Sid Meier's Starships Preview: Journeying to the Stars

We go hands-on with Sid Meier's Starships to see if we have what it takes to build an unstoppable armada and conquer the galaxy... through reason and diplomacy, of course. Our most powerful battleships are named Reason and Diplomacy.

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Sid Meier's Starships begins with a cinematic that appears to be a variation of the Contact victory in Beyond Earth, where your civilization decodes an alien signal from beyond the cosmos. However, as it turns out, the language is very similar to human, suggesting that it's a remnant of a lost human colony. Beyond that, the signal appears to be a call for help. So, space vessels that were originally designed for exploration and diplomacy are also fitted with weapons to deal with whatever threats you may encounter. After that, your fleet launches out to the stars, where you'll encounter other human colonies, then deal with them diplomatically or using force. Or perhaps a combination of both.

Starships is a continuation of Beyond Earth, where you've successfully established a flourishing civilization on an alien world and are now ready to head out to the stars, except this time not as refugees. So, it's no surprise that it borrows a great deal from the game, including the same faction leaders and three Affinities: Harmony, Supremacy, and Purity. Harmony ended up assimilating to the alien environment through genetic engineering, while Supremacy used cybernetics to strengthen humanity against a hostile world, and Purity strove to preserve the human race without tampering with it. At the start of Starships, players must select a leader and an Affinity, with each providing a starting bonus. It doesn't appear as though Affinity has much bearing on diplomacy the way it does in Beyond Earth, but that could change in the final version of the game.

The clear emphasis of the game is in customizing a fleet of ships and using it to travel from planet to planet, doing favors to win influence until they join your alliance. Victory goals include getting over half the galaxy to join your alliance, being the first to max out technology, having the highest population, or building all the Wonders.

You have a great deal of freedom when it comes to ship customization. Unless you have a faction bonus, you start with two ships. From there, you use your limited resources to add modules for different abilities and upgrades. Some of these upgrades impact a ship's performance in other ways, such as how adding extra armor will slow down your spacecraft. In any case, you could either end up with a small fleet of heavy hitters, or a large fleet of fast but fragile ships. But, no matter what direction you choose, combat is always a factor. Whether it's defending a science station or driving pirates away from a planet's orbit, you should be prepared for a fight.

Combat uses the hex grid from the recent Civilization games, combines it with a touch of X-COM: Enemy Unknown tactics, and sets it in outer space. You battle it out in a field, littered with asteroids and other potential hazards. Asteroids can be used for cover, although some weapons can bypass them depending on how dense the field is. Scoring (or sustaining) a critical hit could damage a key system like engine or weapons, leaving your ship limping until it can find a place to safely repair. Your strategy largely depends on the kinds of upgrades you've selected for your ships. I chose to outfit one of my ships with powerful long range weapons, a stealth module, and fast engines. My second ship was slower, but had heavy armor and devastating short range guns. My strategy was to use the heavy ship to draw attention, while my lighter stealth ship stayed on the fringes to "snipe" unsuspecting vessels.

The strategy worked incredibly well. I met with a long string of successful missions, and the only thing that reigned me in was my crews fatigue level. Once your crew gets worn out, you have to take shore leave somewhere. Shore leave equates to ending your turn. Other factions make their moves and you get resources from your planets. The lave also gets you some extra influence on the planet you're vacationing on and repairs your ships for free.

There is some mission variety in the demo I played. For example, there's one mission where you have to escape a fleet of attacking ships, and another where you have to escort a vessel to safety. Other strategic consideration include scientific research to improve your ship technology and building cities on various planets for additional resources. The demo I played is too short for any of the city building to have much of an impact, similar to how diplomacy with other factions isn't emphasized very much. However, advances in science has immediate impacts. Although technological advances are very expensive, it's easy to imagine how investing in a few key areas, such as engines, stealth, and lasers, might lead the a kind of super ship.

Judging from my experience with the demo, Starships is shaping up to be a excellent hybridization between Beyond Earth's empire building, some of XCOM's tactical combat, and an emphasis on spaceship construction that makes the game completely unique. It'll be interesting to see how well other aspects like city building and diplomacy fit in, since so much emphasis is put on ship-to-ship combat. We'll find out soon enough, since Starships is expected to release later this year for PC and iOS, with cross-connectivity features between it and Beyond Earth.

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