There’s something inspiring about the concept of space. There’s an eerie yet inviting presence that emanates from its depths. It inspires humanity to greater heights of scientific progress and has worked as muse to thousands of authors and poets. It is deep and meaningful. StarDrive is the opposite of space.
Let me explain. StarDrive is a tiny game, with wide-ranging aims and shallow execution. 4X space games are by no means a rarity and StarDrive is entering a widely contested field. Endless Space, Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilisation 2 are all worthy contenders and StarDrive can’t quite match up. While the triad of 4X mechanics is in place (diplomacy, war and infrastructure), each doesn’t quite manage to excel enough to carry the game.
Real-time combat. Real-time combat never changes. Letting the battles run in real-time ostensibly provides a more active take on the often repetitive and turn-based combat of other titles. StarDrive even allows you to design your own ships and assume direct control of one ship at a time to fight off invading space wolves. On paper, this would allow a wonderful synergy in the mechanics; you could design a ship to be fully armoured on one side then directly control the ship to ensure you always kept the steel bulwarks facing your enemies. In reality, you’re more likely to find your other AI-controlled ships zerg-rushing while you try to effectively manoeuvre the ship you’ve taken control of. Irritatingly, it usually works. Battles in StarDrive are won not through well-prepared tactics, but through the force of sheer numbers.
There is a form of synergy between the ship-building and combat, though not one that benefits the game. Just as throwing masses of ships is the most effective tactic, the ship-building is just as thoughtless. There’s no real differentiation between ships, each size of ship meaning a shield and firepower upgrade but no other defining characteristics; even player-built ships will be stuck in their class sizes, regardless of how ingenious your blueprint is. It also grates that on the grid-based ship designs, every single square of the ship must contain some little item, not a single square allowed to remain empty. It leads to dull clicking to fill your ship with conduits or tiny generators or whatever will fill the space and when you accidentally click on a vital engine, you get to watch it vanish, replaced with your one-block stop-gap measure. It’s a flawed system, feeding into a flawed system. But there’s always diplomacy, right?
Before we get into that, let’s talk about character creation and the races on offer. A lot of effort has gone into the race design and the quirks of each species and they provide the sole element of humour and characterisation in the game. We have space bears, space wolves, squid-folk that definitely look like they’ve been on the wrong side of some non-euclidean geometry and my personal favourite, the incredibly chirpy and polite robots that use owls as drugged-up slaves. I’ve been told, during my forum delving, that each is supposed to have a unique play-style to fit their personality, but beyond the space wolves being a little less likely to go for peace treaties, it doesn’t really come across.
It’s where the diplomacy should have shown its worth. However, the diplomacy is a broken system that has acted the same on the easiest and most difficult settings. Perhaps it’s a take on our cynical political systems as opposed to bad balancing, but you can bribe your way to victory every time. When you give a civilisation a technology, they like you a little more. If enough like you, they’ll join you in an alliance. If you’re the leader of an alliance that contains all civilisations, you win. A civilisation that focuses on technology, or even gives a half-hearted stab at keeping up with the tech trees, will be able to buy all the friends they need. It has yet to fail and makes diplomacy, as well as combat, an irrelevant joke.
The tech trees themselves are effective, though limited. While leaping up ship sizes is one of the few satisfying indicators of progress, most of the technologies available are merely tiny upgrades. The tech trees are fairly small too, allowing a tech-minded player (or again, anyone even giving technology a brief glance) to easily collect every upgrade available. Techs are better used as diplomatic currency, a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
StarDrive is just too shallow to keep you engaged. The combat is simple, the tech tree limited and the diplomacy system is far too easy to shatter. The game does have glimpses of what it could have been with a bit more time to develop, but the game as is seems unfinished. There’s no multiplayer, to negate the AI issues. There’s currently one option for a victory condition, which is war/diplomacy combined. It’s still expanding and while I’d like to recommend the game for the few things it does right, I can’t right now. Perhaps in a few years, after extensive patching and when the game is actually complete. But you should avoid this beta-shaped space game for the meantime.