Those casually skimming across games in a bid to find something new to play, might see StarDrive and think, "Oh, another strategy game set in space" and perhaps quickly move on. However, what Zero Sum Games have brought to the table with this game is far more than that, and should be picked up as fast as possible, say, at warp speed.
It begins with the simple choice of either jumping into a new game, or to ease yourself in with some tutorials. I would recommend taking a look at the latter first, as the learning curve is a little steep in some of the more complex parts of StarDrive. They are just pictures and explanations, rather than an interactive walkthrough, and to be honest it works better that way, although there are a lot of screens to read.
Once you're ready to get into the action, select new game and get ready to choose your playable race. This is actually far more exciting than your standard strategy game, and I spent a rather lengthy period of time deciding what to do. What makes it so different is the pleasant surprise of RPG elements that have been thrown in and implemented absolutely beautifully.
When choosing a starting race, strategy fans may be used to each one perhaps having some unique attributes, like '+2 move for ships' or a unit only available to one species, with a sneaky but useful attack bonus. In this case though, each race (there are eight pre-set) has a number of pluses and in some cases negatives, all of which are then customisable.
For example, the Kulthari, huge armored bears, have the perk of being 'Savage' which adds a +30% combat modifier, but are 'Honest' which is seen as a negative, and has a -10 penalty to all agent roles. Each good trait costs points (of which you have a set amount to start) and each bad trait gives you points. So if you want your species to be 'Alluring' costing 3 points, you can choose another trait which will give you those points to spend. This fantastic system of customising means that you can choose to place whichever race you want in whatever way you want. You can even create a new alien species from scratch if you don't want to play any of the pre-sets.
On the same screen there are some options to modify the game itself, maybe you'd like a huge galaxy to explore, with abundant solar systems and seven opponents to seek out and unite in alliance; or perhaps you want a tiny galaxy, with just one opponent with one mission: to obliterate them, it really is up to you. Here, you can also change the difficulty of the game, although, be forewarned, it can be quite challenging on your first playthrough so bear that in mind.
Once you click 'engage', which, as a sci-fi fan, in itself made me squeal with joy, you are presented with your homeworld and a big unexplored galaxy to search and colonise. Every star you can see on your mini map has its own solar system, with possible planets full of untapped potential - that is if you get there first! Some planets may be uninhabitable and some may be rich with minerals or food to sustain and fuel your empire.
You only have to worry about three main things, production which comes from aforementioned mines, food, and money. Balancing these can be tricky, especially once you start to colonise other planets, but using trade freights to transport goods between them is the easiest way to make sure your people are flourishing.
You'll need to explore, though, to find new planets to expand and you'll need to be constantly on the lookout for enemy ships, which tend to hang around the most valuable systems, as well as the larger civilizations, with whom you can communicate with diplomatically. Each alien species you meet has a truly rich background, and these encounters are extremely well presented, with everyone having a unique style of diplomacy so you'll need to choose your words carefully from one person to the next.
If you do happen to say the wrong thing and find yourself at war, which to be honest, you most likely will, you will need to strengthen you military forces. This is where StarDrive really comes into its own as the variations of ships that you can create are nearly endless. Depending on what technologies you choose to research in the several expansive tech trees, there will be many different kinds of weapons to use, materials to build with, and so much at your disposal it can become a little overwhelming.
If you like the idea of building hundreds of different ships to try and create an indestructible juggernaut of doom, then you will absolutely love this aspect of the game. If you'd rather stick with the preset models that are provided then you can, although these can be a bit lacking in comparison, and a large part of the game depends on taking advantage of this feature.
Ships can be grouped together in formations and given specific orders depending on how you'd like them to behave, every combat situation being so very different, you have to think about what you want where. To be honest, there is so much that you can change within the game that it's rather difficult to express through writing, and it should really be experienced to be comprehended.
Graphically the game is wonderful; Zero Sum Games have captured the essence of a gravity-deficient space perfectly, and space battles are realistic, and exciting. Planets look serene as they rotate, with ships floating in orbit, or rings glinting in the starlight. When you have diplomatic encounters you can really appreciate the detail that has gone into everything visually, and it's definitely impressive. The audio quality works fantastically in sync with the visual and creates an all-encompassing experience which does what all great games should - makes you forget about the real world.
StarDrive is a challenge, but it is a strategy game unlike any I have ever played and ultimately a lot of fun providing hours and hours of entertainment. There is no multiplayer, which would have been a nice bonus, but it's still great to play as a lone soldier. If you like sci-fi or strategy then I would highly recommend this, although I wouldn't suggest you tackle it unless you have some experience with the latter due to the complexity of the game.
- Very nice graphics.
- Rich backgrounds for different races.
- Extremely complex shipbuilding, allowing for real creativity.
- Steep learning curve.
- No Multiplayer.