Yes, I know, 4X real-time strategy title Star Ruler 2 is an Early Access game. My view is that if they can take money for it, I can review it, so here we are. Surprisingly, though, Star Ruler 2’s a solid 4X title despite its early stage of development. I’d love nothing more than to take a steaming word-dump all over an unfinished game…but, uh, I can’t do it here. Star Ruler 2’s actually fun. I feel a little dirty saying so, but here’s an Early Access game you won’t feel bad about picking up.
Why? Well, Star Ruler 2 boasts several distinctive gameplay features that set it apart from other 4X games. For instance, the concept of leveling planets appears to be unique to this game. Each planet produces a resource, ranging from level 0 (water and food) up to level 4. A newly colonized planet begins at level 0 itself, meaning it’s actually a drain on your empire’s funds to keep that planet colonized. To resolve this, you’ll need to level the planet up, and doing so requires resources.
For example, leveling a planet from 0 to 1 (at which point the planet is profitable, if only marginally so) requires a source of water and a source of food. Leveling it from 1 to 2 requires another source of food as well as a level 1 resource, 2 to 3 requires more food, level 1 resources as well as level 2 resources and so on. The key point here is that the only resources that can be exported from a planet without leveling it are food and water; for all other resources, the planet has to be at least the level of the resource you’re trying to export. Higher level planets generate significantly more money to make up for the level 0 planets required to “power” them, and at level 4 a planet can construct a game-changing Wonder structure.
In practice, this means that within fifteen to twenty minutes of a game starting your empire will become a sprawling, nightmarish web of resource interdependencies. Mercifully there’s an overview tab available that allows you to examine how everything fits together, but even this can be a little overwhelming until you’ve gotten used to it. The planet leveling system encourages a more aggressive, cutthroat style of play than you’d see in many 4X games since you require a massive degree of expansion to find fodder planets to fuel dependencies. It also has implications in combat; a wily foe is bound to study your empire’s resource web and aim to strike the key points that will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
Speaking of combat, the second of Star Ruler 2’s distinctive gameplay features is the means by which ship design is handled. At this point in the game’s development, you start with the majority of ship parts unlocked from step one. You can then create ship designs on a grid in any way you’d prefer; there are a few requirements, like thrusters actually pointing out the back of the ship and the entire design being contiguous, but generally you can do what you please.
In fact, you can even construct whatever scale of ship you’d like, including enormous death-dealing murder machines that are larger than entire stars. Whether or not this is a great idea is up to debate, given that ships need to use their limited supplies to engage in combat or capture planets when outside of an allied system. Instead, you might better off with player-designed motherships that house thousands of player-designed support fighters. It’s certainly doable either way.
Finally, Star Ruler 2 changes up the diplomacy formula by giving it some teeth. Diplomacy functions as a sort of card game where new hands are being dealt constantly as you manage your empire and engage in battle. Using a resource called Influence you can buy into the game at any point by purchasing cards or putting forth propositions. This can result in a variety of effects. For instance, one type of card allows you to annex planets or systems that are set up too close to your borders. Another allows you to begin a galactic investigation on the target player, revealing all of their holdings to all other players.
Propositions that only affect you only require you to pay their Influence and any other necessary costs, but “hostile” propositions are voted on by all players. You can use diplomatic leverage cards to influence the vote or offer bribes for players who vote your way. Naturally, any hostile propositions that pass become the law of the land and the targeted player can’t deny them, so it’s entirely possible to steal systems and planets without any bloodshed at all.
Despite being in Early Access, Star Ruler 2 feels like a pretty feature-complete and enjoyable game as it stands, which is what it takes to get me to recommend something that’s unfinished. The high point of the game is definitely the online multiplayer, so if you’ve got a friend who’s into RTS or 4X titles, sign them up. And try not to get too mad if they crush your empire with the Death Star. It happens.