Imagine trying to make a 4x strategy game like StarDrive on your own. Come on, do it. You, sat there in your pants with your lofty intentions to exercise more and read all those books. Imagine sweeping all those unfulfilled promises aside, right now, and getting down to creating a galaxy-spanning game of colony management, tech research, diplomacy, espionage, ship design and light RTS-style space combat. You can hire someone else to do the art and maybe some music, but that’s it.
It’s not going to happen, is it? That’s because you’re not Daniel DiCicco of Zero Sum Games. You did not create StarDrive, you didn’t think to use Kickstarter before all the cool kids were doing it, and you won’t ever read those stupid books anyway. It’s ok. Most of us end up as borderline failures with each rare moment of happiness drowned out by the nagging buzz of unpursued dreams.
That’s why we play videogames instead.
Like many games, 4x (reminder: that stands for explore, expand, exterminate and extremely silly genre terminology) strategy titles are a power fantasy. Specifically, an imperial one. They also appeal to our sense of wonder about space, humanity’s obsession with wars of expansion and to the inner town-planner who just wants to keep deep-space colonies running smoothly.
4x comes in many flavours, but StarDrive’s main emphasis is on ship design, creation and combat. Large segments of the technology tree are there to improve your military industrial complex, while the improvements to planetary colonies tend to contribute either to the speed with which the ships can be pumped out, or to making research (of better war machines) more efficient. In effect, your colonies are there to function as ‘bases’ in the Real-Time Strategy tradition.
The game does in fact run in real-time, though it also has a pause function for when things get hectic (a bit like Paradox’s Crusader Kings titles.) Research, building times and income are still delineated by ‘turns,’ but these will merrily tick over of their own accord.
The one and only game mode available at present is a general sandbox, which allows you to select the size of the map, speed of development, difficulty and how many of StarDrive’s weird and well-realised factions will be trying to stop you conquering the known universe. There’s no real customisation of victory conditions and the only (seeming) way to win is to destroy everyone else and be the last faction standing. Naturally, this adds to the feeling that ship combat (and plenty of it) with a side-order of planetary ground invasion/bombardment is the way to go for your fledgling empire.
It’s possible to just select pre-made ship designs, but far more enjoyable to try to create your own in the game’s shipyard. Here, you can attach the various components you’ve developed to different hull sizes (again, based on what you’ve researched so far) and come up with some devious craft designs. Do you want a Frigate-sized bomber that can also fight a bit? Build it here. Fancy coming up with a cunning new corvette design that sacrifices attack power in favour of speed? Get the blueprints ready.
Cutting a swath across the universe with ships of your own making is rather rewarding and makes you feel more connected to your fleets.
The design system isn’t entirely intuitive and lacks feedback, but the in-game tutorial flash cards can help and the game will at least stop you if you try to build something impossible (ships without any power sources, say.) Unfortunately that didn’t stop me churning out a load of corvettes without any warp engines, meaning they were pretty much useless for anything except local planetary defence. This is where StarDrive’s handy ‘refit’ function comes in; allowing you to order ships back to a nearby dock for a tune up to the latest model.
Right, remember up there when I said destroying all other races was the only way to triumph? That’s not exactly the case. Towards the conclusion of a recent game, all factions save for my beloved Plant People (Pollops) and our noble Space Samurai Bear allies (yes, StarDrive does pretty inventive factions) were vanquished. At this point, it seemed as if I’d have to counter-intuitively stab my allies in the back to reach victory. Not something I really wanted to do.
As it turns out, there is a path, accessible through the game’s diplomacy screen, that allows the absorption of allies into a player-controlled federation. To do so, it’s necessary to create conditions where this offer will seem attractive (after all, you’re taking control of their colonies,) which means a degree of military might is still required. But with a forceful enough bargaining position it is at least possible to avoid all-out war. The problem is, the game isn’t great at communicating this. On the surface, eradication of every other species looks like the only way to win.
Aside from that, StarDrive’s diplomacy options are pretty straightforward. The AI plays its faction roles fairly well, with angry warlike races being a massive pain to deal with and more peace-oriented characters willing to talk about tech trades, treaties and alliances. Giving stuff away will please most factions, and performing underhanded espionage actions like trying to nick research or incite rebellions will piss them off. A few more dialogue options could enhance this process beyond its resolutely functional state, but what the diplomacy screens lack in written flavour they make up for with the best artwork in the game.
StarDrive’s main problems stem from the fact that it’s a game still in beta. DiCicco is no slacker and has been putting out a regular series of patches up to and beyond the title’s late April release date, but my suspicion is that this date was a publisher mandate and that the developer would’ve preferred to remain in beta for a few more months.
That’s not to say it’s a Legends of Pegasus or Sword of the Stars 2 style disaster by any means, but certain aspects do feel a bit disconnected and others (like multiplayer, which was promised in the initial Kickstarter) are just flat-out missing. Random galactic events seem too sporadic, and some initiate quest lines that don’t really go anywhere. This leaves StarDrive feeling, beyond the endless push to crush your enemies, a little lacking in activity. The factions in the game, from mini-Cthulhus to sentient wolves and insectoids, look great; but they could do with more unique tasks and tech to differentiate themselves, and their colonies, from one another.
Then there are the user interface issues. Bringing up a list of ships in your empire presents you with the option to sort the vessels by type and to do things like ‘hide’ space platforms (the method of creating inter-empire travel highways.) That’s terrific, but the game can never remember that you’ve asked it to do this, which means that every single time you bring up the list of ships it’s a jumbled mess. It also makes very little sense that the Hotkeys used to bring up ship and planet lists don’t make them go away again (to do that you can right-click the mouse or have to close the ‘window’ at the top-right X.)
It’s frustrating to have to second-guess and constantly relearn what should be simple, consistent controls. Why, for example, is the only direct way back to the galactic map from the (otherwise very handy) Fleet screen through pressing the Esc key? This is not the case for any other screen.
StarDrive is not lacking for neat ideas. The ability to support new colonies with inter-empire trading and colonists from established worlds is a smart, sensible one; and the option to automate selected parts of your empire (from colonial governance to freighter routes) can be useful too. As things stand, the game provides a structured sandbox for its appealing factions to go to war in, and the top down, RTS-esque means for them to do so. Ship design and creation is its strongest feature, along with the satisfaction of ordering them around in real-time battles. Colony management and research feel as though they’re primarily there to support this central aspect.
Too many others, not least the UI, feel as if they’re still work in progress. It’s work that I have little doubt Daniel DiCicco will get to, given time, but at present the missing bits and pieces leave his title short of full coherence. As it was when I previewed it, StarDrive is a promising collection of features waiting for a cascade of finishing touches to fill in the gaps and make it a world-devouring whole.