There’s no getting around this: we walk on hallowed ground. The term “4X” was originally coined back in 1993 in an effort to describe the original Master of Orion (MoO). Twenty-three years later, the term is used to describe an entire genre of games – the genre to which eXplorminate is dedicated. In that time, the MoO franchise has seen two great titles, a title we do not speak of, and now a full reboot. It has also seen decades of games attempting to follow in its footsteps including many clones. However, many fans still feel that the first and second MoOs, while quite different from one another, are still the best examples of space 4X ever.
The love for Master of Orion isn’t just fueled by nostalgia. Both MoO 1 & 2 expertly blended deep gameplay with a UI that, for its time, was rather simple and easy to use. The sequel added a new planetary management system that, for the most part, never felt too overwhelming and added various other gameplay mechanics that improved the experience. It’s no surprise that many 4X fans have been clamoring for the return of the series.
So when the rights to the name Master of Orion were sold to Wargaming.net – a games company widely known for free-to-play MMO’s like the World of Tanks, Warplanes and Warships series – many MoO fans loudly expressed their concerns. Will the next MoO be a free-to-play MMO? Will it be plagued by pay-to-win microtransactions? Many of them did not realize that Wargaming actually has its origins in, you guessed it: wargaming. Not to mention, the team at the head of development maintains frequent contact with many of the original developers of the earlier MoO games. Still, many wondered what would happen to this beloved franchise.
And with such high expectations like that, what could possibly go wrong?
Wargaming.net and NGD Studios have rebooted Master of Orion – and done so with a massive budget (by 4X game standards) and high production values. From a narrative and lore standpoint, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars recreates the first MoO storyline (so no Antarans here). Mechanically, however, the game is much closer MoO2, right down to moving workers between production tasks. But, there are some significant departures in the underlying design. Starlanes have replaced the open galaxy and the venerated turn-based combat of prior MoO games has given way to a real-time combat system.
Many of these changes were made in the interest of making the game more accessible to a broader audience. So for the hardcore 4X types, the questions come down to this: Are these mechanical changes executed well enough to be cause for celebration, or will we continue to long for the past? Does streamlining the game better focus gameplay on interesting strategic challenges, or simply water down the depth and overall experience?
As we shall see, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Read on.
Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars begins with the typical options: faction selection (with ten core races to choose from, excluding custom races or ones only available through pre-order), galaxy type (circular, cluster, and spiral) galaxy size, galaxy age, difficulty level (six in all) and a few other minor settings. Nothing really stands out here. It works as expected and gets the job done.
What does stand out is the mode of travel: Starlanes. That’s right, STARLANES. Instead of open space travel between any point in fuel range, we have Starlanes and NO fuel restrictions at all. Now, many people will be upset by this, but by and large it works in MoO: CtS. They help streamline the gameplay and create natural choke points, which helps the player and AI control their territory better. Is this ideal? No, not really, but it’s workable.
Once the game loads, your road to galactic domination begins – as in many 4X games – with a colony ship, one small warship (a frigate), and a couple scouts. At the onset, the location of all the stars can be seen in galactic map. But a closer examination by your scouts is required to reveal the contents of each system. So as you arrive in a star system, you’ll need send scouts to each celestial object in the system individually, at least until you unlock additional eXploration technologies. As they eXplore, they’ll report back on each planet’s type, natural resources, and suitability for colonization.
Scouts will also find anomalies, pirate bases, space monsters guarding choice planets, and eventually other factions. But the real excitement is in finding those jewel planets with abundant resources. Later in the game, with the proper technology, you’ll no longer need to visit each planet to determine its qualities – and can instead survey the whole system in one fell swoop. The sense of progression tied to improving scouting technology is a nice touch and provides an early research target.
While eXploring, you’ll also find planets with various natural resources that, while not required for the production of any units, do provide other bonuses. You may also find out-of-system relics that can be transformed into working ships, provide technological advancement, or give you “Billion Credits” (BC). These systems are implemented adequately, but they do not provide anything special or strategic other than a short-term boost.
The other species you are competing against pepper the map, depending on your game setup.
Thankfully, the major races that you’ll find are on an entirely different level of presentation than we see in many other 4X games. NGD has done a great job of making each faction feel distinct and full of personality. While their gameplay mechanics don’t lead to radically different playstyles (which hurts replayability), their unique ship designs and subtle gameplay variations create a recognizable aesthetic style for each faction. Personally, I’d have liked to see more race-specific mechanics, ship abilities, or technologies (or all three!) – but the system in place is a decent foundation. Interacting with each faction is a treat. The high production values are on full display, with great voice-over work and faction-specific dialogue that really boosts immersion. This aspect of the game’s presentation easily earns high praise.
Unfortunately, the minor factions that were once present in the Early Access period are now gone – but the developer says they will return in a free update. As it was, minor factions were given a decent written description of their appearance and behaviors, but mechanically minor factions had been done better in nearly every other modern 4X. The developers decided to pull them in order to make them more interesting later on. While I’m disappointed to see that they didn’t make it back in time for the full release, the former implementation of minor factions was decidedly not fun, so there’s no real loss.
Exploration of the tech tree is very similar to Civilization, but with an added twist. When you research certain technologies, you’re given a choice between two or three unique improvements to take, of which you can only choose one (except for the Psilons or custom races with the “creative” trait). This adds some nice “hard” decisions to the game. Most of the technologies still revolve around bigger and better modifiers and bonuses, but a fair share of research unlocks new capabilities for your empire. This includes things like top-secret spy gadgets to reduce enemy success at espionage, moon structures that boost research or ship construction, and research that can benefit ships or ground forces.
Technology advancement is paced well and gives the game a decent sense of progression. In a timely fashion, you’ll be seeing upgrades to add to your ships, planets and soldiers. But what is missing is any significant variation in the tech tree from playthrough to playthrough. Having race-specific technologies, or technologies that are randomly discovered in a given playthrough, would have gone a long way towards spicing up this portion of gameplay.
Exploration is driven by the need to eXpand. Fortunately, eXpansion is extremely straightforward: you build a colony ship, send it to your chosen planet, and are rewarded with a rather pretty video of your colony ship making planetfall. However, you can’t queue up colonization through any other means, which is a shame. I would’ve liked to have seen ways to do so via the Planets menu, or a contextual button on a non-colonized planet. In a genre often criticized for clunky interfaces and high levels of micromanagement, those sorts of streamlined interactions would have been greatly appreciated – especially because fast eXpansion is pretty critical to your success.
So, what incentive is there to eXpand your empire? First and foremost, you’ll want more population. The more citizens you have, the more research, production, and BC you’ll generate. It’s a simple system that’s reminiscent of the original games, and it works well enough. Unfortunately, this means that building a “wide” empire, by eXpanding aggressively, is always the best course of action. It would be nice for a viable strategy of “building tall” to be implemented eventually, as the colony rush plays out similarly each game.
The food mechanics curb rampant development on new planets to some extent (a welcome change), but it doesn’t do enough. Overall, eXpansion follows the most basic 4X formula there is: the more planets you have, the better you’re likely to do. And your population is key in all of this. Each unit of population represents both a hard and soft bonus to everything your planet produces. However, planets have a limited number of slots for production, research, and food that they can support. As you reach the limit of what your planet can sustain, the productivity of each worker/scientist/farmer is reduced (as shown by a lower production number). Outputs are also affected by size, gravity, and planetary resources. A downside of this “diminishing returns” system of fixed worker slots is that it de-incentivizes specialization – instead your outputs are maximized by balancing each planet.
As for the colony management screen, it has helpful mouseover tooltips that provide a great deal of information to you at a moment’s notice. It’s also pleasant to look at and the individual citizens are cute and aesthetically pleasing. The process of adding to your production queue is intuitive and easy, but it is quite repetitive. You will be building the same things, by and large, on every single planet. A system for custom build orders option would have been welcomed here alleviate the micromanagement monotony..
We should note that, while playing a role in other 4X games such as Galactic Civilizations or Distant Worlds, there is no “sphere of influence” or “zone of territorial control” in MoO: CTS. As a result, there is no mechanism for assimilating planets through your voracious hegemonic influence. Neither will you be “culture flipping” other empire’s colonies.
Exploitation in MoO: CTS primarily revolves around the control and use of strategic planets. These “resources” that you control provide various bonuses (e.g. extra BCs or research points) but are not required for the actual production of anything. This is both a boon and a curse. It’s a boon in that lacking a particular “resource” won’t keep you from creating units, regardless of the technology you use. This avoids some of the frustrations seen in other 4X games where you don’t have a required natural resource and therefore cannot produce a certain unit.
However, the curse is that this approach limits the amount of tension that arises between civilizations and reduces the need to eXpand to specific locations in order to secure specific resources. Something that I really enjoy in other 4X games is the tension created from seeing a particular resource that you need for something, e.g. building a spearman, sitting in your neighbor’s territory. Doesn’t this jealousy – this need – cause tension and wars in real life? Regardless, this tension feels unfortunately absent here. Personally, I wish there were some resources that created suspense during play and something worth fighting over.
In addition to utilizing strategic planets, you’ll also be able to use “Space Factories” (basically worker ships) to construct extractors on gas giants and asteroid fields, which will in turn generate additional research and money. Later on, when you research the appropriate technology, you’ll be able to turn these uninhabitable stellar bodies into viable colony worlds. You can also use Space Factories to build armed starbases to plug up particular starlanes, listening outposts to observe distant fleets and jump gates for faster travel between systems.
SO WHAT you say!?! Well, the Space Factories are versatile worker units that let you further eXploit your controlled systems. The armed starbases can be used to slow down enemy fleets, since they can move and attack only once per turn, as well as repair friendly fleets faster. The jumpgates and listening posts are indispensable if you are stretched thin, and you have a small fleet to defend your home turf as you take the war to your enemies.
Espionage is also a viable option for your empire to eXploit your competition. The espionage system, while rather simple, can turn into a bit of a micromanagement nightmare at times. You can quickly train up LOTS of spies. And while you can queue up various missions, managing them becomes time-consuming as the number of spies steadily increases. To make matters worse, you have to send each spy to a specific planet to start their mission queue. It’s a lot of clicking and menu navigation for little benefit or excitement.
Once you get through all that, you can use spies to obtain information, steal knowledge (technology and star maps), cause revolts, and more. Playing against the Darloks? Be sure to use your spies liberally to defend your planets through counter-espionage. Overall, the espionage system is nothing particularly special or unique.
When it comes to diplomacy, the system works well and provides standard fare of requests and demands. You can create trade agreements, share star maps, demand tribute, and so on. The diplomats themselves are fantastically animated and create an insane amount of immersion. Their voice-over work is top-notch and hasn’t become annoying, not even after 60+ hours of play. (On the other hand, I muted the advisors long ago. The Alkari advisor, in particular, is awfully annoying.) While not pushing the envelope, diplomacy is solid and fun.
In addition to empire-to-empire diplomacy, MoO: CTS, incorporates a favorite feature of the series: the Galactic Council. Players will work to gain votes, based on their population, for Galactic Council meetings that occur from time to time. Here again, the high production values are on full display. The meetings are both fun to participate in and to watch. The major empires you’ve managed to convince of your power and good looks will grant you control of the council. It’s a fun modernization of the galactic council of old but it feels underdeveloped.
Of course, diplomacy doesn’t always work and when it doesn’t, there’s always…
Make no mistake: I feel combat is the weakest aspect of the game, which is unfortunate because it’s a hallmark of earlier games in the series. You have four modes for resolving fleet battles: Full control, partial control, a cinematic mode, as well as auto-resolve. The battles themselves use an RTS-lite style. You click and drag to select your ships, order targets to attack, and that’s about it.
Ship AI is pretty solid, so the enemy will react accordingly. Yet, it feels boring and lacks the flash of recent games that have adopted the RTS model like StarDrive 2 or even Sword of the Stars 1, which came out nearly TEN years ago! In contrast to other aspects of the game, combat feels un-immersive and bland, giving me little opportunity to make interesting tactical choices that affect the outcome. The result is that I frequently and consistently opt to “simulate” instead of watching and/or participating. The fact that I often want to skip a significant part of the game is not something the developer should want to hear. Especially when combat is what earlier MoO games were known for.
Other than the visual distinction of ships, nothing feels unique about the factions in combat. There are no special weapons to be had nor any special abilities or ship layouts. And it is here that MoO feels mostly stuck in an bygone era. What’s worse, there is a large subset of players that would have wanted to see a return to turn-based combat. MoO 1 & 2 had glorious turn-based combat that was both fun and tactically interesting. To see that replaced with sub-par RTS combat is frustrating and may be infuriating to the potential customer base.
Ship customization provides some nice choices, but the UI is a bit clunky and opaque. Some of the importance of designing ships is nullified by the helpful prompt to upgrade ships as new technology becomes available. I found myself only visiting the ship design menu to see if I could fit more stuff on ship models with the miniaturization techs that had recently become available. For the most part, NGD seems like it has pretty well optimized the default designs. That does make things easier, but it also removes a lot of the agency from the player to create new, interesting ships.
Players that like to see visual representations of ground combat will also be disappointed with MoO: CtS. Ground combat consists of watching your army numbers dwindling faster or slower than your opponent’s numbers. Nothing flashy. Nothing immersive. No player input required.
On a positive note, the AI plays this game with a remarkable level of competence. I was frequently given a challenge on even the easier difficulty levels. Anecdotally, I’m hearing from my 4X friends that enjoy more difficult settings that they’re given quite the challenge, too. The AI can attack in waves instead of all at once, and from different directions. It will upgrade and defend its planets and systems, block starlanes with starbases and utilize jump gates to quickly move its fleets from one war front to another. One thing that really stood out is how it uses civilian transports to augment its population in newly colonized worlds. Another is its use of military transports to invade worlds that have been bombed in systems and that are free of enemy ships. Not something that I’ve seen many other AI do. This bodes very well for the game and is a pleasant surprise in a genre often plagued by poor AI.
Overall, Wargaming.net and NGD Studios have competently rebooted your beloved Master of Orion. While not perfect, and curiously lacking in some aspects, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars is a fun and polished reimagining of the game we all fell in love with. Finally, a development team has had the time, experience, and finances to bring MoO to the 21st Century – with mostly good results.
It’s not all good news, however. For everything that Master of Orion does right, it does something equally frustrating. The developers nailed the atmosphere, and the production values for most of the game are way above what 4X games usually receive. However, combat – a central part of the gameplay – lacks tactical immersion. Planetary management is simple without feeling oversimplified, but spy management is unnecessarily complicated and unrewarding.
The planets and systems are aesthetically pleasing and a joy to eXplore, but eXploration beyond that is non-existent. There are some interesting choices to make regarding planet settling and setting up proper defenses of your systems, but the strategic resource system feels tacked on and largely inconsequential. The research tree is well organized, but the tech progression itself is predictable and lacks any faction-specific individuality.
What about the victory conditions? Well, they are all there. You have the scientific victory achieved through the completion of the tech tree. The economic victory is achieved through the domination of the galactic stock market. You have diplomatic victory which can be achieved when you’re elected as the council president in the galactic council. Let’s not forget the conquest victory achieved through… Conquest of course! There is also a score victory which can be adjusted before launching the game. What’s really nice here is that each victory type has an animated ending, like games used to have. Actually, a lot of activities have animated and/or narrated videos. Settling planets, scientific discoveries, combat encounters and winning/losing a game. All nice additions that are sorely missed in other “modern” games.
Overall, the game feels pretty solid. But after playing it through to the end a few times, I think that the hardcore 4X audience and diehard fans of the original MoOs will start to see cracks in the hull. In some ways, it feels like the new MoO is still stuck in the early 1990s. That’s a shame – it does so much else right that it makes the flaws stand out.
If NGD could bring ship and ground combat up to speed, update/streamline some of the UI, provide more incentive to obtain resources, increase faction differentiation, and do something interesting with minor factions, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars could easily be a “Recommended” title. However, given that these major gameplay mechanics feel undercooked and, at times, stale and boring, the game’s only good enough for a “Consider” rating right now. A shame, really.
Nate’s Additional Perspective:
Master of Orion is a venerable franchise and the father (or at this point the grandfather) of the 4X genre. NGD really had a hard task ahead of them in trying to live up to the legacy of the series. I feel that for the most part, they did a good job bringing back what made the original games so special. Unfortunately, some of the changes they instituted miss the mark.
Space combat could certainly be better. If I want to play a game with modern, RTS-styled combat, I would pick Polaris Sector. The rebooted MoO combat is certainly pretty, but it doesn’t really stand out. Another thing that bugs me is the ship design aspect of the game. It is so streamlined that I seldom even try to create my own ships. Galactic Civilizations III does it better. Thankfully, the AI is not a slouch. It puts up a good challenge and with all victory conditions activated, it can and often does catch me off-guard.
I really appreciate the tech tree too. Yes, it is predictable and static, but there is more to it than just a +5% here and a minus -10% there. The descriptions are great and the art is fantastic. I am also not bothered by the starlanes, at all. I cut my teeth on Ascendancy, a title that came out around the same MoO 2, and I still play it now, although I do so on my iPad.
I’ll say this: if you are a hardcore 4X fan, you might end up tearing this title apart – but I do think it deserves a fair shake just the same. Compared to all of the space 4X titles that are out now and on the horizon, MoO is still elegantly smooth, simple to understand, and priced just right: $30 for the base game. Not every player wants to sit down for a ten-hour gaming session while only taking a handful of turns. MoO is an enjoyable and streamlined 4X experience if you are just there to cruise along at a nice pace. I often found myself wanting to play just one more turn, and I did – many more turns. To me, that is what a 4X game needs to have. If it went by any other name than Master Of Orion, I would have easily scored this title as “Recommended” for sure.
Chris’ Additional Perspective:
Ah, Master of Orion, how I loved thee back in the day! How I love and admire thee still. But, your old self is kinda ugly now, even if your gameplay still (mostly) holds up. Seriously, your gameplay has fueled a genre for 23 years. But is your reboot enough to entertain modern 4X gamers?
Mostly, yes. There’s quite a lot to like about your new shiny self. And all your old races look so new – the 3D models suit you! I remember all these faces, and the Psilon are sexier than ever. I also like how you’re now displaying systems on the map, instead of plopping them in another window. Must be all the new RAM! And you sound great, too! No more beeps and boops – the orchestra you hired is very talented. Bravo! And I know, out there somewhere, is Orion itself, the Guardian orbiting that most fertile and abundant of planets, waiting for me to wander along with my puny fleet.
I agree with Rob, though – you kinda dropped the ball on combat. I would have preferred turn-based, but I’m not against real-time. Still… I mostly auto-resolve. It’s pretty the first few times, but there’s not enough tactical depth to keep me interested. That’s one of my gripes. But my biggest is the boredom of eXploration. It’s just not that interesting, even with the anomalies thrown in here and there. So many recent games have shown us how interesting and wondrous space exploration can be. That is to say, we need more goody huts!
Still, I kinda like you. You keep me up late. You’re lighthearted and playful, not taking yourself too seriously like some of those other fellers. Overall, you’ve cleaned up nicely! With future support from your creators, I think you might be your old self again one day.
TL;DR: NGD was up against impossible odds in recreating a classic – and actually managed to overcome them, to an extent. The decision to make combat real-time may have been a good one had it actually been implemented well. Instead, MoO feels weighed down by a mediocre combat system, uninspired faction asymmetry, a clunky spy system, and an inconsequential resource system. Given time to shore these up, MoO could be a game of historical consequence, like its namesake. Instead, its weaknesses mostly balance its strengths – the very definition of middle-of-the-road.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re open to changing up the Master Of Orion formula
- You want to see what a 4X game with insanely high productions values looks like
- You’ve missed the Master of Orion universe
- You’re more interested in a streamlined experience
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You hate RTS combat
- You wanted a Master of Orion reboot that stayed very close to its origins
- You want innovation; very little to be had here
- You hate star lanes
Rob has played for 65+ hours through various alpha and beta builds and on various computers, most notably an HP Omen with an Intel Core i7-4710HQ @ 2.5GHz, 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, and a GeForce 870M.