By now everyone should know the sub-genre of strategy know as 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate). These games are very popular (especially among the hardcore gamers) and now Zero Sum Games is trying to take it's share of the market with their upcoming game, StarDrive. The indie developers promise the game to be the next benchmark in '4X space strategy' so let's see how well the newly released beta holds this promise.
The beta has no campaign or story (which should be available in the full game) but instead you can only create a custom galaxy and play it in sandbox mode. When creating a custom galaxy you can set the galaxy size, number of opponents (1-7) and game mode. Nothing suprising there, right? StarDrive adds another interesting factor to the mix; pacing. With pacing you can set the overall speed of the game and thus make the game longer if you want. Perfect for gamers who love the genre and want to tinker their empire until it's perfect. Unfortunately the game has no multiplayer, not even in the full game.
Along with the galaxy modifiers, there are 8 different races to choose from that vary from your basic humans to some pretty exotic aliens (yeah, there are bears). Each race has different ship designs and they all can be customized to your hearts content. There are 3 different categories of 'skills' available for each race; Physical, Sociological and History & Tradition. You have 8 points to spend on these skills and each of them offer different bonuses and penalties; some affect the speed of production while others might affect your fleets firerate for example. The possibilities are almost limitless and I'm sure anyone can create a race he or she is satisfied with.
The gameplay is your basic 4X; you start off with a few ships and your task (at least in the sandbox mode) is to wipe all the other races off the face of the galaxy. You do this by conquering most of the galaxy while researching new technology and bombarding hostile planets to the Stone Age. Yeah there's diplomacy in the game but honestly, who has ever used that to win a game? You can colonize planets and build structures on them (or on the orbit) and build new ships for your fleets. Nothing new, right? And again StarDrive adds another factor into the mix: building new ships with modules.
The modules are the backbone of the game and it's main selling factor. Each ship you construct has a base hull. The base hull has a certain amount of different sized modules (or more approriately, slots) on it at different locations. You can put various technology on these slots, ranging from simple power cells to nuclear weapons. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? But that's not all (as they would say it on the Shopping Channel), StarDrive does it with style and takes into account the placement of the module. For example placing a nuclear reactor on the stern of your ship makes it extremely vulnerable to attacks from behind. The strategic options when building a new ship are practically limitless, especially later in the game when you've researched most of the technology tree (which is also quite impressive). This combined with another unique trick StarDrive has up it's sleeve makes the combat very interesting; you can manually control any ship in your fleet! Placed a big armor on the left side of your ship? Then turn your ship to it's left side and let them have it. This of course takes your concentration off from the big fight itself but it's still fun flying around with your home-made cruiser.
The micromanagement is quite minimal but still enough to keep you occupied. You have your basic needs like food which need to be fulfilled in order for your empire to thrive. Placing a few key structures on each occupied planet is usually enough and if that sounds like too much work for you, you can always assign an AI to handle everything on a single planet. Very handy feature indeed, especially when you're on the backskirts of the galaxy flying around with your brand new GameDebator Mark III.
The game looks quite good but when you zoom all the way in, the ugly textures really show up. Luckily this game is mostly played with the camera focused on a single solar system. And oh boy does this game have systems! I tried the game with the galaxy size set to 'Epic' and it definitely was epic; hundreds of systems, each filled with dozens of planets! This game will definitely last from father to son (or daughter). Unfortunately there aren't any graphical options available and judging by the official requirements, I doubt the final version will have any either. Luckily the game should be playable on a few years old rig.
The sounds are your basic scifi stuff; some woofs and splats here and there, nothing major. The music on the other hand played it's part a bit better by setting the mood; it really does feel like you're all alone in the vastness of space. Excellent!
There's lots of good stuff already in the beta but there are some downsides. The first one is the high price (almost 30€/$39/£26) but the biggest of them is that there are no proper tutorials, only a few videos explaining the basics and tons of text. Luckily I was born in the golden days of gaming so reading through pages of the text to learn how to play a game was not an issue to me but for some it might become an insurmountable obstacle (they might add playable tutorials so don't throw your axe in the well just yet). Still if you manage to get past the steep learning curve you're in for a heck of a ride. The modules and their placement plus the small but oh so fun ability to control a single ship ensure I'll be checking this game out when it gets released in April 19. Oh and did I mention the beta is only 1 GB in size?