It’s widely acknowledged that space is a bit of a bitch, and that if the meteorites and overwhelming radiation don’t get you, the tentacular terror beasts of Epsilon V will.
They’re all wrong. It’s the accountants that’ll get you.
So, StarDrive: deep-space exploration, planetary colonisation, technological research, space combat, ship and fleet customisation, alien diplomacy… It’s an interstellar orgasm on paper, but a bit of a brown dwarf in practice.
Having reached the limit of your planet’s carrying capacity, it’s time to branch out and, y’know, take over the galaxy. You do this, basically, by scouting out the neighbourhood, plucking planets that make good, capitalistic sense (hopefully also offering a juicy ancient alien artefact), and schmoozing/obliterating the alien races you encounter along the way.
I’m fully aware that there are countless people out there who will like this game. I have no interest in dissuading them; this is a deep, complex parsec of 4X that will, I’m sure, provide immense satisfaction for many.
But try as I might, I couldn’t find the access I needed to enjoy StarDrive. I have done my fair share of enjoying 4X, I’ll have you know. I spent many an hour ordering my most elite military units to throw spears at a passing stealth bomber in the original Civilization. Yeah, those were the days. Yeah, strategy games don’t really do much other than laugh at me. But the great ones are still fun, even if I suck at them.
Unfortunately, StarDrive’s underlying systems feel both underdeveloped and overexposed. It’s like trying to balance a spreadsheet that occasionally attempts to spice things up with a space battle and a roll of the ol’ dice. And none of it is overwhelmingly intuitive. The tutorials don’t explain nearly enough, and the interface is bizarrely reticent. Veterans of the 4X field will probably pick it all up fairly easily, but I can tell you, I bloody well didn’t.
Even the bit I thought I’d enjoy most – the spaceship punch-ups – didn’t grab me by the fusion drives. The research, ship-building and fleet management that go into doing really well in a battle just overwhelmed me. I felt like a commander in charge of a fleet of cats. Good grief, but cats aren’t cut out for this starfaring stuff. There were times when I just sat back and totally failed to care that the last of my colonies was being overrun with bastard bug creatures from the galactic outback. Just take it, bug creatures. I’ll go back to playing with Excel.
It strikes me that I’m being unfair. I really feel like I should love StarDrive. It just comes across as too unfinished, too pencil-pushing, too inaccessible. I’m sad about that, I really am.
Let me say that I did enjoy encountering the other alien races. In a distinctly Star Control-ish turn, StarDrive’s galactic community is diverse, imaginative and, at least to begin with, filled with character. Each civilisation has a distinctly creative and often humorous edge, and they’re all given a lot of attention visually. Unlike the fantastic dialogue trees in Star Control II, though, interaction with the civs in StarDrive is limited to a set of stock questions and a diplomatic bartering screen. I really would have liked to see this side of the game fleshed out a little more.
Vexing. It’s all quite vexing. But I can’t imagine that being in charge of a galactic empire in real life could be any less vexing, eh? Accountants, I tell you; they’ll inherit the Earth.
StarDrive is available now on Steam for $29.99.