Review: Star Traders 4X Empires

By Sean Clancy 07 Jul 2014 0
Blah blah space battle, et cetera et cetera orbital weapons platforms. Come on, let's talk spice rates! Blah blah space battle, et cetera et cetera orbital weapons platforms. Come on, let's talk spice rates!

Star Traders 4X rounds all the requisite space-strategy bases for a game of its nomenclature; you find new systems, colonize them, strip them of natural resources and, in turn, funnel those resources into a burgeoning military-industrial complex. But, when it comes to mining the human drama which rests on the success or failure of this empire-building, the Trese Brothers' latest isn't as sure-footed.

Star Traders is a game where the fate of an entire system can rest on cooperation between three--often petty--groups of intergalactic merchants stranded in a remote stretch of the universe. These factions can either be an economic triumvirate fueling your conquest of the galaxy, or a perpetually warring band of toddlers who can't be bothered to call off their trade embargoes, assassins' contracts, and solar wars when a xenos fleet is steamrolling their holdings. To these traders, such grudges are just part of their (shockingly short-sighted) business, and to you--the overlord meant to keep all things balanced--they're just another semi-obscured mechanic or cryptic maths modification among many, many others.

Which isn't to say Star Traders 4X isn't engaging--just colder and more impersonal than one might expect. In a strictly solo-play title whose main distinguishing feature is this faction system--the idea that you're not playing as an ideologically pure civilization so much as guiding a fractious, corrupt plutocracy--you'd hope that those factions would be colorful and easily distinguished from one another. There ought to be a John Brown's Army over here, a Fluoride Action Network over there, and between them the Ordo Templi Orientis.

Instead, what you have are two sets of three factions, each positioned, lore-wise, as starkly different from the others, though mechanically the separations are minor. The rich De Valtos, for example, generate more credits from a colony's population than other factions. They're matched up with the generically militaristic Cadar--with colonies that generate more construction points and, yeah, help you build more things, more quickly--and the politically savvy Rychart, who have bonuses in research points for advancing tech tree progress and espionage points for advancing political agendas. All are relatively small (usually +2 per faction colony) bonuses applied to the overall empire's pool of resources.

Just like in real politics, most movements can be broken down in simple terms between two to three homogenous parties. Just like in real politics, most movements can be broken down in simple terms between two to three homogenous parties.

That pool is further glutted with construction points, research points, espionage points and credits drawn from the collection of buildings dotting your various faction holdings. Factories net you construction, of course, while mines can generate credits and some CP--with both necessary, in varying amounts, to produce other buildings and ships. A colony grows in size over time and, to accommodate, you'll need to add habitation units commensurate with a settlement's population. However, a colony only has so much "quality," which is a limit on how many individual buildings can be placed on it. This value varies from system type to system type, as does the overall richness of minerals; an overabundance of mines on a colony with few natural resources is a complete waste.

Star Traders 4X is a kind master when it comes to guiding your early builds, suggesting through its colony management screen what ought to be placed where. Early on, it's all hab units, factories and mines, with fancier fare like spice halls (to increase morale and, in turn, colony efficiency) and government buildings (for increased espionage and a nominal bonus to planetary defenses) coming later. It's also easy enough to discern a colony's total and max population, quality, mining, and morale, as well as its upkeep costs and net production.

As your factions spread and colonies run the risk of overcrowding, you'll likely find yourself having to choose between habitation for one world over additional mines at another, or the question of whether or not it's profitable (now, and in the long run) to over-develop a system with low quality; colonies with too many citizens or too many buildings suffer morale penalties, with low morale decreasing that system's economic output... somehow. A mistimed or mismanaged expansion to a system with poor resources won't just leave you with an underperforming colony--it could very well lead to an expansion which makes less than its own operating costs. Some light demolition and "redevelopment" can clear that up. "Sorry, gang, but the latest word from corporate HQ is that we're going to be laying off most of our Alpha Centauri branch. We'll be covering the loss of those 7 billion employees during this transition with a baker's dozen of temp workers we've hired straight out of space-college."

You can tell how old a tree like this is by counting the reactor upgrades. You can tell how old a tree like this is by counting the reactor upgrades.

Of course, all this tried and tested 4X management is taking place while these factions are warring (or, potentially allying) with one another, and while a fleet of xenos are doing their own colonization somewhere else on the map. (One assumes these seemingly techno-organic aliens don't have to engage in trade meetings and PR campaigns quite as often as you do.)

The Star Traders 4X tech tree is neatly bifurcated to reflect these twin threats of inter-species war and inter-faction strife. Though research paths allow a player to invest in tech such as "reactors" (for heavier and more fuel-efficient ships) or "planetary invasion" (for orbital drop pods), the two main branches available basically cover the two directions you'll need to develop your empire in; one is largely devoted to military improvements, with new ship classes, weapons, and so on, while the other is for planetary construction and politics, with better, more efficient factories and mines, as well as more cunning treaties and ploys to trick your factions into working for the benefit of the whole.

Those political treaties include things such as trade meetings and summits, which have a chance to create a trade route between two factions and increase the benefits from their colonies... in some ill-defined way. It's a good thing, though, for sure. However, you're just as likely to spend your espionage capital on those political "spells" which might end a solar war between two factions, or at least downgrade it to a "Duel of Assassins," whatever the hell that is. Again, both the drawbacks and benefits of these political states aren't clearly defined, though one assumes that if paid killers taking potshots at each other is the better option, those solar wars must be bad. Probably.

The thing with Star Traders 4X is that while it's always clear--possibly too clear--what options you ought to pursue at any given time, it's not always clear exactly why those options are best. So many of the game's systems are black boxes to the player, presented not as a series of risks and rewards to weigh so much as counter-states to a series of poorly-explained global debuffs.

Of the challenges arrayed against the player, colony management is, ultimately, a matter of hanging around in a management screen and queueing up the requisite buildings and occasional transport for expansion; meanwhile, combat against the xenos can have you attacking with fighter craft, frigates, and capital ships (all of which you can customize in Star Traders 4X's comprehensive, yet typically confounding, ship builder), but the unlocks afforded through tech progression are largely linear boosts to the effectiveness of the same kit you begin with.

The Wolf Cruiser class ships saw much more action in the war than the cost-saving "Putt-Putt Zoomer." The Wolf Cruiser class ships saw much more action in the war than the cost-saving "Putt-Putt Zoomer."

New ship unlocks can alter the dynamic of battle somewhat, but for the most part investing more heavily in a specific military tech will only unlock unilaterally better (but more expensive) gear. It's the same for colony upgrades; there's no reason to build a 1st level mine over a second level one which is twice as effective while still only using one quality point--unless you just don't have the cash on hand for upper-tier improvements. That's always the most pressing information in Star Traders 4X: the knowledge that, with enough time, you're bound to do better.

My first game of Star Traders ended in economic turmoil, my home systems starving (probably) due to my over-investing in high-end military ships and under-investing in colonies and colony upgrades. My beautiful frigates--which wiped out three-times their number in xenos missile cruisers and world-destroyers, mind you--eventually had to turn tail and run for lack of fuel. Supply matters, and that refuel frigate or mobile repair platform can be just as important to the war effort as an altogether sexier Templar Defender or Wolf Cruiser.

But Star Traders 4X is not a sexy game. It's an engrossing one, despite a lack of charm. I believe it when I'm told that, say, a solar war between two factions is bad news--I just don't know what kind of bad that is, or how to deal with it other than with the politic/power-up which can, unceremoniously, end it. I can't be expected to care about these factions and their systems, but I can watch them and interfere in their business the same way I might divert a trickle of water away from an anthill--not because I care all that much about the ants, really, but just because they're more interesting to look at when they're doing things.

Star Traders 4X was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.

Review: Star Traders 4X Empires

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