Review: StarDrive

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.

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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?

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Review: StarDrive

  1. Mr. Bevalaccua says:

    Excellent review! As I’ve said at other review sites, I’m glad to see more sensible reviews prevail than all of the starry-eyed blather that StarDrive fanboys are doing to help the developer drive sales. As you have already mentioned – It is UNFINISHED!! And on top of that, an unfinished beta. I would even go as far to say somewhat still in alpha development stages. This money grab by Dan DiCicco is going to hurt him in the long run as gamers will remember this incomplete release and will not be wanting to ‘get burned’ again when and if he every comes out with another gaming title in the future. In short, AVOID THIS GAME! Spend your money on other 4x space games that are complete and ready to play.

  2. Sean Mirrsen says:

    I’ve been having fun with this game since it was actually in beta, Mr. B. The game not being complete does not detract from the fact that even as it is, it’s still more playable than a lot of recent games were at release, and even post release. What are you going to use as a measure? Sword of the Stars 2? Legends of Pegasus? Face it, besides the aging Sins and the utterly formulaic Endless Space, there are simply no decent 4X games nowadays. Even GalCivII gets old. Stardrive may be unfinished, but it fills the niche it aims for, with style and splendor, and a selection of good ideas that most “modern” games simply overlook or disregard.

    Plus, it’s in constant development. Don’t know about you, but I like being able to see a game unfold and improve as I keep playing it. It keeps the experience fresh, as new features are added with every major update. And modding possibilities pile up even more on top of that.

    It may not be the perfect awesome game you think we’re painting it as, but it’s certainly far from the steaming pile of dingo crap you seem to take it for. ^_^

    • Scott Emslie says:

      Leaving aside the mechanics, which I think are poorly implemented, let’s talk about the unfinished state of the game.

      You are right to say that the game is in constant development and that it’ll improve; I agree completely and said so in my review. However, it is an unfinished product being sold as a finished one. Nowhere on the official site nor the Steam product page are you warned that this full price game is still under development. It’s not being marketed as a beta or a work in-progress, but as a full finished game.

      Reviews are, when it comes down to it, just consumer advice using fancy words. So when the developer fails to make clear that they are shipping an unfinished game, it is absolutely up to reviewers to point out the game’s flaws, vehemently and in a prolonged fashion. Nobody should be paying £25 for an unfinished game.

  3. elethio says:

    The thing with Stardrive is that it is a primarily a sandbox game, and this means its the kind of game that is better when you create you own objectives, simply playing the game to win it is not necessarily fun, for instance you don’t play minecraft just to defeat the dragon, if you do then your missing the best parts.

    In Stardrive, zerging is a tactic that works, if you have enough ships you can still win a battle even if their design is crap and you have no tactics, and Stardrive will totally let you do this.
    But if you release your inner geek, you will see that you can design the ship of your dreams, (or favourite Sci Fi genre) and you can deploy it in a fashion to optimise its ability / play style, and ship for ship it will be way better than the default zergist’s ship, so you may be outnumbered but you will fight on and with some skill and determination you will win.

    And at this point you will realise that its not just defeating the enemy that was fun, but it was designing the ship, and planning your strategy and adapting along the way that was fun too, and it wasn’t the game that forced you to play this way but it was the game that allowed you too.

    This is what it means to be a sandbox, its not winning the game that counts but how you play the game, and SD gives you more freedom and possibilities than any other 4X I know.

    But if your still finding it too easy just to zerg, I challenge you to play on brutal and see how far that strategy gets you, you will be constantly outnumbered and attacked, and you ship designs and tactics matter more than ever.

    Finally – Stardrive is getting a large content patch in July, and multiplayer is on the way, and Mods should be mentioned too because there are many and they are good.

    • Scott Emslie says:

      StarDrive is not a sandbox game. It allows for ship customisation, yes, but you simply do not have the freedom required for it to be considered a sandbox game. It’s a 4X game with customisable ships.

      Comparing it to Minecraft simply just doesn’t work. People have built working computers and rollercoasters and vast castles drawn from every facet of fantasy in Minecraft. They can build palatial homes and huge dungeons. In StarDrive, you essentially pick where the guns will be on your ship.

      I also played through the game on Brutal and ship designs and tactics didn’t matter one jot when the diplomacy system is as flawed and broken as it is. There’s simply no need to fight. I did though, just to be thorough. Zerging works. You just need bigger ships.

      Finally, StarDrive can get a patch each month to improve it (and I want to emphasise that the game has potential and I look forward to these patches), but that still doesn’t change that the game as it currently stands is unfinished, hugely flawed and is £25 for its current state.

  4. Elethio says:

    MoOII had some major balance problems, the biggest one being the “creativity trait”

    But despite this people love the game and still play it.

    The point I’m making here is that, as I said before, its how you play that will make the difference.
    Their are exploits, you can exploit diplomacy, but if you refrain from doing this, you will have a lot more fun.

    And for not being a Sandbox, I just don’t know how you argue that, all the requirements are there.

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