Stars! Supernova Genesis Preview

Serious strategy fans will soon have something to get excited about, as the sequel to Stars! is nearing release.

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A sad fact about this industry is that great reviews for a PC game don't always translate into great sales. Such was the case with Stars!, which was originally released as shareware before being picked up for an early 1997 release by Empire Interactive. Despite glowing praise from nearly every magazine and gaming site worth reading and from a loyal, dedicated fan base, the game enjoyed only moderate success at retail.

Three years later, serious strategy fans are still playing Stars! or, even more telling, trying to find copies to purchase. Any game with that sort of longevity simply begs for a sequel, and that's just what developer Mare Crisium and publisher Empire Interactive are set to bring us sometime this fall. Founded in 1997 by Jeff McBride and two other members of the team that created Stars!, Mare Crisium is a small development house compared with others in the PC gaming world - but that's not stopping it from setting some rather lofty goals for Stars! Supernova Genesis.

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On the company's web site, for instance, you'll see titles like Master of Orion, Ascendancy, Reach for the Stars, Alpha Centauri, and M.U.L.E. (and Stars! itself) bandied about in the same breath as Stars! Supernova Genesis. The guys at Mare Crisium obviously love these classics (Stars! certainly borrowed concepts from them), but they also feel that all too often there's too much emphasis placed on micromanagement of resources and production instead of on strategy, especially as a game progresses. "My biggest complaint about most games in this genre, like Master of Orion II, is that as the number of units you own goes up linearly, the amount of time it takes to give them orders goes up exponentially," says McBride.

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Then again, the scope of the turn-based Stars! Supernova Genesis is so breathtaking that perhaps the desire to reduce micromanagement was born as much of necessity as it was of taste. Just a glance at some of the technology that you can develop will give you an idea of the replayability this game will offer: The latest build features 30 hull types for vehicles, nearly 30 beam weapons, 16 engine types, 16 torpedoes and missiles, a dozen types of bombs and shields apiece... you get the idea. Add in a huge variety of ways to customize the various races in the game, the ability to tweak everything from AI to scenario settings quickly and easily through a GUI interface, and universes that can accommodate up to 16 power-hungry players, and it's obvious that Supernova Genesis aims to be a game of epic scope.

Stars! Supernova Genesis opens with a standard theme of conquer-the-galaxy games - your planet is set to be vaporized in 50 years when a nearby star goes supernova. But the game ends with a nice little twist: Just as you're resigned to the fact that your entire race will wind up crispy critters, a mysterious ship loaded with all the tools necessary for galactic colonization arrives and puts its cargo at your disposal. This intro sequence serves a dual purpose: It introduces a race called the Mystery Traders, which you'll have to deal with later in the game, and it sets the overarching plot of the game in motion. As McBride notes, "Players can't help but wonder what's in it for the race that saved you - what's in it for them? Good questions. Over the course of the various solo and multiplayer scenarios, you'll see hints and rumors that give you an idea of what's going on in the universe as a whole - and what your place is in the grand scheme of things."

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You can expect at least a couple dozen single-player scenarios that focus on tasks such as destroying pirate bases, embarking on treasure hunts, and other classic themes, but the real fun of Supernova Genesis will be embarking on a "campaign." When launching a single-player campaign, you'll get to choose the size of the galaxy (from tiny to huge) and the difficulty level (easy to insane). You'll also be able to select from over 20 predefined races, but what makes this game so interesting is that you can create your own unique race based on a variety of parameters. "We've recently made a change in the fundamental way that races are designed, which will appear in upcoming builds," says McBride. "We now have four physiologies (pick one), 12 or so social models (pick one), and some odd number of traits (which you can mix and match)."

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The four physiologies determine both the technology tree and the economic model that your race will use. The standard-physiology (this name will change) race will be much like the human race, which procreates even though its technology is mechanical. Members of the synthetic-physiology race are created, perhaps in mechanical form, and increasing the population means building "people" in a production queue (and many of the people you build will serve as components of your technology, like parts of a central computer!). The technology for a bioengineer-physiology race is entirely organic in nature - its population is the primary construction material, and its technologies evolve rather than expand. The reality-physiology race can be thought of as being from a different dimension, perhaps being energy-based and therefore having no need for planets. The few minerals it needs are mined directly from its star. It doesn't terraform systems; it solarforms them. Its ships also obey their own laws of physics in combat. This makes the reality-physiology race very interesting to play as or against.

Then there are the social models. Are you a war monger by nature, or are you more of a cloak-and-dagger player? Perhaps you see your race as arch environmentalists or as regular jack-of-all-trades kinds of guys. McBride says, "The choice you make impacts the factors that cause population to flow from place to place, how satisfaction is determined, and so on."

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In many cases, your social model will also either give you specific types of technologies or prevent you from acquiring specific types of technologies. For example, war monger races are given a wider range of weapon capabilities than other races - but the actual effect is highly dependent on the race's physiology. For example, a standard-physiology war-monger race gets additional weapon technologies that can be researched. The weapons that a bioengineering war-monger race get are not visually different from any other bioengineering race - it just evolves to have greater capabilities.

The crowning touch in race creation involves the individual mix-and-match traits such as improved fuel efficiency and advanced remote mining. These let you fine-tune your race to fit the specific strategy, play style, or character you envision. When these traits are combined with the race settings for habitability ranges, technological proficiency, productivity, and so on, the variety of possible, playable races is almost unlimited. And don't forget - players will be able to tweak these and many other game variables at will!

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Another piece of the pie involves entities called mystery traders, whose origin and identity are unknown - the only certainty is that it's an old race with ship technology far beyond anyone else's. Luckily, this race is willing to deliver some of its knowledge in return for cultural experience: You hand over a few of your species for a while, and the traders give you technology. Their assistance might be in the form of pure research in a standard tech field; other times, they'll give you odd but useful technologies that almost always accomplish multiple functions with a single component. An engine part, for instance, might also provide cloaking, or an electrical component might combine several functions such as cloaking, jamming, scanning, shielding, and even a battle computer for improved combat performance. And sometimes they'll hand over an entire ship based on their advanced designs and technologies.

Games start off simply enough, as you decide on production queues for your single planet and begin sending probes and colony ships to explore nearby star systems. Naturally, you must decide which areas of technology take priority in the research department, and there's always the need to gather raw materials to fuel growth. But as you begin to mine or colonize planets and subsequently send out offensive and defensive ships to protect your holdings, things can get a bit complicated. McBride and the Mare Crisium team realized this, and they have taken a variety of steps to make empire management more pleasurable than painful.

Keeping track of dozens of ships and ensuring that each planet under your control focuses on the needs that are most critical to your success have the potential to result in gameplay that plods along like the Volga Boatman, but a variety of features in Supernova Genesis help ease the burden of ruling a galactic empire. Reports on every aspect of your domain - research, spies, fleets, colonies, and so forth - can be quickly and easily called up and sorted using standard Windows controls such as ctrl-click or shift-click. Ships and fleets can be grouped in similar fashion, and then all can be given the same order - or, if need be, a command to continually repeat a process until they are told to do otherwise. Afraid you might forget about them and leave them in a time-wasting loop? Use the remind option to automatically inform you of the status of spies, fleets, and other units.

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Another feature that should ease the burden on your Imperial shoulders is an AI system that automates commands that would nominally fall under the micromanagement tree. Want to colonize a planet that a probe has discovered to be perfect for habitation? Simply issue a colonize command, and the AI will search for the best colony ship to handle the task - or will even build one if possible. You can order colonies to focus on a single task like research or mining, and McBride insists the AI will ensure that its actions will be optimally beneficial to your strategy.

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Despite a Windows-style interface that even non-gamers will quickly recognize, the number of decisions and options at your disposal still has the potential to bewilder newbies. Thankfully, Supernova Genesis will carry on the tradition of its predecessor. McBride says that the game "will have a wonderful tutorial based on the tutorial technology used for the original version of Stars!, which was praised by reviewers for its integration and ease of use. There'll also be a large number of built-in pop-up windows and tips that will help players learn the interface as well as the big picture." Further assistance can be expected in the form of advisors. In the current beta, for example, you get a message when a spy quits because you're broke and he won't work for free. In the final version of the game, your advisors will give you advance warning that you're spiraling into a negative cash flow, and without some intervention, you'll be without funds in a few years. And that's not all: They'll also provide suggestions for rectifying the situation by upgrading or scrapping obsolete ships, firing idle spies, and so on.

One area where Stars! fell a bit short in its original incarnation was smooth support for Internet play. This time around, however, the Mare Crisium team has not only implemented easy-to-use modes for Internet play, but has also taken the usual paradigms for victory and given them a firm tweak on the nose. Perhaps the most unique change is the addition of "non-zero sum" games, where it's possible for several players to win.

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McBride describes the process: "Let's say you set up a game with six victory conditions, and a player must meet two of them to win; in addition, you set up a 'shot clock.' Player one meets some valid set of victory conditions. Every player is informed that player one has met the conditions and will be declared the winner in X turns, and they have that long to either cause him to no longer meet the conditions or to join him in victory by meeting a valid set of victory conditions themselves." This is clearly a great incentive to battle to the bitter end, instead of simply tossing in the towel. Other multiplayer features allow players to find substitutes if they don't want to continue a game and allow the host to replace players with AI opponents. A human opponent is obviously better, but if someone's loused things up so they're no longer a real factor in the game, the AI is certainly more interesting than a sitting duck.

A multiplayer match of Stars! Supernova Genesis can last as long as several months or can be finished in a single afternoon, depending on how the game has been set up. "It's possible to set up a multiplayer game designed for players that want to all get online at the same time on a Saturday afternoon and have turns generated every five minutes, and in that case, it isn't hard at all to finish a small game in an afternoon," McBride says. But you can also create a huge, turn-a-day game with the intention that many players from all over the world will join, fully aware that such a game may take months to finish. McBride contends, "There's very little difference between a long- duration game and a persistent online-universe game such as Ultima Online. In both cases, it's the role-playing, character development, and sense of community that draws in the players and keeps them interested."

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Regardless of the final decision that Empire Interactive makes regarding who might partner with them to host servers for the game, the two most important features are that play will always be free and that the multiplayer interface is transparent and built directly into the game itself. If you can browse the Web - and if your system meets the specifications listed on the Mare Crisium web site, then you'll be able to play online.

McBride contends that Supernova Genesis will ship sometime in September or October, but don't be surprised if the game's release gets pushed back a few weeks. To stay on top of any changes that the guys at Mare Crisium decide to implement between now and the final release - and I'd be surprised if there aren't at least a few - visit the web site from time to time between now and when the game hits stores.

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