Review: Sid Meier's Starships20 Apr 2015 4
It's an odd feeling, not enjoying a Sid Meier game. A rational person's first response to disliking a Woody Allen movie or a Krispy Kreme donut or an André 3000 verse is to check himself. Games made by the man who brought us Civilization and Pirates! and Silent Service can't be dismissed lightly either.
So lest you think I haven't taken my own advice, I've run several self-diagnostics on my game evaluation sub-systems and talked to Sigmund Freud on the holodeck before writing this: Sid Meier's Starships doesn't quite work.
Sid Meier can do this neat magic trick that almost nobody else can reliably pull off: make a game whose appeal can telescope to suit the hardest of the hardcore and the carefree casual player alike. Take Civilization as an example. Here's a game where diehards can torque up the difficulty and pore over spreadsheets of numbers, sweating every single settler and village -- but it's just as fun to play on easy for a therapeutic weekend of ahistorical conquest, crushing Julius Caesar and Bismark under the treads of your mighty Iroquois tanks. Civilization is as complex as you want to make it, and everyone walks away with a smile on their face.
That fine balance manages to elude Starships. You are the master of an upgradeable armada which you push around a game board of interconnected stars. The citizens of each star system (everybody's human, the result of an off-screen diaspora) will ask you to engage in some combat on their behalf. Succeed, and you'll get some of the four influence points needed to win them over permanently, expanding your borders and your economy. Every time you move your fleet, your crew get a little more tired and become less combat-capable, which introduces a push-your-luck element to every single turn. Because you have one (and only one) fleet at your disposal, and because your AI adversaries are scooting around running errands for the same star systems, Starships has a lovely Euro board game-y feel to it at this level.
Then there's the combat layer, which seems like a set of components borrowed from a different board game. At a glance, combat in Starships resembles the delightful Ace Patrol games, but it strips away a lot of the complexity that made those games exciting. Ace Patrol was an elaborate chess-like affair of planning aerial maneuvers two and three steps in advance with the goal of getting your fighter on the enemy's tail for a kill shot. Starships deletes all of the maneuvering and even the Z-axis from Ace Patrol, and I don't think the result is particularly flattering. You move your ships through a 2D plane dotted with impenetrable asteroid fields, blasting away at the enemy as soon as they're in range. There's no terrain in which to hide your ships, which would have made for some fun recreations of
[Another quibble with the combat: there's too much of it. Firaxis told us back in February that Starships was Sid's version of a Star Trek game, but like almost every Star Trek-inspired game ever made, there's way too much laser pew-pew. Star Trek shows tended to be chatty, wibbly-lip affairs about learning to live in harmony with weird-foreheaded aliens. Star Trek-inspired games, on the other hand, lean so hard on the combat you'd think the show had been created by Michael Bay. The closest thing to a real Star Trek game we've ever had is Silent Service, and no amount of waterboarding could coerce me to reveal the embarrassing number of hours I've spent playing Civilization IV and V. When Firaxis sent me a turn-limited preview copy of Starships in February, I was tantalized by it. The spell wore off when I realized that I'd pretty much seen the whole game already.
Starships is built around an incremental upgrade system. On turn one, you've seen just about every weapon and ship subsystem in the game -- you'll spend the rest of the game spending resources to make those systems just a little bit stronger. There's no technology you can research or planet you can capture that forces you to rethink an early game strategy or mix up your approach to combat. In Civilization, there's a periodic quantum shift in how warfare works: the first civ to show up to a fight with horses or airplanes or battleships has a temporary advantage to exploit. The Starships universe has no such surprises in store.
Starships is a game that almost no one will hate -- it's too full of that old Sid Meier charm. But it's too hard to love. The lack of content undermines the feeling of exploring beyond the final frontier and the limp combat is an awkward step back from the elegant Ace Patrol. All of the components of a brilliant game are here, but they've been fitted together almost carelessly. It was a lovely surprise back in February to hear that a new Sid Meier game was coming, but the biggest surprise has turned out to be how un-Sid Meier it is.