In Space, No One Can Hear You Yawn
For a game that has you exploring the cosmos, populating new planets, and upgrading starships, Sid Meier’s Starships portrays itself as a relic of the past. It looks to a simpler time of turn-based strategy, far removed from the complexity of the modern Civilization games. Its abridged development system allows you to dive into exploration, resource management, and combat with little effort, finishing a session or two in a single sitting. However, this lack of effort comes at the price of stripping away a measure of challenge through a remedial AI and exploitable victories.
The introduction continues from Civilization: Beyond Earth ‘s ending, where a signal from a distant intelligent life form is revealed. Thus the effort begins to chart the stars and determine who’s out there, for better or for worse. Apart from the brief overture, there this no story or campaign to follow. You set the size, difficulty, and player count parameters, choose one of three Affinities and one of eight commanders which provides your starting bonuses, and you’re off to a randomly generated galaxy with worlds to discover.
You homeworld provides your starting resources of energy for outfitting your starships, metals for building planetary improvements and wonders, science for researching starship improvements, and food for building cities that increase your resource collection. From there you guide your fledgling fleet to nearby planets, each of which is comprised of a specific biome that bolsters a particular resource output. Each planet is also a specific type that provides a particular benefit, such as lowered cost for ship upgrades, increased resource production, and other boons.
Planets also have missions attached, which encompass the combat portion of Starships. Each consists of a specific objective such as destroying marauders, leading a ship to safety, or escaping a handful of rogue suicide probes. Your starships are all a singular unit type, but the game allows a great deal of freedom in customizing them with upgrades to tailor your team against each particular threat. Perhaps you’re being chased by a group pirates, so upgrading your engines will get you to the warp portal faster. Or maybe you’re going up against a group of cloaked ships, so adding points to your sensors is a prudent course of action. Shields and armor improve your defense, lasers and cannons provide attack power for long and short range, respectively. I personally found the torpedoes invaluable. Although they follow a trajectory through multiple turns rather than cannons and lasers firing instantaneously, they are not hindered by a blockade of asteroids, and can affect a cluster of enemies for multiple strikes. Once I’ve built the Stealth Torpedo wonder, the enemy hasn’t got a prayer.
This does bring me to the game’s biggest flaw, which is the unbalanced challenge level. Unlike Civilization, where the AI adapts to your actions and where you yourself must adapt, Starship provides too many opportunities to exploit the system, most of which are easy to discover. Of the four victory conditions, Domination and Population both have you spreading your borders and conquering the galaxy. If you’re playing against six other computer players and are angling for a Domination victory, it likely will never happen since you’re apt to gain the 51% of the total population and succeed in the Population victory before destroying every opponent. For a Science victory you barely have to leave your starting region, focusing on science production upgrades on a few planets and spending your resources to max out the cheapest three technologies, which is the requirement for such a victory. Wonder victory works the same way, except with a focus on metals production instead of science.
Combat is also easy to manipulate since the AI uses very rudimentary tactics. Even with uncloaked torpedoes, enemy ships will fly into their path more often than not. The random composition of asteroids in each combat map could give you a clear line to the warp portal in an escape mission, or an easy choke point against escaping enemies. Separating enemy ships and then flanking them is a straightforward maneuver. And I still don’t understand why stealth ships will move, then cloak at the end of their turn, only to be revealed again at the start of the next turn. It almost defeats the need to upgrade your sensors. Overall, the difficulty is inconsistent. It’s as if you need to create the challenge through your own decisions, when shouldn’t it be the game that creates the challenge and adapts based on your choices? The challenge could have been provided by allowing human opponents, though sadly this is a single player only affair.
The most antiquated aspects of Sid Meier’s Starships comes from the artistic side of the spectrum. Neither the character models nor the tableau shots are pleasing or detailed. They feel more like first drafts or concept art rather than finished pieces. Ships move smoothly through space, and purchased upgrades are visually showcased. However, the overall animation through combat is rather listless, and explosions are downright anticlimactic. The interface is tightly laid out and easy to navigate, but is dominated by blue hues with tinges of reds and green – the expected palette of a spacefaring game.
The musical score is also uninspired, following the tired science fiction archetype we’ve all heard plenty of times before. Even the sound effects feel cheap. I shouldn’t be laughing at the shrieks my pilots make when their ships are blown up, and yet here I am shaking my head and giggling at the absurdity of the sound and poor quality of the effect. Still, the orchestrations do set the atmosphere and adjust depending on the mood of the situation without being too obtrusive.
Slimming down a typically convoluted Sid Meier’s strategy game into a more time manageable endeavor for the player is a solid blueprint. Sid Meier’s Starships provides a great baseline, but the working draft art, underwhelming sound effects and animation, and unbalanced gameplay keep this title from ever thrusting off the launch pad. It’s a fun game that can be a challenge, but requires you to do most of the leg work to make it fun and challenging.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.0 Graphics
The freehand drawings are plausible as concept art, but need more polish for the final product. The starships look and move nicely, but other animations are a bit flaccid. 4.2 Control
Tight and responsive mouse controls and an easy to navigate interface. The camera handily centers itself in combat after manually surveying the battlefield. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Clichéd orchestration and weak sound effects limit the effectiveness of audio to invoke much emotion. It’s passable, but forgettable. 3.6 Play Value
The pace is a welcome relief from other Sid Meier games, and the ship customization is simple yet multifaceted. However, the game has severe tactical balance issues, and is lacking any multiplayer component. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best