Stardrive Is Not a Good Game
Stardrive is unoriginal, inaccessible, and borderline unplayable.
For such a seemingly specific genre, space strategy has actually produced a pretty diverse array of games. There’s classic 4x like Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations, RTS from Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire, and even some CCG action courtesy of Star Chamber. But Zerosum’s Stardrive doesn’t try to break any new ground in the space strategy world, instead opting to mix a lot of existing ideas to offer the depth and scope of a 4x strategy game and the thrilling combat of a real-time game. Unfortunately, it misses on both counts, resulting in a poorly-paced blob of a game made all but impenetrable by a miserable interface.
Even when borrowing tried-and-true systems from its predecessors, Stardrive can’t seem to get it right. Case in point is Stardrive’s ship customization, which is pulled from the hyper-detailed schools of Master of Orion and Space Empires (as opposed to the largely cosmetic control you’re given in GalCiv or the rather broad strokes you can take in Endless Space). It’s an overly complex affair that has you placing not just weapons and defensive systems, but also cockpits, command centers, power cells, engines, and, for reasons that truly escape me, wiring. While it’s nice that such free control means that you can place and orient modules to create a wide variety of ships, a lot of modules tend to have overlapping functions, and the weapons especially struggle to differentiate themselves. And while giving players the ability to modify firing arcs for individual weapon modules was a cool idea in Master of Orion 2, where players could take their time during the turn-based battles to maneuver into position, it’s wasted on Stardrive’s real-time space battles.
Those battles, of course, are the only facet of Stardrive which really relies on the real-time progression. Every other aspect of the game unfolds essentially free of any time scarcity like a true turn-based game, so it’s no surprise that the battles feel similar to what you might get in the real-time Sins of a Solar Empire. And while you can set formations and assign slightly customized behaviors to your ships, Stardrive’s big gimmick is that you can take direct control over a ship and move it about using WASD instead of right-clicking with the mouse (which will instead fire the ship’s weapons toward the cursor). A novel idea, but it’s so clunky, unresponsive, and attention-consuming that it feels neither fun nor smart, and chances are good that you’ll stick to the conventional RTS controls the entire time.
However, even that is a bit of a nightmare, as Stardrive features one of the worst interfaces ever strapped to a space strategy game. Even at full zoom, most ships are too small to identify and command. There’s no way to quickly visually ascertain your local or galaxy-wide fleet strength – you’ll need to make a few clicks and look at a giant spreadsheet for all of that. Readouts are full of so much information that it takes a while to parse for the stuff you actually care about. You’d think that the slow pace of Stardrive would make it ideal for rich tactical battles, but the whole thing is so unwieldy that even the most basic slugfest is a frustrating mess. It’s a problem that plagues the game’s peaceful aspects as well. There’s a lot of potential depth here, but the interface makes it a nightmare to deal with even two or three planets, let alone the dozens that you eventually have under your control. Stardrive’s solution to this seems to be automation – everything from trade routes to entire planets can be handled by the AI – but this defeats the whole point of having a complex game in the first place. There are tons of little gameplay details in Stardrive but there’s no system in place to help effectively manage them without just having the AI run things. This is an exhausting game to play, not because it requires you to constantly make hard choices, but because making even the simplest of choices is a time-consuming and unrewarding task.
But it’s not all bad (if only just). In the early stages of the game, a shortage of habitable planets leads to some interesting diplomatic tensions. The tech tree is wide and varied, and the playable races are the most interesting I’ve seen outside of Twilight Imperium (even if some, like the samurai bears or the mind-controlled owl-Furbies, are a bit goofy). But overall, Stardrive writes checks that its interface can’t cash, making it hard to ever feel in control of its many aspects. And ultimately, while there are a ton of ideas in Stardrive, we’ve seen them all before, and in games which delivered them much more gracefully.