Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate. These four tenants define the 4x strategy subgenre focused on building and growing an empire or civilisation in an attempt to gain power. Often requiring intense management of resources and a balance between economic, social and military focuses, the deep strategy often leads to devoted and critical fan bases.
StarDrive, a space 4x funded by kick starter, is the latest in a long line of similar titles. Following a lengthy beta and much feedback from its fans, it’s finally been released, but is this indie creation actually any good?
Developed by a single-man team, StarDrive is all about conquering the Galaxy. Starting on the home planet of your chosen race with a handful of ships and complete freedom, one is tasked with expanding a galactic empire, colonising other planets and galaxies, interacting with other civilisations and eventually either conquering or uniting the galaxy.
The concept is solid, with a clear eventual goal. However, at current the only available mode is Sandbox, which, whilst fine for an established player, throws a less-secure one in at the deep end.
I must point out that I’m relatively new to this form of game, and as such, am not very good at them. I played Civ when I was younger and the end-stage of Spore for a long time, but aside from that it’s all very new to me. Regardless, I still feel that an introduction is missing. Whilst there is a tutorial section which runs the player through basic controls, they are introduced by a wall of text and images rather than through gameplay. In my first game, due to a lack of direction I began simply, attempting to create a colony and a fleet. Unaware of many of the mechanics and such, I set my colonies to automatic. Next thing I know I’m fighting some Xenos for control of another system and I suddenly have rebellions on all my planets, leading me to a swift Game Over.
What I’m trying to say is that the sandbox mode is great if you know what you’re doing, and if you’re happy with a world of possibilities. The problem comes when you are generally unaware of how to start off, and need some sort of push to do the right actions. Whilst after a few hours and many restarts one begins to find their own direction and starts to enjoy the game for the 4 X’s, the initial learning curve could have been so easily softened, and I genuinely hope some sort of tutorial, or even a pre-set, annotated small-scale game with hints gets patched in.
Once you get into the meat however, StarDrive proves itself as a stand-out example of the Genre. Importantly, actions and consequences more often than not make sense, and the wide-ranging research options give a variety of pathways on which to take your race. The economic model is sound, allowing inter-colonial trading and forcing the player to carefully choose their planets as well as their methods of colonising them and building placement. There is a great emphasis on combat, both in space and on the ground, and luckily the mechanics feel substantial enough to carry the feeling of being a powerful commander whilst not being overwhelming.
The ship customisation is also stellar, allowing a huge variety of setups to be created using a modular system. Placing your engines, power plant, weapons, ammo storage and armour can often take a while, especially when designing the larger ships and stations, but the freedom means that the actual behaviour and nature of the ship can be dictated. One could theoretically create a ship armed massively on one side and heavily shielded on the other, allowing it to circle an enemy, annihilating them, whilst shielded from the target’s allies. The open nature of this is refreshing, adding yet another layer of micro strategy to the otherwise high-strategy. Due to this, one’s play-style can be perfectly catered for. What is also interesting is the fact that your saved designs can be used by the computer in other games, allowing your opponents the chance to use these tactics, adding to the complexity of subsequent battles and play through.
However, for me the stand-out strengths of StarDrive are the ones which give it the most character. Firstly, the customisation options available are immense. Whilst a degree of starting customisation is usual for a 4x game, the ability to completely modify the traits of a specific race isn’t. Using a modular system of buffs and rebuffs, traits such as “Cybernetic” and “Pack Mentality”, with individual + and – values attributed to them can be chosen, allowing you to dictate your starting race’s histories. Whilst many of these are interesting, the one downside is the lack of visual manifestation of these traits.
The other major strength lays the sheer personality of the game, especially when it comes to the base races. Including Samurai Bears, Robot Flies, and Owl-Slaves, the eight different races each have their own distinct feel. Every aspect of your interaction with them is dripping with their individuality; the Cybernetic Opteris for example, makes decisions in a robotic fashion, viewing any decision as a purely logical one, whilst the Kulrathi Shogunate talk in elaborate verse.
You can tell that each and every one was a labour of love for the creator. By making them both interesting and easily distinguishable they add an ambiguous yet threatening humour which makes you look forward to every encounter.
StarDrive is a very good example of a combat-focused 4x, but one which suffers due to certain staples of the genre; inadequate tutorials and a somewhat stunted Diplomacy system. However, with the emphasis on battle and ship customisation, StarDrive succeeds on so many levels that it is hard not to recommend.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.