Daily Archives: May 1, 2012

Review of Starship Orion: Feels “Oh, So Retro”


Screenshot

The Good:
Outstanding depth. A robust 4x (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) game with all the trimmings—technological development, espionage, military design, diplomacy, conflict, exploration, and planetary development. Ipad homage to THE classic space wargame MASTER OF ORION, and the designers make no bones about it.

The Bad:
Not all elements of a PC game transfer well to an Ipad game, and some of the interface emulates the old familiar look of Masters of Orion, which can have a lot of layers and levels. Starbase Orion can run a little slow and some of the earlier versions have reported multiple crashes, although I only experienced two crashes in every game I ever played. I thought a few tool tips to explain the current game context would be a good thing.

Gameplay:
4X means 4X in the old school mode. Starbase Orion is highly evocative of an old niche of standalone computer games from the earlier days of computer wargames, back when there were computer wargames. The obvious comparison is to Master of Orion, but also games like Reach for the Stars, Spaceward, Ho!, Sword of the Stars and Galactic Civilizations. Yes, Starbase resembles all of those but is perhaps a little streamlined in that you have fewer alien races, fewer technology trees to investigate and a smaller map to explore. You should expect that Starbase Orion will concern itself with much more than mere space combat. There’s researching new technologies and following a technology tree, as in Civilization. There’s developing espionage resources and sending out spy missions against your opponents. There’s developing populations and industrial bases on planets. There’s exploring the vast tracts of space and finding NEW planets to explore, expand, exploit and new enemies to exterminate. There’s developing customized space ships to build into fleets to send out to conduct your 4X goals. That’s a lot of stuff going on in one turn. The Ipad interface is visually evocative of its exalted MS DOS predecessor, although it is greatly condensed. 4X is a fairly intricate game model for the Ipad interface, given the vast amount of calculations going on once the “next turn” button is pressed. The menu simplifies the multiple levels of the game and thus makes it easy to figure out where everything is. The Galaxy tab recaps what planets have been discovered so far and who owns them. The Empire tab displays your currently owned planets and their current state of development. The Military tab summarizes where your fleets are and offers the ability to design new ships with better technology. The Foreign tab is your Espionage interface, which allows a Galactic Emperor the opportunity to send spies into enemy systems. The Research tab is the interface to improving your empire’s technology in the key areas of weapon, propulsion, armor and planetary engineering. In addition, the planets have their own interface that enables the player to gain control over production queues and to build fortifications. The interface is scaled just right, in my opinion; the level of information is appropriate for a Galactic Emperor to manage things on a macro level; it doesn’t foster a micromanagement approach, except, maybe in Ship and Fleet management.

Implementation:

Games are played in turns, either versus an AI or versus another player using asynchronous play. Each turn the player cycles through the various game menus to make decisions about his empire as a whole. One might be making a decision about what technology item to research next, or what planet to send a scout spaceship to, or sending a spy to figure out just what exactly is in the system next door, now that we know it’s being held by an opponent. Once you have made all decisions about deployment, production, research, foreign relations and etc you hit the TURN button and see what happens.

Players start out in one small system somewhere; they might be anywhere on the map but they will usually have 2-3 planets at start, one of which usually being more heavily colonized than any of the others. The players will have (usually) a colony ship or two, a few scouts and maybe some other form of military vessel. The player’s immediate task will be to move out from the home system and explore the neighborhood, expanding in the nearest stars with habitable planets. Invariably, the initial colonizing ships will be too limited to go very far; one should always look into technology research choices that foster fast expansion, such as increased propulsion and planetary development technologies. As the game matures, the player will start to encounter other players, either human or AI. At this stage it behooves a smart player to invest in technology choices for warship development, espionage and planetary defenses. Starbase Orion is pretty balanced—one can’t expect to make giant leaps in one technological direction without ignoring something else that is critical. The steady, plodding approach of balanced development in every field will also be a pretty poor choice overall, as your empire will not progress quickly enough in critical technologies.

I played this game on both an Ipod Touch 3rd Generation and an Ipad 2. Of the two I vastly preferred the Ipad to the Ipod Touch or Iphone screen. The fonts WERE readable but it really crams a lot of information into a tiny screen. I prefer a big screen to get a sense of scale, and to accommodate my giant fingers. In the seven games I played in preparation for this article, 6 were AI games that played to conclusion and the seventh is an ongoing multiplayer game versus real humans. Of the two choices, I greatly prefer the latter. The AIs are very competent in terms of expansion; however, I got the sense that there was an unbalancing effect going on somewhere. In every game versus an AI, no matter how HUGE the galaxy might be, somehow there’s aliens showing up on your doorstep within 5 turns. I call that an uncanny coincidence. Human players are much more fun.

Macro View

Conclusion
The challenge of 4X games is that they are doing a ton of tasks simultaneously; it doesn’t pay to be impatient with a game of this magnitude. Expect to put in a lot of time– Starbase Orion will demand a lot of it be seen through to the end. Set your expectations accordingly—at 8 dollars and 106MB on your device, this game represents an investment. If you are looking for a semi-disposable arcade experience, pass this one up. Each turn shapes the gaming experience and to be successful you need to put some serious thought into it—not just into where you are now but where you will be in five turns. If you are thinking gamer that likes a patient, thoughtful and rewarding experience, then Starbase Orion is highly recommended. I am the kind of player that cut his teeth on Civilization, Masters of Magic, Colonization, and yes, Masters of Orion back in the 90s, so I jumped at the chance to get this game. I recommend it highly.

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