Impressions: StarDrive

I was pretty excited when I met StarDrive. I could explain why, but really, just watch this here trailer and see for yourself if you haven’t already.

Neat, eh? Now that I’ve played it some, I’ve come to a conclusion: I’m not cut out for managing my kitchen cupboards, let alone an intergalactic empire.

StarDrive lets you loose with one of eight advanced species (or one you’ve created yourself using a perk-like system). You’ve got one of those home planet things, along with a scout ship and a colony ship. Your job: to explore the universe and grab as much stuff as you can get your hands/tentacles/paws on. Along the way you’ll research new tech, discover ancient artefacts, and tangle with other spacefaring civs.

In the way of 4X, StarDrive is a bit of a balancing act within a balancing act. You’re trying to expand manageably, but fast enough to get the drop on your opponents. You’re fiddling with planetary production rates to ensure an optimal mixture of food production, industry, and scientific research. You’re pumping out scouts, freighters, fighters, space stations and the like while trying not to beggar your straining stellar coffers.

At any point some upstart rival civ could start a war with you, or steal your tech, or incite a rebellion on one of your planets, etcetera. It is possible to form alliances (and indeed, unifying the galaxy is one way to win a campaign), but verily, they are all bastards, and you’d best be prepared for them by: building up a death fleet; being a sneaky diplomat; swallowing your interplanetary pride and being really, really nice.

This all plays out in a sort of composite turn-based real-time. Yes, I know what I just said. “Turns” – discrete points at which your empire updates – elapse every five seconds unless you speed up or slow down time, while combat happens in true real-time. Thankfully, the action can be paused at any point. In a fantastic touch, the universe is one seamless entity, and it’s possible to zoom from planetary scale all the way out to interstellar scale.

Everything I have just described appeals to me deeply. I really thought I’d like StarDrive, and I’m trying hard to engage, but there is a point around the early middle game when things start to unravel for me. I feel a little like I’m trying to herd an expanding cloud of molecules. While the developers have put obvious effort into making colony management simple and even automatable, micromanagement is unavoidable, and play starts to feel more like juggling numbers than anything else.

This sense of book-balancing extends to dealing with alien civilisations, which really should have been (and still could be) one of the highlights of StarDrive. The creature designs are great, and talking to them reveals glimpses at some interesting characters, but there are no dialogue trees here, just the same (mostly) set of questions regardless of your or their race, and a kind of diplomatic bartering screen. In other words, it’s a distressingly thin veil over another game of numbers.

The space combat, on the other hand, yields tremendous amounts of fun and depth. You can direct units in the tried-and-tested way of the real-time strategy game, or you can set routes and give ship AIs certain priorities. You can even take direct control of a unit (which at the start is set to your flagship); indeed it appears there is no way to relinquish direct control, only to pass it along, which is annoying as hell, but anyway.

The battles can get extraordinarily epic, and you’ll bloody well say thank-you to the developers for that pause button now won’t you? When you consider the strategic impact of carrier craft, deep-space support stations, and all manner of whatnot, it’s hard not to feel a little dumbfounded.

Space-to-ground combat is, well, I don’t know. I haven’t, by golly, been able to figure out how to go about it. I’ve consulted the in-game manual. I’ve prayed to the fickle gods of 4X. I resorted to the usually reliable technique of pressing random keys while thinking of England. I am fully prepared to accept that I’m being utterly daft, but this feels distinctly like an area that could be clarified.

Ship and fleet customisation, meanwhile, strike me as a tad intimidating and clunky. There is a lot going on here, no doubt, but it’s not intuitive to me, and I feel quite disconnected from it all. A gentle introduction to the arcane arts of the shipbuilder would have been most welcome. The game is still in beta, though, so hopefully these interface issues will be sorted out or somebody will buy me a new brain.

So you see, I’m amid something of a conundrum. I don’t think I like StarDrive, but significantly, I do keep wanting to play it. I am almost certain that most, if not all, of my issues with it are based in the fact that I am substantially and indisputably bad at it. (If you read my preview of Eador: Masters of the Broken World, you’ll be picking up a pattern about now.) Either way, I haven’t played it nearly enough to have formed a trustworthy opinion.

StarDrive is available for pre-order on Steam at US$24.99, which is 17% off the full price. Buying in gets you access to the beta that is currently whipping me shamefully. If you really like the look of it, and you enjoy getting into the gritty, you’ll probably have a blast.

If you’re feeling cautious, you might want to wait for the full review.