Video Reviews Archive

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Game Review: Sid Meier’s Starships

I approached Sid Meier’s Starships with two distinct thoughts running through my head. The first was along the lines of, “this looks so good in concept. Please don’t suck.” The second, born of the first, asked, “When was the last time Papa Sid acted as lead developer on a game?”

A cursory Google search demonstrates there is a world of difference between Sid Meier the developer and Sid Meier the brand. As consiglieri, Sid Meier helped turn XCOM: Enemy Unknown into one of the best PC gaming experiences of the last decade. As a brand, Meier attached his name to the pretty mediocre Civilization: Beyond Earth and the divisive Civilization V .

After spending some time with Starships, I think I can safely say that Meier still knows how to assemble an enjoyable experience. However, there are also a few places where Starships falls well short of meeting my expectations.

Though Starships is set in the same universe as Civ: Beyond Earth, it’s pretty far afield of its parent game. Starships is best seen as a very complicated tabletop game translated into an incredibly accessible PC game (also a tablet game). Half of the game involves managing and growing a space empire. The other half is a hex-based starship warfare game. As I’m the kind of nerd who grew up with tabletop/pen and paper games like Renegade Legion: Leviathan while watching Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers in the background, the ship based warfare in Starships is the stuff of my dreams.

The game’s point and click battle interface is simple and reasonably effective. In combat, Starships mobilizes all of the tropes of space battles, including lasers, torpedoes, fighter squadrons, and cloaking devices. Players customize their flotilla’s weapons, armour, shields, and devices to suit whatever tactical approach they think is best. Does a would-be admiral concentrate their resources into one or two dreadnaughts, or spread the wealth around a half dozen smaller destroyers? There’s no one right way to play.

Gratifying as these battles may be, there’s nothing special to their visual elements. The weapon effects are average, at best, and customizing a ship’s appearance is entirely decided by which weapons and systems a player chooses to upgrade.

Starships doesn’t even offer players the ability to rename the ships in their fleet – something that seems almost sina qua non for a game of tactical starship combat.

Likewise, the empire management side of the game is all about function over form. The star map offers all the information a player would require to manage their empire without the need to drill down into individual star systems. The nuances of system management are a simple matter of prioritizing tactical improvements and planetary defenses for the front-line worlds and infrastructure improvements on the core systems.

In terms of scope, I finished my first game of Starships with a glorious victory in under two hours. So Starships gets points for letting me feel like I’ve achieved something without having to invest a full day of my life into a game.

My biggest disappointment with Starships came after I finished that first match. In the euphoria of victory, I wanted nothing more than to play against a friend. Alas, Starships offers no multiplayer component.

Papa Sid, I am disappoint – a little.

Normally, I’m the last person to piss and moan about a game lacking multiplayer support. But if there was ever a game that could be enriched through playing with friends, it is Starships. Granted, I can see how real-time play might make for a lot of sitting and waiting between short bursts of ship-to-ship combat. Even an asynchronous play feature likely presented a design challenge. Be that as it may, I don’t think it’s an insolvable problem. Multiplayer support would give Starships a greater shelf life than it is going to get as a purely single player experience.

In the final evaluation, Starships is not a bad game, but it’s not a great game, either. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a rushed production, Sid Meier’s Starships feels like something where little thought was given to adding bells and whistles to the core experience. I wanted Starships to be an inheritor to the likes of the Starfleet Command games. Alas, it falls short of that high-water mark.

While Starships won’t get the most mileage of all the games in my Steam library, I can see it filling a very specific niche for the days when I want to blast through an armada of starships without the inevitable defeat of FTL or the 10 hour investment of Master of Orion. Job reasonably done, Papa Sid, but I expect more next time.


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Kerbal Space Program: From the Derp to the Mun

There are a great many things I love about Kerbal Space Program. Most of those things involve catastrophic failures on the launch pad or brave Kerbal astronauts reenacting scenes from Gravity on a space walk gone horribly wrong. Seriously, how long can a Kerbal in an EVA suit survive in orbit before dying of carbon monoxide poisoning? More importantly, why wasn’t he tethered to the module? I imagine I’m to blame for that.  It remains to be seen if I can manage a rescue/corpse gathering mission. I expect the physics behind such a rendezvous might be somewhat…difficult.

Beyond the game’s ability to be inherently accessible while remaining rooted in the physics of rocketry and space travel, I’m amazed at the deep community engagement for a title that is still in an alpha state. On that note, and at the risk of embarrassing my day job colleague, I think it fitting to show just how much fun some people can have playing Kerbal Space Program.



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Game Review: StarDrive

Where to begin with StarDrive? Perhaps, in the past. One of my fondest memories as a gamer is the Christmas break of my eighth grade. Therein I devoted a solid two weeks to my first ever game of Master of Orion. It was a sublime experience for me as a budding galactic tyrant. In the years that followed, I discovered other 4X entires: Endless Space, Sword of the Stars, and Galactic Civilizations to name a few. I also dabbled in tabletop games like Battletech and Renegade Legion: Leviathan. Bearing this in mind, it’s fair to say that my tastes lean toward the complex. But of all those games, StarDrive is easily the best I have played in terms of balancing accessibility with difficulty, offering a level of creative freedom usually reserved for tabletop games, and most importantly, evoking that same eighth grade Master of Orion sense of wonder.

Like most games of this genre StarDrive starts players with a home solar system and a handful of ships. From there, stellar hegemons must research new technologies, expand their empire, negotiate with alien races, and lead an armada across the stars – all in real time. Five seconds in real life equals one turn in the game. To the designers’ credit, I’ve never once felt bored or rushed within this real time system. Granted there are times when I pause the game to take stock of a planet’s economy or an incoming fleet of xeno scum. But no matter if I am managing a single star system or a late game empire, the pace always feels appropriate.

Though much and more of the game can be turned over to AI management, which is generally pretty sharp, micromanagers are going to find themselves utterly enraptured by StarDrive’s economic system. Each planet in the game produces two main resources, food and production. A given world can then be set to export, import, or store each resource. This allows lush Terran planets to develop as breadbaskets or hubs of research, while harsher, but mineral rich, worlds are cultivated into production centers. Facilitating this trade is an intuitive system of player, or AI, designed trade routes. 90% of the time this is a brilliant mechanic to ensure nobody in your empire starves to death. The rest of the time I’ve watched one of my expensive transport ships claiming it is “looking for a trade route” even though I’ve assigned a clear one to it. It’s a minor annoyance which would probably be eradicated if I turned shipping over to the AI, but where’s the fun in that?

Setting up trade routes also allowed me to discover some of the finer points of detail that have gone into the game. One such flourish is planets orbiting their star in real time. I discovered this quite by accident when I noticed a trade fleet sitting idle in a system. I zoomed in only to discover that planets Castor and Pollux had moved out of the trade routes I designated. This may seem like much ado about nothing, but small points like this really help sell the idea that I, personally, am managing a space empire.

Brilliant as it is to command my own version of the Colonial Union, ruthlessly exploiting the Earth as a breeding tank for colonists, manoeuvring from a galactic scope down to a single planet can be a bit clumsy. Eventually I memorized the important keyboard shortcuts, but when ship models on the galactic map are designed (somewhat) in scale to stellar bodies, there can be a lot of zooming in and tracking on the mini-map. It’s very honest to the grand emptiness of space, mind you. But players should be prepared for a bit of extra mouse work.

Perhaps if StarDrive came with an interactive tutorial I might have been able to sidestep some of this early confusion. Then again, I could have paid a bit more attention to the built-in slide show explaining the game’s core game mechanics. Beyond this initial overview, an in-game help system offers a triad of videos and expanded entries on the tutorial’s material. So if you start to feel a bit overwhelmed, the guidance is there. Just don’t expect StarDrive to teach you once the game begins. The onus is on you, the player, to learn what you are doing.

Where StarDrive really shines is in terms of ship building and ship combat. Where Galactic Civilizations had players making lego ships as a lead in to glorified paper-rock-scissors battles, StarDrive creates an experience similar to what I used to get when designing a pen and paper starship for a game of Leviathan. Each ship class has a fixed amount of space for internal and external modules. From there the player uses their tech at hand to design a ship which will suit a particular role. Let me give you an example. When the game begins you can only build fighter-class ships and freighters. Alone in the galaxy I didn’t bother researching corvette-class hulls. This proved a mistake when I ran afoul of some corsairs with ships much bigger than mine. I sent out two squadrons of my finest fighters to meet the brigands. None returned.

At that point I seemed well and truly fucked. Then, inspiration struck. I could take a freighter hull and load it up with guns. Sure it would maneuver like a pig in a bog, but it would protect the Earth. Lo and behold my mighty freighter fleet won the day. Of course they ran out of ammo during the next battle, once again proving that logistics is at the core of StarDrive.

From there I began further experimenting with ship design. Once I unlocked laser tech, I built a line of fast interceptors designed to shoot down missiles while heavier corvettes pounded the enemy with forward guns. Learning from past mistakes, I loaded out a middle weight freighter with a munitions factory so I could rain a constant stream of nukes on a “Kulrathi” planet without sending in the marines. I have dreams of building my own personal Space Battleship Yamato and blasting my foes with mighty broadsides, but I haven’t quite unlocked the titan ship class.

If that were not enough, StarDrive also offers a truly inspired fleet construction window. Rather than having industrial planets spam out ships, a la Master of Orion, players can build fleets of almost limitless scope. This involves designing a proper combat formation: fighter screens, fast attack destroyers, bomber wings, if you can imagine it, you can build it. The fleet manager then asks if you want to requisition the fleet from existing ships or build them from scratch, automatically dividing production between the core worlds of an empire. I may have got a little carried away with this during my first play through. In economic terms, I think the expression is shameless defect spending. Still, it was worth it to watch the fleet assemble in real time before FTLing into battle. Military history nerds, delight; this game is for you. It may not have the flash of Sword of the Stars or Homeworld, but the persistent top down view accentuates the player’s position as commander-in-chief instead of a mere Admiral.

At present StarDrive only offers a single “sandbox” mode. In terms of end-game, this requires either wiping out all other life in the galaxy or bringing the races together into a federation. It does, however, seem a bit odd to build in a menu option with only a single game mode in mind. I’ll assume that Zero Sum Games has plans for more content, or they’ve built in the game modes option as a means of supporting an already very active modding community.

StarDrive does fall short in a few areas, nothing critical mind you but certainly noticeable. Despite a commitment to modding, there’s no way to change the game’s default key bindings. Event notifications are just a little too spare for my taste. I don’t need a ping each time a ship gets built, but a fleet’s construction should merit some alert. Where every other screen in the game has an obvious “click this to exit” button, the fleet construction screen does not. And occasionally ships will rally to a location seemingly of their own volition. Again, these are small issues and nothing which should preclude a person buying the game. I would submit that addressing these points in a patch would make an already excellent game that much better.

In the final assessment, I’m reminded of something Jake Soloman said during one of his XCOM Enemy Unknown interviews. Soloman suggested that strategy games come in two varieties: complex and complicated. Complex games are deeply layered, but still approachable and thus still fun. Complicated games are just that, complicated. StarDrive is firmly rooted in the complex category. It’s not an easy game by any measure. Truth be told, it probably has a steeper learning curve than most games out there. But it stops well short of being burdensome upon a willing player’s patience. The current build has a few cosmetic bugs, but nothing that broke my gameplay experience. Overall, StarDrive reflects the developers’ clear passion for 4X games, as well as a long standing relationship to science fiction as a genre – see some of the alien races for various ‘in’ jokes. This is a must have for both fans of 4X games and those looking to cut their teeth on this style of game.

StarDrive

Developed by Zero Sum Games

Published by Iceberg Interactive


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Game Review: Monaco – What’s Yours is Mine

So I thought to myself, what’s more fun than doing a video/screencast review? The answer: waiting for about three hours while the video encodes in Windows movie maker and still doesn’t have the decency to register on youtube as HD compatible. Seriously, before I do one of these again, I am going to have to invest in some better software for video editing. At any rate, I present you with my first ever video review. Up on the block is Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine.

I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much; however I will say here that this is a top-down stealth/heist game from indie publisher Pocket Watch Games.

And do feel free to leave me some comments on what I could have done to improve on this review. I already have some thoughts in mind on what I might do differently for my next video review.