval. The most common use seems to be stealing tech, and there are two approaches to doing so. One is more long term and involves planting moles that slowly leak out technology, while the other is an aptly named “Smash and Grab” that has your forces arrange a one-time opening for your ground forces to break in and steal a more valuable technology. I’ve never seen the AI attempt a Smash and Grab, and I’m not sure they even can, but I have seen them steal techs quite regularly once you reach mid-game and beyond. It’s a much cleaner system then the espionage system present in the original StarDrive, to be sure.
The Right to Bear Arms
Modular ship design was a highlight of the original StarDrive, so its triumphant return here in a more refined form is a welcome one. Ships are now divided into several sections, and this makes for some interesting decisions as some modules will protect or interact only with other modules in that section. These sections also have an impact on the arc of fire of certain weapons. As great as it was in the original, ship design could also be tedious at times, so enhancements like single click armor replacements and removing the need to hunt and peck until you fill 100% of the available spaces on a ship are welcome additions.
Modules still retain their puzzle like nature, each having a different size and placement restrictions. They have now also been given some optional properties that can further increase or modify their effectiveness. Weapons can, dependent on type, have increased fire rates, oversized mounts, increased firing arcs, faster projectiles, and increased range. Every weapon has a small graph that explains how much damage it does at different ranges, and together with the tooltip and arc of fire display, provides the player a lot of important information. Aside from weapons, other modules can also be enhanced. Armor can be tailored to be more effective against explosives or energy weapons, and nearly every component can be given some extra built-in armor to help it withstand enemy fire.
Another welcome holdover in this sequel is that space combat still takes place in real-time. Since the strategic map is now turn-based, the real-time combat takes place in instanced battles, but aside from that remains a very similar feel to its older brother. If space combat is what you love about space 4X, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Thanks to a new 3D camera system, you can watch your fleet’s powerful weapons pour down upon your enemies from almost any angle. Combat is still quick and fluid for the most part, though it does suffer from performance issues when very large fleets with many projectiles are in use. The developer is evidently aware of this issue, so we can hope a workable solution is found. I’d advise against using tons of cluster cannons, as these seemed to cause combat to slow to single digit frame rates on my system.
Aside from target selection, a few other ship specific actions are available for player interaction. Ships can initiate a temporary engine boost at the cost of power, but this action comes with a long cooldown period. They can also temporarily allocate more power to their shields, as long as they have it, and this can be a life saver when caught under heavy fire. If all else fails, you may also decide a ship needs to retreat, and if it can survive a 30 second stationary warp timer, you might just be able to save it.
Ships can level up and are awarded commendations based on their battlefield achievements. Over time, it will be easy to distinguish your fresh mints from your old vets. The commendations on offer are quite varied and each is also tiered into silver and gold versions. High level ships, the best of the best, can even provide benefits to your entire fleet.
I’ve seen some describe the ground combat as XCOM-like, and I believe that is misleading. While combat is tactical, turn-based, and uses an AP (action-point) system, it is also much less involved than that type of game. You won’t be facing hidden enemy movement, height elements, terrain hazards, or making heavy use of cover to survive. The maps here are generally pretty bland, flat, and with few obstacles. The player also has full view of all units on the field at all times. The other big difference is the combat system itself. StarDrive 2’s combat is deterministic. A shot fired always hits, and it always does the same amount of damage. Only an enemy’s armor or resistances will reduce or increase this, not random chance.
I know many are wondering whether or not this type of turn-based ground combat belongs in a space 4X game at all. In this case, its inclusion seems well thought out and integrated throughout all aspects of the game, so I feel it fits rather well. Exploration, special missions, and scientific research have all been designed with ground combat in mind. Even heroes haven’t been left out, and while some have unique ships, some also have unique abilities usable only in ground combat. I like the fact that ground troops numbers are capped based on the number of barracks you’ve built as this reduces some of the issues I had with its predecessor. Mechs can also be built, and along with normal troops, can be customized with technologies you’ve managed to unlock.
This is not to say ground combat works perfectly. While it feels like an integrated feature, it also feels lacking in variety when compared to true turn-based tactical games as found in fantasy 4X. Weapons, and equipment to a lesser degree, just aren’t diverse enough except for a few late game exceptions. The basic laser rifle provided at the start of the game is often the same weapon I find my units using at the end of the game. Only a weapon like the rocket launcher, which does area of effect damage, has any impact on your strategy. I also don’t care for how armor works. It reduces damage using a flat number rather than a percentage. This makes weak rapid fire weapons useless in many cases, and when combined with additional armor, such as that of a mech, can make units almost impenetrable to all enemy fire.
In short, ground combat is a simple system that would fall flat if it were the key component of the game. As a secondary system to space combat though, it works fairly well. After many combats, my patience for large scale ground combats has admittedly started to wear a bit thin. This is a prime reason why I began bombing heavily defended planets rather than conquering them. If ground combat hopes to hold any long term interest and become a more compelling part of the game, it really needs further polish and variety.
I mentioned the locations you can discover, which certainly make the galaxy feel more alive, but a lot more has been added to the game to make it feel more immersive. Colonies can randomly attract new buildings like universities, tropical resorts, and lava fueled hellforges. They can also organically adapt to your actions on the colony, for instance building a lot of freighters might cause a trade guild to develop there.
One aspect returning to space 4X, finally, is the concept of a news bot. I loved the news bot in Master of Orion 2, and was incredibly pleased to see one show up in StarDrive 2. The robot starts out strong with a backstory and brief comedic interview with each of the races, but unfortunately this flickers out by mid game and he begins to only really reports on war declarations. I’d love to see him randomly discuss other events throughout the game, such as technological breakthroughs, the conquering of planets, the infection of citizens with exotic viruses, and so on. As it stands now, you can safely skip nearly everything he has to say in subsequent playthroughs, which is a real lost opportunity in my book.
There are also a whole host of governors, or heroes depending on how you use them, available for hire. Rather than just present them as images with buffs attached, each hero has their own unique recruitment dialog and often their own unique trait tailored to them. Whether you accept or reject their offer, they always have something to say about it. Once hired, some of them have special projects they’d like your help with, while others will bring secret missions to your attention later on in the game. Some will come with their own combat ready ships, while others will be capable of ground combat and will bring some unique weaponry along with them. Overall, I love the way heroes are presented in this game. While there are a lot, I do wish there were even more of them and that some could be acquired in unique ways, for example through rescue missions or perhaps as prisoners on pirate vessels. My only real complaint about them is that some of their pre-designed ships are quite poor, can’t be upgraded, and in some cases don’t even have enough power built in to support their idle ship.
Then of course we have the intangible additions like slavery. Should slavery be something you’re after, you can build slave pits to house slaves and slave ships to collect them from enemy worlds. Once transported back to your pits, you can put them to work with your citizens, or should you also believe in dark gods, even consider sacrificing them. As it turns out, the gods like you to sacrifice the rival races even more than your own. In one game I played, I was able to forgo normal research and did my fundraising almost entirely due to my dedication to sacrificing citizens and slaves. I was actually so diabolical, I think I even cleaned out some races of all of their natural citizens through the extensive use of foreign exchange diplomacy. My Vulfar were everywhere, and the poor Pollops had nearly all been sacrificed, but all I cared about was unlocking that cruise missile technology. Combined with my Chukk missile expert hero, I knew I’d be able to do some damage.
The AI in StarDrive 2 is capable of putting up a decent challenge, but for some reason doesn’t always fire on all cylinders. Starting with the difficulty levels, I found that they were fairly effective in doing what they set out to. I watched my son play and do quite well against the easy AI, and it was interesting for me to see how the AI responded at that level compared to the hardest, brutal. With the easy AI, it will often fear war and trade multiple technologies and colonies in order to avoid being crushed. It doesn’t care about having the upper hand in negotiations, and will gladly do what it can to make you happy if it fears you. In contrast, the brutal AI will never be at a disadvantage in trade, and is fairly aggressive in its demands. It also develops larger and more dangerous fleets.
Speaking of negotiations, the AI will frequently demand the player trade it technologies, pay it tribute, and even surrender colonies to it. Every time you deny it, your relation decreases, and sometimes even if you do concede and give them what they ask for, they’ll still declare war on you anyway. They do suffer a penalty in their galactic relations if they perform such acts as attacking you when you’ve got a non-aggression pact in place, but if they’re an evil race, they may not care about this at all.
In one game played on the brutal difficulty, I witnessed that the Kulrathi did almost nothing the entire game. I watched as the other empires engaged in wars and even eliminated one another, but the Kulrathi sat alone in their distant home systems. The United Federation helped me destroy the Draylok in that game, and they were actually quite formidable and nearly defeated my enormous attack fleets when we ultimately turned on one another. I have had good success against the AI even at the hardest difficulty, but they are certainly capable of putting up a good fight and even taking the offensive. I have been faced numerous times with wars on multiple fronts, and it can indeed be quite challenging to try and recover when your colonies are being taken from you on all sides. I think the AI is pretty capable overall, but in some instances, for whatever reason, some races may choose not to compete at all.
The AI’s capabilities on the ground are definitely lacking. I’ve found that tricking the AI into wasting its turns isn’t very difficult, and this makes my chances at victory in ground combat much higher than I’d prefer. The AI often can’t effectively evaluate what the best ground target to shoot at is, so it may waste its turn doing zero damage against an armored foe when an unarmored one is standing nearby. It can also be tricked into uselessly firing on stationary shields rather than my units standing alongside them. If you bring an AoE (area of effect) weapon, the AI doesn’t realize it should keep its units spread apart.
StarDrive 2 isn’t the most innovative 4X game I’ve ever seen. It borrows a lot of its systems from Master of Orion II and the original StarDrive. At the same time, I feel it does enough to separate itself from many of the issues that were present in those games. Its use of real-time combat helps alleviate some of the endgame pains that come with turn-based, while its turn-based strategy approach allows players to proceed at their own pace. While these choices aren’t without their growing pains, for instance real-time combat potentially slowing to a crawl in large scale mid/end-game battles, I do think ultimately they are mostly the right ones. Make no mistake though, I do question some of the design decisions, such as the lack of strategic alliances in diplomacy.
It’s not my favorite 4X game at this point, but it is a fun one I expect to return to again and again. I was shocked when my son, who honestly never plays 4X games of any kind, requested his own copy after playing with mine. He was also able to compete on the easy level, while I was able to be challenged (somewhat) on the brutal level, and this is what I would consider a pretty good bar to hit.
Most of the game’s issues crop up in the mid to late game, especially on larger maps. This is because you run out of things to do, but in a larger sense it is because elimination victory conditions can quite frankly get boring. This is something I’ve criticized in the past and will continue criticizing until developers take notice. I can think of at least one recent instance where the developers did just that, and the game became much better for it. For now, I’ll just play on smaller maps and stop once the conclusion is foregone. I’ll enjoy the ride while it lasts until then.
Space Sector score:
– Feels like Master of Orion II reinvented for today’s gamer
– Space finally feels alive and worth exploring
– Tons of heroes are available and they impact multiple aspects of gameplay
– Ship design system continues to impress
– Features an excellent tutorial, tool tips, and an in-game guide
– Repetitive mid to late game due to lack of varied victory conditions
– Diplomatic options aside from trading are almost non-existent
– Real-time battles can suffer from low frame rates at times
– Strategic AI is inconsistent and sometimes fails to expand
– Ground combat needs refinement and AI improvements
Keith Turner, also known as aReclusiveMind here on SpaceSector, has been an avid gamer ever since he first laid his hands on a Commodore 128 in the mid 1980s. He enjoys multiple computer game genres, but his primary interests are in deep strategy games, 4x games, rpgs, and action rpgs. He enjoys writing and hopes to contribute with additional reviews, previews, and informative AARs to the community. See all Keith’s posts here.Subscribe RSS
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