Developer: Zero Sum Games / Publisher: Iceberg Interactive / Played On: PC / Price: $29.99 / ESRB: Rating Pending
From the title, screenshots, and even descriptions on the tin, StarDrive would lead you to believe that it’s a space 4X game in the vein of Alpha Centauri or the more recent Infinite Space. That’s not entirely true, but StarDrive’s mechanics are so unique that it’s as good a parallel as can be drawn. To understand how the game plays, you have to reach a bit further back to Age of Empires and Master of Orion. If your eyebrows perked upon reading those titles, StarDrive’s experimentation might be worth your time. Otherwise you’ll spend most of your time wondering why you aren’t just playing Endless Space or Civilization V.
The overarching game structure is deceptively familiar. You choose to play as one of eight races and must expand out from a single planet through a randomly-generated galaxy. This is where those four classic Xs come in: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. You colonize other worlds with varying attributes, communicate with AI races, set up supply chains, build cool starships, so on and so on. Sounds pretty rote so far right?
StarDrive breaks away from space 4X norms beyond those basics. For starters, StarDrive is 100% real-time, though you can pause the game via the space bar to queue up orders. This affects the game in good and bad ways, but I’ll touch on the good first since it seems more polite to do so.
Combat in StarDrive is much, much more interesting and complex than your average 4X. Typically, 4X combat feels like a collectible card game. Your unit and the enemy’s just square off based on their stats and you wait to see which number wins based on chance and terrain bonuses. StarDrive’s combat is more similar to an RTS and feels a lot like a top-down Homeworld. Ships will move according to a fleet layout that you specifically design and attack in AI patterns that you designate (do strafing runs, always face the enemy, etc).
The enjoyable combat is expertly augmented with the game’s ship builder, which ends up being StarDrive’s single greatest feature. In addition to pre-built templates packed with the game, you can pop into a ship layout screen that lets you design your own ships to fill any purpose ranging from combat to transportation and colonization. The tools find that sweet spot between usability and depth— all you have to do is drag ship components like engines, power reactors, armor plating, and weaponry onto a grid and tweak the layout until you get your perfect balance of performance, weaponry, and survivability. Crafting ships won’t appeal to everyone, but if the prospect of arranging your power conduits just so to squeeze an extra flak battery on the aft of your ship makes you feel very warm inside, you’ll love it. And, while I don’t have kids just yet, I imagine watching your hulking warship come to life in battle and destroy the competition must feel similar to watching your child take its first steps.
However, just as StarDrive’s real-time mechanics give its combat wings, it drags down the more passive aspects of the game; the game isn’t paced very well. You spend long amounts of time waiting for ships to arrive at their destinations or for research projects to finish. In turn-based games, you can simply pass the turns until the next critical event occurs. Here, you just have to wait. Because of this, activity comes in droughts and floods. Say a new research project finishes: you can assign the next project and start building any newly-unlocked facilities. Then you may have nothing to do for four or five minutes, just waiting for your next research to unlock or for your scouts to turn up a planet worth colonizing.
There isn’t a lot of depth to StarDrive’s experience either once you figure it out. The best part of StarDrive’s challenge is pulling your space empire’s production into equilibrium… that isn’t easy, and here is where it differs from other 4X games as well. For instance, population doesn’t increase based on the food production of a planet. Instead, people reproduce at a steady rate as long as they have food available, meaning that you’ll never build a population quickly unless you transplant them in chunks with cargo ships. So you need large cargo ships, which means you need the research to make them and the funds to maintain them. Large cargo ships are vital to getting new colonies off the ground, which you wouldn’t know without starting a clutch of floundering colonies in your first game.
Almost all of StarDrive’s resources are interconnected, and any one of them can bottleneck your entire empire’s expansion if you’re unfamiliar with how to maintain them. If you stumble over any of those in the early game, the engine that powers your empire will stall. Learning the order of early-game research and when to colonize new worlds is an interesting process, but once you’ve “solved” your economy there’s not a whole lot left to do aside from slowly conquer the entire galaxy or take down the game’s “end boss” revealed through the tech tree.
That said, some elements of StarDrive’s presentation are fantastic. Its races echo Master of Orion in personality; my favorite is a race of pod aliens that uses another race of cute, fluffy owl creatures for slave labor through a mind-control chemical. On the utilitarian front, I love that StarDrive’s master lists of ships and planets can be sorted by any column, making it easy to find the largest nearby planet or ships in your fleet that are costing you the most in maintenance.
Other more superficial problems clutter StarDrive’s experience though. Text frequently overruns its allocated space on the UI, and occasionally scrollbars will freak out and hover outside of their window until popped back in.
Ultimately StarDrive suffers from issues more damning than visually offensive text boxes: There’s not much to the game beyond the first playthrough (or half of the first playthrough for that matter). Playing as different races is just a slight tweak on the same experience, and there’s no multiplayer to give you an unlimited pool of opponents. Without the magic sauce of Civilization’s One More Turn Syndrome, StarDrive’s fun fizzles at ten hours and doesn’t come back.
Still, ten hours of fun is substantial, especially for 4X fans that like a little more combat in the mix. StarDrive is more RTS than typical 4X, but more 4X than, say, Age of Empires. If you’re a fan of RTS and strategy games, you can get a few good evenings out of StarDrive, just don’t expect the endless addiction and spotless interface of Civilization.
+ Ship builder works fantastically
+ Unique mix of combat and empire building
— Poor pacing and lacking gameplay depth
7 / 10