E3 2001: First ImpressionMaster of Orion III

The third game in the classic space strategy series is shown for the first time at E3.


MicroProse's original Master of Orion did much to popularize the subgenre of space strategy games known as "4X" for their main elements of exploration, extermination, exploitation, and expansion. But since many games of this type often get bogged down in micromanagement as your empires get larger and larger, Master of Orion III has been reworked from the ground up to let you focus on grand strategy rather than meddling in all the details of running a galactic empire.

The biggest change in this direction is the introduction of "imperial focus," which means that you can take only so many specific actions per turn. To be sure, you have subordinates to help out when you don't have the time or focus points to manage directly. There are automated leaders on every level that will take action according to your broad instructions. The abundance of leaders opens up a new level of espionage, as opponents can try to bribe or assassinate those in key imperial positions, down to ship captains. In fact, Master of Orion III generally accepts more diverse styles of play, adding multiple paths to victory and complications for large militaristic empires. The event system tends to balance out empire size, giving more good events to small empires and more negative ones to the expansionist powers. Also, there's now an element of domestic politics, where losing long wars or instituting harsh policies like martial law creates resentment among your worlds' population and can lead to rebellion. These two factors make it possible for smaller empires to stay in the game longer, and they even give a small opening to victory through subterfuge and other nonmartial means.

The galaxy level map has undergone a few changes. The star map is now 3D and can be rotated for a better view. A bigger shift comes in how movement is handled. There are now starlanes that connect systems in a linear, branching manner. It's still possible to travel directly between unconnected star systems, but it's very slow, perhaps on the order of 30 or 40 turns for a moderate distance. This new layout creates choke points of defensible systems and will ensure that enemy fleets don't endlessly chase each other around the galaxy.

The new game gets up to date with a 3D engine for the real-time tactical ship combat. The combat system doesn't require you to directly intervene for basic maneuvers but instead uses rules of engagement that tell computer-controlled ship formations more generally what to do. In contrast to the previous games' simplistic combat that merely ended up favoring the biggest ships, Master of Orion III's combat is designed to resemble WWII Pacific fleet battles, where escorts, carriers, and battleships all had their part to play.

Work on Master of Orion III started about a year ago, when the game was first announced. A lot of conceptual design effort has clearly gone into the game, but there's still much to do before its planned release late in the spring of 2002. Many elements have been reworked to streamline the multiplayer component--which lets you take your turns simultaneously--and make it playable in a much shorter time. The team openly admitted it's taking a lot of risks with the design, but since the previous games sold a respectable 800,000 units, there's much hope that the streamlining will make the game a popular success and will please fans of the series.

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