Sid Meier’s Starships
The Good: Sid Meier does Master of Orion!
The Bad: And does a really crappy job of it!
The Ugly: Limited space ship design. Limited research options. Limited diplomacy. No fleets. Suspect AI.
Let me start off by saying I’m a huge fan of Sid Meier. I dedicated my PhD thesis to him, my wife and I have named our two daughters Sid and Meier (for which they never will forgive me), and I have a tattoo of his name on a spot on my body none of you will ever get to see (though we’re thinking of having a contest at the venerable GO Network, so that could change for a few lucky among you). I spent more hours playing Civilization (the first one, you damned kids, now get off my lawn!) back in graduate school than mankind has collectively devoted to trying to cure cancer. So, big fan, big fan. But there are times, and I’m sure the 4X gamers among you will agree, when you don’t have twenty hours in one big chunk to devote to conquering the world, or you have to actually be coherent the next day and can’t game until the dawn’s early light. And while you can hit save on a game of Civ 5 and come back to it later, we’ve all heard the Bataan death march drum beat of capturing one more city, building one more military unit, researching one more technology, completing construction of that wonder… and, crap, the sun has come up. For me, that was where Master of Orion came in (again, the first one – for some reason the later ones were never as good IMHO). It had a huge research tree, an infinite number of ships that could be designed, and a succulent simplicity to both diplomacy and planet management that allowed you to complete most games in about two hours (some, in small galaxies set on impossible difficulty, could be over one way or another in well under an hour). But running MOO these days is a kludgey mess of Dosbox and homebrewed sound card drivers (haven’t tried the GOG version – perhaps that’s easier). The thought then that my personal demigod Sid Meier would try to distill the ten gallon 4X Civilization experience down into a high-octane shot glass set my heart all aflutter. And for those of you with short attention spans, let me distill this review down for you – he failed.
The game actually starts in very MOO-like fashion. There’s no plot to speak of – your race is expanding into the galaxy and runs into other races – and I’m fine with that. It’s not like Civ ever had a plot either. You get to choose your ruler and sort of their philosophy; they have different bonuses to production and starting position. You set the size of the galaxy and the game difficulty, and you’re off to the races. Gameplay is split into two halves – a tactical map of the galaxy where you perform tech upgrades, build ships, improve your planets, call diplomatic meetings, and decide where your fleet will go, and a hex-tile-based map where ship combat is resolved. And so begins the cornucopia of bad decisions that ultimately became Starships.
The tech tree has only nine technologies in it. Nine. Count ‘em. These correspond to the nine systems that you can put into your starships (engines, shields, armor, sensors, cloaking, fighters, short range weapons, long range weapons, torpedos). Technology advances take the form of increasing levels, so you can research going from level 2 lasers to level 3 lasers. Big whoop. It feels less like research into new and exciting technologies that greatly expand your strategic options and more like just piling on numbers. Also, none of the technologies are dependent upon any of the others, which is to say calling it a tech tree is a complete misnomer. You can research level 12 lasers and leave armor at level 1 for the whole game if you like (in fact, from a strategic standpoint this kind of approach works quite well because the AI is completely unprepared to deal with it). You build these technologies into your ships, but there is no concern about space allocation inside the ships – all the systems you want will fit inside (something MOO had in 1993). While I’m griping, I might as well point out that there is only a single style of ship you can build. The difference between a light fighter and a dreadnaught appears to be no more than how much armor and weapons you pile on it. Let me throw in here that no matter how many ships you build, they all become part of a single fleet, so any sort of strategy involving either building multiple fleets to patrol your planets or building small expendable scout fleets to probe your enemy positions goes right out the window (also both things MOO had in 1993).
As you might expect, the galaxy is full of planets to explore. They have very little to differentiate them. There are food resources: energy (used for building, repairing and upgrading starships), metal (used for building city improvements), science (used for buying tech upgrades), and food (used to expand cities). Some planets have an edge in terms of producing one resource over an other, but coming across a planet that you can’t inhabit at all because of a hostile environment, which was a big piece of the strategy in MOO back in 1993, doesn’t appear here. The planets in Starships are all what Spock on Star Trek would have called Class M. Many planets have a single wonder associated with them. They play the same role as wonders in Civ, but as I’ve pointed out, you can only build the allotted wonder on any given planet. Maybe in some sense this brings up a new strategy in that you will fight over a planet that has a particular sweet wonder, but I didn’t see it.
At the start of a space battle you are given a probability of win. However the heck they come up with that number, it’s meaningless. I’ve come out of battles that I had a 20% chance of winning with not a scratch. On the whole, the enemy AI is very suspect. There are multiple win conditions (advancing your science to a certain level, wiping out your enemies, having 51% of the galactic population, plus others) and the AI seems fairly unprepared to deal with most of them. Combat likewise often seems to leave the AI perplexed, with enemy ships making what can only be described as very poor strategic choices.
Oh my God, I haven’t written anything about the diplomacy options yet. There practically are none! You can declare war or peace, gather intel on other races, and that’s about it. There’s no trade, no espionage, and no more complex interactions, like forging an alliance against another species or extorting tribute (all things that MOO had back in 1993).
It’s not like they did everything wrong. The home screen is pretty well laid out and seems to have about everything I would want on there. A series of buttons along the bottom take you to your shipbuilding screen and your diplomacy screen, research, etc. Information about other races you’ve met appears at the upper left. On my display, which is set to some skyscrapingly high resolution, all of these appear absolutely tiny. Not unusably small, but definitely squint-inducing and with heaps of empty space on the screen that could have been used for something. The turn based combat portion, beyond the weak AI, has some interesting wrinkles lacking in MOO such as fog of war and cloaking devices, and adds line of sight and wormholes to the mix. The combat also isn’t always simply destroying your enemies, but may include capturing and holding spots on the map or escorting another ship or reaching a warp point and escaping. So they’ve put some good variety in there. This kind of loose storytelling only applies to combat over unaffiliated planets. Later in the game when all the planets are held by some empire or other, everything devolves into wiping out enemies. Graphics have been much improved since MOO was kicking around in 1993, but I wouldn’t call the graphics of Starships stellar (pun intended). It’s certainly no Gratuitous Space Battles.
As you have probably gathered from my review, MOO, a game written in 1993, has far more strategic depth than Starships while allowing for that quick 4X heroine hit in just an hour or so. There are lots of things Starships does poorly, but at least as far as I’m concerned the lack of meaningful tech tree and shallow starship construction really don’t suffice in a game that, after all, has Starships in the title. This isn’t going to stop my adulation of Sid Meier (for one, I can’t get rid of the tattoo easily), but it does put a serious tarnish on his gold idol status.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
This review is based on a digital copy of Sid Meier’s Starships for the PC provided by 2K.