SpaceSector has gotten a chance to play a bit of the “beta” for Stars in Shadow, the upcoming turn-based space 4X strategy game from the small independent team of Sven Olsen and Jim Francis (Arioch). Both developers are enthusiastic fans of the genre and also huge fans of the Master of Orion 2 classic. You can read our first article about this game if you want more background information about the developers and the inspiration for the game.
Stars in Shadow focuses on giving both turn-based strategy and tactical battles similar to the classic, with the focus in reducing the micromanagement of colonies. In many regards the game follows on the classic’s footsteps; this includes researching techs that tend to unlock ship modules and to design your own ships with said researched modules. There are also techs that improve your colonies’ capabilities. The combat is also very reminiscent to MOO2 where ships move and fire their weapons in turns, launching fighters, or using point-defense (PD) weapons to intercept enemy fighters or missiles.
During this preview we had the chance to ask the developers a few questions concerning many of the areas still under development. The answers are presented below in their relevant sections. The questions were asked after my play experience, thus many of them were based on actual gameplay observations.
What is not in yet?
We should make it clear that the game is still not feature complete as many elements are in development. Some would probably prefer to use the term “alpha” to describe the game. Since it seems the terms are sometimes used to mean different things for different people, I will clearly define the state of the game to avoid confusion. At the moment, the game contains the initial tiers of technologies (with only a few techs from the later tiers), diplomacy is not in, and there are still improvements to be made on the planetary management levels, such as the possibility of additional resources.
The game has space combat, early and perhaps mid-game techs, ship customisation, and naturally the core of planetary management: production and science. The game also shows some of its more advanced features like population limits being affected by how you mix your colonies with the different races in your empire, and the event system as you explore new star systems (though at the moment it’s all slavers and marauders).
Currently, we are limited to playing on a single map with all factions enabled. Naturally, I asked about their plans for the future regarding new game set-up options:
“Exactly how much to expose in the setup screen is something we’ll be adjusting as the beta continues. To start with, you’ll certainly have basic options for galaxy size and density — along with a choice of rivals, and an easy/medium/hard mode. In my mind, those are the core variables that a 4X game ought to provide. We’re also planning a few advanced setup toggles, along the lines of the resource density and “raging barbarians” options from Civ, that will give you some control over the density of third-party opponents and ‘peach’ systems.” – Sven Olsen and Jim Francis
I also asked what we could expect from the encounter system later on:
“We plan to include a variety of planetary and system specials, more interaction with the minor factions that are sometimes found on planets, and a few honest space monsters. We also plan to make the pirate and marauder factions much more active, rather than simply guarding systems, we’ll be giving them the ability to launch raids on nearby systems, to offer shady deals, or even hire themselves out as mercenaries for the right price.”
With so much yet to be seen, we’ll probably bring a second-impression of this title as more features are added before the game is officially released. Now, onto the preview.
The most obvious thing that stands out and adds immersion to the game is the game’s art direction. The game’s visuals are rich and much stylised, using a colourful palette and a comic series style art work. This is also reminiscent of many visuals styles we saw back in the 90’s. This, however, doesn’t mean the game looks dated either. Modern resolutions are present and the style is obviously a more modern adaptation of this graphical style.
The downside is that some may not like this sort of visual flair or its core style. Personally, I like it a lot. The dye-chromatic and “made by Apple” visuals for space games have started to get a little repetitive and it is nice to see a game break away from that trend. The games visuals give it personality and that is even before any actual mechanics come into play, as such I can’t ignore its role in the game’s overall appeal.
The tech tree is one element that is not fully implemented yet as only the early techs are present. Also, the interface is too straightforward, giving little idea of which direction the player is going on with the technology. The developers seem to be aware of this and plan to do some improvements with the interface. The reason for this challenge is how technologies work; they tend to have various interconnectivities and different routes that lead to different branches. This makes having a traditional tech tree hard to implement (someone did try to graph out the tech relationship and the diagram looked like the blueprints for an FTL drive). The developer seems to be fully aware of this challenge and this is what they had to say about it:
“I think it certainly is helpful to be able to look at a visualization of the complete tech tree — most of the strategy games I played growing up shipped with a poster that gave you a big-picture view of how everything connected to everything else — and as the beta progresses, we’ll be making some poster-style visualizations of the available techs and posting them someplace prominent on the website.
We also have plans to make some simple changes to the current research screen to make it more intuitive to navigate and to reduce clutter, especially during the late game when techs pile up. An in-game tree view of some sort would be nice to have as well, and that’s something we may look into, if there’s time for it.”
What the tech tree does do well is how easy it is to click on any tech in the entry and see that tech’s summary of bonuses, flavour text, and even an image of any system or hull type that was unlocked. This can be done to the pre-requisite lists and leads-to lists, as well.
The developer discusses their future plans for the Tech Tree:
“There are four technological eras in the game, and the current beta includes most technologies from the first two eras and just a few of later game techs. The “Dread Star” hulls will eventually get their appropriate complement of super-science world-destroying weapons, such as the Stellar Surge Beam and Black Hole Projector. Other late-game techs will offer new abilities to terraform and even create worlds, in addition to new ways to destroy them.
Beyond that, you’re likely to see a number of new techs as we refine the planet production rules. Specifically, as we start to experiment with mechanics for morale, mining, and farming — you can expect to see a number of related techs appearing in game.”
Let’s go to the ship designer, since generally a game’s space combat mechanic will always be dependent on how good this part is. The player gets to slot equipment into their vessels by using pre-determined slots that are determined by the ship’s class. These slots are categories like heavy slots, turret slots, and system slots. Different modules will have different slots they can fill, heavy weapons can fill only heavy weapons, light weapons can fill any weapon slots, PD weapons are limited to turrets only, and different systems have different slot requirements which usually makes you choose what to sacrifice. One example is the “shield regenerator” which would require you to sacrifice a larger weapon slot, or “blast doors” which makes you sacrifice turrets.
Unlike other games where players unlock hull sizes only, in SiS the player will unlock hull types, with several per size categories. This may seem to limit customisation but nothing stops the player from researching the other hull types. On the flip side, different ships get different art assets, carriers look like carriers, and are visually different from your battle cruisers. This adds to the games visual richness and helps define a vessel’s role from the start. With the myriad of hulls, the player should be able to make the type of vessel they want easily, it is just the matter of unlocking the correct hull type and the weapon modules that complement it well.
Along with hull specialisation also come different slot arrangements, making each ship more distinct from each other within the same hull size. Also, nothing stops the player from having several different ship classes with the same hull type. You can design an interceptor carrier with some long range weapons and a second bomber carrier with PD coverage by using the same basic hull frame, giving the player plenty of opportunities to make unique ships to fill unique roles. Also, with the plethora of auxiliary systems, the player can design heavily shielded vessels to vessels that are resistant to boarding actions.
Also, if you researched the correct techs you may apply modifications to weapons like rapid fire or accuracy. These will usually require more energy and may mean you will have to choose what you will “supercharge” as you may not always have enough power to have it all. Weapons also come in different flavours, like classical missiles to beam weapons. Even within a group, different type of benefits like disruptors versus lasers are available to the player. For direct fire weapons, the differences will come from innate perks, one weapon may have higher damage, but the other may do more damage against unshielded targets.
Despite this is one of the areas I am most impressed with, the developers reveal that more changes are coming in improving the interface and the designs themselves:
“I think the UI needs to be reworked to filter the available weapons/systems based on the selected hardpoint — that already feels like a necessary feature, and I think it’s only going to become more important as the later tiers of the tech tree get fleshed out.
I also think most ships are going to need to have more hardpoints — right now, my sense is that we have a number of cases where the available hardpoint sets have been excessively simplified.”
The space combat does exactly what it says it does on the tin. Turned-based combat where the player can move their vessels, pick targets, and fire at them. This can range from firing direct fire weapons, launching fighters and bombers, or firing missiles which travel a certain distance per turn. The player can also use their PD systems to intercept missiles and fighters or use weapons non-optimally, firing PD weapons on missiles (which have a higher chance to miss and be overkilled if they do hit) to using PD weapons to finish off a vessel on the verge of death. Also, PD weapons can be left unfired and will fire reactively on the enemy’s turn to defend your ships from intercept-able attacks.
The controls seem to be pretty quick to manage, which is a plus for turn-based combat as it is all too easy to have time wasted on clunky controls. The player can quickly move a ship, select its heading, and fire its default weapons all by merely pointing to where they need to go and by clicking the right-mouse button. The player still needs to be careful not to accidentally do an action inadvertently, but overall the controls are intuitive enough. Finer controls of only firing certain weapons and the like can also be taken.
Planets will also be defended by defense systems and orbital facilities, which will need to be cleared before you can invade your opponent’s worlds.
Ground combat is abstracted, and though there may be some changes or improvements before release, the current version is about deciding which point you can invade, or cleanse the surface with further bombardments, plus a simple mechanic of bombarding a world till its population is equal to or less than your troops.
The current approach to planetary management seems to be to keep things quick to manage but still important to oversee. At the moment the system works by slots. Orbital slots and defense slots are based on technology, while the population determines improvement slots. At the moment, the two economic buildings the player can build are factories and labs, which get upgraded versions with higher tech. This effectively determines the planet’s output. In some regard it can be seen similar to the use of workers or sliders, along with infrastructure scaling, but here the infrastructure is your “work distribution” as well. The developers mentioned there will be changes to the system, as more resources are added to the economy model.
The idea is that a specialised planet can’t just flip its output overnight. It will require older infrastructure to be scraped and a new one be built. The developers hope, as more resources are added, that this will create planet focuses and avoid the planet clone syndrome, the trend you tend to see in a lot of space 4X games where a healthy economy can support maxed out planets and then the player can refocus its output as needed on a dime. The approach here is your worlds will have dedicated roles, and though these roles can be switched around it will take time and resources to do so.
Despite the early build of the game, one of the more interesting aspects of empire management is already present: the population limits. Planets are not mono-biomes. An Earth-like world is a mixture of forests, deserts, and oceans. Each race has an affinity towards each biome. This means if you mix your populations, aquatic species will fill the oceans, while desert loving species will maximise your desert biomes, while your trusty humans will stick to their preferred biomes leaving the less desirable ones to those who prefer them, and the ones they can’t even fill to those who can. The end result is the total population of your planets goes up, meaning more output from your industry, research, and economy.
The developers have noted that there will be negatives for mixing worlds in the form of morale penalties (which is not yet implemented) and technologies to help alleviate these issues. This creates an interesting mechanic of multi-racial empires as some worlds will benefit more from certain races, and cosmopolitan planets being exploited to their full potential. The developers said this will also play an important role in diplomacy as species will generally not like it when you go to war with their brethren.
At the moment, with no diplomacy or morale in the game, the more nuanced elements of the system can’t be observed. Still, seeing population influenced by biome preferences and planets being made up of several biomes is interesting to see. More from the developers about planetary management:
“We’d like to encourage a bit more variety in terms of the roles than any particular colony can play in your empire. And we think that broadening the resource model is likely to be a good way of doing that. We have plans for adding a metal resource and matching mine improvements — along with food/farms. Both metal and food will be global resources (like money) and they’ll play important roles in population growth and ship building.
The other big change we’re planning in the planet management system is the introduction of colonist morale, in which each species on a world can be made either happy or angry by factors including the other races sharing the planet, the work you’ve assigned them, and the diplomatic choices you’ve made. So, if you have a number Phidi in your empire, you may need to think twice before declaring war on their brethren.”
It is hard to form a full professional opinion on the game at its current state, as one would expect to see from a full preview, this said I have to admit I did like what I saw, and liked it a lot. Naturally, as the game’s features get added I will be able to be more critical and offer more concrete opinions about the game, but at the moment I’m actually eager to see how these features are implemented.
One thing I can say is that the game definitely tries to be much quicker to manage without being overly simplified, an objective the developer mentioned in our first coverage. I found it quick to learn the mechanics and get into the game. The pacing is not perfect yet, but the game definitely flowed well.
Stars in Shadow definitely has the spirit, flair, and infrastructure to evolve into something very noteworthy. And, as I mentioned before, our intention is to bring you a second impression as more of the game’s features are added and the game comes closer to a completed experience. This is definitely a title I will keep a close eye on.
What does the future hold?
I was able to ask a few more questions to the developers and many of their answers did not fit in with the given sections of this preview. So, let’s look at future developments the game has in store for us. The most obvious question was about a major feature that was not implemented yet, the Diplomacy system:
“The diplomacy screens we put together during the alpha behave very much like similar screens in Civ V. But I think it’s important to emphasize that our goal for the AI factions is to create satisfying in-game characters, rather than artificial stand-ins for human opponents. The AI emperors won’t understand that they’re playing a video game — and while they’ll certainly want to grow and prosper — their programming won’t demand that they attempt to win the game at all costs. And that gives us some space to include AI behaviors that are more “character driven”.
For example, one feature we have in the pipeline are some diplomatic options loosely inspired by Mass Effect. We’ll be tracking your reputation with the various AI empires, and you’ll have the option of explicitly calling in a favor from a faction you’ve had good relations with in the past. Among other things, that’s a game mechanic that should be important in setting up a council victory condition.”
I also snuck in the question if we could expect Espionage for release, sadly the answer was no. However, the developers still had something to say about it:
“Espionage is an interesting one. Right now, it’s not on our list of “must haves” before the game releases, but, I think a simple espionage mechanic (along the lines of Alpha Centauri’s probe teams or MOO2’s spy system) could add a neat aspect to the game. I’d certainly like to include such a system eventually — the question is whether or not we’d have time to get it into the initial release.”
Another question I had was about the differentiations between alien races:
“Currently, the build includes racial population specializations — for example, Orthin colonists produce extra science but less industry, while Teros get a bonus to production. Also, each race’s population has preferences for different planetary habitats — some do better or worse on warm and dry or cold and wet worlds. Moving different populations around can help you to make the most out of available habitats, and further specialize planetary production.
All the races have customized home-systems, and in some cases this significantly changes their options in the early game. In the current build, Humanity’s starting condition doesn’t include any settled homeworld whatsoever, while the Haduir start in possession of Ashdar Prime, a powerful relic world.
In addition, each race will get at least one technological perk. Most of these are not yet in the game, but will be added before the end of beta. The Haduir are slated to get access to a relic Star Gate, while the Gremak will get early-game special weapons and cloaking devices. The Phidi will get a perk that gives them a bonus when hiring mercenaries from the various NPC factions — a feature that will be available to other races as well, but which the Phidi will be well-positioned to take special advantage of.”
Lastly, I have had a minor pet peeve in 4X games lately, and it was only natural I asked Sven and Jim about their opinions on the matter. It is about the subject of Victory Conditions and End-Game Grind:
“We’re planning to include a simple Moo2-style “planetary council” victory condition. In effect, if you and your allies control a sufficient fraction of the galaxy’s population, your remaining opposition will bow to the inevitable and surrender, rather than grinding out a hopeless war.
We also have plans for at least one relic world that will open a path to scientific secrets capable of handing you control of the galaxy. This means there probably will be something roughly like Civ’s “science victory”, with the caveat that it will be connected to certain special planets that may not appear in all games.
Eventually, I’d like to include an optional game mode that would shift the victory condition from conquering the galaxy to successfully defending it from some suitably extraordinary menace. Warlock included something like this with their “Armageddon” expansion, and I think it worked pretty well. I’d like to do something similar in an SiS expansion — if and when we have time / money for it.”
There you have it. A few hints on some of the future plans for the game after release. However, let’s focus on what we have now and what to expect for release. This however does show the developers have an interest to continue developing the game, if all goes well. SpaceSector will keep a close eye on this title and bring you further information as it becomes relevant. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section below.
The developers have made Pre-Orders available on their official website and have a beta sign-up as well. These two are separate and one can register to the beta without pre-ordering the game. Recently, the decision was made to allow pre-order customers access to the beta. However, as stated, one can still sign up to the beta without pre-ordering the game. The game’s current price is set for $19.99 USD and is available for PC.Subscribe RSS
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