Sunday, 22 March 2015

Whiskey Reviews: Sid Meier's Starships

Platform: PC
Release Date: 12 March 2015
Developer: Firaxis
Publisher: 2k
Where to get it: Steam, Here
Price: £10.99

Sid Meier's name has become a stamp of instant approval over the years, ever since Pirates! we've accepted it as a seal of quality on Civilization games. Beyond Earth was hugely disappointing, so can the follow-up mend Sid's damaged appeal or is it time to hit end turn? Follow the link to find out.

Lets be upfront; Starships is a huge disappointment. Like a good PC gamer the first thing you'll want to do is hit the options button and change resolution and bindings and the like; good luck getting any of that. The game is simply full screen or windowed, though you can resize the window it has the feel of playing a tablet game on your PC - and I've looked favourably upon many a tablet/phone port in the past but Starships stinks of lazy.
It's not a bad looking game, resembling Civ 5 on medium settings but tough shit if your PC can't handle it because there's no graphical quality options to tinker with.
While we're being upfront, there's no multiplayer either. If you're mainly a Civ multiplayer person then you'll probably want to skip right to the score and replace whatever number I pick with a big fat zero.
The most thrilling Starships ever gets.

That feeling doesn't subside with the actual gameplay either, you have one fleet of starships that you can upgrade and move around a randomly generated map. You can build more ships but they always go into this one fleet and no matter how much you upgrade them they're always one of a couple of classes and strategy is rather basic.
Like Civilization combat takes place on a hexagonal grid, this time littered with asteroid fields of varying density that you can hide behind and which will lower the power of or block your shots entirely. Unlike Civilization 5 weapons have gigantic ranges of half a dozen tiles or more and more than one unit can occupy the same tile, eliminating what few tactical advantages the hex grid system had.
There's no point building a flimsy cruiser loaded down with torpedoes because the enemy can just shoot its long range lasers past your friendly units and take it down, for example.
Your two main tactics come in the form of asteroids and stealth.
Asteroids as previously mentioned will lower a shots power or block it entirely. It's not always a perfect solution but you can hide weaker ships behind partial asteroid fields and launch fast but flimsy fighters or torpedoes from safety.
Stealth meanwhile is a game breaking bullshit button. Hitting the stealth button puts a ring around your ship, enemy ships have to get into this ring to detect your ship and fire upon it. It doesn't take many upgrades to bring this down to a one-hex or even half-hex size, making your ships almost entirely undetectable since the AI seems to forget sensors exist.
Coupled with long range lasers, or even powerful short-range plasma weapons and you have a recipe for domination no matter what the odds. Throw in a wonder that allows you to enter stealth at no cost, activating it for free when you move which allows you to remain invisible and fire at the same time and you've got an instant win that'll allow as little as two or three moderately equipped ships to rampage across the galaxy freeing planets from your enemies influence often with no opposition as the AI attempts to preserve resources by not facing you for fear of being dominated.
Remember that options screen from earlier?

Some flavour is added to the combat via each encounter's random modifier, for example you might not be allowed to move directly right (referred to as "east" in game) or asteroid fields might disappear as the battle goes on, or shields might not work as well. They're minor, sometimes annoying and calling them flavour might have been a bit too generous because after four or five matches you'll stop reading them and just hit next.
Second on the flavour menu is battle cards, again random effects that buff your fleet for varying effects; perhaps adding an extra shield level or allowing you to move two spaces further or even repairing your ships or damaging the enemies. They're useful in the right situation but I've gone whole campaigns without even using one, mainly because my bullshit stealth fleet was untouchable.

Ooh! Choices! Those are the default selections by the way.

The metagame is likewise light on stategy and content; you have crew morale/fatigue and that limits how many times you can move your fleet each turn. The idea being to jump between planets and secure influence to bring them into your empire in order to gain their resources and benefits.
You do this by taking part in randomly selected missions for rewards. Having them randomly selected is nice but the serious lack of them, I think there's only about 7 or 8 in total, makes for a lot of repetition even in a medium sized galaxy let alone over multiple games. The missions generally come in three flavours; blow something up, run away, or play king of the hill with an AI too stupid to capture more than one of the points.
One mission type I particularly hate, to the point that I let AIs actually take that planet and start a war to get it back later is the maze type. You either get limited sensor range or a limited number of turns and have to navigate a dense asteroid field set up like a maze, sometimes with enemies chasing you too. It's boring and stupid and if I wanted mazes I'd be playing a better game like Rogue, or Shining Force.
Gameplay: Still not that good.

Resources come in four flavours and have a single use each:

  • Energy allows you to upgrade your ships or add new ones to the fleet.
  • Metals allow you to buy planetary upgrades and build wonders.
  • Food allows you to build cities, improving the resource generation of planets.
  • Research allows you to research things (duh).
  • Credits, lastly, are for buying the other resources via a Sins Of A Solar Empire style market.
While I can't complain about the simplicity of the resource system, it does turn into a checklist of things to do every turn, since there's not much point holding onto anything because the diplomacy system might as well not exist so you may as well just dump everything into upgrading your own empire as soon as possible.
The only resource you'll really put any thought into is energy, because it's used for repairing damaged ships you'll want to hold a little back each turn in case of a disastrous defeat or, more likely, a ding in the paintwork.
Research is similarly bollocks.

Wonders make a return too, not every planet has one but many do and they're expensive to build but confer a powerful and ride ranging set of bonuses upon your fleet, and only your fleet.
Bonuses range from the almost useless Torpedo Boosters (extra torpedo move speed) to the must-have Cloaking (free and automatic stealth) or Fleet Tradition (fatigue doesn't lower your crew's performance), making your third battle per turn just as easy to win as the first.
The problem with wonders is that they're also a victory condition, having seven of them is an instant win so if you're late grabbing territory the AI can score an easy victory over you but this also backfires spectacularly as you can just let them build the wonders then go in and start stealing them out from under their noses. 
Of course, it wouldn't be Starships if they didn't manage to fuck up the implementation somehow. Wonders aren't the only victory condition, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they are because it's so easy to accidentally win a wonder victory. For example, if you're going for a domination victory (holding 51% of all the planets) you'll have to grab enemy territory and their wonders along with it which leads to accidentally hoarding seven of the bloody things and winning via the condition you didn't want.
You can disable the Wonders victory on the match set-up screen (also woefully deficit of options) but that only limits you, the AI can still win via wonders so there's not much point turning it off.
Winning the campaign isn't very rewarding either, there's a brief cut scene of some planets and a voice over by someone who wasn't paid nearly enough to not sound bored ending with the title of the game. Quite frankly it smacks of being a teaser trailer with altered voiceover.
Kind of looks like a Sci-fi convention salt shaker.

I believe that's enough of an ode to Starships, lets look at the good point now: Starships unlocks things for Beyond Earth and vice versa. The unlocks aren't hinted at anywhere, nor explained, thankfully thecrazyscotsman wrote a wonderful guide to Starships that deserves a good read if you're considering buying it or already have the game.
The unlocks are of varying quality; Beyond Earth's best include new starting cargo types that actually breathe a little life back into an already tired game. Back in space though the unlocks are far more important, winning under certain victory conditions in Beyond Earth unlocks the dual affinities for Starships, effectively adding a bunch more factions to the game and giving it some much needed, if ultimately pointless variety. There's also extra missions that can be unlocked by finishing BE campaigns, extending the life of Starships by literally minutes.
If you don't own Beyond Earth, probably because I already told you it's not worth the money, then you're shit out of luck for getting the unlocks in Starships, leaving you with about half the game.

Overall Starships is another entry in the recent trend of Firaxis pumping out shite. The Beyond Earth setting isn't very good to begin with but they could have done so much with catapulting the affinities hundreds of years into the future, and into space. Harmony could have had badass living ships that look like Wraith hives (Stargate: Atlantis) or Zerg Leviathans (Starcraft) and all serve unique purposes. Supremacy could have had awesome dual role fighter/bombers and Purity could have favoured huge capital ship weapons and awesome broadside attacks.
I just came up with all that on the spot, and it's more variation than the game has.
The one kind thing I can say is that each game only takes about two to two and a half hours to complete and that does have some appeal since many games of this type can take all day, or multiple days to play.
Some might call the game things like "baby's first 4x" but I'd rather say it's a shallow, uninspired port of a game obviously meant for another medium that hasn't learned from the lessons of other ports that got it right in the past. It's about as weighed down with tactical choice and inspiration as the virtual astronauts aboard its dull ships.
If you must have a quote that'll make it into a cheesy anti-Starships PSA: the game is lint. You'll have momentary fun picking it out of your pocket and it'll end up quickly discarded.
Go play Endless Space instead.

Score: 1 bellybutton lint out of 10.

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