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By Leigh Cobb17-05-2013
Bis18marck70 (editor)

The Defence

Zero Sum Games
Iceberg Interactive
Release Date:

The Prosecution

Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz
AMD equivalent
Nvidia GeForce 8800
AMD Radeon X1900
4 GB
2 GB

The Case


Space themed 4X games are undergoing something of a revival in recent years, with titles like Endless Space, Sword of the Stars II and Star Ruler all making their presence felt. New to this line up is StarDrive, a 4X game which, on the surface, promises to fulfil the same desires as its contemporaries, but actually brings a few new ideas of its own.

The Trial


At this point in time, StarDrive is pretty bare-bone, with development still on-going and lots of updates planned. At the time for review, there was only one game mode - Sandbox. Like all good 4X games, this involved you starting from one planet and expanding across the galaxy, gobbling up new star systems and managing your empire, all whilst dealing with the game's other races and factions.

Empires can span many systems and colonies change hands frequently in war.

Empires can span many systems and colonies change hands frequently in war.

It feels far less traditional than Galactic Civilizations II and those games which followed in this template, such as Endless Space. In fact, StarDrive does a lot to differentiate itself entirely. For one thing, it isn't turn based. This may seem like an odd design choice at first, but in practice it gives StarDrive a faster, more exciting pace. However, with auto-saves in place and an optional pause with a single key press, you are never overwhelmed. It reminds me of how Paradox's Grand Strategy games handle things, real time gameplay with the depth of turn based titles. And in StarDrive's case this works very well.

StarDrive also goes a long way to make combat fun. It allows you to assume command of a single ship and direct it with the WASD keys and fire its weapons with a mouse click. In practice, this is little more than a novelty, but thankfully battles are interesting enough without it. Your fleets will meet their enemies head on, fly based on tactics and behaviour commands you give them and, ultimately, succeed based on a combination of tactics, technology and numbers. Considering fleets can easily reach large sizes of twenty plus ships, as well as the varying hull sizes of everything from tiny fighters, to hulking Titans, combat is a joy to behold. The visual effects are done well, but never feel overwhelming. Watching space lasers tear through enemy shields never gets old. Compare this to the battles in Endless Space, where you select a few tactics cards and watch a fight play out in a cinematic mode, StarDrive is a lot more interesting.

Bears. In space. Samurai bears in space. Oh yes.

Bears. In space. Samurai bears in space. Oh yes.

StarDrive has also introduced a lot of features that I would wish to be included in every 4X game. For example, if you come across a new planet you want to colonise, you can click the colonise button on that planet's screen, and a colony ship will be automatically queued up for construction on the best suited planet. Once it's built, it will automatically make way to your future colony. This automation extends to other areas as well, where you can build freighters and let the AI manage them, so they can ship colonists to less populated planets and food and industry to less wealthy planets by themselves. This is immensely helpful, especially since it can often be easy to lose track of events in 4X games. Most helpful of all however, is the Fleet system which StarDrive employs. Here you can place ship designs and layout a Fleet in whichever manner you want, regardless of whether you own the ships for it or not. Then, you can requisition ships and choose to assign existing ships to this fleet, or build new ships to fill the slots you created in the fleet. From then on, you can control that fleet as one entity, setting orders for it and selecting it with a hotkey. When fleets take loses in battle, getting them up to full strength is as easy as going to the fleet screen and requisitioning more ships. These ships will be queued up on your planets for construction and then fly to meet the rest of the fleet when they are done. It's a beautifully simple system that avoids a possibility for micromanagement disaster.

One of the game's biggest selling points is the ship customisation. Here, using the technology you research, you can choose from different size hulls and class types and then add weapons, shields, power generation - and everything in-between. This shipbuilder is extensive, each hull has a number of grid spaces for parts. Some spaces are inside only (power plants) whereas others are outside (gun emplacements). To build a working ship, you have to give it power, fuel storage, ordinance storage, arm it with weapons, place a cockpit or, on larger vessels, a bridge and make sure all of these factors work together. It's complex, satisfying to use and only gets better the more technology you unlock. My strategy was to use energy powered weapons, in order to save space on ordinance areas. It's easily possible to design ships far better than the defaults which are available. If you ever wanted a ship builder in a game which concentrated on more than the aesthetics, then StarDrive will not disappoint.

Good luck knowing which side is which, just hope you have some ships remaining by the time the space lasers clear.

Good luck knowing which side is which, just hope you have some ships remaining by the time the space lasers clear.

Moving away from combat and ships, StarDrive offers lots of routes to go down for those of you who enjoy managing an empire and its colonies. The staples of 4X are here, in the form of food production, industrial production and research production and each colony can put effort into any of those three, based on its population. For example, a planet with 15/15 population, can split its time between producing enough food to just break even, then you can drag sliders to choose how much industry and research you wish to 'make'. It's simple to understand and works well. You'll find that new colonies will have tiny populations and not be able to support themselves or build things quickly. This is why a lot of the early game is spent setting your starting planet to export its share of food and production, which freighters will automatically pick up and deliver to your fledgling new worlds on the vast frontier of space.

As far as construction on planets goes, say you are building a ship with an industry cost of 100 and your planet has a population of 15, you might decide to increase industrial production to 10 so it is done quicker. This means that every 'turn', or every five seconds in this real time game, 10 out of the 100 will be produced. Meaning that 100 cost ship will be done in 10 'turns'. This is a good system and I enjoyed being able to slow down research in order to speed up construction on a particularly bad ass ship I had designed. You can even spend money and production from your pool to speed up the construction manually. This all means that things get built a lot more quickly in StarDrive than other 4X games, only adding to the faster pace and greater level of excitement.

That space marine was unlucky enough to land straight into the sea from orbit.

That space marine was unlucky enough to land straight into the sea from orbit.

Where StarDrive lets itself slightly down, is in interaction with the other factions and how the game plays out. The factions themselves are well designed and their leaders in the diplomacy view are animated well, they all have distinct personalities in how they talk and act (in the case of the wolf-like Vulfar, insult you and then declare war on you). The factions also have a sensible system in terms how they keep track of the opinion of the player, represented by an Anger, Fear and Respect bar. Have massive fleet near a faction’s star system? They’re going to fear you. Make your enemy sign a humiliating peace treaty? They’ll be angry at you about it. This means that the AI acts rationally based on history and relations with the player. However, you will soon find that war is the only way to get by in this galaxy, and everything hinges on the size and power of your fleet. It is possible to make friends and keep them through gaining their respect, but less likely to win the game this way. I'm sure victory modes are something that will be addressed down the line, as well as the option of only one game mode.

That's really my ultimate issue with the game - it's not done. Sure, you could play the pre-release if you pre-ordered, but the full release that followed wasn't massively different, and the developer has made it clear that, with more updates on the way, the game still feels like it is in development. There are a few path finding bugs with the ships, such as getting stuck in infinite loops and the way the diplomacy screen calculates your military ranking seems a bit skewed in favour of numbers of actual power (100 weak fighters work out better than a dozen state of the art Titans for some reason). Another strange complaint - things are quite dark. I don't mean metaphorically dark, I mean literally, dark. Not that I mind the infinite vastness of space being represented by a never ending black void populated by floating rocks and burning suns. It's just that it's quite hard to make out your own ships is all. On the music and sound effects side of things, the game is a bit weak. Background music is plain and dull and it isn’t best suited at conveying a grand, epic feel to fit with the game’s action. Likewise, sound effects seem too infrequent, although ship combat does sound good.

The Verdict


StarDrive is a great game. Most of my complaints are related to features that will be added in soon or issues which will be fixed eventually. What you are left with is a very enjoyable 4X game, which I much prefer over the recent Endless Space. It adds in handy automation options to ensure that managing your empire never becomes a burden, plus the interface is as well designed as any. Even the factions at this early stage are all different and make themselves stand out. Combine this with the most enjoyable ship combat in a 4X game in years, as well as a research tree that is at once large but not to the point of obsolescing your early ships completely, and you have a great 4X which can only get better with time. Now, if you'll excuse me, the religious fanatics of the Rayleth Devoted have just landed a Doom Fleet on one of my colonies and are in the processing of 'converting' my populace...with space weaponry to the face, time to send in the fleets.

Case Review

  • Ship Builder's Dream: Fleet and ship customisation is extensive and satisfying to use, seeing a ship you built tear apart the enemy is highly entertaining.
  • Automation: Allowing the AI to handle certain aspects of your Empire is convenient and it never feels like you’re losing out on playing the game.
  • Fun Factions: The factions are all different and all awesome in their own way. Space bears and plant people? Yes please!
  • In Development: It's not as feature complete as it could be, but more is on the way if you're willing to wait.
  • Bugs: The bugs aren't massively annoying, but they are there. You could probably ignore most of them but they get in the way nonetheless.
  • Sound: The music and sound design falls slightly short of what it could be.
Score: 4.5/5
One of the most enjoyable 4X in years, it will only get better with time.
Comments (2)
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Posts: 1548

This looks so good. I was tempted by Endless Space but this looks so much better!!!

Posts: 233

Galactic Civilizations with better graphics?