Building a fleet... one Titanic at a time.
My heart's been broken by a space-faring samurai bear, and I get the impression I'm one of many victims. He's just so fluffy, and armored, and ever so blue. And whether he knew it or not, as he sat there looking benevolently at me through his viewscreen, gently tapping away at his keyboard, he entreated me to open my strategy-loving heart to StarDrive. And recklessly, that's what I did. Now I'm a broken man, lamenting what could have been if the one-man team at Zer0sum had the funding and resources necessary to do true justice to a game of this scope.
Never again samurai space bear. Never again.
After striking gold with the indie 4X Endless Space last year, Iceberg interactive has placed a similar bet in backing StarDrive, a game that's similar in scope but wildly different in implementation. With real-time battles that grant you direct control of any one ship in your fleet and a ship-building tool that rivals the best in the genre, StarDrive aims to make combat feel more immediate while making fleet management a deeper, more tactical affair. It sounds great conceptually, but in practice, these two ideas clash like a peanut butter and paprika sandwich.
The first time you pull up the shipyard and see the blueprint for one of the many race-specific hull types, your jaw may hit the floor—possibly in a good way, and possibly in a “why is this like navigating an eye-chart” kind of way too. Each ship, from the tiny wittle fighters to the hulkingly massive space stations and capital ships, is broken down into tiny squares, each one representing a slot to be filled with anything from armor plating and weaponry, to power conduits, munitions storage, and countless other modules.
The amount of detail, while visually basic, is humbling in its possibilities. Learning what can go where, how to supply power to all of a ship's systems, figuring out the types of propulsion solutions to employ... just listing it all makes me tingle. You could easily obsess over designing a little 8-slot fighter, trying to "Tetris" in an extra vulcan cannon somewhere, but a 1,300+-slot dreadnaught is a way to spend a weekend. A really geeky, wonderful weekend.
I've only grazed the tip of the ship-building iceberg, but even after you've meticulously designed every ship you need (which you don't have to do since the game provides presets as well), there's more design fun to have in the forming of discreet fleets. These options are so much more than the average strategy game control group. Using all the ship designs your empire has technological access to, you create formations piece by piece, placing each fighter, frigate and cruiser exactly where you want them. Things like operational distance can be set individually for every ship, and an array of sliders allow you to dictate how each engages the enemies it encounters. If you've got ships with side-facing weapons, you can even set them to stay in formation while turning that side to the current threat. Combined with all the depth of the ship builder, my brain was swimming in ideas for point defense, frigate-hunting, and planetary bombardment.
And then combat happened, and it all went to hell.
I know I just spent two paragraphs filling your head with rainbows, bunnies, and starships, only to sucker punch you in the gut. Well, now you know my pain. Despite constant tweaking, ships never seem to follow the orders given to them when I formed the fleet. They'd either float incredulously through space while my capital ship got swarmed or start going all Yosemite Sam on anything and everything near them. I thought all those hours I spent obsessing over every detail of construction, deployment, and engagement were preparing me for strategic, controlled ship-to-ship warfare. Apparently all I was doing was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Mind you, this doesn't make the combat terrible, just philosophically disconnected from everything else StarDrive looks to do. Engagements devolve into hectic, swirling melees in moments, and are usually decided by tech and numbers more than tactical decision-making. It certainly looks cool, with dense projectile volleys blotting out everything but the warm glow of a capital ship's reactor going critical, but it feels like a different game. All the exacting design that proceeds it holds this promise of sweeping tactical space battles, and when all you get is a minute or two of mass explosions, that promise rings hollow.
I wish I could say that this was StarDrive's only issue, but niggling little design choices throughout add up to an overall disjointed experience. After spending so much time whipping around Endless Space's exceptional interface, the one here is just so painful to deal with. Sometimes a mouse over tells you something useful; sometimes it doesn't. Some things activate with a single-click while others need a double. Half the menu hotkeys are logically paired with their position on-screen and the other half are scattered illogically across the keyboard, and their miniscule icons are crammed up against the minimap to boot. Granted, all of it can be dealt with once you know about it, but I don't want to deal with a game, I want to play it.
Ultimately, nothing condemns StarDrive more than the way in which its overarching 4X gameplay pales in comparison to its ship-building. Economy, tech trees, and victory conditions are all oppressively limited in scope and imagination, with diplomacy being the only bright blip on the scanners. The animated portraits of your galactic neighbor's leaders represent the one glint of visual personality in an otherwise barren-feeling game world. The ability to regulate your tone provides some subtlety in dealing with different peoples, and the espionage options are a step up from the many modern 4X titles that keep trimming that area away. But the rest only appears to have substance when one of the many lists or menus is staring you down. Once you're past StarDrive's esoteric way of conveying information, you realize it isn't really deep, just complex.
Hours in, I was a believer in StarDrive. I saw a hundreds of hours potentially flying by as I came up with genius new ship designs and fleet formations that would make the difference in sprawling, climactic battles. But none of that ever happened. I spent a lot of time getting attached to ships that would ultimately just be grains in a sandstorm. And once that disappointment had truly settled in, there was nothing left but a bunch of menus, and a cold, empty galaxy expanding endlessly around me.
And my fluffy, blue bear friend? He doesn't even call anymore. I suppose it's time to move on...