When talking about Sid Meier's Starships, one thing should probably be cleared up right away. The game is called Starships, not Sid Meier's Galaxies. The point of the game is to build and support a fleet of space ships as they travel from one planet to another, completing missions to win influence over each world, until they finally decide to join your alliance. Even for an inexpensive game that is simultaneously released for PC, Mac and iOS, Starships treads a fine line between being a casual game and a deep tactical strategy game. A feeling that is underscored by how it can't be run in full screen mode on the PC (just full screen windowed). Although the ship combat can be challenging and exciting, the rest may leave you wishing for more.
Meet New Civilizations... and Shoot them
Starships acts as a continuation of the Beyond Earth story, which supposes that you've successfully set up a working world government on an alien world, and are now ready to take to the stars again. You receive a signal from deep space, supposedly from a second colony ship dispatched from Earth, so you set your sights on that part of the galaxy to meet with the lost colony. Whether you'll meet on friendly or adversarial terms is up to you.
The game reuses a lot of the same themes and graphics from Beyond Earth, including the three Affinities (Supremacy, Harmony, and Purity) and faction leaders. However, Affinities play no political role like they do in Beyond Earth. Choosing an Affinity and leader provides bonuses, some short term, while others last throughout the game. This is where the narrative connection with Beyond Earth starts to fall apart, since it essentially means that you've traveled halfway across the galaxy to meet up with a group of leaders who look and act almost identically to the ones you left behind. But Starships isn't a story driven game.
As mentioned earlier, Starships focuses almost entirely on your fleet of ships. Not counting a factional bonus, you'll start with two spacecraft in your fleet. Each can be upgraded with weapons, shields, and technology. Use your fleet to take part in a series of missions and win over the hearts and minds of the planet. There are four routes to victory, with the most straightforward being to get over half the galaxy to join your alliance. Other victory conditions include being the first to max out all the research trees, being the first to build all Wonders, or wiping out all your rivals.
You'll spend much of the game in tactical ship combat mode, a hex grid map populated with planets, asteroids, and the occasional wormhole. This is where the game picks up a very distinct XCOM: Enemy Unknown feel, as you take turns to maneuver ships around to use asteroid fields for cover and to gain the best firing position.
Ship combat is very satisfying, and I love the feeling of victory when the odds were firmly stacked against me. In one encounter, my ships were clearly outmatched and outnumbered, but I managed to win by ducking through wormholes and launching a series of guerrilla strikes. Critical hits will disable vital systems like weapons, shields, and engines, which can be maximized by hitting enemy space craft from specific directions. A rear hit, for example, can be devastating.
You can outfit your ships however you like, so long as you have enough resources. Ultimately, you can end up with a handful of powerful ships, or a large fleet of weaker ships. The decision and approach is up to you. Whatever you decide to do, quickly making your way up the tech tree provides immediate and phenomenal bonuses. Researching newer technologies can get very expensive, but if you're lucky enough to end up in a galaxy with a lot of "Free Tech" planets to win over, you could gain a serious advantage over your rivals by putting all those freebies into long range lasers, and annihilate your foes from afar.
It would be one thing if the game were harder because the AI is smarter, but that's not necessarily the case. It seems like the game is harder because the computer is given extra advantages at the start of the game. This feeling is compounded during missions that call in enemy reinforcements in an effort to overwhelm you. Too bad Starships doesn't support multiplayer, because battling it out against a human opponent be a refreshing break from playing against the AI.
No Empires Here
This is a Sid Meier game, so you must be able to maintain an empire, like in Beyond Earth, right? Sort of. You're free to build new cities on each planet, and upgrade them so that you gain more resources or research points from them. Wonders can be constructed on the most developed planets, but it's hard to tell what that threshold is. Also, you cannot select what Wonder to build. A planet can either build something, or it can't.
If I haven't made it abundantly clear already, I'll do so now. Starships isn't a empire building game like Civilization. You don't have to put much investment into each planet if you don't want to. The economic system is sparse, and the diplomatic system even more so. You just need to acquire planets, which provide a fixed amount of resources per turn, and upgrade them as you see fit. You can get away with ignoring the economic system altogether on Small maps.
Diplomacy is as shallow as it gets. Other than interrogating factional leaders, who are only too eager to reveal their fleet and empire strength to you, the only diplomatic action you can commit to is setting up a peace treaty or going to war. Furthermore, there's no direct way to sway opinions of you. You can't offer gifts or trade directly for resources. They either like you for whatever reason, or they don't.
Another annoying aspect is that a leader screen will pop up while the AI is taking its turn, where the a faction leader will suddenly shout that he's fed up with you and he's declaring war. Except, he's not talking to you. He's talking to someone else, and you just happen to be privy to the conversation. Since the leader doesn't specifically state who he or she wants to war with (you have to deduce it from the follow-up screen), this part can be very confusing.
Conquering a rival faction's Homeworld will automatically bring its entire empire under your control, so those looking to win a Domination victory might accidentally end up with a Population one (controlling 50% of the galaxy) instead.
The Final Frontier
It's clear that the development team at Firaxis spent a great deal of time putting together a robust ship combat game, and I love seeing my ships evolve as I attach add-ons. But even though the space ship combat is challenging and fun, I don't think it has a lot of long-term appeal. The supporting strategy elements in Starships are too shallow and there's no cohesive narrative holding things together. Although there are pirates and marauders around, and they show up in missions, there don't appear to be any random events to help shake up gameplay. There's just ship combat, and all the upgrades you invest in to make sure you win each fleet encounter.
Ultimately, the game left me wishing there was more to it.
Sid Meier's Starships
- Challenging tactical ship combat
- Nice variety of missions
- Straightforward victory conditions
- Shallow economic and diplomacy systems
- Uneven difficulty settings
Steven Wong posted a new article, Sid Meier's Starships Review: Fire All Guns