Master of Orion III impressions

Infogrames' high-profile space strategy game is out. Hands-on impressions inside.

For the last three years Quicksilver Software has been working on a follow-up to the classic Master of Orion games released in 1994 and 1996. After a series of delays that caused it to miss the holiday season, the game is now finally out in stores. Master of Orion III has received a lot of attention for being the follow-up to a well-known turn-based strategy series, but it's definitely not a game for those who are unfamiliar with 4X space strategy games or are unwilling to spend quite a bit of time to figure it out--particularly since there's no in-game tutorial, just "Masters' Notes" boxes of text explaining the many interface screens. We've spent some time with the retail version of the game, and the state of the game is generally similar to the near-final version we 2902095looked at in December.

The appeal of Master of Orion III is that it puts you in control of a space-faring empire with the ambition to become the dominant force in the galaxy. Quicksilver put a lot of effort into creating extensive AI automation to reduce micromanagement and allow you to focus on high-level decisions and ship movements. As a result, the game features an incredible level of economic detail that you don't really have to deal with, and many turns can be ended without intervening at all. The plus side to the automation is that at the start of a new game, you might be able to click through a few dozen turns in a half hour and just concentrate on placing colonies in an efficient way to prime future expansion. Other turns, particularly during a multifront galactic war, you might have quite a bit of fleet management to deal with, combining a balance of task force types and sending them to appropriate targets.

Master of Orion III distinguishes itself from its predecessors in more ways than just this automation system, and certainly the scale of the game is larger than ever. Despite the presence of a "quick game" option in the main menu, there is no such thing as a short game of Master of Orion III--the quick game button just skips the not-terribly-complicated game setup screen. While there are a number of galaxy sizes to choose from, unfortunately there isn't the option for beginners to pick a small, flat galaxy. The smaller cluster galaxy options are, as the name suggests, 3D balls of stars, so it's somewhat necessary to rotate the 3D star map to get a real sense of how far stars really are from one another.

If you expand quickly, it won't take more than a hundred turns or so to expand to 15 or 20 star systems, each with one, two, or more colonized planets. It's at this point that you may be thankful that there's a fair bit of automation for starting new colonies. It's even possible to let the computer automatically choose planets to settle, which is fine at that point in the game. While you may find yourself fighting the planetary AI from time to time, there are ways to prevent it from building older ships or to manually queue up large quantities of useful items so you don't have to tweak build queues every few turns--though it's still a fine idea to keep a close watch on your best industrial planets.

You're naturally not alone in the galaxy. At the start of the game, you can choose from 16 species that have various strengths and weaknesses, and some are definitely easier to play than others. And even if you start off fairly far from the galactic center, it won't take more than a couple dozen turns to meet a neighbor or two. You can choose to play a single-player game with anywhere from one to 16 computer opponents, and the default setting of eight is a good number for the typically huge map sizes. Apart from military engagements--there are modes for tactical fleet combat, planet bombardment, and ground combat--you can interact with other empires through diplomacy and espionage. We haven't spent enough time with the final game to fully judge the AI, but you will find that even your best allies routinely conduct espionage against you, and good relationships can sour unexpectedly.

Apart from the expansion of colonies, industrial might, and military forces, empires might turn to intensive research and careful shipbuilding to gain an advantage over opponents. However, while research and shipbuilding were some of the best and most distinctive elements of the early games in the series, Master of Orion III doesn't have a lot of the personality in those parts of the game. Research is a fairly complicated affair if you try to micromanage it, because not only does your empire have to progress through numerical technology ranks in a handful of areas, but only certain specific technologies will become visible at any given level, and then technologies must be prototyped before being put into use. For the most part, research can be left entirely to the automation--you just have to keep an eye out for new ship developments. It's not often that you get a single technology that seems to make a huge difference, but there's no reason to build a new ship that doesn't have the latest stuff, since it's not an option to retrofit existing ships. And while there are a ton of different classes of ships to build, many classes are only slightly better than others. In any case, there's an auto-build button that automatically configures the best possible ship, cutting the pain of constantly updating designs but also eliminating the need for twiddling or tweaking to get killer ship designs--something that can be a lot of fun.

In December, Infogrames explained the game's delays by saying it needed more time to refine the multiplayer and ensure that it was stable. While there likely aren't a lot of people who will play to the end of what can be extremely long multiplayer games, the simultaneous turn-based multiplayer does have a rudimentary built-in player-matching interface, so it's not that hard to find opponents. Now that the game is readily available, we can actually get a good sense of the game's multiplayer potential. Look for a full review of Master of Orion III soon.

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