I used to be a galactic emperor, you know. Held a million systems in my iron first. Got deposed, ended up doing video games writing instead. You know how it goes. Every now and then a title shows up that reminds me of my glorious past, and today that’s StarDrive 2.
What we’ve got here is a 4X game: the quintessential space exploration and combat title, basically a game about exploring the known and subjugating whatever you find there. If you’ve played Master of Orion, you’ve got an idea of what we’re going for here. This is a genre that’s iterated more than innovated for the most part over the years.
You’ll want to set aside an hour or two before your first time with Stardrive II, because there’s kind of a lot going on. First, you’ve got to choose or design your race, which includes a variety of bonuses and penalties along with a unique technology or two. Working up a horde of conquering space-weasels is a good time, even if the system has a bizarre quirk or two. If you don’t want to futz around with it, the prebuilt races run the gamut from “easy enough” to “how did these idiots even make it off their homeworld?”
Next, actually dealing with colonies. You’ll need to build new colonies, improve the ones you’ve got and scout around for potential new colony locations. You’ll also need to be doing all this from the first turn or so, so that’s a nice big stack of tasks in your inbox right off the bat. There are plenty of improvement decisions to make regarding your colonies, including hauling supplies to more hostile areas if need be, so you won’t run out of administrative tasks to take up your time.
One minor irritation here was that the quality of habitable planets near your homeworld can vary from game to game, and this can play a big part in your success for the long run. Highly skilled 4X players can probably overcome a poor starting position, but scrubs like me might find it a nasty hurdle.
When you run into other races in your mad dash for expansion, you’ll probably want to talk to them! You can certainly try, anyway. It’s unlikely you’ll get far, though, and chances are they’ll want to kill you. That means combat, both of the space-based and ground-based variety.
The former is essentially a simple real-time strategy game. You can order your fleets around manually if you’d like, though autobattling is also available and does a fairly decent job of simulating how things would go. The latter, on the other hand, is similar to XCOM and tends to occur when you’re searching a derelict ship or the like. Neither is going to dethrone the classics of their respective genre, but combat as a whole is serviceable.
In order to support that serviceable combat, you’re going to need to research a whole bunch of new bombs and guns, naturally. The tech tree in Stardrive 2 feels a bit more like a perk system – each branch of research contains a set of technology options and you can only choose one, after which you proceed to the next level of that branch. It’s possible to trade for more technology, but chances are you’re just going to kill everyone, so it’s count on that being much of a factor in your race’s development.
As for what you do with that technology once you’ve obtained it, well, you’ll be plugging it into the ship builder. This is basically a block-based system where you snap modules onto a frame. Balancing limited space with combat effectiveness is the name of the game here, and pitting your designs against the AI is probably the highlight of the experience. Chances are you won’t have a choice either way, because the AI’s out for blood, as mentioned.
Stardrive 2 is a solid title, but the aggressive AI and fair degree of complexity mean it’s clearly not intended to be anyone’s first 4X game. It’s not my first rodeo with this kind of title and I still found it pretty tough; a tutorial is available and effective, but it’s more about teaching you the interface than offering gameplay tips. More advanced space generals are gong to find a good time in StarDrive 2, though, and for that camp it’s an easy game to recommend.