Developer: Zero Sum Games
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Let's start with the great news. After a brave Kickstarter drive back in 2011, Dan DiCicco and his tiny studio Zero Sum Games have finally released StarDrive to an expectant PC audience hungry for eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and inevitable eXtermination. Not to mention Samurai Space Bears. 4X strategy games have received little love this generation, and DiCicco promised a title with genuine personality rather than glorified spreadsheets.
Now for the good news. Instead of copying existing 4X games, StarDrive aims to shake up the genre with extensive real-time space combat and ground battles that makes the action resemble a deep spacebound RTS. Though it shares similarities with classics like GalCiv and newcomers such as Endless Space and even AI War, Zero Sum's crowd-funded effort has an identity all of its own.
The bad news, unfortunately, is that StarDrive should have stayed in beta a while longer. Some of its more radical ideas end up falling prey to a slew of niggling issues, while missing gameplay elements will likely annoy customers who buy at launch.
Each game starts by letting you choose a race to lead to glorious intergalactic supremacy. Zero Sum have spoiled players with gorgeous artwork and some humorous references (if Samurai Space Bears don't float your boat, how about Cthulhu cultists called the 'Ralyeh' or straight-up adorable owls?), but beyond starship design, your selection is cosmetic and unimportant. Instead, how your race plays depends on their traits which you can select from an enormous list before each match. Positive traits such as industriousness, technological skill or advanced starship design have to be balanced out with negative drawbacks such as sluggish reflexes or an inability to lie, meaning that there's scope to create some unique and balanced civilizations.
Expansion proves to be StarDrive's most traditional 4X concession. Each civilization starts out with a single colony and a handful of ships, meaning that you need to establish a foothold in the universe as soon as possible. With only arable fertility and mineral richness to worry about, choosing viable planets is a simple affair, but creating a thriving colony requires you to carefully balance food production, imports and exports with a surprisingly small selection of colonial upgrade buildings. Every once in a while you'll encounter an anomaly that warrants further investigation, such as an independent race, pirates, or suspiciously 'abandoned' structure, but these events don't tend to last long or provide much in the way of unique flavour to each playthrough. I personally feel that some of these random encounters (notably the bizarre Remnant AI ships that require a massive assault to take down, and have an associated research project) hint at some major revelations and side-stories, but never quite got finished off in time for v.1.0.
The 2D interface is rather minimalist for a 4X game, streamlined to take advantage of the simple resources and real-time gameplay, but a quick look at the Steam communities and Metacritic demonstrates that the tutorial should have been much more specific. You can double click on a system to zoom straight in. You can go straight to a colony via the empire screen. But until you've played around with the GUI, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's sluggish, poorly laid out and doesn't scale effectively. I wonder whether Zero Sum took genre and beta experience for granted when designing their workmanlike video tutorials.
However, one of StarDrive's biggest quirks is that you won't have to constantly zoom in to micromanage ever corner of your empire since almost everything is automated to some degree. Planets can be automatically colonised by clicking a big blue button, which builds and dispatches a colony ship from your nearest shipyard. Freighters shuttle goods, food or even population between worlds with a single click. Planetary governors can automatically develop colonies that specialise in particular field, again, all at the touch of a button. Even exploring the galaxy is as simple as clicking an icon marked... wait for it... 'explore the galaxy.'
The sheer amount of optional automation can actually be rather counter-intuitive for genre veterans. As an example, I spent the best part of twenty minutes working out how to place my squads of Sword Bear ground troops (awesome) onto a transport ship, before realising that they can instantly leave the planet's surface by creating their own troop transports out of thin air. This specific example has some unwelcome drawbacks which we'll get on to later, but on the whole, StarDrive lets you worry about the big picture rather than tedious micromanagement.
The big picture, in this case, being full-scale interstellar war. StarDrive features a functional if somewhat flimsy diplomacy system that lets you negotiate treaties and ceasefires (though oddly doesn't tell you how other races feel about each other), alongside more robust espionage mechanics. Stealing enemy technology and stopping them from nicking your ship designs is both intuitive and profoundly important, but sooner or later, you'll have to amass some mighty space fleets and send them into battle. Unlike more traditional turn-based 4X games, StarDrive is in many ways a 2D RTS that just happens to have 4X elements, and the eXtermination part of the package is locked down nicely.
As a real-time strategy game with pause functionality, space combat takes place on a truly grand scale. Your fleets manouevre into position across the galaxy map, then you'll zoom in and control the fine detail, pausing to issue orders to individual ships or change rules of engagement on the fly. Enemy AI is fit for task, especially on the harder difficulties, able to effectively coordinate planetary bombardments or retreat when outclassed. These sweeping battles feel epic in scope while allowing for players to get intimately involved, to the point of directly controlling absolutely any ship with WASD commands for the sheer merry hell of it. StarDrive is really rather good when viewed purely as an RTS, indeed, especially in the late-game when raiding carriers and enormous dreadnoughts clash over the most desirable systems.
Ship design is one of StarDrive's most enjoyable aspects, and a real highlight of the package. Players can design any class of ship using simple 'drag and drop' functionality, placing weapons, armour, power generators and engines around a 2D blueprint. The best ships balance raw damage output with careful power generator placement (they explode, FYI) and manoeuvrability, requiring plenty of iteration or playing around with other players' creations by simply downloading the appropriate .zip. The thrill of watching your painstakingly-designed ships conquering the universe has to be experienced to be believed.
So it's a real shame that StarDrive's ground combat can't live up to the battles raging above. Terrestrial engagements are clunky and cumbersome grid-based affairs that encourage basic rush tactics, with the bizarre ability to accidentally command your units to attack each other rather than the enemy (why is this even possible?). We love the idea of ground combat being a core gameplay component in its own right, but Zero Sum will need to iterate on the execution to make it more nuanced, involving and above all balanced.
Worse, ground units are overpowered to the point of being completely broken... in SPACE. As mentioned previously, the fact that they can spontaneously create their own speedy ships means that it's far too easy to construct massive unarmed suicide fleets to overwhelm enemy space defences and eradicate their planets through sheer force of numbers. They can even board and capture enemy vessels, which is child's play if you simply spam out enough units to survive the initial firestorm. Why bother constructing ships when ground troops make their own for free, convert enemy fleets to your command and require no maintenance whatsoever? Why wasn't this caught in playtesting?
StarDrive also runs into some late-game issues, not limited to slowdown depending on your hardware, though I've not encountered this to anywhere near the extent that some Steam forum members and Metacritic user reviews suggest. The lack of victory conditions beyond dominating or cowing everyone through military force will likely leave many players cold, with the Ascension game mode notably unavailable at the time of writing, while the bare-bones random events hint at big plans left unfinished at this early stage. The tech trees are oddly short by 4X standards and offer few unique racial advances, while you'll sometimes end up with lengthy stalemates while waiting for the next pivotal bit of research. Bugs, such as captured ships failing to properly join your fleet, don't break the game but frequently jump out at the least opportune moments. Multiplayer is also not present at launch.
Zero Sum have promised to expand on all of these features and more besides over the coming months via a slew of free updates, and personally, I'm absolutely convinced that they will. In this reviewer's opinion, StarDrive absolutely can fulfil its potential as a leading light of the genre, and is certainly an addictive proposition for genre fans in its current state. Sadly, this also means that I can't give StarDrive a wholehearted recommendation at launch. It would be irresponsible of me to do so.
- Wonderfully-realised races with competent AI and versatile traits
- Welcome streamlining and automation lets you focus on the fun stuff...
- ... truly excellent real-time space combat and ship building
- Gorgeous artwork, impressive soundtrack
- Ground troops are INSANELY viable in space combat
- Cumbersome and hopelessly unbalanced ground combat
- Several promised features not present at launch, multiplayer among them
- Some bugs, oversights and performance issues; diplomacy and research could use fleshing out
- Needs playable tutorials that explain gameplay specifics and interface quirks
The Short Version: As things stand, StarDrive is an exciting spacebound RTS with deep ship design, enjoyable combat, space bears and enough 4X flavour to tide genre fans over. However, a ruinous balance issue and several half-realised ideas means that it's not a particularly good 4X game yet. The eXtermination is fantastic fun, but eXploration, eXpansion and eXploitation could use some work over the coming months.
Like StarDrive itself, consider this review and score a work in progress.