Let me preface this preview with one thing: I have never, ever played a 4X strategy game in my life. Not one. Well, I did play Destiny of an Emperor and had to worry about feeding my troops, so maybe…no, not a one. I was honestly a little terrified when I started up Stardrive. I was worried that I’d be completely swamped by all of the information in front of me, or that I’d just drown in a sea of stats and tables that made no sense to me. Steeling myself, I chose the space bear race (because SPACE BEARS) and dove headfirst into the intricate world of Stardrive.
I was met with a few menus of racial traits to pick from; ones that instantly made the Dungeons & Dragons nerd in me feel right at home. Instead of giving various stats and letting me plunk numbers into them, Stardrive offers a set of racial bonuses and defects that let you individualize your race in different ways. Each benefit or defect has a point value attached, where good traits cost points and bad ones give you points back. I could choose to start off with some better military research already unlocked, but to do so I might have to choose to have my race be composed of gluttons that needed 25% more food to survive. This system made me feel a little bit more attached to my race in a way, as I felt like I was already telling a bit of their story while customizing my gameplay. It was a nice touch, and I honestly hope more stat-based games use this system.
There were a bunch of different races to pick from as well. All of them have preset benefits and defects, but you can adjust them however you like after choosing them. It makes the race into something that’s closer to being a cosmetic choice, which I liked because it didn’t feel like picking a specific race meant playing in a pre-determined way. I ended up being a pacifist version of the normally war-hungry space bears; something that made the game feel much more like something I was personally invested in. I didn’t have to choose a specific race because they were the pacifists in the game’s world, but could customize it as I saw fit. This really helped the immersion take off.
Once I was out of those menus it was time for me to be terrified all over again. There were buttons all over the place, ships were flying around, and I was getting transmissions from a bunch of jerk wolves. It felt like complete chaos. The developers have anticipated your pain, though, and have taken steps to make things a little easier. For starters you can pause the entire game just by hitting the space bar. This became my panic button for when things got overwhelming; one I relied on less and less as I grew more comfortable with all of the various commands, but one that was always nice to have when things got hairy (like the first time the wolves sent a real offensive my way. The jerks.).
Also, hovering around every single button in the game will bring up a small window explaining what the command or item means. Given the sheer amount of buttons there are and the varied commands they give, this helped me out a lot. It’s quite a detailed explanation each time, so it cleared up a lot of confusion I had about what I was doing. That being said there is still a whole lot of information being thrown at you at the same time, so it does make for a lot of reading as you try to figure out what some features are supposed to do. Still, it’s completely necessary as this game has no intention of holding your hand and showing you how to play it. You can go to the tutorials for that.
I know this because I didn’t have a sweet clue what to do when I started playing. I had a single planet, some sliders I could screw around with, a ship, and the entirety of space to go out and explore. I tried to read some of the tutorials sections on what I should be doing, but as usual I just decided to be a dummy and ignore them, going out to take over the closest planet without any particular reason. This seemed like a good idea as I thought I could just waltz in and collect resources, but I forgot how intricate the game was. Setting up on this particular planet was a bad move as it turned out to be very hard to grow food there, resulting in me having to send food from my main planet over to it. Rather than making me more powerful, this move resulted in me having to take care of two planets now.
Getting food there wasn’t all that difficult, luckily. All I had to do was build a ship to ferry food over to that planet, something that got me playing around with the shipbuilding features on my home planet. I had a handful of different ship types that I could build; from cargo ships to fighters, all of which serve obvious purposes in the game. Knowing how many of each ship you’ll need is something that will come with time, though, as your relationships with the game’s other races start dictating whether you’ll be building shipping lanes or bolstering your defenses.
I found it a little difficult to control what ships I had, though. The game has three different control schemes for the ships: one that is manual and two other automatic ones. You can click on the ship to take it over, directing it where you want it to go if you feel like keeping an eye on a specific ship. I only ever found this was practical during combat, but I suppose if you want to sightsee across the galaxy it could be fun. Beyond that, you can click on the ship to give it orders or click on the ship’s symbol in the lower left corner to give it relatively similar orders. It seemed like an odd choice to have similar orders in two different places, so I’m not really sure what the point of the two schemes is. Maybe I don’t understand some of the nuances of it, but it seemed unnecessary.
What struck me as strange about ship commands was that I could access a list of every single ship I had, but I couldn’t issue mass orders from there. I know it’s not the most necessary feature given that you can pull back the view until you can see the entire galaxy and then highlight all of your ships from there and give them orders, but I use the list area to control most other aspects of my planets and feel more comfortable using that system. The list of planets lets me adjust their research, food growth, and material growth all from one convenient spot, also allowing me to see whatever building or ship is currently under construction. I could make lots of important adjustments about my planets from this spot, so I’m not sure why there wasn’t a similar system for ship control. It’s more of a personal choice than something I could say was actually wrong with the game, but I would have liked to order my ships around from those menus.
Not that I seemed to know much more about what I should have been doing with my planets in those menus, though. I know that each planet can only support a certain balance of food, resources, and scientific research, and that pulling from one seems to affect the others, but sometimes it was downright confusing as to how some items related to each other. I know that having more colonists lets you do more effective work, but having more colonists means needing more food. I could increase food production by creating certain buildings, but I needed resources to do that, and that meant pulling more workers away from making food. If I somehow managed to balance those items, my science research would suffer and I’d have to rely on the junk items I’d already unlocked. These resources seem like they would pull from each other in obvious ways, but certain items would affect each other in wildly differing ways. It may be a result of the planet I was on or something like that, but the game certainly didn’t make it obvious or clear what was causing the wild changes.
At best, I could find a delicate balance between the three and hope that no one felt like attacking me for a while. Growth was weak in all three areas, but it was still growth. After that, it was just a matter of sitting and waiting. Lucky for me there is a fast forward function that takes a lot of the boredom out of waiting for something to get invented so you can improve the planets you have. Once I started to build up a little bit in these areas I began to feel more confident in myself and felt like branching out to other planets.
That was when those stupid wolves showed up again.
They pretty much kicked my behind all the way back to my starting planet, and I’m surprised they didn’t just annihilate me there. I almost think the game took pity on me, as I really couldn’t do anything to stop them. They’d obviously built up a huge army of ships somehow, but I had no idea how they’d done it. I didn’t know how any of the other races had managed to pull it off either, as I had taken a ridiculous amount of time just to be doing alright. Somehow, all the time I’d spent building my guys up seemed to have been used infinitely better by EVERYONE else. Every other race had spread across the galaxy while I continued to flounder on my home planet.
After that pounding I started building up my relationships with other alien races. They’ll talk to you over the course of your playthrough, appearing at random as far as I can tell. I tried to be friendly with everyone given my weak position, something that resulted in me giving a lot of nice gifts to races that would end up robbing me every couple of turns or so. Most of my other relationships weren’t as bad, resulting in trade treaties that brought in more money every once in a while. I could also reach a point where I could ask for gifts, or even more importantly, for other races to declare war on those jerk wolves with me. I liked playing around with these relationships, but again, I still felt like I kept making the wrong decisions.
This brings me to the game’s greatest strength; which is the freedom to do everything however you want. I’m sure that people who are familiar with this genre won’t fall into all of the same pitfalls that I did, but I imagine that they’ll fall into some of them. The game is open to however you want to play it, but it requires that you pick a play style and play it. I’d forgotten this when I set up my pacifist bears at the beginning – forgotten that I was building a character to play. I had to pick a play style and stick to my guns about it, not try to maintain a decent average at everything. I couldn’t be everybody’s pal and give them everything they wanted or they would just walk over me. I was given free reign to make those bad decisions, though, without the game judging me or trying to correct me in any way. I was free to fail.
Part of me was glad when I shut it off before writing this preview. The game was just far too complex and broad for me despite all of its explanations and tutorials. I just wasn’t prepared for the freedom this game would give me, for all of the small nuances I would have to learn about maintaining my ships, planets, and alien relationships. I definitely needed to start on a simulation game with a lot less freedom than this one, as this felt like I was jumping onto a master’s thesis after just learning how to read. It makes many attempts to simplify things for its players, and with a knowledge base in these kinds of games that might be alright, but this was just far too complicated for me. I never felt like I was doing the right thing, feeling like I was just flopping around waiting for a race to finally crush me and get it over with.
Despite all this, though, I still feel like I have a small grasp on how to play. In writing this preview I can see a lot of my small mistakes. I don’t know if making changes to what I’ve done will make any difference in how the game turns out for me, but I think it will. Even if I’m wrong, I’ll learn a little bit more about how to play this complex game and be able to do better the next time. For this new player, Stardrive has been incredibly daunting and confusing at almost every stage, but I feel like I’m beginning to see how everything ties together. It’s a delicate balance across lots of different things, so many that I think it will be daunting for many people, but this game is just so rich and intricate that I’m amazed by it as often as I’m frustrated. Stardrive is quite an achievement, a stunning beta filled with so many interweaving features that I think it would be a 4X strategy fan’s dream. It might be a little too hard for someone new to the genre, but there’s something about the absolute freedom to completely screw yourself that’s too appealing for me to pass up.
Someday the space bears will ride again. Watch out, jerk wolves.
Stardrive is currently available to download as a pre-purchase beta (17% off to boot!) on Steam.