'Til the dice come back around: Sid Meier's Starships hands-on preview

By Owen Faraday 24 Feb 2015 0
In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth.


The surest tell that you're playing a good turn-based game is how readily it induces Inter-Turn Apnea. You know what I'm talking about.

You spend your turn carefully laying down foundations for the table-flipping coup-de-main that you'll spring the next time you get the dice. So with all in readiness, you pass the dice on to the next player and wait for them to come back around to you. You x-ray everyone else's moves while trying to maintain a Moai-like poker face. You unspool contingency plans in your head. And when the dice get to the player who might unmake everything you've worked so hard to set up, you involuntarily hold your breath. Inter-Turn Apnea.

The press preview of Sid Meier's Starships that I've been playing is so good at generating ITA that it's almost turned me purple.



There's a lot of great art in Starships -- stuff that might been used as concept pieces for Beyond Earth. There's a lot of great art in Starships -- stuff that might been used as concept pieces for Beyond Earth.


Starships creates exciting moments like that because of the unique mechanic it uses to manage turns: a mechanic called "shore leave". To some of you, "shore leave" might mean relaxing on an exotic beach or getting dragged home by the MPs -- but in Starships, shore leave means one thing: hold onto your butts.

The game board is an array of independent solar systems, producing resources and granting benefits to any empires they might join. You have one (and only one) pawn on this board: your fleet of starships, which you dispatch around the galaxy, taking on missions to earn the loyalty of these planets. Prove yourself a steadfast and noble ally to the people of Pavonis 58 by killing some pirates or putting down a rebellion and they'll join your empire, growing your borders and granting you more resources.

The unique bit here is that you're free to take on almost as many missions as you like on your turn -- but every time you make a warp jump or get into a scrap, your crew will tire. The more exhausted the crew of your fleet, the worse they perform in combat, and the riskier each mission gets.

My biggest gripe with the presentation is the dingy starfield background in the strategic view. Otherwise, Starships' presentation is surprisingly sharp. My biggest gripe with the presentation is the dingy starfield background in the strategic view -- it looks like a shedding Space Cat fell asleep on the map. Otherwise, Starships' presentation is surprisingly sharp.


When you finally do hit that shore leave button to end your turn, your AI opponents get to run the board on their own missions. And here's where the ITA comes in: you've spent the last two turns courting the people of Reticuli 84, whose advanced ship-building techniques will let you upgrade your fleet's fighter squadrons at a discount. You've got three of the four influence points you need for them to pull their finger out and finally sign on to your federation, but your crew is falling asleep on their feet and you reluctantly hit the shore leave button. That's when Elodie's fleet (your opponents are the now-familiar leaders from Civ: Beyond Earth) swoops in to start wining and dining the Reticulans. Dammit Elodie.

(You have to imagine that the governors of these planets in Starships must be pinching themselves: one day, hyper-advanced human starfleets just show up in orbit, falling all over each other to become your best friend. Thanks, spaceman -- can you pick up my dry-cleaning?)

Never tell me the odds. Never tell me the odds.


The resources that you gain from the strategy layer all feed into the tactical layer of the game, where your fleet does turn-based battle with pirates, marauders, and the other factions. Your ships are endlessly reconfigurable, but every choice has consequences. You can spend resources to make a heavily armoured brawler with powerful close-range plasma cannons -- but all that mass means your ship will also be slow, unless you also spend on engine power. You can have a small fleet of powerfully upgraded ships, or a bigger fleet of less capable vessels. You can focus on fighter squadrons, or long-range lasers, or slow-moving torpedoes -- or you can choose to have a little of everything. You can even change your mind -- if you run into a scenario your fleet isn't prepared for, you can pay to reconfigure your ships, but that money could have been spent elsewhere. This is classic Sid Meier stuff, with interesting decisions lurking everywhere.

Everything ladders up to the tactical combat in Starships. Everything from the technologies you buy to the wonders you build work to give you an edge in combat. Everything ladders up to the tactical combat in Starships. Everything from the technologies you buy to the wonders you build work to give you an edge in combat.


Starships' combat is pleasingly complex. It takes place in spaces around planets, and Firaxis have done a great job of making the 2D battlefields compelling: gaps between asteroid belts open and close periodically, and the gravitational pull of planets and black holes bend the trajectories of torpedoes.

I could write a whole preview just about the torpedoes in this game. They take several turns to cross the map, for a start, which means you get the best benefit from firing them Wayne Gretzky-style to where the enemy is going to be, rather than where he is. But there's more to it than that. At the beginning of each turn you can detonate a launched torpedo or let it run a little further before pressing the big red button. Launching one of these things fundamentally alters the flow of a battle -- because the torpedo might be detonated at any moment, they act like area-denial weapons, forcing you to rethink an approach vector. I sometimes found myself launching torpedoes that I knew I'd never actually explode, but rather to force the enemy into a different channel of map. I could go on, but you get my drift: the combat is top-notch, thoughtful stuff.

Time for a little remodelling. Time for a little remodelling.


Publisher 2K provided me with a preview build that was limited to only three turns before it booted you back to the main menu -- which was a fairly weighty chunk of gameplay each time, but how well Starships' mid- and end-game hold up remain to be seen. But this sample is very promising indeed -- I'm having as much fun when I'm not playing and watching the AI undo my mitzvahs for Cruces 60 as when I've got the dice in my hands.

Sid Meier's Starships will be out for desktops and iOS this spring and it will cost $15 -- I'll be holding my breath until then.

UPDATE: Looks like it's going to be out on March 12th.
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