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I have something of a love-hate relationship with the 4X (eXplore/eXpand/eXploit/eXterminate) genre. The typical 4X game is an uneasy marriage of amazing strategic depth, the grandeur of empire, and tedious micromanagement. As a consequence I find myself in a cycle where I develop a desire to play a 4X game, binge for some period of time, and then quit the genre for months after getting burned out navigating menus.
The best in class 4X games (like the Civilization series) go three for three, combining complex strategy, the awe that comes with massive scale, and intelligent user interfaces that minimize boredom and eye-strain. Decent showings usually get two out of three right; the free-to-play Aurora, for example, is even deeper than the notoriously complex Dwarf Fortress, and has an ultra-realistic aesthetic that appeals to me, but has one of the trickiest UIs I’ve ever seen.
And then there are games like StarDrive. StarDrive is a recently released, space-based 4X game, built from the ground up by a single man with Kickstarter funding. It’s very reminiscent of Sins of a Solar Empire with its integration of real-time strategy into 4X gameplay, and it’s not hard to see why so many put up their money to get the project on its feet; at first glance it looks like a version of Sins that is both deeper and sleeker in complexity and presentation. Combat is handled like a real time strategy game and StarDrive has a sort of physics system to boot — shots made on moving ships can often miss and where shots land on ships matters quite a bit. As a consequence, the design of ships and how they coordinate and complement each other in fleets is very important. Moreover, StarDrive lets the player heavily customize all of their ships, as well as control how they are positioned in fleets and maneuver in combat. This added dimension, as far as I am aware, is unique to 4X-RTS hybrids, and in this area StarDrive pulls off the trifecta that makes for a stellar 4X game. It’s strategically deep, it’s awesome to watch, and the interface is easy to use and even fun to work in.
Unfortunately, when the rest of the game is taken into account, the only part of the trifecta that survives is the grandeur of watching fleets in combat. None of the thinking that goes into ship and fleet design is necessary, since the game is almost completely imbalanced. Machine races are ridiculously overpowered, since planets fit for biological life are relatively rare. Ground troops (not a customizable unit) are ridiculously overpowered, since faster-than-light travel means troop transports can warp to enemy planets and begin dropping soldiers on a time scale that makes ship-to-ship combat irrelevant. Building ships out of almost nothing but rocket tubes is ridiculously overpowered; in space, the sword is mightier than the shield. And the AI is sit-in-the-corner-eating-paste dumb, even on the hardest difficulty. It’s not a challenging game, and worst of all, the easy ways to beat it either completely bypass or largely subvert the strengths of the combat and ship design system.
Also, outside of the ship and fleet design screens, the user interface is quite poor. Empire management is a pain. Managing any ships not in a fleet is a pain. Managing ground troops is particularly a pain, since landed troops don’t show up on any menus or lists anywhere and you need to check in on each individual planet (including those you don’t own), to know how many troops you have and where they are. So much of the gameplay is a chore, and much of it buggy and laggy to boot. The game crashes, there are often long delays when changing screens, and sometimes it just doesn’t work at all — on one run, the game simply refused to let me give any orders to a planet full of ground armies, and on another it refused to let me rebuild on one of my planet’s plots of land after the previous building had been destroyed.
In time, StarDrive might improve. The one-man development team looks to continue rolling out bug fixes, UI improvements, balance patches and the like, and the game is also open to third party modding. In a few months, playing StarDrive could conceivably be a very different experience. But at the moment it is a decidedly below average 4X game. 4X games that get three out of three right cost about $30. Games that get two out of three right are free. Those that do worse than that — you should get paid for playing.
I think the hallmark of when the game will be worth considering for purchase is if/when a multiplayer version is released — the existence of multiplayer would surely have to come only after the bugs are fixed, the gameplay is balanced, and at least some of the problems with the UI are cleaned up. At this point, somewhere on the order of $20–30 would be reasonable. Before that, there are better games out there for the money.