[su_highlight background=”#3b88ff” color=”#ffffff”]Platforms: PC/Mac/Linux, Steam | Developer: Zero Sum Games | Publisher: Iceberg Interactive | ESRB: Unrated | Controls: Keyboard[/su_highlight]
Once again man strives to reach for the stars and, also once again, they find that they are not alone in the galaxy. Stardrive 2, developed by Zero Sum Games, is a space-themed 4X strategy game recently released on Steam. In typical 4X fashion we don’t know anything about their race, history or culture but one thing’s for sure: they stand for everything we stand against.
Stardrive 2 features the return of nine distinct playable races, each with their own unique ships and personalities, ranging from the cybernetic Opteris insectoids to the Cthulhu-worshiping Rayleh. Each race has their own preset traits that give them advantages and disadvantages in certain fields. Before even starting a campaign, the game unveils what makes it so enjoyable: the customisation. For example by default the Human United Federation have strong spacefaring and military skills at the cost of inefficient taxation.
However if you like the aesthetics or ship layout of the humans but want to play more economically, through the use of a point-buy system you can give them the improved farmers or religious traits in exchange for a weaker military. Although it’s not possible to change the profile graphics of the races without digging through the game files, you can edit the name of your leader and empire which will change the relevant text in game. An option exists to also change the racial adjective (for example ‘human’) of your units, but it does not appear to alter anything in the current version of the game.
The more significant customisation takes place after starting a campaign. There are five classes of ship to build: covettes, frigates, cruisers, battleships and titans. While there are premade designs for each ship, the real fun comes from designing your own weapon and system placements. As your technology improves so does the number of different parts you can install on a ship, leaving it up to personal preference whether you build generalist or specialist ships. The only thing that can’t be changed is the shape of the ship, which is dependant upon the race. It’s disappointing that there is no way of previewing the ship structures of each race in-game besides playing them and researching the necessary technology, leading to some trial and error until you find the ideal race.
That said, considering 4X games characteristically tend to have rather steep learning curves, Stardrive 2 does an admirable job in explaining game features to newcomers. Virtually everything that can be moused over has a tooltip, making the game easy to pickup without any guides or experience with the prequel. Furthermore there is a small yet rather thorough narrated tutorial that plays at the start of the campaign to guide you through the opening steps, which can be turned off during setup or skipped at any point.
Additional tutorials dealing with more specific functions may be found in the menus, albeit they are more limited. The main thing that is noticeably lacking is some sort of encyclopaedia or manual to act as a centralised source of information; it would have been a great place to preview the ships of each race or even flesh-out some of their history.
The gameplay of Stardrive 2 can be divided between combat and empire management. Empire management takes place on a procedurally generated galactic map where you govern planets, mobilise fleets and negotiate with neighbours. There are two views: a flat map showing empire borders and representing units with icons, and a zoomed in version with graphics for planets and ships. The transition between them is a subtle cross-fade controlled by the mouse wheel, and I had no problems playing in both as the situation demanded.
At the beginning of a campaign each race starts with a homeworld, an exploration frigate and a colony ship. The tutorial politely ignores the colony ship, but races with the poor farmer trait (namely the default Opteris preset) need to hold off on colonies until they have freighters, otherwise they’ll die off from starvation. To prevent starvation a planet must produce or import food, one of three resources that a planet can output – the other two being production and research.
How much of a resource is generated is dependent on a number of factors: how many citizens are working it, any buildings, if there is any leader governing it and even the conditions of the planet itself. The game opens up a number of strategical decisions where a planet may allow a lot of production but is unable to grow its own food, requiring food freighters and heavily risking blockades that will cause it to starve.
Navigation through space is turn-based, with ships notifying how many turns it will take to reach their destination. Each turn spent moving outside of your empire’s borders drains a portion of a ship’s fuel reserves. If it runs out of fuel it is thankfully not stranded or lost; instead the ship enters cryostasis and starts returning to a friendly planet on autopilot at a slow rate, where it will refuel. A number of space anomalies may be explored by your ships, providing text-based events or combat with variable rewards. Sadly there appears to be a rather limited amount of these space adventures so on subsequent playthroughs you will come across a lot of text that you’ve already read; a derelict ship and a mysterious asteroid being two of the anomalies that are guaranteed near the start of your homeworld every time.
After finally bumping into any of the AI ships or borders, the player is able to enter negotiations with other races. Normally this is a headache for any newer players due to having to learn how much everything is worth and how to haggle with the AI. In Stardrive 2 the diplomacy is a lot more transparent, which is a good thing. Each bargaining item has its value displayed and the AI will let you know how close they are to accepting a deal so you don’t give away an unnecessary amount of resources.
The sole exception is that there are no tooltips for strategic resources in the diplomacy window to tell you what effects they have; which is a problem since leaving the menu without trading, if an AI instigates, causes a relationship loss. How positively a race views you is displayed on a bar – upon mousing over it breaks down all positive and negative variables. Aggressive or hostile races will make it very clear that if you don’t pay them a tribute then they will come and take it by force, making it possible to buy -off potential enemies if you’re not confident in your military.
The only area where Stardrive 2’s diplomacy falls short when compared with other 4X games is the lack of any alliance system. There is a non-aggression treaty which fills a similar role but it is not possible to co-ordinate a joint attack against a particular race. Intrigue also feels weak due to the high chance of offensive spies being discovered by any defensive spies.
Ultimately seeing their fleets for 25 turns or stealing one technology is not worth the relationship penalty from having spies discovered, especially when you would have been able to trade for it with good relations. This won’t deter the AI from sending waves of spies at the player until they succeed, since there is no way to demand them to cease spying outside of conquering their planets.
Combat is a lot more fast-paced than the strategical management, in part due to ship battles being in realtime combat. An amalgamation of aeronautical and naval combat featuring dogfights with fighters and brutal shelling from battleships, it is tremendously satisfying seeing your ship designs work amid the beautiful particle effects and sounds. Since you can name each ship, which receive bonuses, imparting medals as well as experience based on their performance, it’s possible to track each ship’s career; the loss of it being more hard-hitting than a new one fresh out of the shipyard.
It’s a shame then that for all the fun that space combat brings it is held back by the ground combat, despite being a lot more interactive than in the first Stardrive game. Ground combat appears similar to space combat – planets slowly replenish infantry and mechs, which can be renamed and equipped with custom loadouts. They are then ferried over to anomalies or other planets through freighters, before transitioning to a combat screen. Unlike the ship battles it is turn based and makes use of time units.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and it does give off an X-COM feel, but it appears rushed and unfinished. There is no cover system besides a deployable shield and sometimes a few walls to block line of sight. However for the most part the ground combat features a flat empty map with the armies on opposing sides, encouraging a playstyle of bunching up the troops and saving time units until the enemy comes close enough. Having the invaders surround and storm a fortified city would have involved a lot more strategy and ultimately been a lot more fun.
After playing for a few hours it became apparent what is the main problem with Stardrive 2. Whether due to pressure or lack of proper QA the game feels rushed in areas, either incomplete or paving the way for DLC. With so many tooltips there is no doubt that there are a lot of words in the game files but the sheer amount of typos and the fact that there is one in the Draylok description at the very beginning of the race selection just shows a lack of polish.
This is reinforced by the fact that a few days after release the game received a number of patches, including: making the AI easier (so easy in fact that I never lost a single battle on the hard or brutal difficulties), adjusting values of several ship modules and future patches to make the AI harder (on hard and brutal, to counteract the complete lack of challenge due to the AI patch). Although it is reassuring to see that the developer is quickly releasing patches to solve the issues at release, it could have been avoided entirely with proper testing.
While I am disappointed that there aren’t more victory conditions and I would like there to be more unique announcements in the Galactic News Network, Stardrive 2 is nevertheless a very fun single player experience – worthy of being a modern reinterpretation of Master of Orion. With all of the customisation, Stardrive 2 is inevitably capable of becoming a time-sink worth the price; but it may be prudent to pick it up after the developer is finished with the fine tuning.
Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by Iceberg Interactive.