Review

StarDrive 2 Review

  • First Released Apr 9, 2015
    released
  • PC

Sins of a stereotypical empire.

A good 4X strategy game is a bit like a slow-burning fire--something to be stoked every now and again with a click of the mouse and watched through half-lidded eyes into the late hours. When that contented sort of complacency sets in, I'm more easily coaxed into "just one more turn." These empire-building games make it easier still because they tend to defer the consequences of poor moves. Mistakes amount to small hang-ups in the otherwise effortless forward momentum of upgrades and technological developments, lost in the spaces between ascending data points on one of the genre's ubiquitous end-of-game line graphs. It's only when I come out of my daze a few scaled eras later that I often find myself long surpassed by opposing empires, the graphs telling a story of steady mediocrity since, oh, sometime in the Middle Ages when production took a brief turn towards the slightly sub-optimal.

The thing is, 4X games don't have much patience for an also-ran. They're "games" in the same way that the game of thrones is a game: you win or you die, and the middle ground is really just another burial tract. And if the same goes for the crowded, largely homogenous genre they belong to, where does that leave an entry like StarDrive 2? For the most part, the game seems to be a proper execution of its developer's vision; it's worked its way up its chosen tech trees, so to speak, arriving as a sci-fi empire builder in the grand tradition. And yet, when it's time to take stock, StarDrive 2 finds itself firmly in the middle.

Planets are key to out-producing the enemy, but they can be arduous to develop and defend.
Planets are key to out-producing the enemy, but they can be arduous to develop and defend.

But 4X games always begin full of promise, at least. StarDrive 2 offers the selection of a space-faring race--always a good time, unless you pick Human--and, if you want, a complete overhauling of its prepackaged traits. The system, like many others in the game, is cribbed directly from Master of Orion, but it remains rousing and balanced. "Peerless Starfighters" might sound like a must-have bonus, but can you stomach the "Repulsive" or "Corrupt" negative trait you'll have to equip to zero out the ledgers? And then there are the races themselves: an eclectic bunch that includes Cthulhu-likes, an ursine shogunate, and a narcissistic collection of pods that speak through the hijacked brains of alien owls.

As if to further signal that you're not supposed to take the ensuing intragalactic war too seriously, there's a color commentary robot that periodically interjects to introduce the competing races in a segment called--wait for it--"racial profiling." And as if to signal that this is a terrible idea for a feature, there's also an option to turn it off. But whether you listen to the introductions or not, it behooves you to immediately start spreading out across the star map from whatever randomized homeworld you've been deposited on. Exploratory fleets can be sent across the universe with a click, revealing new planets of varying hospitality to colonize. The best ones go quick--opposing empires in StarDrive 2 gobble up territory, and they're not shy about claim jumping either.

Opposing empires take their borders to your doorstep if you're not quick.
Opposing empires take their borders to your doorstep if you're not quick.

These enemies can be held off for a time via diplomacy. Technological advancements are divided into mutually exclusive sets of three and are often differentiated by whether they provide an immediate benefit or one that scales better over a longer period of time. Researching one cordons off the other two, so the best way to snag them is through trade. That, in turn, plays out via a now-overly familiar interface, wherein resources and policies are given a unifying currency and exchanged between two empires at something resembling a fair rate. There's also a limiting "tolerance" meter that hints at a xenophobic civilian population weighing the deal behind the scenes. Combined with a capricious AI and the utilitarian feel of the diplomacy system at large, the meter mostly just contributes to StarDrive 2's gravitational pull towards war.

If the end justifies the means--and the end involves every race that isn't you being purged from the galaxy--nothing is ever really beyond the pale, is it? The enslavement and bombardment of civilian populations, consequently, are perfectly tenable according to StarDrive 2's rules of engagement (albeit partially lampshaded by the cartoonish aliens and abstractions of the game's model). The infrastructure of a colonized planet is indicated with a list of the buildings it's added, and its farming, manufacturing, and scientific output are represented. As an example, these outputs are represented for the Kulrathi Shogunate by bears holding pitchforks, pickaxes, and beakers, respectively.

The ship design interface is deep but easy to grasp.
The ship design interface is deep but easy to grasp.

To protect them, you kit out a starfleet or two. Here, StarDrive really feels like it's found its wheelhouse. All ships have a single frame housing a few different pre-existing equipment packages, but they're used more effectively when you customize their payloads yourself. The ship editor uses a lo-fi but intuitive version of EVE Online's similar interface, where armor plating, power generation, weapons, and cockpits all take up a certain amount of tiles on a planar overlay atop the ship's frame. A bigger missile launcher is surely more effective, but it'll take up valuable tiles that you might need to use for thrusters or point defenses.

If any system isn't being adequately accounted for, you find out quickly when StarDrive 2's ship-to-ship combat plays itself out. When two fleets collide on the star map, they're set down across from each other on a new screen, where they trade maneuvers and lasers semi-autonomously. A pleasant feedback loop plays so you can see how the battles resolve themselves, note deficiencies in your lineup, and run back to the hangar to draw up a suitable counter to the tech your enemy is fielding.

It isn't all quite as tidy as opposing empires trading volleys across their borders. StarDrive 2 introduces a refreshing amount of entropy to the system via third-party raids, discoverable anomalies, derelict ships, and mission pop-ups that can throw a wrench into your previous priorities. But these instances frequently mean that you need to engage in ground combat, a half-baked, grid-based affair that sees two squads march up to each other and wail away until one drops.

"Prideful" nations are a particular pain during diplomacy.

You can give ground units tools and abilities, too, but they don't fundamentally alter the static nature of the combat--if you need to wait 20 turns for an ability to recharge and the enemy hasn't spotted you, you might as well press "next turn" 20 times until it refreshes. This is silly, because StarDrive 2 has no pressing need to render ground combat. There's enough of a draw in the larger scale, ship-based combat and exploration as well as the thrill loot-seeker get from discovering a planet with a unique resource and scrambling to claim it first.

But even though these systems achieve competency, they've been done before (and done better) in many other games. So any praise leveled at StarDrive 2 inevitably ends up faint when it's taken alongside other entries in the sci-fi 4X genre. Is that a flaw of a navel-gazing piece of genre fare or of our own tendency to internalize lessons from an empire builder--that there can only be one winner and that existing for the sake of existing isn't enough?

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The Good

  • Designing a fleet and testing it in combat offers a deep, engaging feedback loop
  • The map is seeded with interesting planets, races, and pop-up events

The Bad

  • Ground combat is half-baked, at best
  • Does little that hasn't been done better elsewhere

About the Author

Nick Capozzoli has spent thousands of hours eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating his way across galaxies. For the purposes of this review, he played through multiple campaigns on a variety of settings.
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T-ESI

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Wow. I'd personally switch the marks between Stardrive 2 and GalCiv3! I'd much rather play this game than Galciv3. At least this dev TRIED and to some extend succeeded in creating something different and better than his previous game. Galciv3 is essentially a graphical update of its predecessor of which was a essentially an entry into 4x games.


Stardrive 2 has the 2nd best ship loadout customization out there (The first Stardrive was just marginally better imo).

Stardrive 2 ground combat might not be the best but by far its not the worst. Some don't even have any. Outfitting your troops right and using some good tactics will enable you to overcome a superior force. Otherwise you lose.

Stardrive 2 strategic map and colony management is simple to manage but takes some thinking to managing and expanding your empire.


I personally recommend this game and Distant Worlds for anyone wanting a good space empire 4x gameplay.

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gotyourzergs

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Now Distant Worlds plus these graphics and similar options for planetary development... that would be the space overlord of space strategy games

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kozzy1234

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No thanks, picked up Galactic Civilization 3 instead (Galactic Civ 2 is one of the best strategy games ever).

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Caldrin

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For me this was a step back from the first one.. Gone is the real time game and replaced with a turn based main game with real time instanced combat.

When released the A.I. could basically throw unlimited waves of spaceships at you.. seems to be a bit better now..


Still there are a lot of 4x games out there that are just a lot better than this.

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Smosh150

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I applaud you for using that subtitle. Rather disappointing to say the least that this game wasn't better, doesn't look bad, but I was hoping they really would do something great with it.

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PETERAKO

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"Sins of a stereotypical empire."

Kyahahahahaha

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AliusUmbra

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@PETERAKO: I LOL'd.

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StarDrive 2

First Released Apr 9, 2015
released
  • Linux
  • Macintosh
  • PC

StarDrive 2 is a turn-based sequel where you take the role of the galactic ruler of your race as you must lead your people into a procedurally-generated galaxy, exploring and expanding your space empire to greatness.

6
Fair

Average Rating

11 Rating(s)

7.1

Developed by:

Published by: