An early look at the upcoming reboot of Master of Orion

By Matt Thrower 06 Apr 2016 0

Once upon a time, someone decided to name a space strategy game after the noise cows make, and yet from this inauspicious start grew one of the most monstrous franchises of nineties gaming. We’ll stick with nineties, and ignore 2003’s disastrous third outing, which killed off the game, but obviously not the name, because now there’s a redeveloped version in the pipe.

The first and second games were classic 4x fare of their era. Micromanagement formed a big part of gameplay, feeding toward more complex long term strategies. At the heart of it all was Orion--the big planet with the big riches--if only you could defeat the big guardians to get there.

MoO image001

Sometimes you just have to bomb your own species into oblivion

Lately, micromanagement has fallen out of fashion and I, for one, can’t say I’m sad to see it go. I’m the sort of wargamer who prefers ordering divisions around the Eastern front instead of all their constituent companies, as some simulations seem to want me to do. It’s clear from the off that a prime goal of this new version is to try and stay true to the original while taking modern sensibilities into consideration.

You can automate almost everything. What the balance of farmers, researchers and workers should be on each planet. What that planet should produce and in what order. Even where your scout ships should explore at the start of the game. All these are choices you can make if you wish. And if you don’t, you can leave them up to the whim of the AI.

In the finished version, this will likely be a great time and effort saver. Right now, in this early access version, it’s suicide. That's because the AI is complete rubbish.

MoO image000

Hello sir! Can I interest you in some used spaceship parts?

The AI's favourite thing to build on newly colonised planet is a marine barracks, which is pretty much the last thing you should actually build. Things like farms and factories tend to be more helpful for a developing world. Especially when that world is likely to be light years from the front line and has to be invaded by ground troops for the barracks to be of any use. The AI does this continually in a game where war isn’t the only way to conquer the galaxy.

You can also win by getting elected leader of the galactic council via good diplomacy. Or the strangely named “excellence victory” which you earn through all-round awesomeness. There will be more routes in the final game. But with the AI in such a parlous state, it’s in no position to compete for any of them, which leaves me free to take the most entertaining route of all: bombing everyone else to kingdom come.

Fighting demands you buckle in and take the controls for yourself. You’ll need to coordinate military production between worlds to pull fleets together, and then move them to strike at your enemies while protecting your most vital worlds. It’s a most engaging and demanding dance, even against the current weak opposition. I can see it being a frenzied and thrilling jive in the real thing.

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MOO Space is oddly multicoloured for a vacuum

Again, the game still does its best to smooth your passage. There are careful reminders every time you need to change production, or research on the vast tech trees. You can plan your own ship designs or have the computer upgrade your blueprints and eligible vessels at the touch of a button. These systems work better, and take the worst of the tiresome clickwork out of micromanaging your battles.

If you want to get more involved in fleet combat, you can, although the feature isn’t finished and is very different from the turn-based tactical maps of the older games. It’s shaping up to be more of an RTS but your options for control are, right now, extremely limited. Fortunately there is a shortcut for the lazy like there is for almost everything in the game in the form of instant results. It’s not as interesting to play, but it’s just as satisfying.

Right now, Master of Orion feels like an incredibly well oiled machine that doesn’t actually do very much. Until we’ve got functional multiplayer and an above-useless AI it can’t really do much more than go through the motions. I spent hours with it anyway, because bombing your way to a galactic empire is fundamentally fun in any setting. The big question for MoO is whether or not it can make the experience more engaging than competitors like Endless Space.

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