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.