Most of us – well I have at least – have wondered at one time or another what space might be like. Now, I’m not thinking about the practicalities of attempting to empty one’s self of bodily toxins in zero gravity, but rather a kind of interstellar Game of Thrones. Supposing we could break our known laws of physics and travel faster than light and, supposing also that we aren’t alone in the universe, what kind of peculiar races might we find ourselves dealing with, fighting, and allying with? Perhaps we would simply find ourselves weak and stupid among a galaxy of mighty beings. Of course, this is all after we’ve defeated the sentient killer robots of our own creation. Enter Stardrive, developed by 4x who – like many others – has created a universe where just such a scenario can be played out to your hearts content in a sandbox world filled with eight different races.
Played out in real time, with the ability pause and still issue orders, creating buildings and gathering resources happens on a turn-based system with each turn lasting five seconds. Each races has its own unique style, temperament, personality and racial traits. For instance, the Pollops – a race of plants – are generally peaceful and, provided you don’t provoke them, it’s unlikely they’ll attack first; although they will colonize everything in sight. In contrast the Opteris - a race of mechanical flies – will attack for no other reason than they can. The weaker you are, the more likely these guys will attack you. There are of course Humans as well, but we all know what they’re like.
You can play as any of these races, but you can also customize them from a range of different options. You can make Humans cybernetic – meaning they eat production not food – and repulsive – giving them negative diplomatic relations when they first meet another space fairing race. You can change the size of the galaxy, how many systems are in it, how many factions are present and the speed of the game. However, there are yet more customisation options in the from of ships. You unlock hulls though research and then either use pre-made ship designs or enter the shipyard and create a masterpiece – or not as is so often the case.
Stardrive is a game on the move. While it’s been released, it’s still in development, in a way akin to how Minecraft or Prison Architect have entered the market. Over time, more complex trade systems, multi-player and much more is planned. The graphics aren’t state-of-the-art, but they certainly won’t be hurting your eyes. They’re simple, but appealing, and the Civilization style diplomacy screen is a bit of a gem: conveying not only a sense of style and culture to the different races, but also giving you an idea about how they’ll behave in the game itself. It helps too, because you won’t be thinking ‘who the hell are they again?!’ every time you get a message about another faction.
You’ll have plenty to do most of the time and, if you do find yourself in a lull, you can always speed things up until you’re needed again. The research tree is, at present, quite average – offering a reasonable amount of depth, but not longevity as you’ll quickly find yourself having researched everything during a battle. Once this happens, it’s as if the entire technology and research aspect of the game disappears. At this stage you will find yourself moving all effort into production (the universal resource used for anything that needs building) and, if your strapped for cash, destroying the research buildings to reduce building upkeep. The game becomes something of a slogfest between mighty Capital Class ships with all the latest technology.
Combat, however, is a joy – both to watch and to get involved in. While, again, very simple, it’s still appealing – especially when you send in your latest ship design to see how it performs. Battles are played out on a single plane level from a top down perspective. The bigger ships can batter one another from afar, most of the time that is, while the smaller vessels go on strafing runs or try to flank a target to attacks its weak points. As it plays out in real-time, you won’t be able to watch the fighting all day as many other things require you attention. Maybe you’re engaged in several big fights, well that’s where AI kicks in, controlling ships in a way that you’ve pre-defined. Unfortunately, ground combat is nowhere near as interesting, it’s oversimplified and rather boring. Managing troops is tedious and, while not the focus, it’s an aspect you have to engage in. Essentially, all you do is land troops and let the AI deal with it and hope you win. If not, then you simply didn’t provide enough troops and bombing from orbit just works instead.
Diplomacy isn’t bad, it’s more fleshed out than many RTS titles. Here you arrange trade agreements, open or close borders, make alliances or declare war, ask if they have any problems with you, and finally from a Federation with another faction. However, it’s frustrating when you encounter a new race and they immediately declare war. Normally this happens at the start of the game and is usually the Opteris – those bastards. As soon as you make first contact with a race, you get information on them and, likewise, they get information on you. If you’re weaker than them – which on Brutal difficulty you will be – they declare war. This seemingly magical exchange of information results in many a game being quit early – at least in my case – and makes you reluctant to explore further than the closest systems for fear of running into something truly nasty.
Trade is, at the moment, very basic and, in my eyes, a big disappointment. You can make a trade agreement between yourself and another race, giving you a negative trade bonus: i.e. you loose money. After a short amount of time it progresses into a positive trade bonus: i.e. you get money – three monies to be precise – which can be a big help at the start, but becomes totally insignificant towards middle and later stages. And that’s it, nothing else happens.
Resource management within your faction, however, is better, with each planet having three sliding bars that control the amount of manpower put into food production, research and production (which is just industrial output). You can move food and production around using freighters, but these things are about as smart as a mad badger. That mineral-rich planet perfectly suited to mass industry will get food from your highly-fertile world perfectly suited for food growth, sometimes… maybe…
Mass starvation seems to be a regular thing in space, simply because the AI controlled freighters just don’t work. I’ve seen colony ships warp to a target and overshoot it, turning around and warping to it again, only to overshoot once more, getting themselves in a perpetual dance with a planet you wanted colonised ages ago. You might at this stage say “well control them manually,” but that’s just not an option later on. Plus, this is meant to have solid AI supporting you, so you don’t have to engage in irritating micromanagement indicative of a game like this. But most other parts of AI management is quite good. Putting planets under AI control generally works out well, and when requisitioning an entire fleet the AI generally has the ships build at planets that can produce them in good time.
Despite its flaws, and lack of a graphical ‘wow factor,’ this game keeps me coming back for more. There’s just something about it, maybe it’s the freedom and the customization or perhaps it’s just never knowing what could happen in the next game. Without mods, I probably would have stopped playing a while ago, that said I’m waiting eagerly for the next update, which I’m sure will suck me right back in again. When multiplayer gets added, I truly can’t see Stardrive fading into the abyss anytime soon.
There are many improvements that could be made, and many problems that really need to be addressed, but because this game is still being worked on, there are almost certainly going to be improvements. Some may think it should be completely finished upon public release, but I’m not one of them. This could’ve been released as is and sold, as it is. But the fact that 4X are continuing to improve is a bonus that can’t be ignored. Is it worth buying now? Yes, as it will just keep getting better and better (especially as its modifiable), you can view Stardrive as an investment.
Gameplay – 4/5: Enjoyable, despite its numerous flaws.
Innovation – 3/5: Pretty standard or sub-standard for the most part, but ship design aspect keeps this score high.
Value – 2/5: At about £25 at the time of writing, its not a steal, but it’ll get better with time. View it as an investment or wait a while before you buy.