Reviewed on PC
Imagine, if you will, the sheer horror on reading something both profound and witty from the lips of Gary Neville - yes, Gary Neville the footballer. When asked how it felt to play three matches a week, he retorted that you can eat three bacon sandwiches in quick succession, but the third won’t taste as good as the first.
Take some time to drink that in. Pseudo-Socrates Gary Neville has succinctly and wittily summarised the problem with anything fun - overdo it and you’ll become bored. If you avoid bacon for any reason, you can replace ”bacon” with “chocolate” or “gluten free granola bars” or whatever. The point is this - you can have too much of a good thing.
As a 4X space strategy game (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) StarDrive faces a similar problem; the ennui of a meticulous and well-worn fanbase which has been spoiled with such stalwarts of the genre such as Civilization and Masters of Orion 2 and has, in many cases, been playing, dissecting and scrutinising each would-be usurper. So how will StarDrive overcome the Bacon Sandwich Problem™? How can it set itself aside from the crowd?
For a start, StarDrive is the lovechild of one-man band developer Zer0sum Games who received Kickstarter funding, not the first space game to successfully do so. Above all else it is a labour of love and the developer’s presence on the official forum is testament to this. During the beta stage (which TDF was lucky enough to try out) a number of improvements were implemented as a direct result of fans’ feedback. It’s easy to romanticise the story of the indie underdog but, thankfully, it is sometimes warranted. Undoubtedly many will fall for its indie charms, evinced by its rejection of bleeding edge graphics in favour of a more retro 2D feel. Instead of the usual razzamatazz - if that phrase can ever be used of 4X games, as much as we love them - an emphasis has been placed on deep strategy. “Turns” are actually five second intervals but you can pause the game with the spacebar and take your time to appreciate the complex tech tree, vast procedurally-generated maps and array of player-customised features.
For example, the seven standard races - warriors, scientists, you know the drill - can be modified by moving points between attributes. Bent on world domination? Make your race smelly and ugly, to dampen their diplomatic nous, and boost their ability as soldiers. If you prefer the cerebral type, create a breed of erudite scholars at the expense of engineering skills. Whatever your choice, expect levity. Samurai bears and death-worshipping cephalopods are on offer here, not ponderous humans against, err, sort of human looking aliens with fancy haircuts and questionable lycra jumpsuits.
Perhaps best of all every ship in the game can be designed to your own specification using a modular system which bolts on engines, weapons and the like to different hulls. Researching tech increases the range of choices and, given the dearth of options, you can specialise in weaponry, shielding, propulsion and so on. In some respects this is fantastic. Anyone who’s dabbled in Games Workshop or built a model airplane will love tinkering around. Obtaining new tech through the triarch of research, espionage and trading is like opening a Kinder egg - you might get some shiny new toy to play with. Builds can be saved and accessed between games. Ships can also be grouped into fleets which simplifies issuing orders and selecting tactics.
However, there are notable frustrations. It’s not easy to compare different builds in the ship design menu so you’re rarely sure if your “improvements” are just that. You can mitigate this by poring over stats and flitting back and forth between screens, but it requires patience and - in a snub to casual gamers - time. This may be a big issue for some but hey, you don’t buy 4X for a quickie, so perhaps it’s to be expected.
Other combat features struggle a bit more. Piloting capital ships yourself sounds great on paper but is not very responsive and rarely feels like you’re turning the tide with your skills. Land combat - which you might expect to feature prominently - only provides two unit types for all races (essentially light and heavy infantry) and “maps” where you capture settlements are simple 5x7 grids - so expect wars of attrition rather than Advance Wars. Rebellions within your own borders have to be managed with land units, so you can’t ignore them, but it feels a little galling having to make them for this one purpose (unless you’re aiming for a land-based race, in which case you’d better enjoy spamming!).
Whatever your playing style, a strong military is an absolute must. Although options exist for peaceful development (such as terraforming barren planets into tropical Edens) without a sizeable fleet your puny backwater race will be trodden on by every opportunist rival. And this touches on a sore point for many 4X fans - diplomacy. A notoriously difficult nut to crack, StarDrive actually fares pretty well. Frenemies are ranked in terms of military, economic and scientific strength so you can get a rough bearing on where you and others are in the pecking order. Any direct communication between you and another race helpfully reminds you of trust, anger and fear ratings in addition to your usual diplomatic options. A modicum of trust is needed to start trading, let alone open borders, and those in fear of you can be
Exploration is a mixed bag. Planets, colonisable or not, are discovered through exploration of neighbouring systems. You may also turn up random discoveries which can be beneficial or dangerous, such as “Artifacts”. These ancient alien technologies can bring massive economic or military boosts, or conversely hostile alien fleets which will not communicate or trade - much like Civilization’s barbarians. Overall this facet is imbalanced. Alien barbarians are so far ahead technologically that you’ll to need steer clear at the start of the game until you’ve caught up. They’re often (understandably) located near the best planets which can make early settling frustrating. On the flip side of the coin, locating and controlling ancient alien ships can bring you from an eight stone weakling to The Incredible Hulk in the space of a few turns. In one game we were lucky enough to find two such behemoths; these effectively negated the need for any other ships in our fleet (mwahahaha). This undermines a key hook in the genre’s arsenal. Exploring your surroundings is perhaps one of the most fun parts of a 4X game - discovering your neighbours, forming plans, picking out spots to settle. As StarDrive falters at the first hurdle, it’s immediately off-putting to the new player.
The overall level of depth exacerbates this risk. The opening tutorial rather bashfully admits that some will feel overwhelmed and, because of this, a number of functions can be automated. It seems counter-intuitive at first to autocolonise planets and autoexplore the galaxy, but once you’ve settled in it becomes less jarring. There’s a possibility removing this micromanagement will rob enjoyment from players who like to get into the nitty gritty, but what you cede to the AI is optional so you can decide for yourself. The main thing is that whatever your preference, automation generally works.
“Potential” is bandied around a lot in gaming circles, particularly as the vibrant indie scene opens up cottage-industry development in a wave not seen since the 1980s. In StarDrive’s case it’s especially relevant. A number of features aim for the stars (sorry) but don’t always reach the target. So if you’re risk averse and want to settle into something mainstream, you’d best look elsewhere as you’re likely to see the rough edges instead of the potential for growth. For anyone interested in 4X games or strategy in general, StarDrive is worth considering, but don’t expect a highly-polished product or you’ll be disappointed. There’s a real buzz around the game as fervent fans clamour to give their input but whether this momentum will carry on after release date is another matter. We at The Digital Fix will be watching for sure.