StarDrive is a 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) space sim. I thought about coming at this review from a variety of different positions, most of which dealt with the absolute insanity of making your first game an exploration/empire builder, but in the end, I keep coming back to simply stating the obvious. And while it may sound a bit harsh, that's what StarDrive does. It states the obvious and delivers most of what we have come to expect of the 4X genre, but in the end, a lack of features and a learning curve that plateaus before ever leaving the ground keeps it from being anything more than a good first try with a lot of promise.
Starting the game with a choice of 8 alien races, whose main attributes are customizable through a point system, StarDrive immediately drops you into a randomly generated galaxy. Depending on the race (I chose a race of militaristic, powerful, and overtly honest SPACE BEARS, as well as humans), you may or may not start with a ship, but you do start with a home planet. And some buttons. And a mouse to click those buttons. And that's about it.
See, StarDrive has no tutorial, and as such, no actual learning curve, because in order to have a learning curve, the game, in my opinion, has to want to teach you something. StarDrive doesn't want to teach you anything. It wants you to earn it.
For a game like StarDrive, the basic idea is easy to grasp, so in essence, should also be able to puzzle out. I know I have to build ships to create colonies to harvest resources to research bigger ships to build bigger colonies to harvest more resources to eventually blow the hell out of the other races in the galaxy because WE ARE THE SPACE BEARS GRRRRRRRAAAAARRRRRR!!!!!!
Where the "no tutroial" idea falls apart is in how to accomplish those things. With a game like Dark Souls, which is notorious for making you earn every step you take, the mechanics are easy to puzzle out because of a basic control scheme. This button jumps, this swings my sword, this moves my character. I may not be a master of those moves when I learn them, but I have a good starting point to figuring things out.
StarDrive lacks that mechanical starting point to branch out from. For people who have played Civilization or any other 4Xs, puzzling out that I can click on my planet, bring up a build log, and begin production is easy. For a newcomer to the genre, they might not have that history, they might not know or even be able to assume where to go. Every game is someone's first game, and while tutorials have taken on a life of their own, growing into a ridiculous trope all their own, the lack of one, the virtual void left in its absence in a game so complex can be intimidating.
StarDrive tries to make up for this with some simple videos available in its help section, and some awesome forums manned by a great community looking to get the word out about this game. There is no greater teacher then playing the game yourself. For someone new to this type of game, or even someone without the time to invest in doing all the digging necessary to really understand what's going on, I don't think that there is enough push at the start to hook someone the way StarDrive needs you to be hooked to push forward.
Getting past the beginning, StarDrive opens up to it's one and signature mode, Sandbox. In it, you get to explore the galaxy, discover anywhere between 1 – 7 additional alien species, and either attempt to wrestle control of the galaxy from them, or play nice and rule in a peaceful conglomerate of space-faring societies.
Exploration is most easily accomplished by sending out unarmed scouts. You can choose the destinations yourself, micromanaging each flight, or you can leave that to the AI, which you can set to auto-explore for you. In fact, one of the better ideas StarDrive has is its adjustable, assisting AI. Being able to set simple commands like auto-explore, or auto-transport of things like food and production lets you escape the minutiae and focus on your plans for the galaxy itself. The little things are still there if you want to control every little part of your galaxy, but being able to simply let the computer do it's thing so I could do mine was quite liberating.
A quick flick of the mouse wheel will zoom your map all the way out, giving you perhaps one of the more stunning views of space in a video game. It's downright beautiful, especially once known-space begins to fill out, and the various colors of the opposing races begin to capture and hold systems. Throw in a supply chain of transports tearing their way through the empty pockets of space between systems, and the galaxy begins to breathe with life, the transports serving as both its literal and figurative lifeblood.
Everything can be done from this view as well, with a simple click of a star system bringing up a zoomed-in visual of the planets contained within, acting as a quick guide to what's available, what you can colonize, and what's just plain junk. Planets available for colonization are many and varied, with the best ones normally guarded by a mystery 9th race called the Remnant. There's no real story to go along with them, which I think is a real missed opportunity.
Their presence serves as an excellent introduction to combat in StarDrive, which, unlike most other games in the genre, is real time based instead of turn based. Space combat plays out in a beautiful and brutal dance of unseen pilots, each jockeying for positions to attack along the 2D axis the game is presented on. It can be difficult to follow when trying to issue commands, and the ability to pause the action at any time helps a great deal, but most fights feel like a crapshoot. I've have faced off against the stock Remnant group, two frigates (medium sized gun ships) and three to four fighters, with a variety of different sizes of fleets, and have found that even with what I thought were overwhelming odds, skirmishes were often decided by what seemed like random moves and varying degrees of “did that hit?”
StarDrive also offers the chance to design your own spaceships. Starting with a hull design, and using parts from various research projects, you control everything from the armor used to the position of the power core. The system, like virtually all of StarDrive, is not super intuitive, but some time spent tooling around can lead to some pretty impressive projects. There's an enormous amount of potential for experimentation here. It's also very easy to save designs and implement them over your fleet, even retrofitting existing ships with the new parts can be done with a few clicks on the ship screen.
Much like combat, diplomacy, whether out right communicating with other races, or sending in spies for a variety of dastardly deeds, functions like a gamble. Options in dealing with the other races are not always clear as many of the races seem to function outside of their various personalities. One that comes to mind are a race of tentacled aliens that worship “The Elder Gods” and are named after the ancient city in which Cthulhu dreams, R'lyeh. The Ralyeh are zealots and by their dialog, spend an awful lot of time fixating on death. They are also, really into stealing from treasuries. Sure, my not having money could lead to my own demise, but I would assume, which is probably my issue, that religious zealots would be focused on other means of ensuring our mutual destruction (because they think they are meant to die as well).
That's about it. Outside of Sandbox mode, StarDrive is pretty threadbare. Though things like multiplayer are being worked on and other modes have been promised. Without anything to keep you exploring except for your own willpower, I found my adventurous race of noble Space Bears slowly winding down after my second campaign. While I had the benefit of working off of a review copy, others without the drive and fortitude to forge their own way through the stars may find the overall package wanting.
A very ambitious undertaking, StarDrive has a lot of promise. There's a lot the developer hopes to add, and he plans on supporting the game for the foreseeable future, but the package as it stands is a bit of a hard sell to all but the most patient and driven 4X fans. If you are willing to dig deep, there are some diamonds to be found in this rough. If not, you may want to wait for this package to fill itself out a bit more.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!