The turn-based 4X genre of gaming may have waned slightly in recent years due to the proliferation of real-time games, but there are definitely still outlets to get your eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting and eXterminating going. StarDrive, the successfully Kickstarted space exploration game actually had a bit more of a real-time vibe to it. In the sequel from Zero Sum Games, StarDrive 2 returns largely to its turn-based roots with just enough real-time action to mix things up a bit. Keep reading our StarDrive 2 review to see how well these systems work together.
Your first game in StarDrive 2 will start as most strategy games do: picking your civilization. There are nine different civilizations from which to choose, from humans, to seed people, all the way up to awesome space bears. Each race has default characteristics including strengths and weaknesses that should affect how each plays. If you don’t like their defaults you can always change them though. You’ll have a set number of points to spread across strengths with varying point values. Adding weaknesses can allow for more strengths, but you won’t be able to go too overboard with weaknesses either.
Once you’ve picked your civilization and chosen a few other game-related settings – universe size, difficulty, etc. – you’ll be whisked away to the galactic map and your home planet. The game’s tutorial does a pretty good job of explaining many of the available eXploring and eXpanding options, while there are tool-tips on nearly everything in the game to help if you somehow get stuck. Your planets can only support a certain number of colonists based on the size and quality of the planet. Those colonists will be spread between three basic jobs – farmers, workers, and scientists. Colonists can be moved from one job to another at any time, but you’ll always want to be sure and have enough farmers – or food generating buildings – to keep your population fed. Excess food is always good too, as it will automatically be sold for extra credits.
You’ll also be prompted to visit the shipyard where you’ll be able to keep an eye on your fleet, or even design new ships to wreak havoc across the universe. The ship builder is easy to use, and allows you to balance offensive and defensive capabilities however you’d like. Do you want a ship that won’t be able to leave your areas of control, but will blow up anything that gets close to it? Or maybe a recon ship that isn’t going to do much good in a fight? You’ll start with only a few ship weapons, defenses, and systems and even fewer hull types, but through research you’ll be able to outfit your fleet nearly any way you’d like.
Early on, you’ll really rely on your scouts and colony ships to eXplore and eXpand. Through that eXpansion you’ll be able to eXploit the various resources that the planets provide. Many are pretty straight forward, such as delicacies which when enough are controlled make other civs like you more, while others are…odd to say the least.
Odd isn’t a bad thing though. StarDrive 2 has a pretty decent sense of humor and that is shown throughout the game. From crazy planet resources, to the hero you can hire who is basically Zapp Brannigan from Futurama there are fun references throughout that keep the mood light.
Once you’re ready to eXterminate (or usually before then, other civs tend to want to crush you well before you’re ready) there are a few ways to get off of the galaxy map. First, you’ll probably end up seeing ship battles. Here your fleet or planetary defenses will take on your enemy in a real-time battle. Here you’ll be able to watch your ship designs in action. You can control where your ships move around the battle area, and can control their tendencies (all-out attack, defender, etc.) to a certain extent, but much of the fighting will be automated, with missiles, lasers, etc. firing as soon as an enemy is in range. The battle is over when one team’s ships go boom.
When a planet’s defenses have been dropped, you or your enemy can send in an invasion force. As long as the defending planet has available troops to fend off the attack, you’ll be placed into turn-based tactical combat. Each soldier has action points that can be split between movement and attacks, and weapons can be switched out and upgraded (outside of battle, of course) to change your tactics in some ways. From there, you’ll be put at opposite sides of a map and will knock heads together until one team is victorious using pretty standard tactical combat. The tactical map will change depending on where the battle takes place, with planetary and ship-based maps. If one of your planets gets attacked a lot, you’ll be seeing the same planetary map every time.
That leads me into one of my biggest complaints about StarDrive 2: Every enemy will attempt to eXterminate you almost immediately and usually for no reason. Some of the civilizations are more susceptible to violence than others, but really before long you’re bound to have war declared on you. I had what I thought was a healthy friendship going with one of the more aggressive races, but they turned on me out of nowhere. Even the hippy-like sentient plant race who are awful fighters threw down the gauntlet in one game that I played. Maybe I’m focusing too much on the other three X’s, but it seems awfully difficult to do much eXploring or eXpanding without first gearing up for eXtermination.
If that made the game significantly less fun I would say so, but I kept coming back, trying to do better time after time so either StarDrive 2 does other things well enough to make me forget about getting my butt kicked, or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. I’m going to go with the former.
Most of the game takes place in deep space, so you’re going to see a lot of the interstellar backdrop with stars strewn about on the galaxy map. From the galaxy map you can zoom all the way in to planet level, where ships are rendered as more than blips and you can see more information about any nearby planets.
The ship builder interface is very clean and the representations of the weapons, defenses and ship systems all look good in the editor. In ship battles you can zoom in and see all of your ships firing in great detail. While in ground combat, soldiers have smooth animations and the landscape fits each situation relatively well. I ended up seeing a lot of the same planet geography, though that also could have been from getting constantly attacked on the same planet in one game. Since it seems that in some cases it is inevitable to get continuously attacked, it might be nice to have some alternate planet art, or several different tactical maps per planet just to spice things up a bit.
StarDrive 2 has enough story to get you on your way into the galaxy, and you really create the rest of the story while you’re playing. You’ll find the occasional mission or research topic that adds to the story, or at least tidies up your particular corner of the galaxy, but other than some general hand-holding to help you figure out what you should be doing, there isn’t a lot of story to speak of. In this sort of game a deep, overarching story isn’t really necessary though, so StarDrive 2 does what it needs to do without getting in your face too much.
The soundtrack for StarDrive 2 is effective. It’s not super flashy or obtrusive, but compliments the gameplay nicely. I didn’t find myself humming any of the themes when I wasn’t playing, but I also wasn’t cursing them, so I count that as a win.
I’ll admit, most of the 4X games that I’ve played recently have been decidedly terrestrial – Civilization and its expansions – but I’ve always had a soft spot for Space 4X games. There’s just something about travelling through the vastness of space, even if only vicariously through a computer game. StarDrive 2 is a quality entrant to Space 4X games with enough depth to appease die-hard fans but enough simplicity to lure in new fans to the genre. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s fun enough that it kept me coming back for more, and isn’t that what’s really important? StarDrive 2 is available now on Steam for $29.99 with the digital deluxe version coming in at $34.99.