As far as space-set turn-based strategy games go, Galactic Civilizations II has long been universal overlord. StarDrive wants to knock GalCiv II off its celestial perch. Impressively, it makes a good jump toward doing so.
The biggest difference is that it's real-time, not turn-based like a normal 4X game, which makes galactic domination mightily hectic.
The game has eight standard races, which you can play or customise as you slowly build up a galactic empire by colonising planets, backstabbing races and researching tech. Each race has different spaceship layouts, different behaviours and absolutely delightful diplomatic behaviour when played by the AI. StarDrive has learned from both GalCiv and Civ, so the presentation, especially of the enemy races, is superb: their behaviour perfectly segues with the quirky character design, whether it's the symbiotic Cordrazine bots with their distracted Owlok slaves or the wolfish Vulfar growling even the nicest diplomatic communiqué.
Less superb is the accessibility. The tutorial seems to have fallen into a black hole, but the developers have put a video tutorial online and a very basic set of instructions. Add to that an interface that it'd be generous to call obscure (how and why would you directly control a ship?) and you're going to struggle playing StarDrive at first. Thankfully, if you find the AI button, an awful lot of work can be done for you.
The standout element is ship design. Like GalCiv II, new research advances unlock new components. Unlike GalCiv II's modular structure, each ship here is like a miniature SimCity – you have to ensure each component has enough power routed to it, guns have enough ammo, armour is covering everything and that warp drives aren't missing moody Scottish engineers. Again, the lack of any tutorial means many of your ships are likely to be abortive sports, like the spare Ripleys in Alien 4 that are missing vital components. I found myself using the standardised ships because they just worked.
Beyond that, the diplomacy, combat and research are all solid if unexciting. And although the developers are working madly hard to bug-fix, there were still some outstanding problems at the time of writing. Many players, especially those on more obscure hardware setups, have had problems playing the game at all or suffer regular crashes. Similarly, towards the endgame StarDrive suffers from excessive slowdown, especially in large galaxies.
StarDrive is mostly the work of one man. Yet the point about being an impartial reviewer is that you don't take into consideration the heart- string tugs of human interest, but look at the end product. This game is fun, complex and only going to get better – but the odd mishmash of polish and crudeness mean GalCiv II is still captain of the fleet.
Some omissions and flaws, but balanced by excellent alien races and ship design. A welcome addition to the crew.