I recently met with Daniel DiCicco, the mastermind behind Zero Sum Games. Their first release, StarDrive, was a pausable real time 4X game that, by DiCicco’s own admission, probably could’ve used ten more minutes in the oven. StarDrive 2, which will be released later this year, is a fully turn-based 4X empire builder. The sequel is heavily inspired by Master of Orion 2, yet sporting quite a few features that should give fans of the genre something to get excited about.
At the heart of StarDrive 2 lies the extensive ship customization. Whether it’s weapons, armor, engines, or auxiliary systems: ships can be outfitted to your exact specifications and used accordingly on the battlefield. The game will offer a scenario mode, which mainly consists of space battles with little bits of story interspersed to give some context. You can customize your units and buy new upgrades from the same pool of funds you’ll be spending on new ships, so there are different strategies based on how you allocate your limited resources. Once the battle starts, you’ll be able to directly command your ships or, if you prefer a more hands-off approach, let the AI take over and fight it out for you. The action takes place on a 2D plane, with ships moving up and down automatically. All of this looks pretty great and reminds me of a more engaging version of Positech’s Gratuitous Space Battles.
While the scenario mode probably serves as a neat distraction or a quick way to familiarize yourself with the intricacies of ship building and combat, every 4X game’s main attraction is the lengthy campaigns. You know the ones: just one more turn… and suddenly the sun is coming up and you have to be at work in three hours. StarDrive 2 doesn’t disappoint and seeks to offer an experience that’s par for the course. While most of the shown features looked like standard 4X fare, there are a couple of things which might make the game stand out from the crowd.
For instance, diplomacy in StarDrive 2 is about complete transparency. Negotiations are deterministic, with a point value assigned to everything you can offer or demand. There is also Tolerance to consider. This value acts as a limit of how big a deal you’re able to make; how much your trading partner likes you, essentially. Engaging in trading and diplomacy raises your Tolerance and allows you to trade whole systems or technologies. However, it also decays over time, forcing you to regularly invest in diplomacy if you’re after the really juicy deals. Compared with other games of the genre, where this particular feature often falls by the wayside or merely seems tacked on, StarDrive 2 seems to be doing diplomacy right.
Ground combat is another thing you don’t see too often in a 4X game. As soon as your troops engage the enemy, either when boarding another vessel or while being on away missions, you get to take control of them in turn-based combat on a grid. Led by more powerful hero units, your grunts will move around and trade blows or plasma bolts with the enemy until one side is no more. While this part of the game looked decidedly less polished than the rest, it’s still a neat option to have. It also kind of puts you out of the spectator’s seat into the thick of the action and changes the game from an empire management simulator into a fully blown space opera. Well, if you let it, that is, because ground combat is entirely optional and can instantly be autoresolved.
We will see if these separate elements will mesh together to form a cohesive whole, but from what was shown at Gamescom, we might be looking at another small, yet brightly shining star on the nightly 4X skies in the near future. StarDrive 2 will be released this winter.