The Star Trek Game We Deserve.
I watched, wincing, as my Destroyers were decimated. There was nothing standing between my new enemy and my freshly-colonized planet. Sure, I had a fleet bombing a pirate haven, and my main colony was on the up-and-up. But the more I looked ahead, the more I realized I was boned. My production wasn’t fast enough, my research too primitive, and my trade agreements too shallow. I was surrounded on all sides by races who were eager to get their swing at my race.
Despite their proud, warlike, and domineering history, the Mrrshan were becoming the laughingstock of the galaxy. As the empress of this matriarchal, feline culture, I’d failed my pride.
That was how my first session of Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars ended: crushing, humiliating defeat. Of course, that was to be expected, as long-form strategy games have always left me scratching my head. I like them, but I’ve also never been particularly great at the damn things. Yet, when I looked at my defeat at the hands of an avian race, I realized that I held in there for a long time. Centuries of in-game years, in fact, which translated to two or three hours of gameplay. Despite my brutal defeat, I left my first go feeling encouraged.
This is due, in large part, to the fact that NGD Studios have finally managed to make this genre click with me. Even in that early game, I felt like I had some grasp on everything, and that feeling only grew. It was at some point, a few more save files in, that it all started to make sense. The right units to pair with my colony ships. Where to allocate resources on each colonized planet, based on population. A steady, production rate of progression. Sooner than later, I had a firm grasp on how to play at diplomacy, the art of strategic attacks, and mastery of the in-game economy.
Granted, that didn’t stop a few space pirates from totally wrecking me at points. But hey, can’t win ‘em all.
A key way Master of Orion succeeds in making itself amenable to newcomers lies in its options. Players set the rules of their own games, even in single-player. How big the galaxy is, how many races are the game, how hands-on they can get, etc. You can get a tutorial for every aspect of the game, in real-time, or turn off help entirely. Battles can be micro-managed to the nth degree, or done entirely through RNG. Basically, your galactic conquests can be as straightforward or complicated as you want them to be. From my experience, I started with a decent bit of handholding from my Advisor (each race has one,) and gradually shifted away from it as I picked up solid core strategies to expand my empires.
Speaking of expansion, praise must be given to this game’s impressive breadth of mechanics. You can rule the galaxy with an iron fist through brute force, or engage in strategic espionage to backstab your way to the top. Diplomacy or destruction? Occupation or cooperation? The choice is yours, although the end goal is always the same: having the most technologically-advanced race that occupies the largest chunk of the galaxy. How you get to that point, however, is entirely up to you.
It’s easy to lose track of time during your conquests, though. While there are Quick Game options, this is a game designed primarily to be played over the course of several hours. Best played with other people but definitely enjoyable alone, Master of Orion is a classic example of games that can keep going and going and going, if you play your cards right. This is the sort of game you plan a weekend to play for hours upon hours with some friends.
Every minute of those hours is guaranteed to feel compelling, too, thanks to the solid presentation. The fully orchestral score makes even the smallest move feel profound, and the top-notch voice acting makes each race feel tangible. On top of that, the main UI is slick and easy enough to navigate, and the various cutscenes lend a certain cinematic flair to everything. Plus, random events, such as finding prisoners on a planet or a hidden stash of loot, keep things from growing stagnant.
Of course, all of this comes with a major caveat. Strategy games are often viewed as sluggish, impenetrable, and lacking in variety. While I disagree with this opinion, there’s nothing Master of Orion does that will win that crowd over. A hundred turns in, you and your friends may still be in the infancy of your campaigns. And while the whole affair is fairly accessible, it’s only accessible if you care to learn about this type of gameplay (read: slow and methodical.) Basically, if you don’t actually like strategy titles, you probably won’t like this one either.
Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that veterans of the Master of Orion franchise may feel jilted. Having looked into the older titles, this is definitely a simplification of the formula, pitched squarely at people thrown off by strategy games. That puts it in an awkward position. People who want nothing to do with strategy games might not be won over, and veterans might find something more complicated to sink their teeth into. Which means, in the end, it’s for an in-between audience like me: people curious in the genre but not sure where to start. How many people like that there are, however, I’m not sure.
I will also say that one aspect of this game feels off: combat. The older titles (which were bundled with the version of the game I received) were turn-based. Frankly, that’s a better idea than what we have here. Combat is a weird, real-time sort of affair, presented on a sonar-esque screen. The rest of the game being rooted in turns and strategy and such, it’s jarring to switch to this hands-on approach for battles. It feels like an awkward mish-mash between RTS and top-down shooter. And while I have a deep affinity for both those things, they just don’t fit here. Luckily, most of your time won’t be spent in combat anyway. It’s not like this system is bad, per se, but it definitely feels at odds with the rest of the package.
This isn’t enough to hold Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars back as a whole, though. NGD Studios has crafted a suitably epic, deeply engaging strategy game with all the bells and whistles. Despite some awkwardness with the combat, it’s a satisfying title that delivers on its core promise: to make you feel like an intergalactic conqueror. I look forward to leading the Mrrshan race to victory and prosperity for months to come.