Flieger, grüß' mir die Sonne, grüß' mir die Sterne und grüß' mir den Mond. Dein Leben, das ist ein Schweben, durch die Ferne, die keiner bewohnt! - Hans Albers, F.P.1 antwortet nicht (Adaptation in the 80s: Extrabreit)

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Stellaris, what a 4x game!

So there I was, had bought and player Master of Orion (4). After about four weeks, it somehow became boring. Starlanes, in combination with only few planets per system, and ship combat which usually is decided pretty quickly in one or the other direction. Add to that the late-game grind (no autobuild queues), and game sessions started to look very similar.

There is competition, though. I have stalked around Stellaris from Paradox Games for quite a while. And watched those funny game streams on youtube, where those two guys from the company simply did a let´s play with their fun race, the all mighty and friendly Blorg race. Then there was the culminating stream of a 32 person multiplayer session, recorded over four days. The throurough nerdy participants (in particular the two moderators and that guy leading the Loreswarm) just warmed my heart. Why do I not have cool nerdy friends like this in my social environment? Once that session entered the big finale, with mighty fleets clashing with amazing fireworks, I was finally sold and bought Stellaris, one day before it came out on 9 May. Well done advertisement, in the form of fun entertainment, thanks to cKnoor and Wiz!!!

IMO Stellaris is, compared to Master of Orion, what Stars! used to be back in the 90s. Highly complex, a well above average replayability, with a lot of innovations you don´t see in your average mainstream 4x game, and some mechanics to avoid micromanagement. And long, exciting space battles to watch. Those two games almost cannot be compared to each other, they are maybe more like primary school compared to university. And this is not due to Master of Orion being still in "Early Access" mode, but due to entirely different approaches to the respective game mechanics. Master of Orion has a more beautiful presentation, a more personal feeling because of all those NPC portraits and voices in the mix, and the gameflow feels rather easy going. Stellaris, on the other hand, represents possibilities unchained. I quickly realize this when I find myself daydreaming on how and what I would plan to do next, in my next game session. This is the feeling you get when you have a really good game at your hands.

I don´t want to do a review here. Contrary to Master of Orion, Stellaris is way too complex to really give a short comprehensive impression about it. One of the great attractions for me is that you have to choose between different modes of space travel: free from warp travel, starlane-based hyperdrive, or wormhole jumpgates. Each of those have considerable impact on your game strategy. Also, the combination of text-based events, complex resource mechanics (six resources, plus food, morale and military management) give me the feeling of good old day roleplaying myself as the leader of a throrough distinctly characterized species. And even though I am still locked in my first game, I have the very clear impression that there are many games to start which will play out totally different, both in tech, events and the strategies required. This is what I call a very good game design.

A fun moment was already in early game when pirates spawned and threatened all my mining operations in various systems. In my routine gathered from playing Master of Orion, I sent my three-ship military, fully expecting to blow those pesky pirates apart. Man, was I wrong! Those pirates just took my ships apart in no time. This sort of let me "wake up" and approach the game much more cautiously than I ever needed to do with Master of Orion. It took me a severe effort to finally remove the pirate thread and my fledgling empire economy had taken a severe hit by then.

All this considered, I am very happy to see that Paradox Games gets very good reviews and sells pretty well.

My take on the new Master of Orion (early access)

That´s what I have been up to in the last three weeks; testing out two games in the "build and expand" genre. So, after some pondering, I convinced myself to pay those expensive 50 bucks to enter the early access phase for a new take on the Master of Orion.

Master of Orion 2 from the 90s is what you call in the music business an evergreen, and some people still have and play it even today. It consolidated an emerging new type of 4X-gameplay into a coherent, complex, personal experience. Statistics, battles, ship and planet building, ground battles, and characters to identify with, character data and portraits included. Many games tried to copy this level of perfection and failed. If there was one with a good potential to go new yet familiar routes in this genre, it would have been Ascendancy or Stars!, also from the late 90s, but sadly, those got never beyond what you could count as an "early access" state of development.

And we do not speak of Master of Orion 3; given it´s glaring shortcomings, most fans even deny that it exists. Funny, I count myself to that crowd and when I installed now the new game from the bundled sale, I just clicked on Master of Orion 3, because, this one is the third one, right? 

I have played two campaigns so far, one with a diplomatic victory, by paying to get the votes of the next biggest competitor, and a scientific victory.

The game does a lot of things right and gives me for a large part the good old MoO2 with modern, beautiful graphic and voiceovers. I am a total sucker for a nice, involving yet clean user interface, loved for example Ascendancy for that, and despite Paradox´ Stellaris probably shaping up to be a better and more complex 4X-game, MoO´s beatiful user interface and graphics won me over once more. However, I have to criticise that there are too little new elements, and the elements that are new all seem to go down the same unfamous lane of dumbing down complexity. The charm of MoO2 was that you had a fair amount of complexity, which was easy to handle at the same time. Give us something new and complex, not just something replacing and dumbing down old stuff!

- Tactical combat: Lot´s of fandom discussion here. Having been a fan of the super nerdy Stars! back in the 90ties, and also being roughly familiar with GalCiv, I can see the charm. Especially with added control options, I can have an almost turn-based level of control on distance and holding fire, speed and positioning. Did not figure out yet how to control the special equipment precisely enough (better feedback on pressed buttons is required in general pls), but with some refining I can see a lot of fun. Love the cinematic intro on each battle; maybe some more variety here? Seeing those missiles homing in, seeing them shot down by pooint defenses and then impacts in life-action mode, this never gets old for me. I also love the difference between unguided torpedoes and guided missiles. Dodging a torpedo salvo with fast ships can make a decisive difference (if the teleporter device would be quicker to act, I would love to use it also to this ends!). 

- Starlanes, later the jumpgates: Also a topic for a lot of fandom discussion. Especially playing with a spiral galaxy, it seems that there is a race for unlocking those unstable starlanes in order to get to the unsettled center worlds. I treat it like a special game mode, and it is interesting, but I sure would like to have other options, including a “free-flight” option, or having racial options like Paradox´ Stellaris is going to give you on each race´s FTL-technology. However, I would have preferred a totally different route: Actual fuel use, refilling at gas giants. This would be more complex than MoO2 and a challenge for the oftenly under-represented eXploration part of the game.

- Really missing the freighter mechanics from MoO2. Exporting agricultural worlds are not possible to set up right now, blockades and moving population seem less logical without. Pirates would destroy freighters over time, adding incentive to really search for and go after them (maybe they should put pirate bases as re-appearing anomalies, also for a good reason to still have scout ships in late game?).

- Tech tree: In MoO2,  I always played with the “creative” trait, because I cannot miss things. However, in this new iteration of MoO, a bit more diversity in the current tech development for each campaign would be really nice. Maybe by adding a cost penalty, the more tech you have? Would make sense then to tech trade or have tech-treaties with other races.

- Ground battles! Missing still. If they would evolve them into a tactical battle like with the spaceships, I would count this finally as a new game element! Yeah! Maybe even let us build our own dropship, with modules for airstrike, tanks and infantry units?!

- Currently, the micromanagement gets painful due to bad AI-build queues. I read that customisable auto-build queues are coming; good! They should make the list of buildings as part of the same screen; having to do extra clicks just to see and dismiss this list is awful.

-The spy game: A bit slow moving. Once a spy gets uncovered, you basically have to restart from scratch. No idea how big chances are that a given spy gets discovered. Maybe a bit more transparency here?

- Uber-planets are a nice new game mechanic, countering that late game symptom of having only gaja-type planets. Also, a galaxy without gas giants seems boring. Maybe some alternate use for them instead of turning them barren?

- More mid- to late-game incentives required: Right now it is just a grind or a rampage right after the first 100 turns. Economic collapses, diseases, diverging factions in your empire, special scientific findings leading to unique tech, and where are the invading Antarians?

- Government types? Religions? Inter-racial conflicts? Free movement of people/races between planets? Missing! Why!?

- I loved how Alpha Centauri played with the tropes and impacts of technology on society. How does cybernetics change your race´s culture? What about the impact of genetics, psionics?

- Viability of different combat styles? Would love to build some suicide frigates with quantum detonators and teleporters and screw them all! More transparency on combat data would be also nice.

- I loved in Alpha Centauri, where you could basically create your slave race by conquering a race and granting them peace in their most despaired last moment, or when freeing their leader: They could never again betray you. Maybe MOO could also include such a mechanic of creating a vassal faction out of a conquered race, instead of just exterminating them? 

- Having figureheads makes a game more personal. Admirals, spy-chiefs, governors; any plans on adding that? How about unique ships, e.g. stolen from the Antarans (my fun sport in late game MoO2).

- Right now I cannot upgrade non-combat ships if I miss it at the point when I get the tech upgrade.

- A pet peeve of mine since I played Ascendancy: Non-humanoid, non-podic races, please! And I want my favourite Trilarians and those telepathic dark elves! (Come on, in light of all possible alien diversity, nobody needs two human race portraits and voiceovers!)

- For mid-game, I would like to see which of my races does sit in which colony ship, please.

- Arming space stations and military outposts via the ship builder was already a persistent wish of the MOO2 crowd. It´s still not in.

- A ship arriving at a point with an inactive fleet makes that ship also inactive, without warning. Same with space factories after they finished a construction.

- Victory videos, please! Some reward and final acknowledgement for those long-fought-out games! Again, Alpha Centauri did this very well! But also the evil laugh about the “Master of Orion” was just great.