In my very first StarDrive campaign I angered the space mafia, annoyed a strange alien race who enslave adorable space owls and look like upside-down Portal turrets, then spent considerable time designing a mighty warship which proved about as effective as a paper truck with a revolver glued to the wing-mirror. It was an eventful time.

Ultimately, the space mafia ripped through my ill-equipped force (I wasn’t prepared to pay their ‘protection money’ – never negotiate with space terrorists,) leaving me defenseless as the owl-oppressing turret folk made ominous overtures at unprotected colonies. My fledgling reign as Grand Poobah of the Intergalactic Human Empire had ended in miserable failure.

Humanity itself was clearly to blame though, because I’ve done much better as a race of giant plants.

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StarDrive is a ‘4X’ game, which is one of those terms invented by journalists and latched onto by marketing types because it’s a quick, compact way of ‘selling’ the title to someone. “It’s a third-person shooter”; “It’s an RPG”; “It’s a 4X.” You know the drill.

These terms are handy, but they can be pretty reductive. The past few months have seen a bit of a resurgence in space-themed 4X-ers, and each one has a pretty distinct set of features that a single digit-letter term can’t really encapsulate. Ok, so Sword of the Stars 2 and Legends of Pegasus were mostly distinguished by being broken (completely so in the latter’s case; and the developer went bust, so don’t expect any patches.) But in theory they were far from the same game.

Amplitude’s Endless Space managed to beat them both by accomplishing the incredible feat of actually working. It also offered a slick interface and accessibility in a genre that’s known for the opposite; though the combat system and long-term appeal were more questionable.

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My initial point of reference for StarDrive was none of these games, or even classics like Masters of Orion. It was actually Paradox’s ‘grand strategy’ titles, which share StarDrive’s approach of having real-time action that can be paused at any point.

This extends to the game’s combat which (in space at least) handles like a top-down, real-time strategy title. Again, not exactly the first go-to reference for a 4X release. You can drag to highlight multiple ships, form in-depth fleet groups with pre-set positions and orders, assign targets to individual craft or even hop into a vessel yourself. Doing this gives you control with WASD and puts the ship’s weapons at your command.

The design of those individual ships, however, is where StarDrive flashes its 4X goods like a tarty intergalactic tease. You’re in charge of all of the major components, from the engines to the power generators to the firing arcs of the ship’s weapons. The relevant research tree unlocks various hull shapes, upon which you can arrange endless design configurations that you never quite commit to. Until your colonists begin to wonder where their food transports are and start banging on the windows of your space palace.

Eccentric designers may be disappointed to learn that there are some restrictions here, namely your empire’s technology level and where the hull will allow you to slot certain components. So get used to the fact that you can’t shove a massive engine on the nose-cone of your fighters.

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It’s a great mechanic to play around with and seems like a fine way to develop a personal military ‘style’ for your empire. Do you favour gigantic ships stuffed to the rivets with fighters, to swarm and harass your enemies? Maybe vessels packed with the latest in planetary bombardment technology is more your style, so you can skip right to some lovely homeworld genocide and avoid a protracted ground invasion? War crimes be damned! Your best scientists worked overtime for that ship design; may as well use it.

Of course to keep this war machine (or defensive machine if you’re a bit more passive) functioning, you need resources. In StarDrive these are divided between food, production, science points and cash. Each colonised world will produce varying amounts of the first three, depending how fertile and rich they are, while your money comes from tax revenue. Taxation uses a simple, but clever, mechanic: the higher you raise it, the bigger chunk it takes out of general productivity. Set taxation to 50% and you’ll be swimming in space-gold, but your planets will be working at half their output potential.

Colonising a fledging world takes time, and requires a fair amount of support in terms of regular transports ferrying new colonists and set-up goods to the planet. These lines of trade make for tasty targets, so they need to be protected.

Each colony can be micromanaged by the player, or left to an AI governor (given broad instructions about whether to run the planet as a food producer, industrial hive and the like) to handle. Even if you have a Robo-Politician in charge you can still pop in to make adjustments, like putting up a useful building or getting the planet to pump out some troops for a ground war.

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If it seems like I’m talking about preparing for war a lot, that’s probably a side-effect of my current Pollops (plant man) game. I’m dealing with regular incursions from what appears to be a Cthulhu cosplay cult who take issue with my being alive. They’re right bastards, basically. Humans aren’t helping much either; they keep popping up to either laugh at my military might or break the latest of our paper-thin non-aggression pacts like proper dicks. Doesn’t matter though. I’ll turn them all into mulch.

There are eight races in the game at present, any of which you can play. It’s not necessary to stick to the base traits of a given race either; at the start of a new game, you can switch out and re-purchase new traits on a ‘points’ system. Intentionally taking a negative trait (‘Timid,’ say) can give you more to spend on positive aspects like increased production or cheaper ships. The starting race also determines what your craft look like (though this can be changed by using a mod from the already thriving mod scene.)

Diplomacy between species is always an option, although if you run into a population self-describing as “xenophobic militarists” then you know it’ll be an uphill struggle. So far I’ve managed to negotiate the odd peace treaty (most recently after repelling an attempted invasion, so that made sense) but haven’t had as much luck in swapping technologies. Making the ‘anger’ bar of the fear/trust/anger diplomatic trifecta go up is easy – trust, not so much.

Good old espionage is available too, should you wish to train up some trenchcoated operatives to head off and steal, sabotage and infiltrate their ways into your enemy’s homelands. And why wouldn’t you?

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The obvious problem with previewing 4X-esque games is that there’s never enough time to properly test, assess and attempt to break them. At present, StarDrive appears to be in a thoroughly competent state, but I’m in no position to say whether the AI goes to pieces after a long campaign, or if dedicating your fleet to (say) just beam weapons will allow you to crush everything with ease. Balancing has yet to take place, but the developer is well on top of a regular patching schedule.

In short, it’s still a beta. Some final features (like multiplayer) aren’t even available yet, and there’s some inconsistency in menu navigation (sometimes a right-click will get you out of menu, sometimes it won’t.) That’s to be expected at this stage, and what is in place looks very encouraging. Ship design, combat, colonial expansion and functioning diplomacy/espionage system are all well up and running. Real-time combat is intuitive, and reflects the design choices you’ve made for your fleet. At this point in its development cycle, StarDrive is showing every sign of being a confident, in-depth addition to the 4X canon.

As soon as StarDrive is available to pre-order, buyers will gain access to the latest build of the game.

Peter Parrish

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