StarDrive has Japanese Space Bears. I’m not sure what the fuck else you want going on in your life but this better be part of it.
At least, that’s what I wanted to say. I’m a fairly big fan of 4X games, especially those in space, and the personality that was apparent in StarDrive had me excited for its potential. But after my initial squeals of joy died down I was forced to recognize its flaws. While there’s a brilliant game somewhere in here, in the end it’s unsatisfying and I have a difficult time recommending it over other titles in the genre.
StarDrive comes strong out the gate with its race customization system, which lets you take each of the existing races and adapt them to your play style. It’s not as simple as just going down the list and adding things that you like, as you must balance out negative traits with positive ones, adding a great deal of depth. Are you the savagely brutal enslaver of the universe, or the honest, delicate and straightforward enslaver of the universe? It’s all up to you.
Customization extends into the main game via the ship building system, which goes from intriguing to overwhelming in less than 18 parsecs! Which is a Star Wars reference! Even though I hate Star Wars.
Each major hull type can be fully customized. When you select the hull, you are given an appropriately sized grid in which to place all of your researched weapons, armor and equipment. With the appropriate engine, weapons and facilities you can build just about any type of ship that your fleet requires, and it can be incredibly fun pouring over the list of options available to you building the perfect ship. By the end of the game I usually relied on pre-built designs for larger ships, as the interface does not provide a convenient way of organizing and comparing parts, which is a downer. However, it was still fun building my perfect dreadnaught.
The game plays out on a randomized 2D board composed of interstellar space and star systems with habitable and inhabitable planets. Each planet has a fertility and richness value, which affect your food and industrial production ratings, as well as a max population rate. As per 4x tradition, your job is to find good real estate, settle it, improve it over time, and eventually use it to crush your enemies. With kindness. Or bullets.
It’s in the basic economic structure that I was first enamored with StarDrive then later repelled by it. Since the only resources in the game are food, production, research and money (with population being more of a secondary resource), it’s fairly easy to manage them and strike a good balance moving forward. It seemed like this simple core could help lead to more active gameplay, with a greater focus on war and diplomacy than on micromanagement.
But as I played on, it struck me that the simplicity of this resource system and economy grew tiring very quickly. Food quickly becomes an absolutely useless resource, since you only need just enough to sustain your colony and make it grow. Money is only necessary to force rush production and sustain your fleet maintenance, and since taxes only mildly affect your research and industrial production rate they can be adjusted freely without any real consequences.
Diplomacy ends up being similarly simplistic. Enemy races are incredibly predictable, with the “good” guys giving you a wide berth and the “bad” guys becoming Civilization-level Gandhi warlords within the first hour of the game. I could force the issue with certain races if I felt like it, but there was no really dynamics present in those relationships. And while there are a number of options available in diplomacy, they’re pretty boring. Trading is meaningless as well since there are no specialized resources. A trade pact will reduce your gold per turn by 3, then after a handful of turns you get 3 gold per turn instead. That’s it. The road ends there.
While all of these are issues which make the game less appealing to me, they don’t make me want to bang my head against my keyboard. The ship AI will do that a-plenty. I attempted to set up specialized trade zones so that my freighters would work in specific areas and thus be more efficient. However, they treated my orders as being open to interpretation. I saw my freighters fly around in their assigned areas doing nothing, then warping out into deep space, then going back, then FINALLY picking up the resources I had designated to be transferred. Many times ships that had specialized orders would sit on their space hands doing nothing until I unassigned those orders, at which point they would return to where I had first assigned them and do their job.
Moving your fleets long distance induces similar levels of computer-accessory-destroying rage. If ships of different warp speeds are in the same fleet and then given a move order, instead of warping quickly to their destination, they’ll instead scoot along at the speed of the slowest ship’s normal engines. In other words, if you’re moving a fleet of fighters, corsairs, frigates and carriers, you can save hours of in game time by moving them one ship type at a time. That is absolutely insane.
Pathing is also a serious issue. I ran into several instances where ships starting from the same location would take radically different routes to the ordered spot, with one ship arriving so far ahead of the other that it would be annihilated by enemy forces before I even had time to break my monitor in frustration. I repeatedly ran into scenarios where it was significantly faster to manually move my ships step by step so that they’d take the most direct route to their destination, instead of some convoluted roundabout.
I liked a lot of my time with StarDrive, but by the end of things I couldn’t wait to get away from it. Sometimes it’s unsatisfying, often it’s incredibly frustrating. But occasionally you feel the presence of what could have a pretty awesome, simplified version of a 4x space title with a lot of personality that doesn’t quite make it, which bums me out a lot. Part of that admittedly is that my Spaghetti Pie didn’t really turn out great though. How the hell do you get a good bread crumb crust going?
Need a new oven.
StarDrive is available on Steam.