So when I picked up Stardrive on Steam I wasn’t expecting much. You see, I’m kind of burnt out on the 4X genre of strategy games; too many have used their fancy words and dazzling colors to distract me while the developer rifled through my pockets for spare change. Truth is, the greatest showing of the genre is Sins of a Solar Empire series, and I’ve had some creative differences with that series for quite some time now. Even games like Endless Space, a recent indie game, have left me feeling hollow and hungry on the inside for a 4X game that balances artistic ingenuity, minimalist game management, and huge explosions well. So with Stardrive, I was really hoping I wouldn’t come to regret spending the money.
There are three things I look for in any 4X game. First, I look for artistic ingenuity. I want a universe that’s worth playing in, that makes me feel connected and invested. Second, I look for an easy-to-use and innovative empire management system. The purpose of any game is to get to the fun bit, and the fun bit is where you blow the enemy up and dance on his ashes like a gleeful leprechaun on St. Patrick ’s Day. If I have to spend three hours managing my fluffy stuff, or empire, to get to the fun bit, the game’s probably doing it wrong. Third, I look for the fun bit to be, well, fun. I want the combat to be engaging, replete with interesting strategic choices for how to blow up the enemy’s fluffy stuff. It’s not just about explosions, people; it’s about explosions with panache.
So, let’s take the above criteria and apply it to Stardrive. Artistic ingenuity is a big thing for me but it’s never enough to carry a game to the finish line by itself. Sword of the Stars, another 4X game with a cult following, has well-defined races that are interesting to play, but it doesn’t matter because I think the game has terrible mechanics that leave me somewhere between sleep and a migraine-induced fetal position. Still, you can’t overlook the artsy fartsy nature of a game, and Stardrive does a good job of crafting its universe. Faster-than-light travel, or FTL for people who watched Battlestar Galactica, is the mode of long distance travel in the game, and the way it’s done in Stardrive is really cool. You can’t use FTL inside a planet’s gravity well, but what this does is leave your ships jumping around a solar system, dodging planets, and popping next to enemy fleets and engaging head on. Micro jumps are something you hear a lot about in spacefaring stories, and it was nifty to actually see your ships do it in game. If you don’t like the idea of your ships being bogged down by a planet’s pesky gravity well, that’s ok: you can turn the feature off. Even still, the planets actually revolve around their sun, meaning the map is shifting constantly. Slowly, but consistently, the planets are moving and getting in your way, so if you’re like me and you play with the FTL gravity inhibition on, planets become a neat little challenge you have to consider in setting up your trade lanes and enemy encounters. I mention the game’s FTL system as a part of its artistic ingenuity because it’s integral to the tone of the game. Tone is often a tough sell for a critic because it’s not easily measured; it’s something you know when you see it and you feel its absence, but articulating it can be difficult. Whatever tone is, though, Stardrive has it. Interesting races dot a massive universe with individualized planets and even planetless solar systems. And the planets you do come across can include anomalies and artifacts that actually seem like thought was put into their creation. There’s a planet in one of my games that’s covered in sentient algae. That’s right, move over kudzoo, there’s a new overwhelming form of flora in town. Sure, you can’t see this flora, but it’s an idea that’s interesting and unique; it’s spice for an otherwise dull dish.
Now on to the part where most games seem to fail: the empire management system. Sins of a Solar Empire got this right, but failed to deliver a creative and captivating universe. Stardrive, though, didn’t do it so badly. In fact, there was one tiny thing they did that made me love them so much: when you want to colonize a planet, you can go to that planet and click a button. A colony ship is immediately entered into your build queue and given orders upon completion to colonize the world. I know I’m being really picky right now, but come on, years of 4X gaming and no one thought to do something as obvious and simple as automating the colonization process? It doesn’t save a lot of time, but it’s a step in the direction 4X gaming should be going. We need developers taking the load off of the player, making empires more manageable with fewer clicks. If I can’t have underlings, at least take no-brainer tasks off my list of things to do. There’s a ship designer, too, that lets you determine the hardpoints of a ship before making it. I normally don’t like ship designers because the focus of any game should be getting you to the fun bit. If I have to stop and take ten minutes to design a new ship, that probably means I’m not doing any of the fun bit where I can see said ship blow fluffy stuff , like other ships, into smaller fluffy stuff Still, Stardrive makes it bearable for me by at least making the parts of a ship make sense and not giving the player a thousand pieces from which to choose. Overall, the management was quite good and only reasonably tedious.
Finally, we come to the fun bit, also known as the bit where fluffy stuff gets blown up by murderous missiles and lucid lasers. Here’s the part, too, that drove me to Stardrive in the first place: the screenshots looked amazing. Honestly, too, there isn’t much else to say about the combat other than I approve. The ships you design go toe to toe with the ships of the enemy using lasers, missiles, cannons, torpedoes, flak guns, point-defense weapons, and much more. There are built-in counters, and that fact means choosing technology is important, especially since tech is slow to come by in the early game when your empire is small. I never engaged in a battle where I had to wonder, as is often the case in games where you design your own ships, why the heck I lost. It made sense; missiles get deflected by point-defense systems, kinectic weapons by armor, energy weapons by shields, and so on and so forth. It looks good, too, and you can even give your ships specific commands. I love putting rows of guns on the side of a cruiser and ordering it to always face the enemy with its side; in other words, I’m able to design a ship and have that ship take full advantage of its design through formation. That, right there, is solid game making in my mind.
Stardrive has everything I’m looking for in a 4X game, only lagging in the area I most expect it to lag in: its empire management system. Even then, it fails splendidly, doing no worse than any other game and actually making some tiny improvements to the genre that are quite nice. Combining a unique and immersive tone with a vibrant combat system, I found it engaging and enjoyable, even if a bit slow. It lacks a multiplayer, but that’s not what the 4X genre is best at in my mind. If all this doesn’t sell you, then know that one of the racial choices is a race of katana-wielding Samurai bears. I don’t think I need to tell you just how awesome that statement makes me feel; who doesn’t want to command a legion of sword swinging bears?