What Is It? A space-themed, turn-based 4X strategy game with real-time elements
Play It On: Intel Core i5 @ 3.5 Ghz, 8GB RAM, GTX 660/Radeon HD 7850
Reviewed On: Windows 7, AMD 2.80 GHz processor, 16GB of RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
Price: $30 / £23
Release Date: Out now
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Developer: Zero Sum Games
Website: Official site
I never thought about it this way, but I suppose if I were a space admiral responsible for the colonization of dozens of worlds, I'd prefer to do it as a sentient bear in samurai armor with a katana strapped to his back. I have StarDrive 2 to thank for that little revelation. My race's girth and resulting lack of subtlety mean we make god-awful spies while checking off StarDrive 2's four Xs, but by Ursa Major, none of the hippie plants and races of reckless wolfmen we've encountered come close to matching our prowess in ground combat.
StarDrive 2 has the spirit of a memorable 4X strategy game, and it competently mixes old standards such as space exploration and turn-based colony management with real-time space battles and XCOM-style ground battles. Its customization is especially generous—if I decide, say, that I don't like how my space bears have "ponderous spacefighters," I can easily make their ships more powerful than those of other races. That extends even to the intuitive ship building component, where I have to weigh considerations such as armor versus engine power alongside decisions about where to place newly researched weapon technologies in the allotted grid. A total of nine races in all vie for domination of the galaxy here, but they're so open to pre-game tinkering that their differences could be merely cosmetic should I wish.
But that's just one aspect of StarDrive 2, and like so many other 4x games, it occasionally veers close to overcomplexity. Great pains have been taken to overcome the most obvious danger zones, though, as tooltips wait behind almost every onscreen feature and extensive automation removes the need to micromanage tasks such as trucking food back and forth between colonies. In emergencies, I can easily change some of my scientists into farmers or laborers by dragging and dropping them on the appropriate screen, and they don't even whine about their degrees not going to good use. On the occasions when I started the game with a good random map with nearby resource-rich habitable planets, such decisions allowed StarDrive 2 to chug along as an entertaining if by-the-books 4X strategy game.
The complications arise when you inevitably run into one of the other eight civilizations floating about the galaxy. They're an aggressive lot, and up until a recent post-launch patch, they were prone to colonizing planets within my own space when I'd slacked in my exploration efforts. Even now, the best my space bears can hope for is a non-aggression pact with folks like the Cthulhu-inspired Ralyeh, but the absence of mutual armed support means that my they always have to fight their own battles without any aid. What's worse, my population's tolerance of them went down with every trade of technology, usually leading to a wild tangle of claws and tentacles. On the bright side, StarDrive 2's commitment to relative simplicity comes in handy even here, as the menus list the success chance of each offer before I have to consent to them.
But StarDrive 2 has little patience for peace, and even the most promising first contacts lead to war in time. The resulting space battles take place in real time instead of in turns as in the core civilization building game, and I generally enjoy ordering simple tactical commands with my mouse after I amass a fleet of powerful fighters. It's a shame that the battles tend to bog down as they near completion, though, as the larger ships are plodding things that adjust to new commands with all the alacrity of a gelatinous cube. I once spent almost two minutes trying to knock out a sole remaining enemy fighter, and it didn't help that the busiest battles sometimes caused my GTX 780 to stutter.
At least it's better than the XCOM-inspired ground combat, which looks like it was tacked on from a lesser, unrelated game. That's a pity, since this is where my space bears shine. I can't deny that I got a kick out of sending my ursine troops tearing through gun-toting enemies with only their blades, but the fights always took bland, gridded rooms that seem more related to Q*bert than to XCOM. It's the only element of StarDrive 2 that feels as though it's barely past the drafting phase.
It's a good thing, then, that StarDrive 2's other elements rarely suffer so thoroughly, although its drive for 4X accessibility occasionally leaves it in danger of slipping into mere adequacy. What we're left with is an ambitious, sprawling admiralty sim that reaches for the stars but rarely achieves more than a comfortable orbit. But with space bears? For me, that makes it more than worth it.