StarDrive 2 lets me play as a race of samurai space bears, and therefore it is hard for me to provide an unbiased review. Providing me with the ability to conquer the galaxy as an ursine warrior-race is always going to win points with me. That said there’s plenty of solid genre competition out there (space-bears or no) so it’s fortunate that Zero Sum’s sci-fi strategy game has plenty going for it apart from its galactic menagerie of playable races.
From the off we’re in pretty familiar 4X territory here. You can choose your race from a list of pre-set options, or create your own horrible chimera using a point-buy system that covers everything from how capable your citizens are in combat, to how fertile, to whether they think the galactic slave trade is a fun hobby for the over-40’s. Each faction is markedly different in both appearance and focus, from the brutal Nazi werewolves of the Vulfar Imperium to the peaceful, plant-like beatniks of the Pollop Symbiosis. As you can probably tell from those brief descriptions, StarDrive 2 isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously, remaining charmingly irreverent despite some intricate, complex mechanics.
Whereas a lot of space 4X games can bog you down in excessive subsystems and fiddly micromanagement, StarDrive 2 keeps things pretty simple. Each planet has three citizen roles; farmers create your food, workers build your stuff, and scientists research various nasty things to do to your enemies. Or economic and social advances, if you happen to be a hippy space-plant. A hex grid shows the planet’s available building space, where you can place specialist structures in order to customise each planet to your needs - you might use a series of asteroid belts as your starship construction base, while a resource-rich ocean world can be used as the bread basket for your empire.
Planetary governance is kept pleasingly simple, though it's always a good idea to specialise each of your main strongholds
Switching your civilians to different roles depending on your needs is simple. If you’re desperate to unlock that new plasma cannon tech, you can shift workers into research roles temporarily at a hit to your production capability. Research itself is a little more cluttered than it should be. The UI here does a poor job of informing you of the direction your research will take you, so it’s annoyingly hard to plan out a path for your tech acquisition. I’m also not a huge fan of the way your unique racial techs are researched at random - sure, it’s nice every now and then to have a surprisingly impressive option pop up when you gamble at researching a racial tech, but in a game that punishes you hard for wasted effort, rolling the dice on potentially gaining something useful seems a poor gamble.
One feature I really, really love is the freighter system. Built in the same way as your regular ships, upon construction freighters act as a kind of automatic resource; any utility needs that your empire has, these freighters automatically carry out. They’ll ship food to non-agricultural worlds, carry ground troops into battle, and trade goods with the space neighbours. It’s a great system that takes a lot of the frustration out of managing your empire. Even when you’re controlling a zone that stretches from one side of the galaxy to the other, you never feel like the game’s forcing you to juggle a billion plates. It’s the opposition AI that’ll cause you trouble, not the basics of the game itself.
In contrast to the cheap-looking land battles, naval encounters are exciting and full of spectacle
If you’re the kind of person who spends hours constructing the perfect battle fleet, you’ll find lots to like in StarDrive 2’s robust shipyard. There are thousands of possible combinations, with specialised versions of all the main weapon types. Laser cannons can be installed as turrets, with a wide firing arc, or set up as main cannons, which lack manoeuvrability but pack more power. You can set up your battleships as long-range broadside specialists, or speedy cruisers that close with devastating EMP blasts. Thankfully the game provides several efficient templates for those intimidated by the sheer array of options.
Space combat takes a leaf out of the RTS book, ditching turn-based play in favour of a real-time system where the player can mess around with facing, engagement rules and movement. You can choose to let the computer control your ships if you wish, but for those who like to protect their precious creations you’ll find some simple tactical options; speedy, long-range ships can be kept out of range of the enemy’s heavy hitters, slowly wearing down their hull with sniper fire. Damaging close-combat vehicles can instead be thrown straight in the enemy’s face, soaking up hits and punishing them point blank with evil broadsides.
The lack of direct tactical control can be annoying at times. Ships, especially capital vessels, are very slow to respond to orders, and have a nasty habit of wobbling back and forth rather than correctly aiming their heavy weapons where you want them to. That’s a minor concern next to the satisfaction of seeing a squadron of your elite ships tear into battle, watching all those hard-earned technological advances tear your opponents apart.
Your just reward for being a monstrous dictator – a galaxy painted in your primary colour
Land combat is less of a success. Despite some winningly eccentric unit types (if you don’t fall a little in love with the gun-toting Rambowl, General of the Owlwoks, you must be dead inside), it feels bland and unpolished. Maps are dull, grey boxes that jar with the lively art on your units displays, animations are very poor, and controlling your team through the turn-based system is too fiddly. For example, there’s no auto-attack function, so to strike an enemy you have to click on the weapon icon and then on your intended target. There’s lots of little annoyances like this that aren’t deal-breakers on their own, but add up to an unfinished feel. Whereas I’m excited to send my fleets into battle, I groan when a random encounter asks me to fight a land battle. Luckily, you can usually afford to skip it – only random side missions typically force you to send a strike team in, and even if you have to oversee things personally, encounters are typically over pretty quickly.
Another issue people will probably run into is that the faction AI leans towards the ruthless. Peaceful AI species struggle to survive very long, while those with military bonuses soon expand to an intimidating size. I got completely swamped on normal and hard difficulty until I lucked into the perfect starting spot, and ultimately I had a lot more fun switching down to easy mode. Much as it hurts my space-bear pride to admit. Here enemies are less ruthless, and far more amenable to trading and negotiating. If you like a challenge you’re in luck, but I don’t think the right balance is quite there yet. I also noticed several bugs in my time with the game, including a couple of repeated crashes to desktop. These aren’t deal-breaking errors, especially because the autosave system is generally pretty solid, but StarDrive 2 undoubtedly lacks some polish.
STARDRIVE 2 VERDICT
Despite the rough edges, though, I had a lot of fun with the game. It’s got a lot of character, it does a good job of streamlining empire management, and aside from a few visual quirks, it has a neat, attractive yet simple visual style that is very appealing. Sure, the AI can be a tad overzealous, and maybe the land battles should have been reconsidered, but those issues weren’t enough to stop me from enjoying my time with StarDrive 2. If you’re looking for a fun, clever little strategy game, you could do a lot worse than pick this up.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Finally putting together your main fleet of battle-cruisers, then sending them in to demolish a defiant enemy fleet.
Simple, attractive aesthetic.
Fun sense of humour.
Some very clever, streamlined systems for managing your empire.
Overly aggressive AI can be a pain.
Land combat doesn't work well at all.