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Master of Orion (2016) - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Tactical battles put control in the player's hand
  • AIs are competent
  • Interface is clean and easy
  • News broadcasts inform player of the state of game
  • Impressive voice cast
  • Generally high production values

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Galaxies feel small and mundane
  • Empire-management feels simple
  • A.I.s seem very passive
  • Battle camera jumps around
  • No land combat
  • No multiplayer battles?

Overall Impression : C+
Solid, but a little shallow

Master of Orion (2016) - cover

Developer:
NGD Studios

Publisher:
Wargaming Labs

Platforms:
PC (via Steam), Linux

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
25 August, 2016

Genre:
Turn-based sci-fi grand strategy (4x)

ESRB Rating: N/A

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
masteroforion.com

The 2016 reboot of Master of Orion kind of shoots itself in the foot a bit with its own subtitle: "Conquer the Stars". When I play 4x games, I like to feel like I'm really building an empire, managing an economy, and conducting diplomacy. All of those things are present in Master of Orion, but I've gotten a pretty distinct feeling that this is yet another strategy game that falls victim to military rushing being the optimal strategy by far. Master of Orion doesn't really want you to build a civilization and colonize the galaxy; it firmly wants you to do what its subtitle tells you: conquer the stars.

Master of Orion III was kind of shit (it was boring, ugly, and completely lacked personality and substance), but at least it made some effort to be new and interesting. Most noticeably, the galactic map was actually three-dimensional. Sure, this was a navigational and UI nightmare for the human player, but it required players to think differently about how they approached expansion and warfare. At a more fundamental level, MoO3 sought to be a game about macro-management, asking the player to manage a vast galactic empire rather than just a collection of a dozen or so planets. The meat of the game, thus, was intended to be in the mid-to-late stages, as developed empires engaged in epic battles for survival, rather than all the fun and challenge being front-loaded in the early rush to colonize all the nearby planets. It didn't work, but at least it was trying to genuinely innovate the 4x genre.

The new Master of Orion isn't anywhere near that ambitious, and seeks instead to simply bring the original Master of Orion concept (in its simplest form) into the age of high-resolution 3-d graphics. It's a scaled-down, bog-standard space-4x game that borrows heavily from Endless Space and Civilization V. But it is at least a competent one!

Conquer the Stars isn't as big, complex, or ambitious as Master of Orion 3, but at least it's competent.

The galaxy itself isn't very big this time around. Depending on the map's size, there's only a few dozen stars, and most of them only have two or three planets. Unstable star lanes and space monsters can lock you out of exploring certain systems until you research certain technologies or grow your military sufficiently large (respectively). Other than that, exploration is over fairly quickly (especially once you start performing map trades in diplomacy).

Planet-management is also fairly easy. You can assign population meeples between one of three different types of output: food, production, and research. Meeples of different jobs and races have different icons, and unhappy meeples on strike have icons that sit down holding a picket sign. It makes it very easy to see what your population's current status is at a glance. There's just not really much to do with them. You don't have to assign them to work specific buildings, and with only 3 outputs to manage, balancing or specializing isn't that difficult.

All the buildings in the game are also one-time builds that don't serve much function other than to provide flat points of one of the three outputs, or to modify the efficiency of meeples in a particular output category. Buildings that have unique functionality (such as the Spy Center, Gravity Generators, or Interplanetary Administration) are few and far between. The only other thing that you do with your planets is to occasionally terraform them in order to boost your max population and unlock additional slots along each of the output tracks.

Master of Orion - conquered planet
Each point of population is of a specific race, which affects the morale of conquered planets.

The tech tree also feels kind of bland and linear. I would much prefer a tech web along the lines of Civilization: Beyond Earth. Master of Orion kind of goes in this direction a bit by including some techs in which you have to chose which of two different items you want to take when you research certain techs. You can then trade for the other via diplomacy if you want to. It's kind of like the leaf nodes in Beyond Earth, but only some techs have them, and I rarely had to think too hard about which one I wanted.

A tall ship, and a star to steer her by

In keeping with its subtitle "Conquer the stars", ship design and battles are fairly complicated and robust compared to other systems in the game. As is common in space 4x games, you can design your own ship blueprints. You can set which weapons you want and even customize the individual weapon hard points to specialize each weapon. One set of laser cannons can be set as an offensive weapon, while another laser hardpoint can be set as point-defense so that it destroys any incoming enemy missiles. You can even change the arcs of many weapons and design ships that use broadsides if you feel so inclined.

Master of Orion - ship blueprint
You can design your own ships and automatically upgrade them as you develop new techs.

When you research new technologies and unlock new components for ships, you can automatically upgrade all the ships in your fleet. This works perfectly fine for the pre-fab ship types, and is actually pretty decent with your custom-designed blueprints. You may have to go in and manually edit your custom designs in some cases though.

When your ships meet threats in the galaxy, there's also real-time ship combat. There's a lot of very interesting options in the battles. You can set formations, adjust engagement ranges, change the throttle of each ship, and take manual control of any (or all) of the ships in your fleet.

The problem is that battles don't really last long enough for a lot of these tools to feel worthwhile. The ships move and maneuver fast enough, and missiles travel fast enough, and the arenas are small enough that most battles just devolve to ships flying point-blank circles around each other, firing potshots whenever their weapons recharge. You don't have to manage much, and there's honestly not much reward for doing so (at least not at the difficulty levels that I played at).

Master of Orion - real-time battle
Real-time battles are the deepest system in the game, but are over too fast to really need that depth.

Overall, the real-time combat works well except that the camera insists on jumping around a lot. If it's too fast-paced for you, you can always lower the battle speed. Being real-time (rather than the turn-based combat of retro Master of Orion) means that you don't have to waste as much time micro-managing your larger late-game fleets.

As good as the real-time combat is, I'm surprised that there is no equivalent land-based combat. You can build marines and tanks and stuff like that and invade enemy planets, but it's all automated. You can't even customize your land units in the way that you could customize your space ships and fleets. So invading planets feels very random and unsatisfying.

While the A.I.s are generally competent at building a sizeable empire and military, they are annoyingly passive diplomatically (at least at the intermediate difficulties). I don't want everybody in the game to be irrationally hostile, but I do wish they would be a bit more proactive diplomatically. Almost all of the diplomatic interactions that I had were initiated by me, as the A.I.s rarely came to me for trade deals or treaties.

Master of Orion - Antaran threat
The Antarans seem to show up in order to threaten the player(s) that are getting close to victory.

There are neutral threats in the form of pirates, space monsters, the Orion Guardian, and the ancient Antaran race. None of these are really that disruptive except maybe the Antarans. They occasionally pop out of their pocket dimension and attacks random planets, but then they immediately go away. Achieving a victory doesn't actually require you to deal with these threats. My first victory was a diplomatic victory with less than 100 turns left in the game. The Antarans had just started attacking me in force, but I was basically able to ignore them because once I won the Galactic Leader vote two turns later, I had won and the game just ended. I was disappointed that my role as Galactic Leader didn't require me to propose any resolutions, mediate any disputes, or unite the galaxy to deal with the Antaran threat. It just felt very anti-climactic.

The other neutral parties aren't much of a consequence on gameplay either. Pirates are pretty trivial to deal with and completely disappear by the mid-game. Independent planets don't even build a military to speak of (and there's only 3 or 4 of them in a game anyway). Space monsters just fly around a single star system and never threaten your neighboring star systems. They basically just act as a way of preventing players from settling those systems until they have a powerful enough military to kill the monster. The monsters can't be reasoned with or studied, and there's no mystery to solve about them other than how many missiles you need to blow it up. Encountering a space monster doesn't have any of the mystery or problem-solving element that you'd expect from a similar encounter in an episode of, say, Star Trek.

Master of Orion - Antaran attack
By the time the Antarans actually threatened me, I was a couple turns away from a diplomatic victory anyway.

Sci-fi ensemble

If Master of Orion excels in anything, it is probably production value. NGD Studios and Wargaming spared no expense in getting some top-tier voice talent from venerable science fiction franchises to lend their voices to the various leaders and other characters in the game. This ranges from narration from Michael Dorn, to leaders being voiced by the likes of Mark Hamill, John de Lance, and Alan Tudyk.

All the original races from the first Master of Orion are back. Each race has an animated leader who you can "talk to" in the diplomacy screen and propose various diplomatic and trade deals. If you've played Civilization V, then this screen will look very familiar. The leaders are all well-animated and well-voiced with different postures and facial expressions to denote their disposition towards you. Like Civ V, however, they just kind of stand there and only have a handful of dialogue lines each, so they never feel like real people or agents in the game -- just a figurehead that you throw trade deals at.

Each race has an animated leader voiced by recognizable sci-fi alumni such as John de Lancie and Mark Hamill.

There's also a Galactic News Network (GNN) mini-show that pops up occasionally to notify the player of important events in the game. It's hosted by two very well-animated and well-acted robot anchors who will update you on the expansion of other races, the relative military strengths of each major race, the appearance of space monsters, and other random events such as supernovae or population booms. It's nice, but it didn't take long before I'd seen it all and found myself just looking at the headline to see what the story was about, then simply skipping the cutscene to get back to the game.

There's also little cutscenes of your colony ships landing on planets. It's clearly a 3-d model in front of a 2-d backdrop, but they still look nice. There's a unique backdrop for each different type of planet. It does make your first few colonies feel a little monumental, but they get repetitive quickly, and I skip through those now too. The text for the planet's statistics also flashes by way too fast to be able to read it all.

Master of Orion - colony ship
There's a cutscene for each new colony you found.

But the UI still needs work

While the animation and voice-acting are good across the board, production does falter a bit in the UI department. The overall UI is very minimalist and clean, but it also lacks any real personality. It's not as ugly as Civilization: Beyond Earth's UI, but it's just very bland. I would have maybe liked to have seen a unique UI for each race that maybe adds a bit more characterization and variety to the game's visuals.

Master of Orion - leader upgrade
It would be nice to see my planet's
status to know which upgrade to take.

As the games progressed, I was also repeatedly frustrated by a number of little UI gaffs that kept popping up. For example, whenever a leader got promoted, I'd have a choice of one or two upgrades to assign. The problem is that the game wouldn't let me look at where that leader was currently assigned or view my other colonies or fleets to see what upgrade might be more useful. I might have a choice between upgrading the leader's morale bonus or updating her production bonus, but since I can't see the planet that she's stationed on, I don't know what it's current morale or productivity is, so I can't really make an informed decision on which to chose.

There's also no tooltips telling you what any of the icons on this prompt mean or what the actual upgrades do. The game already includes the nifty notification system, so I don't see any reason why leader upgrades couldn't have been deferred to a button in the notification panel. That would allow you to chose the upgrade on your own time, and give you a chance to look around your empire for where the leader might be needed and what upgrade would be best.

I also had a recurring issue in which I would try to split my fleets in order to go to two (or more) different places, but the unselected ships would just follow the split fleet to the same place anyway. I'd click the ships I wanted to break off, click to send them to point A, they'd move to point A, and then before I could click anything else, the remaining ships would suddenly leave their location and follow to point A. This would leave choke points undefended, or prevent me from engaging hostile fleets or get my colony ship to a certain planet before a rival does. Very frustrating.

And why can't I queue up multiple technologies on different paths? And why doesn't the planet management screen show the planet's previously-built item?

I haven't played any multiplayer games, but I've read on many sources that tactical battles are completely absent from multiplayer. You have to use the automated (RNG) battle system. I don't know if tactical battles have been added to multiplayer yet, so keep that in mind if you're thinking of playing any competitive multiplayer.

Time to forget about Master of Orion 3 now?

So now it seems that we can all forget about Master of Orion 3 now. But the question is: should we? The game didn't turn out well, but the things it tried to do were important to the 4x genre. It tried to eliminate micro-management and allow players to control a truly massive empire. It tried to focus most of the challenge and intrigue on the second half of the game, rather than it all being front-loaded into the early stages. These are valiant goals for a 4x to strive for. It's a shame that they didn't work out.

This rebooted Master of Orion is forgetting all of that and simply hitting the reset button. Though I had some fun, I don't see myself coming back to Master of Orion once I'm done with it.

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars doesn't have any fatal flaws. It looks slick and has a lot of nice bells and whistles. It just doesn't do anything particularly well, and some of the systems and mechanics have annoying nagging flaws and feel a bit shallow. If anything, Master of Orion works well as a fairly gentle introduction to 4x strategy. It's easy to jump into, and games play pretty quickly. I actually completed an entire game in a single afternoon -- something that's nigh impossible in a game of Civilization VI. If you're new to the genre, then this is a great introduction. It has enough going for it to be interesting, but isn't going to overwhelm you in the way that a bigger 4x game like Endless Space or Europa Universalis might.

This is a solid successor to the classic Master of Orion games, and it's a great entry-point if you're interested in the genre. For experienced 4x players, there's bigger, better games on the market right now.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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