Master of Orion holds a very special place in my heart. I am sure I’m not alone in this. When Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars was released in August 2016, the 4X community held its collective breath. MoO:CtS’s Early Access was a little bumpy. The game improved a great deal in time for launch, but some other features disappeared – features that should have been included at release and not four months later. For whatever reason, they couldn’t be there.
Oh well, what’s done is done. Let’s focus on the here and now. Has the game improved any since it launched? That’s the question thousands of 4X fans surely want to get answered now. If you’re one of those thousands, then keep reading because this is the first reeXamination for MoO:CtS. We’ll take a look at the game as well as the first DLC titled Revenge of Antares.
There have been several small updates and patches since release that addressed bugs, optimization, and the various issues that always come up when a new game comes out. The major changes to the game came with the paid DLC and a free update that accompanied it. So, let’s look at those two more closely, starting with what you get with the new update.
To begin, both the pollution and gravity mechanics were completely revamped. Even though this change was enacted before the DLC release, most people weren’t even aware that it happened. Until they loaded up their old galaxies, that is.
The old race has returned. The Antarans have escaped their extra-dimensional prison and are pretty pissed about their time in the intergalactic pokey. They’ll return time and again to savage the strongest race in the galaxy until it either gives up or dies. Attacks by the Antarans are frequent enough to cause their target some real anguish. Do you stand and fight, risking further attacks from ambitious neighbors, or do you leave your planet undefended and hope the Antarans won’t completely depopulate your home? Both tactics have inherent risks. But how can you stop these incessant attacks? I’ll tell you how a little later on.
The Antarans would have been a great addition to the game all by themselves, but NGD Labs didn’t stop there. Leaders have come to head up your fleets or govern your controlled systems.
Minor Races also make their glorious return after being pulled from Early Access.
Then there is the revamped espionage mechanic. Previously it was a micromanagement nightmare, but this latest, welcome change really spices up this aspect of the game. Lest I forget, the GNN news anchors also got some more lines of text to flesh out their witty banter.
What about the combat? It is mostly the same, though they did introduce ship roles such as Sniper, Blitzer, and Brawler. All of this free content goes a long ways towards shoring up Master of Orion’s weaknesses and making it a game worthy of its heritage.
The Revenge of Antares Race Pack sells for $9.99 (USD). It includes the telepathic Elerians, aquatic Trilarians, and business-minded Gnolam. Each of these races comes with unique art, voice work, and fully animated 3D models. The production values are fantastic, once again. Initially, there was a bit of drama with the release of this DLC – each race was set up as an individual addition and sold for $5 a piece. This was due to a mistake made on Steam’s backend and thankfully it is fixed now. All three are available in one tidy package, as it was always intended. Each of the new races is a spin on one from MoO II and each adds something interesting to the game.
Personally, I really enjoy these “new” races because each brings something unique to the game. I don’t find the cost of the DLC to be prohibitive either. At $10, it’s a reasonable price for the high quality mechanics and art assets you get. But your mileage may vary. So how does all of this new content affect the game overall?
Not much has changed when it comes to exploration in MoO:CtS. You still need to explore neighboring systems as you look for choice planets to settle and Minor Races to add to your empire before your opponents do.
For those wanting more asymmetric gameplay in their factions, the new DLC might have something for you. The Elerians can capture worlds telepathically. They don’t ever have to bombard them or land troops to control the populace. But how do they know where your worlds are? They are omniscient. It grants them the ability to see the whole game map from turn one.
At first this looks like a massive “cheat” in their favor, but believe you me, it’s a double-edged sword. Knowing everything that’s out there just makes your decisions that much harder. You can easily get paralyzed by indecision as you look for a juicy planet to settle and then watch in horror as the AI gets there first. Their telepathy also aids in combat by giving them stronger beam attacks and evasion bonuses.
Then we have the Gnolam which have some penalties based on medium (“normal” in game terms) or heavy gravity due to their diminutive size, but they’re no slackers in the intergalactic business world. They’re also very lucky. When random events occur, the “bad” events only happen to the other guys. They also get bonuses to trade and income generation from their own populace. Don’t mistake them for pushovers. They can buy out whole fleets of the most advanced ships should they need to. If you want to pursue an economic victory, the Gnolam should be your go-to race.
The last playable race to join the game are the trans-dimensional aquatic Trilarians. They get a speed bonus to travel along starlanes and in combat. But what really makes them stand out, besides their hideous visage, is their ability to terraform tundra worlds into oceanic worlds from the start of the game. This is a huge bonus because it effectively doubles the number of favorable worlds they can quickly settle to power their expansion.
Another major change that comes with the arrival of the Antarans has to do with the new victory condition they introduce: “Beat the Antarans.” To do that, you need to find their hidden dimension which is the launching point of their attacks. Right now, you’re probably wondering, how can this be done? You need to explore. Throughout the galaxy, there are ruins that must be found and developed. More on that in the next section.
Not much has changed here either.
In the past, pollution was something that was just there. After a planet became befouled by industry, you could activate a planetary project to give it a good scrubbing. You also had several structures that would slow the pollution down or completely negate it. This was a bothersome mechanic that added nothing to the game. So, NGD changed it up. No longer will you be able to announce a planetary “Earth Day” and collect recyclables until your planet is clean. Now you have to manage pollution throughout the game or your planet loses its ability to produce food – killing your populace far faster than any planetary blockade.
There are currently five structures that can be built to either negate or remove pollution completely. They are linked to research and will result in some hard choices. Instead of just ramping up in production or research, you need to maintain a fine balance between both environmental buildings and science as you squeeze every possible advantage out of your colonies. This will slow down production on your planet, making the game harder in a lot of cases. For instance, when you are fighting a war on multiple fronts it can be tricky to balance the production of ships with controlling the level of pollution and its effect on your populace. In my opinion, these new mechanics are a fantastic change.
Gravity has also undergone some revisions. Currently, there are three types: low, normal and high. Each world is assigned one of those, and depending on which race you play, the impact of differing gravities can range from negligible to severe. A world with gravity that is unfavorable to your species slows down production, growth, and research. Those penalties can be negated if you research gravity generators, but that’s around mid-game, if you survive that long. Another much- needed change if you ask me.
The updated pollution and gravity mechanics have certainly slowed down expansion for most of the races. Unfortunately, the changes to pollution and gravity mean the already powerful Meklar and nigh-unstoppable Silicoids have just gotten stronger, while the low-gravity Gnolam and Psilons are penalized more.
The largest differences in this part of the game come from the return of the Minors and the appearance of the Antarans.
No longer are the Minors simply stewards for planets you want to settle, annoying you with meaningless requests and toothless demands. Now, Minor Races give you all kinds of bonuses if you can settle a planet within their home system. In essence, they join your empire. As your relationship with them grows (through financial “investments” – cough, cough), the bonuses they impart on your neighboring planets improve. You’ll need to expand quickly to find the Minors. Their systems usually have additional choice planets, and settling there can provide bonuses to research, production, food, or wealth.
The Antarans, on the other hand, are a nasty bunch. In order to find their pocket dimension, you must first discover and build research facilities on at least four ancient ruins that can be found throughout the galaxy. These ruins may be unguarded, but some are protected by space monsters. Once you discover the ruins, you will need a space factory to build a research lab on top of them. Another positive change is that you don’t need to own the system to build on a ruin, and once you do, you don’t need to worry if these labs are destroyed.
The changes that were made to the espionage system and the addition of the leaders were the biggest two changes to the game, in my opinion.
From time to time, a leader will offer their services to you. They have many different skills to help benefit your empire. For instance, you can hire a planetary governor that gives you bonuses to pollution reduction. Boom! Problem solved. You can apply the same tactic to research, food production, and even happiness as you crank up the taxes to turn a tidy profit. Leaders also make awesome ship/fleet captains. Oh yes, they are like superchargers for your colonies and ships. But they don’t come cheap – each one has a maintenance cost that increases as they gain experience. Leaders can be unbalanced sometimes, but they are always fun.
Then there’s espionage. The recently revamped system is amazing. You can micromanage spies like before, if you really want to, but really, you don’t need to. You can hire a new spy every eight turns, or not. But just by hiring them, the spies automatically defend your territory from enemy spies. They gain experience along the way and, as they rank up, they get better at their job. No need for fancy technologies to boost their skills, but it’s nice just the same.
There is a new espionage User Interface where you can assign jobs to all of your spies. They can defend your empire or infiltrate enemy territory to do all the usual stuff. But now, they can also be captured and held as bargaining chips for future transactions. Nice, I know. Anyway, if you passively assign tasks to them, they will steal tech, star charts, information or commit acts of sabotage, but you can also assign missions like blowing up ships, causing revolts, and generally being obnoxious. Space James Bond comes with many faces, but the Darloks are extra sneaky.
One thing that was introduced with the recent update was ship roles. When creating ship designs, you can assign one of three roles. The effect of this is that the AI admiral will move your ships to keep their distance, stay in mid range, or close the distance for optimal damage in battle. You design the ships, but let the AI handle the combat. This is a nice addition, but it’s just not enough. There are several recent games out there with similar hybrid combat systems that do a much better job of it.
Right now, the combat in MoO:CtS is very pretty, and epic, but the mechanic is just not substantive. The weapon balance is missing. What do I mean by that? In the early game, missiles are king, and beam weapons rule the late game. Point Defense and Shields are too powerful for missiles to pack much of a punch when everyone has decent defensive technologies. There are too many ways to destroy Fighters and Bombers, and when they do survive, they don’t do enough meaningful damage. Let’s not forget who destroyed the Death Star(s) in Star Wars. It certainly wasn’t the capital ships. Invasions and boarding actions are hardly there in the early game and missing altogether later on. Both would add significant strategic depth.
Let’s talk about the AI. There are basically three combat AI modes; it is either running the battle for you, assisting you while you issue basic orders, or leaving you to your own machinations. Even when you’re controlling everything, however, the game is missing that RTS bite where you can micromanage every aspect of the engagement through hundreds of clicks-per-minute to make it look and feel like a choreographed dance. Instead, the AI likes to go wide and use a pincer maneuver to box you in and dance about as the two fleets trade fire. That would be great great if the AI had more tricks in its repertoire, but that’s not the case. Its tactical cupboard is bare. Still, the current system works well enough as far as it goes, especially for players that don’t want or need that amount of depth when it comes to combat.
What I do like is the addition of the Antarans, and the reason I chose to mention them again, is that they play a crucial role in applying pressure through the various stages of the game.
The newest win condition has to do with defeating the Antarans at their base of operations. The battle will be brutal, especially if you are unprepared, but it can be done. The problem I have here is that there is one missing component. Every win condition has an animation. Some closure, some satisfaction, except this one. The most epic one. I think that a ball was dropped here, and I am a bit sad. Having the Antaran representative lament its defeat is fun, but it does that everytime you fight off a raid. I would have liked something more. Maybe this will be addressed with a future DLC .
Don’t worry, I’m bringing this reeXamination home. I’ve said many things, and most of them have been positive. Let me toss in one more about the recently added Steam Workshop integration that is now built into the game. There are several good mods that fix some of the issues that haven’t been addressed by the developers. I know, you are now wondering how much I got paid. Right? I didn’t. I really like this game a lot, and I think that for the price, it is a great buy. Having said that, let’s look at some of the flaws that still plague the game.
Bugs. No, that’s not right, BUGS! The game still has plenty of them. For example, in combat, I am uncertain about what some of the modules that I add to the ships actually do because when I press the associated button, nothing happens. Or maybe it does, but I can’t tell. That leads me to the next problem. Tooltips. The game needs more of them. I want to know what the research choices and ship components do. I want to see how the numbers are affected by the addition of these components. Telling me that one type of armor improves resilience and that another improves HP doesn’t give me all that much information. That leads me to the lack of visual cues as to what happens. In a game that gives you so much control, key animations to help communicate some of the missing information are… Missing.
How about the AI, you ask? It’s not bad at all, but still has some glaring holes to fill. Diplomatically speaking, the AI can be rather satisfying, but only for about the first half of the game. Suddenly, the AI stops upgrading ships and expanding intelligently. Maybe it’s just the fact that I was leading the whole game, so the AI gave up? Or the Antaran threat had… Unmanned them? Or something like that, but anyway, the AI need more work. Then there is the optimization. The game really starts to slow down about two-thirds of the way in and could use a good amount of improvement.
The addition of the new pollution and gravity mechanics has messed with game balance, and that too needs a good once over. The factions could also do with some balance tweaking. There are other basic features that would really improve the player’s experience, like waypoints, as in a forced path for non-combat ships to follow. This is something that needs to be added as fast as possible. I’d also like to see custom build orders for colonies included to reduce micromanagement as your empire grows. Maybe a way to increase the slots on larger ships so we can really go to town on our fleets. Speaking of ships, how about rally points? Yes, please add those. I could keep going here, but I think I’ve made my point. The game still needs some fine tuning.
Having said all of that, the game is fantastic overall, and I am having a lot of fun playing. It is streamlined. Quick. I feel like many choices that I make require hard choices, and then lots of espionage to try and fill the gaps in my research. The addition of the Minors and leaders forces me to stop turtling to try and find the good worlds and figure out how to exploit the new available resources. Sure, we all ask for more, and better, but Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars offers that little bit of “umph”. Can I recommend this game? Yes, I can. Yes, I do. It has enough parts that fit together and create a good experience that I don’t have any doubts in my recommendation.
TL;DR: Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars is a fun game. The addition of the latest content has really improved it. The one thing that I don’t get is why many of these features weren’t included at release. It is not a perfect game, but it is solid. The price is right. The art is right. The feel is right. It just needs some more TLC (through DLC) to really hit the high notes.
You may like this game if:
- You are a fan of Master of Orion II
- You like high production values in your games
- You want a 4X title that you don’t have to spend dozens of hours on
- You’ve wanted an update to the franchise that doesn’t have a 3 in it
You may NOT like this game if:
- You wanted a remake of Master of Orion I
- You want strong tactical combat
- You want to play against a difficult AI opponent
- You want a lively universe full of random events
Nate has played over 120+ hours of Master of Orion: Conquer the stars with approximately 45 of them using the Revenge of Antares DLC on a Sager NP-8153S (XoticPC Built) Laptop: 15.6″ FHD IPS Display, 6th gen Intel i7-6820 HQ Skylake CPU, 24GB DDR4, GeForce GTX 1070 w/ 8 GB vram, 250 GB Samsung EVO SSD, 1 TB 7200 RPM HD.
Disclosure: Nate received a free copy of Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars as well as the Revenge of Antares DLC from the publisher, WG Labs, for purposes of this review.