Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Starships Unlimited v3 Review

Starships Unlimited v3, developed by ApeZone and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Highly customizable games, not overwhelming: a lot of the menial tasks can be automated, easy to access pertinent information, can respond immediately and effortlessly to notices, and economics limit fleet size
The Not So Good: No interactive tutorial (although the game is easy to learn), less than spectacular graphics, no multiplayer, slow/boring in the beginning, must re-explore every system each age, outdated graphics
What say you? A tremendously easy-to-manage 4x space game that’s very accessible to all skill levels: 6/8

Another day, another strategy game. Thankfully, I do enjoy my strategy games, so I’m quite happy to look over another title in the genre, especially if they offer something new to the table. So, from Matrix Games comes the newest version of Starships Unlimited, coincidentally called Starships Unlimited v3. The original game morphed from shareware to retail due to consumer interest, and some improvements were made and repackaged for you to enjoy. Let’s see how Starships Unlimited v3 stacks up against the slightly saturated strategy field.

The graphics in Starships Unlimited v3 look like they were done about 5 years ago, which they probably were. They are simple 2-D graphics against a starry background with a minimal amount of special effects, and essentially unchanged from the first version of the game with the exception of a few details. There are many other space games that look a lot better, especially those that employ all three dimensions of graphical goodness. Luckily, the graphics don’t contribute largely to the gameplay, but you won’t be excited by spectacular views or drawn in by spacey vistas. The sound is largely along the same lines: a petite list of basic effects, such as weapons firing and not much else. I will say that I did really like the background music; it fit the mood and theme of the game well and never got annoying to listen to. As you might expect from a smallish developer, both the graphics and sound in Starships Unlimited v3 are outpaced by more recent titles.

Starships Unlimited v3 has some impressive game customization options. You can choose your race, ship style, color, and ship naming convention (trees, birds, nations, explorers, and the like) for your band of space travelers. Also, the playing map can be altered, including the number of civilizations, skill level, strength of pirates, map size, technology ages, random events, galaxy shape, and availability weapons of mass destruction. Starships Unlimited v3 only has single player action, but at least you can modify a lot of the options for each game.

Being a version of a 4x game, the gameplay of Starships Unlimited v3 entails exploring other star systems, building freighters to provide income, researching new technologies, contacting and having diplomacy with other races, building armies, and training the unskilled masses. The beginning of each game entails sending out scouts to explore other star systems. As with most aspects of Starships Unlimited v3, the interface options make this extremely easy. Instead of most games where you have to explicitly provide the destination for a unit, you can give instructions to each of your ships that change dynamically according to what the game thinks the best course of action is. For example, if a unit has finished exploring a system, one of the options for the next command will be to travel to the nearest unexplored system. The game tries its best to make playing as easy as possible, and this is just one of the examples of how it does so. Also, the game pauses from real time each instance an important event occurs, such as a completed research project or a unit completing its orders. This way, you won’t lose track or forget about all of your ships as they hurtle around the galaxy. Unfortunately, the beginning game of Starships Unlimited v3 is not very exciting: all you do is choose research projects and send your scouts to newly discovered systems. Of course, most strategy games are like this, but since Starships Unlimited v3 is largely automated (which is a good thing most of the time), it ends up being quite snooze inducing. This is about the only time the helpful game becomes a detractor to the fun. Even at the fastest time acceleration, a lot of time passes before anything exciting happens. The game picks up, however, once you come into contact with alien civilizations.

Once you have discovered all your alien opponents, the game essentially divides itself into two teams, one for each of the philosophies. Some other games (see Civilization IV) use multiple philosophies/religions to strain relations between different sides, but since Starships Unlimited v3 only uses two different ones, you’ll usually become friends with your philosophy sharers and enemies with the opposing one. When you hail opposing races, you can discuss the usual arrangement of agreements, such as mutual defense pacts, alliances, federations (multiple player alliances), give gifts, and ask for assistance in an offensive maneuver. The probability of the other nation accepting your proposal has a lot to do with the trust between the two nations, a straightforward percentage rating of relationship strength. The AI will send you requests, especially if they like you, which is something that other games lack.

Another major part of the game is research. There is quite a variety of things to research, and they all have a distinct purpose, so part of the game is deciding which thing to discover next. You can choose to improve armor, computers, drivers, generators, laws, spies, shields, sensors, stealth, and more than eight types of weapons (such as beams, death rays, guns, missiles, and torpedoes). The time it takes to research new technologies depends on how large your population is, how many scientists you employ, and whether you have laboratories or research centers. There are essentially the same upgrades available in each of the four game ages: atomic, fusion, antimatter, and singularity. You advance to the next age by researching 15 of that age’s technologies and reaching 100% wisdom. There is an annoying aspect of advancing in each age: you must re-explore each star system every time you reach a new tech level. This is because wisdom is gained by exploring, and wisdom resets to 0% once you advance. This does make scouting in the late game important (which isn’t an issue in pretty much every other strategy game), but it’s kind of a cheap way of doing it.

Every planet that you have colonized is capable of producing new units. Because of the way the economics in Starships Unlimited v3 work, you are limited in the number of ships you can produce. I like games that have fewer, more powerful units (such as Kohan II) than games that have a lot of units that you lose track of (Civ IV, Rise of Nations, Cossacks, Command and Conquer, etc, etc), and Starships Unlimited v3 falls into the former, more preferable category. Supporting hundreds of units doesn’t make a game good, and in most cases results in confusion and frustration, both of which Starships Unlimited v3 thankfully has a distinct lack. In order to support your economy, freighters are automatically built and send to profitable locations. They work a lot like merchants in Rise of Nations, producing trade routes that put more cash in your wallet. Again, this is another automated aspect of the game that results just from you exploring distant planets, meaning you don’t have to worry about it and can concentrate on other, more important things. In addition to building units, you can train specialists that add bonuses to various aspects of your empire: scientists improve research, engineers build and repair stuff, security is for defense, and navy is for offense. While exploring, you can also find alien artifacts that can provide bonuses such as undiscovered technologies or special weapons that can be used during combat. When two enemy ships come within sensor range, they engage in combat, which seems to be a set of dice rolls and damage inflicted by the weapon systems of each craft. The battle continues until one ship is destroyed (there is no retreating, wusses) and the other is crowned the victor.

Starships Unlimited v3 has enough to offer to differentiate it from the ever-growing mass of strategy games. Although the graphics and sound are certainly archaic, the game has streamlined play that should appeal to those gamers new to the genre. Starships Unlimited v3 has a really good user interface, making all of the commands easily accessible and issuing them very simple. The general game is very similar to games such as Civilization IV, but Starships Unlimited v3 is certainly easier to handle. Overall, it’s not as polished as the big budget counterparts, but it’s a nice strategy game that will provide some enjoyment for most players. Sure, there’s no multiplayer and the beginning of each game is dry, but overall Starships Unlimited v3 is enjoyable. Clearly the target audience is mostly beginners (or, if you prefer, n00bs), but most skill levels will find a slightly above average strategy game with some replay value.