Samurai space bears.
I contemplated leaving my review of Zero Sum Games’ StarDrive 2 right there, but the truth is that samurai space bears are only a tiny piece of the icing atop the StarDrive 2 cake. And what a delightfully delectable cake it is!
Ok, back from your slice of cake? I know, I was hungry, too. Let’s talk details.
StarDrive 2 is a turn-based 4X strategy game in the vein of the Master of Orion series. With the wide-open galaxy ahead, players are tasked with leading their people’s first expedition to stars unknown. This new focus on galactic expansion is made possible by the discovery (or re-discovery in some cases) of the powerful StarDrive technology, allowing for faster-than-light travel. Reaching out to the stars is as noble a cause as any, but it soon turns out that the galaxy is a less than friendly place and you’ll be damned if you’ll let those other space-faring species get the better of you.
Before we explore the facets of the title further, it’s time we address the giant space amoeba in the room. I’ve never played the original StarDrive, nor am I overly familiar with the complaints levied against Zero Sum Games beyond only a passing knowledge. Some of those complaints may well be justified. I simply don’t know. What I do know, however, is that this is a review of StarDrive 2 and, regardless of your experience with its predecessor, I ask you take the time to consider both StarDrive 2’s merits and its flaws as a 4X game that stands on its own.
eXplore: Your galactic voyage begins from your homeworld, a planet aptly suited to the particulars of your species. You are provided with an exploration vessel and a colony ship with which you will branch out into the surrounding systems. A colored outline on the strategy map, the main interface through which the galaxy is viewed, depicts both your empire’s area of control and the territory within which your ships are able to be refueled. Travel outside of this area and your ships will gradually use up their fuel supplies until, upon depletion, they are forced to crawl at an intergalactic space slug’s pace back to your nearest system.
The pace of eXploration in StarDrive 2 is fast, in large part due to utilization of wormholes. One of my favorite features, wormholes allow instant travel from an entry point to an unknown exit point. Traversing through as many wormholes as possible will often result in discovering other empires more quickly than conventional space travel, which can be important in establishing lucrative trade routes – a significant credit boost in the early game. Later, these wormhole entry/exit points can become of high strategic importance as you wage war with other empires across the galaxy and need to move your fleets long distances through otherwise hostile territory.
Setting aside fuel and, of course, the presence of other empires, there remains one obstacle that stands in the way of early eXploration: hostile threats. Ranging from small pirate fleets to devastating Remnant forces, hostile threats come in an assortment of shapes and sizes that are sure to be every explorer’s nightmare. With the limited sensor technology of early vessels, attacks can occur seemingly from nowhere and almost always result in the loss of ships. Non-combat ships, such as colony ships, construction ships and freighter fleets, are automatically eliminated without resistance. Armed vessels can put up a fight, but don’t expect much in the way of victory in the early turns of the game against these vastly superior foes.
Let’s now turn our attention to the research system of StarDrive 2. Broken into six possible branches, including an unknown experimental branch, research can be focused in one branch at a time. Generally speaking, the branches each enhance certain areas of gameplay. For example, the Construction branch often offers technology that will improve food or industry output, while the Energy branch grants access to improvements in energy weapons, torpedoes or fuel/power capacities.
Within each branch, there are 10-12 levels of subsequent technology that can be made available. Each level offers more advanced technology, but at the cost of a higher number of research points needed to reach completion. At each level, players are offered a choice of 2-3 different technologies. Once one of those technologies has been researched, the branch moves to the next level and the other choices initially offered are no longer available. The primary means by which players can still gain access to these techs is via diplomacy, which we’ll cover later, but certain racial traits also provide such benefits.
To facilitate this system of tech-swapping, all empires have identical technologies available to them and they appear in the same order. There are a handful of special, race-specific technologies that can be unlocked through the experimental branch, but those are few and far between. In this regard, the game sacrifices flavor for functionality, which may not be to every player’s taste.
The eXploration in StarDrive 2 feels very satisfying but just why that is can be difficult to grasp at first. I mean, this is really just standard 4X fare we’re talking about here. There are no groundbreaking new mechanics or attempts to radically rework old ones. Instead, what Zero Sum Games does with StarDrive 2 is to take the standard mechanics we all know and love from classic titles such as Master of Orion 2 and Star Trek: Birth of the Federation and craft them into a neat and efficient whole. This is done with such expert precision and execution that eXploration in this title is, in my opinion, second to none among recent 4X entries.
eXpand: Much like eXploration, eXpansion in StarDrive 2 contains many of the features you might commonly expect to find in a space 4X. Planets come in a range of shapes and sizes and are characterized by their four primary attributes: size, type, mineral richness and gravity. Size determines the population capacity of the world, type indicates the climate/environment of the world, mineral richness gives would-be colonists an idea of how much industrial output they can expect to generate, and gravity ranges from low to high G. Unfavorable climates and gravity pulls can result in mild to significant penalties for colonization efforts depending on your racial attributes.
Most of the races in StarDrive 2 love a good Terran planet, so competition for these beauties is often fierce and they usually appear few and far between in a given galaxy. Given the scarcity of Earth-like worlds, newly expanding empires will often first need to colonize a type of planet that is not entirely suited to them. Each type has its pros and cons and must be weighed carefully. Barren worlds, for example, often have space for a decent-sized population and reasonable mineral richness, but do not allow for farming (and the generation of food) without the implementation of technologies via certain buildings.
Once a planet is colonized, the planetary management screen becomes available for that world. From there, players can allocate their citizens to one of three tasks: farming, industry and science. Allocation is achieved by dragging and dropping the citizens (the maximum number is determined by the population cap) to their designated task. Wait, what’s that you say, Davey? I can see a graphical representation of a samurai space bear in a lab coat?
Why, yes. Yes, you can.
The planetary management screen also shows information on planetary income, ground forces and, if assigned, the leader of the colony or its forces. A small hex grid with images shows which structures have been erected on the planet, and the build queue can be opened with ease. Again, Zero Sum Games takes the familiar and relatively simple accessibility of classic 4X titles and spruces them up with some modern polish.
Empire-level management occurs through a screen dedicated to viewing the planets under player control, the assigned citizens to each colony, and the pool of leaders currently hired or in the process of being hired. With the availability of trade freighters, players can also choose to move colonists from one planet to another to help boost population growth, or make up shortfalls on some worlds. Trade freighters are an early must in StarDrive 2. Not only do they allow transportation of colonists, but they also allow food to be provided (if a surplus is available) to colonies in need and for the establishment of trade routes with other empires.
Leaders can provide military, economic or diplomatic advantages to a player’s empire. Sometimes they can even provide advantages in two of these areas, but I’ve yet to come across enhancements for all three. Some leaders also come equipped with unique ships and can be paired up with a space fleet. Each leader has a quirky, fun flavor text when presented for hire, and some even have short side quests that you can engage in over the course of the game. Overall, the leader system is very well implemented in the game and makes empire management all the more fun.
StarDrive 2 benefits immensely from knowing when to allow player input/choice and when to simply automate a process. If you’re a fan of complex strategic/economic management, then this title might not be the best fit. Overall the eXpansion processes of the game are short on strategic depth and, with the use of certain technologies, planets can be made to function in a very similar fashion as others. A notable plus, however, is that the game offers several galaxy options at start. These include altering the chances of fertile or mineral-rich worlds appearing, and can make them of even more strategic importance to control.
eXploit: On the grand scale, StarDrive 2 has three key components necessary to establish a thriving empire: the availability of food, research points and moola. Ok, the currency is credits, but moola sounded more fun. There is a fourth component, command points, but I’ll cover those more in the next section of the review.
Food is measured by empire-wide surplus or shortage. With surplus, additional credits can be generated and colonies lacking the ability to grow food, or suffering a shortage, will automatically be replenished as long as a freighter fleet is available. In a time of shortage, planets will enter the process of starvation and colonists will gradually starve to death.
Research in StarDrive 2 is consistently important in a variety of ways, including for trade and economic developments. Research really comes into play, however, in developing superior military tech and refitting ships and ground troops with the latest and greatest in offensive and defensive capabilities. The shipyard, accessible via the ship design page, allows players to pick a hull size and fill it out with new weapons, defense systems, scanners and so on. The ship designer itself is very easy to use, graphically pleasing and not overly complex. A handy reference is provided to ensure you have all the necessary components to make a valid design, including power and engines.
Finally, on the big picture scale of eXploitation, credits are measured by the total income from your various colonies (including trade routes, adjustable tax rate, bonuses from leaders, etc.) and are the lifeblood of replacing units destroyed in battle quickly. If you’re engaged in a long-standing war and don’t have high industrial output on many worlds to help replace lost units, a large treasury can certainly help. While you rearrange your colonists to allow for optimization of industry (moving colonists from one planet to another can take several turns), buying out ship completion with credits can ensure you maintain a balance with your fleets.
Alright, now it’s time to delve a little deeper.
StarDrive 2 incorporates a nifty strategic resource system that adds to the enjoyment of seeking out new worlds. In addition to their primary attributes, planets can also have strategic resources that offer some really great bonuses. Examples of these include bakta root (boosting population growth), diamondite (+5% hit points to ships) and protofil caches (which reduce planetary pollution). Having access to multiple sources of a single strategic resource results in an additional, substantial exploitation bonus, which can mean gaining a significant edge over your opponents.
Some worlds also have unique modifiers that can be positive, negative or even a mix of both. One of my personal favorites, and a hint at the humor that is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) embedded throughout the game, is the planetary trait of sharknados. Sharknados are, as one might expect, highly dangerous and lower the base population growth of a planet. On the flip side, shark carcasses turn out to be a steady source of delicious marine life to consume that provides a flat bonus to food for that world. It’s the addition of small, simple bites of humor like this one that greatly enhance the flavor and enjoyment of StarDrive 2 on the whole.
Races and Diplomacy
StarDrive 2 features 9 playable races with unique portraits, lore and racial traits. The United Federation (or humans) represent the “standard” option as is found in many 4X titles, being somewhat a jack-of-all-trades. Moderate bonuses to most key areas, avoiding extreme positive or negative benefits on the whole. Players might also choose to lead the savage Vulfar Imperium, a race of dumb, yet exceptionally hard-working, wolf-type creatures. Others might opt for the peace-loving plant race known as the Pollop Symbiosis, who make for poor warriors but decent spies and also benefit from a reduced dependency on food.
Race customization is possible and uses a simple point system, with beneficial traits using points and negative traits generating them. There’s a cap on the number of negative points that can be applied, but its not so overly restrictive as to prevent some unique combinations from being made. Special traits are also available and can make a big difference in gameplay.
From a mechanics standpoint, the diplomacy system is primarily a “this for that” tool, whether it be offering peace, establishing trade routes or bartering for technology. Tolerance indicates how willing both your people and the other empire’s people are to engage in the proposed negotiation. Establishing a trade route may be great for your coffers, but are you willing to give up that important technology in exchange for it? Tolerance, in the end, is actually what makes diplomacy in StarDrive 2 purposeful.
All in all, eXploitation offers a reasonable range of choice and options, and definitely a dose of strategic thinking. However, the purpose of any exploitation in StarDrive 2 is always the same: how can I use these elements to blast the hell out of my opponents?
And that brings us neatly to…
eXterminate: The crux of StarDrive 2 exists in its combat system. Colonization, planetary management, and diplomacy are all well and good, but StarDrive 2 constantly begs you to answer the question: “When exactly do you plan to eliminate all other sentient life in the galaxy?”
Combat occurs in two distinct forms: space battles and planetary assault.
Pew pew pew! Swoosh! Zap! Kaboom!
Sorry, I got distracted there. Anyway, all battles in StarDrive 2 can be fought manually or resolved automatically. Being the combat-averse 4X player that I am, I typically resolve automatically in most games that present the option. In doing so, I’m always curious to see how the AI handles these match-ups versus what I could hope to accomplish in a manually-controlled encounter. Generally speaking, I didn’t find a whole lot of consistency in results between what I could feasibly pull off manually and what I could obtain from an automatic resolution. That said, I usually suck at combat, so this was not an unexpected outcome for me.
Unlike the rest of the game, space battles occur in real-time. There is an initial deployment phase in which the battlefield is viewable, including the positions of your fleets and the enemies. Limited information is available on enemies and certain special abilities can be activated for your ships during this phase. Once you click begin, however, it’s off to the races.
Strategic options for your ships are more limited than I would have expected, but they are sufficient. You can set default behaviors for your ships, such as holding position or continuing to move, as well as determining the direction your ships will face. All things considered, it’s not much to go on, but I still found I enjoyed the simplicity of the system, especially since I dislike overly-intricate combat mechanics.
Retreat is, of course, an option. Forfeit, too. If you’re a pansy.
Generally, beyond some pointing and clicking, I didn’t find there to be a lot I could do with manual space combat. It could be that I just haven’t explored it enough, or as I said, that I’m just not good with combat, but I didn’t find my actions particularly useful in determining anything about the outcome of a battle. One of the best aspects of space battles, however, is the ability to adjust the camera angle to allow for a more cinematic view of the battle. Watching ships and starbases explode up close is incredibly satisfying.
Assuming your forces defeat their opposition and reach an enemy planet, new options are presented. Blockading can be accomplished by leaving a fleet in orbit of the enemy world. As long as they remain unchallenged, incoming/outgoing food supplies are stopped, and the planet’s research and production output diverted to the blockading empire. Bombardment of planetary colonies can also occur on the strategy map, provided the fleet has ships with the right arsenal.
Blockades have had their time, and bombardment has gone well. It’s time to take this colony by force! Bundle up your forces in an available transport and head off to conquer your new home. Unlike space combat, planetary assaults are turn-based tactical encounters. A hex-map allows players a range of movement options, and strategic decisions can be all the more effective in this setting. Like space combat, however, there aren’t a whole ton of options during the combat encounter. Balance in unit design/equipment and good placement are paramount.
Out of combat, StarDrive 2 employs an easy-to-use system for upgrading units. As mentioned prior, the Shipyard is a must-visit as new military technology options become available to ensure fleets maintain that cutting edge. The AI will field a wide range of units, so its important that you also maintain a degree of versatility in the makeup of your fleets. For troops on the ground, upgrading is as simple as a click of a “upgrade” button. Unit layouts can then be individually modified and the costs/penalties associated with changes are easily accessible and easy to understand.
As with planets and ships in StarDrive 2, ground units can also be renamed. Giving your ground forces names actually improves their performance significantly, a result of feeling valued as part of your empire’s army and no longer just a “Human Ground Troop” statistic. This is, of course, patently untrue. There is no performance change whatsoever, but I like to think giving my troops a personality helps with immersion. For example, Mark was a mainstay of my ground forces in my most recent game, until brutally killed in the invasion of Earth by the Cordrazine Collective. Mark my words, he will be avenged!
Oh, come on. Even just a little laugh?
Command Points are StarDrive 2’s way of saying, “Too many generals, not enough grunts.” Each ship constructed, with the exception of freighter fleets, has a Command Point (CP) value attached to it. Your empire has a number of these points available at the start of the game, and your pool will increase as you build new starbases. Efficiency in ship design is also important, as it can reduce the number of CPs needed for a given vessel.
As a wise leader, your goal is to expertly craft fleets and starbases in such a way as to ensure the need for Command Points does not exceed what you have available. Hefty maintenance costs for exceeding the CP limit can bankrupt your empire quickly if you’re not careful.
Overall, combat in StarDrive 2 is what drives the entire title. Both space and ground combat are easy to grasp and devoid of overly complex mechanisms and options. Blending RTS and turn-based combat may not be to everyone’s taste, but it adds a good variety to the combat encounters in the game. For a title heavily dependent on this X, StarDrive 2 does well, but may lack some of the features that combat aficionados often look for, especially in ground combat situations.
eXperience: The developer of StarDrive 2, Dan DiCicco, has often cited Master of Orion 2 as his main inspiration behind this game. While comparing StarDrive 2 to the Holy Grail of 4X would not be fair, I will say this: it’s as close a title as I’ve played in recent years. During my playthroughs for this review of StarDrive 2, I can say I’ve had a great deal of fun every time I played the game. Fine artwork and animation, space-esque music and a “one more turn” feeling that has me absolutely hooked and excited to see how the title continues to progress.
The AI in StarDrive 2 provides a significant challenge, even on Normal. Its aggressive, expansionist mindset meant that I often found myself playing catch-up just to maintain my borders, and diplomatic encounters felt meaningful and relevant to later gameplay beyond just manipulating the AI out of what I wanted.
For combat fans, there’s even more. In addition to the campaign mode, as this review has described, StarDrive 2 also offers the Battle Arena. The Battle Arena has several pre-made combat missions available to choose from, with more customization and selection available than in the campaign. It also boasts a scenario editor allowing players to create their own Arena encounters.
StarDrive 2 is a single-player experience through and through. Many modern players look for 4X titles to incorporate multi-player options, but Zero Sum Games has stated there are no plans for multi-player at this time. While the pace and ease-of-use of the game would be perfect for a multi-player setting, much of the game’s charm and enjoyment come from the challenge provided from hostile threats and enemy empires attacking from all angles. Everything about the game feels combat-oriented and drives you toward those encounters quickly. If the game were to be multi-player, especially with all human opponents, I fear that some of the flair that really makes the game stand out would be lost in the shuffle.
As for those hostile threats, the initial game settings thankfully allow for an adjustment to the frequency with which they occur (from minimal all the way to dangerous), but I ultimately still felt I was encountering threats too often, even when set to minimal. I’d love to see the option to remove hostile threats from a game entirely but, in its current form, the hostile threat system is certainly fitting with what StarDrive 2 is at its core: a game of conquest and combat.
Overall, StarDrive 2 is a brilliant experience and one I recommend you try. I mean, take a second and consider this:
Samurai space bears!
TL;DR: StarDrive 2 can best be described as a joyride of a 4X game. It contains all the standard elements you’d expect to find, especially in a classic title, and is fast paced for a 4X game. Fans of epic turn lengths won’t find what they’re looking for here. It gets as close to real-time strategy as one can get with a turn-based game. The speed of the game, however, is perfectly balanced with the complexity of the system itself. This is an easy-to-learn title with very familiar features, but it crafts them together so expertly as to create a very challenging and fun game.
You might like this game if:
- You’re a fan of 4X titles with a focus on combat
- You’re looking for a game that is quick to pick up and play any time
- You’re looking for a game similar to classic 4X (MoO2, BOTF) with a modern shine
You might NOT like this game if:
- An in-depth planetary management is what you’re looking for in a 4X
- You prefer 4X titles with a high level of complexity in decision-making
- You like a very wide range of options/selections in combat encounters
Davey played 51+ hours of StarDrive 2 on an AMD A10-6700 3.7 GHz processor with 16GB DDR3 RAM and AMD HD8670D graphics on Windows 8.1 64-bit.