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Iceberg Interactive seems to like the little guys, especially when they make space-based 4X games. Last year's Endless Space was a pleasant surprise that my social life was decidedly not prepared for. Now the same publisher is trying to rob me of my free time again with StarDrive, another 4X in the stars, but one that focuses on very different things than ES.
Like Sins of a Solar Empire, StarDrive is real-time and the biggest impact that decision makes is in combat, which can feel as much like an '80s arcade shooter as it does an RTS. Thanks to the lack of a hard unit cap, fleets get hilariously big with multiple fighter wings darting about like schools of fish and line after line of frigates, corvettes, and capital ships continually filling the screen with dense barrages of ordinance. Amidst the chaos, you can choose to control one ship directly with the WASD keys, letting you dodge enemy fire while aiming and shooting with a mouse. If you've ever watched in horror while your most expensive unit continually does all the wrong things, this will be right up your alley. Most strategy games only let you be Adama—this one let's you be Starbuck too.
But don't take the real-time nature of the game to mean that exacting tactics aren't important. In fact, StarDrive is exhaustive, even a bit overwhelming in this department. The greatest expression of this exacting detail is the shipyard, where you design all of your ships from scratch. And I do mean design—this isn't pick a hull, pick a weapon, pick an armor, pick an engine, and go. Oh no. You do start by choosing a hull, but that's all it is… an empty hunk of metal. It's up to you to make it a ship.
Each hull type offers a grid-like layout of different slots. You've got engine-only slots, outside slots, inside slots, and hybrids of the two. Each ship needs enough energy to power its different systems, as well as a way to route the power throughout. You have to think of weight/propulsion too. What kind of warp range does it need? How important is turning radius to you? And placement of everything matters, because where you put what determines what gets damaged first when you come under fire. Exposed power nodes or reactors are an invitation to have your expensive new flagship lit up by a chain reaction from a few errant shots.
That's just the beginning too. You'll set fields of fire for swivel-mounted weapons, come up with point defense or anti-fighter solutions, and stock enough munitions to keep all those guns firing. And don't forget about boarding actions, and fighter bays, and energy reserves, and… everything else. I sat there optimizing my first 42-slot corvette for an hour before I felt satisfied, and my first 300+-slot cruiser was a whole other undertaking. By comparison, the biggest capital ships tip the scale at a whopping 1300+ slots. Putting one of those together is going to be like playing Tetris with one hand and SimCity with the other.
An in-depth fleet editor makes putting all your creations in formation another layer of detail. After placing each ship on the grid, there's a wealth of settings to specify its behavior. Sliders allow you to define everything from its operational radius to how it weighs attacking damaged targets versus defending nearby ships, and much more. You can even have vessels with side-facing weapons bring their port or starboard sides to bear. Once you've set behaviors for every ship, you can save your fleet for use in later games, and have it built and formed up with the press of a button. Pretty nifty.
The ship design is the star here, but it's far from being all StarDrive has to offer. Pretty much everything that old-school 4X players have come to expect is here, including rich diplomacy and espionage options, an area where some modern games can be found lacking. It's a big project for a dev that's pretty much just one man, and there are still some things that could use a little help. There's a lot to manage here, and the interface isn't always as cooperative as I'd like, especially compared to Endless Space's. But once I got the hang of it, the Master of Orion II player in me found a lot to enjoy and get lost in.
StarDrive's maiden voyage is set for April 26th, but you can get access to the beta by pre-ordering it right now on Steam or Desura for $24.99.