Seriously, it’s a revamped Master of Orion 2
When it comes to 4X space games, Master of Orion 2 (MOO2) is the game to play. In the 20 years since its release, this game has been imitated in many ways, but no game since has had comparable impact on the gaming world.
I guess it’s been so long since MOO2 came out that it was only a matter of time until someone decided, rather than “let’s make a game like MOO2,” to instead “screw it, let’s just remake MOO2 with different graphics.”
That may be a harsh assessment, but only a little harsh, as so much of this game is so strongly reminiscent of the game from 20 years ago that I do feel like the designers cheated just a bit too much.
That said, they made a great imitation, and Stars in Shadow did get me to stay up past bed time one night, stuck in “just one more turn mode.” Not everyone played MOO2 to death, I reckon many gamers today weren’t even born when MOO2 came out, so let’s start from scratch.
First comes the game setup (“much like MOO2” I’ll say this just once, though it applies to everything but diplomacy). You pick an alien (or human) race, and each plays a bit differently, especially in the early game. Each race is more or less customized to a certain planetary type—the ocean faring race does best on water worlds, for example—and your homeworld is naturally best suited for your race (except for the humans, and every race has some sort of exception).
A fully exploited system
You start with that homeworld, a colony ship, and an exploration ship, and thus commences the early part of the game, eXploring your nearby stars to find suitable worlds for colonization. Once you find a good world, you send your colony ship to eXploit the resources there.
There are plenty of things to find outside your home system. There are minor alien races; you can colonize their worlds for a big jump in population for your empire, but they can revolt against your rule, causing problems. Worlds can have bonuses or penalties to agriculture, mining, other things, and can be protected by space pirates or monsters. It’s an interesting universe, though truth be told you’ll see pretty much everything there is to see after 3 games or so.
Meanwhile, back at homeworld, you’ll build up your homeworld so you can build more colony ships, so you can eXpand. The second phase of the game is rapid expansion, until you finally meet one of the other major alien races…then you can eXterminate them, completing the 4th “X” of the 4X genre.
A good sci-fi game must have research in it, and things are pretty weak here. There are way too many weapons, each offering tiny incremental improvements. There’s not so much of a tech tree as tech vines, so you pretty much have to go through a bunch of pointless things before you can get to anything beyond “this weapon does a little bit more damage” type improvements.
There are a few early non-weapon improvements, and they are ridiculously good (+100% farming, for example)…then comes a long stretch where you’re just killing time researching useless little things. By the time you get to the fairly neat things, the game is generally over.
Yes, you can build your ships from scratch, just like...you know the drill.
The biggest issue with the “improvements are entirely too small, or entirely too large” issue comes with the ships. A ship of a larger class can, apparently, beat huge numbers of slightly smaller ships. You can’t use quality over quantity here, you’re either hopelessly outmatched, or super-powerful; the turn based combat system has little to offer, and going to “autocombat” doesn’t even let you watch a decent battle.
MOO2 diplomacy was lame, too.
There’s only one aspect of Stars in Shadow (beyond the improved graphics) that’s cleanly different than MOO2, and that’s the diplomacy. Alas, it doesn’t match the low bar of MOO2. You accrue “influence points” as you play. If you want another race to do something, you pay influence points. 50 points or so will procure trade and research agreements, hugely beneficial, and 150 points procures an alliance, to make it easier to win a diplomatic victory…it’s pretty easy to get the points to spend. I grant few games have done diplomacy well, but seeing as so little effort was spent designing the other aspects of the game (as opposed to just copying really good ideas), it just seems like diplomacy could have had more to it.
Stars in Shadow doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, but it copies great ideas very well. It’s worth the price of admission, even if it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure for those more familiar with other games in the genre.
Overall rating: 80