David Hayward gets lost in space with the latest 4X space strategy
Ever since Master Of Orion, the space-based 4X (refering to explore/expand/exploit/exterminate, if you were wondering) strategy game genre has moved into the realms of the unforgiving learning curve, becoming a niche pursuit of the hardcore gamer. StarDrive, from Zero Sum Games and Iceberg Interactive, hopes to take its place at the summit of the genre, but if we mere mortals like the idea of sampling the air up there, we face a steep journey that could bring tears to the eyes. Those who revel in the 4X environment will be in their element, but for the majority of gamers - even those who already have some appreciation of how such games work - StarDrive will be to be a brutal experience.
Starting with a scout ship, a colony ship and orbital space base, you are tasked with going forth and exploring the galaxy. To start with, it's easy enough to can cope with the general exports, imports and the colonisation of the local system. However, give the game another half-hour, and you’ll find yourself negotiating with other races, managing multiple colonies and trying not to start a war with your neighbours.
Mix all this in with dwindling resources, a massive technical research tree, building ships, amassing a defensive network of space marines and a drumming up a battle armada, and you’ll soon be left a gibbering wreck.
The devil is in the details here, and there’s lot of details. Far too many to be honest, and although you can pass some of the micro management over to the CPU, you’re still involved to an extreme degree due to its inept management.
What's more, success isn't just about the expansion of your chosen race. Starships can be built and designed, with a modular layout, then managed during combat in real time. They can follow attack patterns depending on whether you want to lay out a defensive ring, or pulverise the enemy into submission.
In fact, the ship combat is the jewel in StarDrive’s crown. Its epic space battles are beautifully animated, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. The exploration, and the discovery of new worlds to colonise is also very good, but StarDrive tends to suddenly get a little carried away with itself. Within moments you suddenly find yourself having to micro manage the micro management, but the game doesn’t provide any way of helping you out. It throws everything it can at you and you’re expected to cope with the multitude of incoming messages while trying to firefight another problem.
Another issue is the interface: it's rich in appearance, but can quickly become confusing. There are no shortcuts to sub-interfaces, so you're left to trawl through layers to access the parameters you're after. Also, the research is diabolically slow. No matter how much effort you put into gaining the knowledge of something, you’re still left waiting for it to be researched; while a colony on the edge of a remote system has perished.
The game does feel unduly unfair most of the time. Once you get going there’s very little breathing room and even less room for mismanagement or a mistake. In addition, a game of this depth is bound to feature a few bugs, but StarDrive appears to have more than its fair share. Ships that refuse to move, tech that won’t build, resources that never appear all add up to unwinnable situations.
StarDrive is a huge game: too big in all honesty. Trying too hard to become the ultimate 4X space strategy, it's a bit if a chore rather than an enjoyable experience. Still, if you’re hardcore enough, then you can probably see through the issues and lose yourself in its depth.
• Price: £22.49 via Steam
• Manufacturer: Zero Sum Games/Iceberg Interactive
• Website: goo.gl/stVVV
• Required Spec: XP+, 2.4GHz CPU+, 4GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 8800+ and equivalent