In 2015, a massive wave of space-based 4X games crashed ashore with the release of StarDrive 2, Star Ruler 2, and Galactic Civilizations 3. 2016 is poised for an even bigger tsunami. Polaris Sector was released in March and the Master of Orion reboot hit Early Access back in February. And soon enough, Stellaris and Endless Space 2 will also arrive at port. Call it what you will, but fans of space-based 4X empire games are weathering a veritable storm of titles. As the landscape comes closer to the saturation point, many are left wondering which game, if any, of the current crop will become the next timeless classic. During this tumultuous time, we might also mark our calendars as the moment when StarDrive 2 received its first expansion-sized DLC: Sector Zero.
For many, Sector Zero’s announcement came as a pleasant surprise, albeit one paired with trepidation. StarDrive 2, created by solo developer Dan “Zero” DiCicco, seems haunted by the ghosts of its past moreso than any other recent space 4X. Released in April 2015, the base game provided a compelling experience that was close to being a solid spiritual-successor to Master of Orion 2 (for which people have clamored for decades). Despite many thoughtful mechanics, the game never quite reached its ambition due to a combination of clunky gameplay, bugs and a late-game that drowned in its own tedium. More distressing, many feared that SD2 wouldn’t receive enough long-term support to fix these problems, much less an expansion… Yet here is Sector Zero.
On paper, the list of changes in Sector Zero is impressive: four new victory conditions, revamped ground combat, sector-based territory control, and a hearty dose of new technologies, events, and galactic features. With an increasingly crowded 4X market space, however, the question at hand is this: does Sector Zero bring enough to the table to reinvigorate SD2 and help it reach its potential?
Exploration has always been one of SD2’s strong points. A diverse menu of strategic resources to secure (all with unique and powerful benefits to your empire), combined with an abundance of narrative events, quest sequences, and special research projects means that venturing into space is always exciting. Whereas the late-game tended to bog down in micromanagement hell (at least in the base game), the early game was punctuated by plenty of discovery and tension.
Sector Zero builds on this eXploration strength by adding a new layer to the strategic landscape: the sector system. While the basics of fleet movement and navigation remain the same (e.g. you can send your fleets to any exact point, limited only by the fuel on your ships), the galaxy is now divided into a series of hex-shaped sectors, which provides an organizing structure to the landscape. For example, ship sensors now function in terms of sector range, so a ship with level 2 sensors can detect objects two sectors away.
Stepping back from SD2 for a moment, a weakness of many space 4X games is that space is so often devoid of any semblance of terrain, which would otherwise shape the landscape in the way that mountains or oceans might in a terrestrial game. This can result in ship movement being somewhat bland, with no organic choke points or open fields to cross. Other games have tried to rectify this by creating a galactic topology through the use of star lanes. Thankfully, Sector Zero takes a different approach.
The sector system provides a structure for introducing terrain into the galaxy. Large nebulas or ion storms can now span across multiple sectors. They will dramatically slow down ship movement, forcing you to decide between taking the long way around or pushing through. These terrain features can also affect your ships’ performance in combat, such as disabling shields or weakening beam weapons. Theoretically you could use this to your advantage if you knew what types of equipment your opponent had, but in actuality you rarely have the chance to create these opportunities. Nevertheless, the addition of terrain makes the galaxy a bit more interesting to navigate. Where you stage your defensive fleets, in particular, needs to be considered more carefully now.
Beyond the larger galactic terrain features, sectors can also be populated by special landmarks. Landmarks include things like black holes, ancient fuel deposits, crystal clouds, ordinance caches, and more. Discovering and controlling these sectors can provide special empire bonuses and ties into one of the new victory conditions (more on that later).
One of the major criticisms of the base game of SD2 is that it was unclear how your empire’s borders grew over time and what function borders and territory served in the first place. This is because the AI seemed to ignore borders and do whatever it wanted, wherever it wanted. Most often, this manifested as the dreaded “forward settling,” where the AI would happily send a colony ship right into your home system whenever it felt like it.
In Sector Zero, the sector system provides a mechanism for controlling territory, and it does so in a much more organized and coherent fashion. You can click on a sector to see your “influence” over that tile grow turn-by-turn based on its proximity to your established colonies. When the influence meter fills up, that sector will become part of your core territory. And thankfully, the AI is now more cognizant and respectful of your borders. In all my time playing Sector Zero, I didn’t see a single instance of the AI colonizing a world inside my territory. Yes, there was much rejoicing.
A further consequence of the sector system is that taking territory is now a legitimate part the game. This is because the operation of construction ships has been completely revamped. If you send a construction ship to a sector outside of a star system, you’ll have the option to build a deep space station. Once built, the space station immediately exerts control over the sector, and will continue doing so until it is destroyed.
The ability to build space stations opens up a new level of gameplay that didn’t exist before in SD2. You can use stations to fortify your boundaries, especially if you upgrade the space station to a starbase, which will completely prevent enemy ships from moving through the sector. I’ve used this capability in some instances to build up territorial control around a remote colony or to maintain an open zone of travel between my core sectors and more distant colonies, ensuring that the AI doesn’t mess with my trade routes. The AI also takes advantage of these new mechanics, and by mid- to late- game has often fortified their entire empire boundary, requiring a declaration of war in order to penetrate their space.
The starbases also improve another criticized aspect of the base game: subspace projectors. In theory, subspace projectors were supposed to provide a galactic highway of sorts, where travel speeds were accelerated. In practice they were clunky and nearly impossible to use. Thankfully, this has been fixed. Deep space structures can be upgraded with a number of modules, including a subspace project that increases movement speeds for ships traveling through the sector. New technologies allow these projectors to exert their influence into adjacent sectors, meaning that a well-distributed network of stations can boost travel speeds by 50% across your entire empire. There is also a pretty slick technology that reduces the movement speed of enemy ships in subspace range, giving stations an additional defensive capability.
The space stations also provide means of refueling ships, which I’ve used offensively to push into enemy territory while keeping my fleets’ fuel tanks topped off. And lastly, building stations in sectors with special landmark locations secures access to those special locations, letting you build special science or mining outposts and providing further benefits to nearby colonies.
Fortunately, the level of micromanagement needed to manipulate your network of deep space stations is quite reasonable. Construction ships are not consumed when they build or upgrade a deep space station, so half a dozen constructions ships is likely all you’ll need. And the notification system kindly lets you know when construction ships finish their projects so you can set them onto another task. Still, it would be nice if each construction ship could be given a queue of orders to follow, e.g. build a station at location X, upgrade to subspace projector, then build the next station at location Y, and so on. It’s not overly tedious as it is, but there is still some room for improvement.
SD2 is a game clearly grounded in the notion that conquering the galaxy is the ultimate objective. In the base game, all of your research and production efforts are oriented towards being able to build bigger and better fleets of spaceships to pound opposing empires into dust. In short, SD2 is a wargame through and through – a classic conquer the galaxy-style 4X.
Despite the game’s focus on conflict, there was no shortage of criticism concerning the late game experience and, in particular, the lack of alternate victory conditions. On one hand, I can understand the reluctance to add more victory conditions because it risks pulling the focus away from the conquest. Yet being forced to watch your inevitable conquest play out as you roflstomp across the galaxy is painful, and many just turn the game off at that point. In this regard, providing alternate victory conditions as a way to accelerate the end game when your victory is inevitable is highly attractive. At least that’s the theory.
Sector Zero adds four new victory conditions to the game. Three of these are tracked in a new screen, which includes score victory, ascension victory, and eXpansion victory. The score victory is based on accumulated points in a number of categories (colonies, fleets, tech, population, happiness, etc.) and at the end of 1,000 turns the empire with the highest score wins. The ascension victory requires researching a capstone technology at the end of each of the five research branches, and then building the final ascension monolith. Your people transcend and you win! Finally, the eXpansion victory occurs if you manage to control all of the new special locations in the galaxy (e.g. 25-30 special sectors in a medium sized galaxy).
How do the new victory conditions work in practice? The AI does a decent job competing with the player for score and ascension victories, particularly on higher difficulties due to the AI’s production and research bonuses. In fact, on large galaxies and high difficulty settings, the AI can ascend relatively quickly (well before the score victory), requiring the player to be very aggressive to prevent the AI from winning. Thankfully, you can enable or disable victory conditions during game setup if you don’t want the AI to uhhh… “win” in a manner not of your choosing.
The problem I have with the victory conditions is that there are no options to scale them to the galaxy size and pacing settings. The ascension victory and score victory are scaled well for larger maps, but on smaller maps you’ll end up being able to simply steamroll the AIs well before being close to the new victory conditions, making them mostly irrelevant.The eXpansion victory is also a bit flawed because it requires invading the space of all the other empires so that you can control the special landmark sectors. At this point, you are already dragged into a war, so the net effect isn’t much different than just going for ye ole conquest victory.
All in all, the victory conditions are a nice addition, and under the right circumstances they can provide a challenge for the player. But I’d appreciate having a way to scale and customize the victory conditions during setup, as it would lead to more interesting and tense games across all the map sizes. Lastly, there is a new quest-based victory condition that makes me smile – but I won’t spill the secret here.
Beyond the victory conditions, Sector Zero adds a number of new primary research options to the game (around 10), representing approximately 18 new technologic advancements. Five of these are high level technologies associated with the technological ascension victory condition. Nearly all the rest provide space station upgrades. One of my favorite aspects of SD2 is that each research advancement requires you to choose just one technology to learn, forcing tough and interesting choices. The new research options in Sector Zero continue this tradition.
When Sector Zero was first announced, the developer stated that a major hot button issue in the base game, ground combat, would not be addressed in the expansion. This was troubling to many. The ground combat system in the base game was ambitious – very few recent space 4Xs feature full-blown turn-based tactical ground battles with customizable units. When ground combat missions were woven into the special events, the whole concept worked rather well. But when it came to invasions, ground combat was flawed and frustrating.
The problem was that the same ground combat system applied equally to planetary invasions and the special missions. At a thematic level, seeing five or six troops square off civil war-style opposite another half dozen defenders just felt wrong. At a gameplay level, it was horrendously tedious to play out each and every invasion via manual combat. The worst part is that you couldn’t use the auto-resolve as you would often take huge losses compared to easy victories if you manually resolved. I’ll be honest, I shelved the base game weeks after its release because the ground combat (for invasions) infuriated me to no end. Not to mention having to manually adjust the loadouts of each and every troop across my entire empire prior to an invasion. Kill me now.
So imagine the community’s elation when the developer reversed course and decided to re-work the ground combat system as part of Sector Zero. The old tactical system remains in place for special event missions, and rightfully so. However for planetary invasions a new fancy auto-resolve system has been implemented. Opposing ground forces square off in a more abstract manner and fire shots back and forth each game turn. Each side has a pool of life points modified by available technologies (armor, miraculous healing powers, etc.) and dishes out damage based on those same techs and other modifiers. A window provides a nice overview of all the benefits and penalties that affect the two sides’ capabilities. For larger invasions, more often than not, the battle will stretch over multiple turns (allowing for reinforcements, naturally), which adds a nice sense of scale and significance to invasions.
I’m quite conflicted about how SD2 (in conjunction with Sector Zero) comes together as an overall experience. On one hand, SD2 does a lot of things really well – far better in fact than other competing games. The ship designer, the event and quest system, the richness of exploration, the overall UI look and feel, the aesthetics, the character and flavor, the forcing of tough choices – these are all good things. Sector Zero does an impressive job expanding and refining many of the game’s core mechanics. On the other hand, I still have significant reservations about the game as a whole package. Let me explain.
The first mark against the game and the expansion are the bugs. The developer has been patching the game frequently over the past few weeks, yet there is a seemingly endless stream of bugs, ranging from minor graphic glitches to those that shut down the game completely. I’ve had some of my games hang while processing turns on a number of occasions, forcing me to backtrack to prior saves and avoid the glitched circumstances. The developer is trying to keep up with the critical bug fixing, but a number of problems still persist, including some inherited from the base game. Be advised.
The second mark against the game comes down to quality of life refinements. There is no shortage of suggestions on ways to improve the accessibility and overall playability. SD2 can be a big game with a lot to manage, even more so with larger galaxy settings. So improvements to the UI and its functionality would go a long way towards improving the experience for everyone. For example, providing rally points for newly built ships, being able to assign waypoints to fleet movement, issuing commands to multiple ships in combat at the same time (and during deployment) and customizable colony build queues (instead of the nebulous colony governors), would help make the gameplay much smoother, clearer, and less tedious. Piling on, there are many things that just aren’t explained well in the game. Did you know that you can ignore troop loadouts for invasion purposes, as specific loadouts don’t factor into the invasion results? Who knew!?
I’m inclined to look past the bugs and the un-quality of life, because the game has great bones overall. Unfortunately, one remaining issue is holding me back from enjoying SD2 as much as I want to: flaccid late-game AI. This is almost entirely a function of the AI not bringing sufficiently advanced and effective ship designs to the fight. The AI can be surprisingly agile and responsive on the strategic map, and on harder difficulties it is able to field much larger fleets than the player. The problem is that the player designs can totally annihilate the AI, even when facing a big numerical disadvantage.
For a game oriented almost entirely around building cool space ships with laser beams, it is heartbreaking to see the AI fall apart in this manner. The weaknesses cut into the tension that should be there as a consequence of the new victory conditions. I should be worried when there are only 200 turns left and the AI’s score is higher than mine. I should be worried when the AI has many more techs researched than I do and is approaching ascension. Except that I’m not, because the moment I decide I want to invade the enemy and knock them off the leaderboard is the moment I’ve essentially won the game. I’m crossing my fingers that this can be fixed, because it’s the one issue that continues to erode the game’s long-term appeal.
As for the Sector Zero eXpansion itself, I think developer Dan DiCicco did a commendable job of introducing new systems and mechanics to the game. Many of these changes rectified long-standing problems with the base game, like tedious ground combat and troop management, intractable border mechanics and a lack of victory options. So in this regard, Sector Zero is an improvement overall. There are still bugs, and I hope they are squashed eventually, but I’m willing to look past them for the moment, especially in light of the frequent patching. If you enjoy the base experience of SD2 and feel sufficiently challenged as things are, then Sector Zero is a welcome addition to the game. However, if you have reservations about the late-game unraveling due to a weak AI not “putting up the good fight,” be aware that the expansion does little to change this state of affairs.
TL;DR: The base game of StarDrive 2 showed significant promise: it was thoughtfully designed and made an excellent first impression. Upon further scrutiny, the game falls apart in the late stages due to (1) a few tedious mechanics, (2) a lack of interesting victory options, and (3) weak combat AI and ship designs. The Sector Zero eXpansion makes some strides towards rectifying these problems. Ground combat has been reworked and is greatly streamlined. A new system for territory control is in place making space even more interesting and dynamic. And a range of victory options are now on the table. However, the pacing, tension, and challenge that should be present isn’t quite realized, as the AI simply cannot compete with the player when it comes to conquest. If this were to be improved, StarDrive 2 would be a serious contender to sit on the mantle of 4X space game excellence. As it is, SD2 with Sector Zero is decent, but continues to be a painfully missed opportunity for greatness.
You Might Like This eXpansion If:
- You enjoyed the base game of StarDrive 2 and are fine with the game’s focus on combat
- You felt that the cumbersome ground combat and border control systems needed major improvements
- You’ve longed for additional victory conditions to be added to the game
You Might NOT Like This eXpansion If:
- You want the AI to legitimately challenge you in the late game, especially in higher difficulties
- You want a polished, bug free experience
- You think all these improvements should be patched into the base game
Oliver has played approximately 25+ hours of the StarDrive 2: Sector Zero expansion on a MSI GX-640 Laptop with a Core i5-430m (2.26 GHz), 4GB RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5850 (1GB DDR5)