StarDrive 2 feels like that game I used to sit around and dream about with my friends. It’s the idea we’ve all said would be the coolest game ever but impossible to make, where you command a galactic empire, and manage the output of each planet you conquer, and the fights are real-time spaceship battles, and you can customize each ship you build, and when you board a ship you control the units in turn-based combat, and you can customize the traits of the race you're using to do different things, and there's diplomacy and trading with other races, and, and, and... It’s that game concept of “What if you were in charge of absolutely everything?” except it’s not a concept anymore. It exists, and surprisingly, it works.
Practically, StarDrive 2 feels a lot like Civilization in space, but with a heavier emphasis on customization. You start with a home planet and have to explore and expand your race to nearby star systems. That’s two of the 4Xs down, and the other two, exploit and exterminate, arrive later in the form of competing races, all of whom have different traits that affect their health, production, diplomacy, aggression levels, breeding rates, spaceship damage, and more. The race customization that the game begins with is a great teaser for how much choice StarDrive 2 gives you. You can pick traits like “Rapid Breeders,” “High-G Homeworld,” and “Eco-Friendly” for a boost, or choose negative traits like “Dumb” or “Repulsive” to gain additional points for positive ones. The customization continues when you build your first ship, as its fuel tanks, weapons, armor, and more can all be swapped and upgraded at your whim.
I'm a bit overwhelmed at this point, but StarDrive 2 has a solution. I was happy to discover that if you're unenthusiastic about micromanaging absolutely everything, presets are available at every step of the way. Each of the nine races has preset traits, ships come with preset layouts, and all the default settings are enough to get you playing smoothly. Those who want to really fine tune everything can, but the extras are there for the hardcore players and out of the way for everyone else. Combat can even be automated, though that would cut out one of StarDrive 2's biggest draws.
The space combat plays like an RTS and offers a considerable level of unit control. You can set each ship's engagement range, direction of fire, and movement manually, and the HUD shows you what section of a ship is most damaged, allowing you to micro your injured sides away from enemy fire. StarDrive 2's UI in general is slim while still being easy to use, which is impressive given the depth of the game. It doesn’t feel overwhelming to look at and certain shortcuts are standardized between menus, like right-clicking to back out to the previous screen. Consistencies like that keep me from feeling lost when jumping between StarDrive 2's dramatically different experiences, such as ground combat compared to the ship customization screen.
The only part of StarDrive 2 I truly felt overwhelmed by was my lack of understanding when it came to strategy, which should come with time and practice but is poorly expressed through the tutorials. I had no idea what to do when I first started. I built two fighters and started exploring until I eventually came across a raider ship. Not knowing the strength of it compared to my fighters, I figured I could take down an early game enemy, but was swiftly destroyed. Forcing me to discover my own limits is fine, but this loss felt particularly punishing after being given so much control. I felt like there must have been something hidden in one of those menus that could have helped me, but I had no idea where to start looking.
Outside of the main single-player mode—which creator Dan DiCicco tells me should take roughly 6-10 hours—StarDrive 2 has no multiplayer, but does feature an alternate mode called Battle Arena. Battle Arena is a series of fights tied together with a story through dialogues before each mission. You are given a budget to spend on buying and customizing your ships at the start, and the money, experience, and losses you incur along the way carry over to the next mission. Battle Arena feels completely separate from the 4X conquest of StarDrive 2’s main mode, and will hopefully be expanded upon in some of developer Zer0sum Games’ post-launch updates.
The sheer number of things you can do in StarDrive 2 is phenomenal, especially considering DiCicco is creating it practically on his own. The lack of multiplayer is disappointing, but there is so much in it already that it’s hard to really be upset by the omission. I haven't had my hands on StarDrive 2's preview build for very long, so whether or not the experience holds up or gets easier over multiple playthroughs is still to be seen. But I went into StarDrive 2 expecting to be completely run over by its complexity, and instead I found it accessible, if a bit frustrating for new players. Plus, you have to admire DiCicco for taking that “What if?” game and making it real.
DiCicco plans to release StarDrive 2 early this year for $30.