Master of Orion: Conquer The Stars (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99 (£29.99 for extra lovely stuff, including the first three Master of Orion games, an art book, and the TERRAN KHANATE [Evil Humans])
Where To Get It: Steam, GOG

I’m going to start this review with what will most likely be an unpopular opinion about the older Master of Orion games: They’re dated. Yes, you heard me, I, a fellow 4X player, just told you he thinks one of many games that laid the groundwork for the space 4X genre is dated. Maybe not as good as you remember it. Still good. Still one of the games that laid the groundwork. And I hold this opinion for two reasons.

It isn't *too* likely you'll have this many ships in one fight. But god-damn, it makes for a lovely intro!

It isn’t *too* likely you’ll have this many ships in one fight. But god-damn, it makes for a lovely intro!

Firstly, I’ve played enough of it, and recently enough, to know. Secondly, because comparisons are inevitable, and it seems some comparisons are being played up… And others down. Let’s start with what seems to be played down. Let’s start with how much attention has been paid to the feel of how grand Space Opera should be, and how it tries very hard to be more accessible this time around.

Just a brief look at the IMDB page for this game leaves no doubt that vocal talent was a focus of the game. Michael Dorn narrates, leaders and advisors alike are played by such luminaries as John Kassir (The Cryptkeeper), John De Lancie (Q, among many others), Mark Hamill (Do I even need to say?), Nika Futterman (Asaji Ventress, among others), Kari Wahlgren (The english voice of the Fate series’ Saber), Kat Cressida (Dee Dee from Dexter’s Lab), and Sumalee Montano (Arcee [Transformers] and Katana [Beware The Batman], among other voice roles), and each one seems to be giving their all. Similarly, the music and art direction (David Govett on music, and a talented art team including Bill Willingham… Yes, Fables Bill Willingham) show a deep love of the genre, with gorgeous landscapes, solid, characterful animations, and music that, my first time hearing it, I’m not ashamed to say I happy-cried. So the game is undeniably beautiful, both in sound and visuals. The UI, similarly, is well designed, simple, mostly self explanatory, with few interactions required to get to any one feature, only rare occasions where a tooltip will obscure a thing, and, of course, visual consistency. Similarly, there’s a lot of good writing in there, showing each race both as it is seen, and as it sees itself.

GNN... Bringing you the clickbait for the New Diaspora!

GNN… Bringing you the clickbait for the New Diaspora!

Accessibility wise, on top of the UI, everything is visually distinct, and the game is highly customisable in terms of difficulty and length. Don’t want to spend 10 hours on a game? You can up the tempo. Finding a full medium galaxy too tense in the early game? Knock down the number of opponents, make the galaxy bigger, tone down the difficulty… The choices are there, and they definitely have an effect. Myself, I don’t tend to do well in a crowded universe, so I knock the opponents down to 3 rather than 5, although I tend to prefer a medium universe. As in previous Master of Orion games, you can also create your own race, in much the same fashion as Master of Orion 2. And the tooltips are genuinely helpful, and the advisor interruptions are by no means unwelcome in the clear information they give. These are two factors that open this game up to newer players, and I think that should quite rightly be praised.

Now… I mentioned some things have been played up, and all of them have the same, dubious core idea: That Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (To use its full title for the first time this review… Most folks I know refer to it as MoO2016) is somehow more simplistic or easier than the older games. As someone who has now, since release, been bumrushed several times by races absolutely itching for space, who have obviously been concentrating on the shipbuilding end of things (That, or redlining their taxes), I would quite heartily disagree. In MoO2, I could quite happily spend 60 turns, or even 100, just slowly building up, sometimes without meeting anybody at all. In a Medium galaxy, populated by 5 other races, on Normal difficulty? The early game gets surprisingly tense, and I’ve often had to shift gears quite quickly. Knock the players down a bit, and it calms down a bit. Knock the difficulty down a notch, and similarly, it calms down a notch. As to simplicity? It’s a somewhat refined version of MoO2’s rules. Not a huge amount of changes, not a huge amount of additions or subtractions. Mostly, it’s been refinements, and y’know what? I’m okay with that.

An early game buildup...

An early game buildup…

Finally, there’s the combat system. I don’t mind it either way, as it retains elements of the older, turn based system that MoOs 1 and 2 had (Complete with ship customisation elements), and the rock-paper-scissors of Energy/Missile/Mass Drivers remains, but with the real time strategy elements allowing skillful micro to outplay a superior enemy, or, if you so choose, being able to sit back and watch the combat resolve itself automatically… But more cinematically than just hitting Auto-Resolve itself.

Now… Overall, I’ve been positive, and if you’ve read my work before, you’d know I will always try and balance things out, even if I’m not always successful in doing so. Master of Orion is not without its problems. For example, selection of craft can get finicky at times, as it sometimes seems to want to drag craft as an interaction rather than the old “click select, click [if you want to select a specific ship], click move.” The AI’s primary interaction before you establish embassies is to be extremely aggressive toward everyone else, and production, in Classic pacing, feels a bit of a slog. I’m not going to accuse the AI of cheating with its builds, but I am going to say that their emphasis mostly appears to be on the Conquer side of the Paths to Victory rather than others, especially in the early game. As with many 4X games, once you get to the end game, you will probably be able to pick and choose which of the six paths to victory you go for, rather than having to choose. Those are a select few criticisms.

Overall, though, MoO2016 seems a good introduction to the Space 4X genre, and a well crafted one in the artistic sense to boot. Also, I can confirm that the art book expands a little on the lore of the galaxy, and has a fair amount of cool concept art. 😉

...Followed by an early game beatdown from some extremely irascible Russian Space Bears. I will never mock the Bulrathi again.

…Followed by an early game beatdown from some extremely irascible Russian Space Bears. I will never mock the Bulrathi again.

The Mad Welshman is now idly wondering whether anyone can do a similarly good job with other strategic games set in space such as Ascendancy, Millennium, or, just maybe, Emperor of the Fading Suns.

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Master of Orion (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £29.99
Where To Get It: Steam (NB – Comes with the original 3 Master of Orion games)

This isn’t really going to be an article reviewing how much game there is. It’s pretty obvious, at this point, that while the game is playable, and victories can be achieved, it’s incomplete, and there is more to come, including balancing of units and the like. This is about another important question: Do NGD and Wargaming “get” Space Opera?

The planetary environments, while the same canned anims that you'd see in the original MoO, are gorgeous.

The planetary environments, while the same canned anims that you’d see in the original MoO, are gorgeous.

Judging by the tears leaking down my face from the opening theme, with its violins, choirs, harps, and wind instruments? It’s a good starting sign. And the game is already showing heaps of promise. Let’s start with the races. So far, every race is presented fairly neutrally. Nobody is unequivocally a “good” or “bad” race, from the proud Alkari, to… Okay, maybe the Mrrshan are a little dickish, what with the “They’ll sometimes even attack their allies for the fun of it.” For those who don’t know Master of Orion’s universe (First seen in 1996 with the titular game by Microprose), there are 10 races, 6 of which are available at this point in the Early Access: The psychic, four armed scientists, the Psilons; The preening birdfolk with elite piloting skills, the Alkari; The tough Space Bears of Nature, the Bulrathi; The ruthless matriarchal catfolk with a penchant for ground combat, the Mrrshan; the reptilian, quickly colonising Sakkra Brood… Oh, and Humans, who have, in Space Opera tradition, formed a Grand Republic. Somehow.

Well, that’s why they call it Space Opera, really… Grandiose in view, and not a little implausible at times. Nonetheless, aurally, it’s an almost constant, and pleasant assault on the senses, from the sweeping orchestral score that quickens the blood and sets the mood well, from combat to colonisation, to the smooth tones of the voice actors and actresses that make the star studded cast. Most are immediately recognisable, such as Michael Dorn (Narrator), John De Lancie (President of the Republic), and Kat Cressida (Mrrshan Empress), while others take a little more work to identify, but no less enjoyment, such as Nika Futterman (Mrrshan Advisor, and, once they’re in the game, Darlok Advisor), John Kassir (The Alkari Advisor, whose squawks, shrieks, and excitement slay me with laughter.) Visually, similarly, it’s all gloss, from the tight UI design (Minimal, but stylistically fitting) to the ships (Each having their own character, and some customisation options, such as 2 model styles per class, and several preset colour schemes.)

The last thing a Space Pirate is going to see in the Early Game: The Missile Lock Indicator.

The last thing a Space Pirate is going to see in the Early Game: The Missile Lock Indicator.

It’s pretty clear it’s had a lot of cash spent on it. So how does it play? Well, it would be a disservice to say it plays exactly like the original Master of Orion, because there are definitely refinements, but many of these are subtle at the present time, and I don’t think we’ll see a whole lot of rocking the boat in terms of gameplay. It is, nonetheless, its own entity, with some changes to areas such as research (No more does every tech lock you out of something, for example), tactical combat (Which is now real time, although still, as far as I can tell, on a level plane. Also, you can get a rough estimate of how your chances are against a fleet or space creature), and pollution (Which, instead of being a Fact of Life, can now be reduced via the build menu.) There is also, because the game is still in development, a bunch of missing features (Such as Tech victories, Economic victories, four races, custom races, and miscellaneous bits and bobs like a full Volcanic Planet description) and the odd typo, but right now? The game is definitely playable, and, if you liked, say, Master of Orion 2, it’s an enjoyable play.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some things that don’t feel a little off to me. It’s important right now, for example, to make sure you hit the “Randomise seed” button for your galactic maps, unless you feel like playing the same map over and over again, some voice clips fail to play at times, and, to be brutally honest, I’m not overly fond of the Mrrshan, although their portrayal is consistent, and makes sense. No, I’m not particularly offended by Mrrshan Sideboob. I’m more annoyed that everyone else seems to be characterised more neutrally, including the Alkari, who are, as far as I recall, bigger assholes as a race. Psilons? Yeah, go out and study things! Bulrathi? Let’s Protect Nature (Any Way We Can)! Sakkra? We’re lookin’ out for our kids! Mrrshan? Yeaaahhhh, more shit to fight, fuck yes! If we don’t find anyone else, we’ll smack our allies around for the fun of it, yeaaaaahhh!

The Mrrshan have pretty ships, but are the least pretty faction, tonally.

The Mrrshan have pretty ships, but are the least pretty faction, tonally.

However, aside from these few hiccups (One of which may well just be me), it’s early days yet, and to see polish and promise this early on makes me feel fairly confident that, even if Master of Orion doesn’t break new ground, it’s already got character, it’s got atmosphere, and if it continues to improve and refine, it’s going to do well.

The Mad Welshman grinned as he stared at the holovisor. GNN had voted him “Most Dashing Tyrant” for the second year running, and… The proximity alarms blared as he scrambled to the console. “Oh no… ALKARI!”

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Endless Legend: Guardians DLC (Review)

Source: Review Code
Price: £6.99
Where to Get ItSteam


Auriga: A sentient world, doomed to a slow death by an ice age it cannot escape. Many folks live on Auriga, and now, with the Guardians expansion, there’s a fair bit more to do. One of the difficulties with reviewing expansions to games is that, many times, you have to ask “But what’s it actually adding to the game?”, as quite a bit of DLC is cosmetic by nature, and so… Can be summed up by the phrase “Wellll… If you want to look like this, then yeah, sure, go for it, otherwise… Don’t really bother?”

Guardians lets you know, from the very beginning, that this isn’t the case. Global Events. Legendary beings. Co-operative and competitive quests… This DLC adds a whole new dimension to the game, and it’s been my pleasure to see how it changes the gameplay.

At least it wasn't the Drakken.

Awwwh crap, who’s building that before me… WHOOOOO?!?

And, from the very beginning, a new goal presents itself: The Museum of Auriga. A whopping 20% approval for each level of the building (Which is based on the city’s expansion), and +20% Research and Dust (the game’s nano-magical currency) across my entire empire if I build it first and keep people happy? That’s… One hell of a first prize, and I can see very few factions, AI or human, not wanting to go for that as soon as humanly possible. And already, I’m wary. Research and Dust are pretty much the core of at least two factions’ playstyles, and 20% at the first tier of the game is not to be sniffed at. The second tier, equally, is pretty powerful… 25% extra industry, over my entire empire, per level? These are game changers, and I’m not entirely sure I like that. I like it even less when I look at my research indicator and see that someone else is building it. That’s pressure, because firstly, I’m playing Broken Lords on this particular review playthrough, and both of those boosts could help my play, and secondly, because I have random factions as enemies, and I’m guessing, judging by the early score boost, that either the Drakken or the Ardent Mages are sharing my version of Auriga, and the empire building could just as equally help them. It’s not insurmountable (After all, I could, after a point, steal the improvement by conquering one of their cities)… But it adss tension I’m not sure I need so early. Helping, however, are Unique buildings, that help shore up weaknesses in strategy, and, later in the game, unique Legendary Units (1 in Tier 3, 2 in Tiers IV and V) with useful abilities like Mind Control and the like, armies unto themselves (No, really… They can’t join armies, they’re that big.)

Papa Nurgle loves you all.

It’s pretty rare this infected village doesn’t belong to somebody else. It’s even more rare they’ll deal with it themselves. Have fun!

Empire goals, on the other hand, are a little more welcome. They unlock technologies (Much like certain story missions do for each faction) or resources (The one I got in Tier 1, Wealth Harvester, gave me enough Dye to use its special bonus for much of the early to mid game), and, like Legendary Buildings, their bonus only applies on a first come, first served basis. Co-operative quests also fall into this category, as they require dealing with a common threat. The one I got early on in the game (Pictured), added tension in more than one respect, because the plagued villages in question, which were making all non-pacified villages more aggressive and lethal? Were firmly in the territory of the Necrophages, who were unwilling to relinquish their favoured sons for the good of Auriga. Again, it adds tension, it adds stories, and that’s the true value of the DLC.

Overall, this DLC is a game changer, adding tension to an already tense 4X game, and whether you want to purchase it or not genuinely depends on whether you want to add more swing to the game, more moments of crying “Oh shit, now they’ve got that thing” or “HAH, Now I am the better builder, and I worry about you no longer!”. Multiplayer is also a consideration here: I’m mainly a single player kind of guy, but in Multiplayer, global events and the competitive and co-operative quests add a new dimension that’s honestly welcomed as a shakeup, variation in what can often be a competition of adaptation and optimal building. The difference shows almost from the beginning, adding impetus to certain goals, and so, if this is what you’re after, then it’s definitely worth the £6.99 Amplitude are asking for. Just be aware that it can seriously change the dynamic of your game, and you won’t be disappointed.

I wish the one for food came earlier... :C

Either extra research, or shoring up a weak research town? YES PLEASE.

Endless Legend: Guardians was released on the 29th April 2015. It was the Ardent Mages who got the first Legendary Building before me, and they cleaned my clock in the mid-game. I was sweating the whole time.

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