Monday, May 15, 2006

StarShift: The Zaran Legacy Review

StarShift: The Zaran Legacy, developed and published by Codeco.
The Good: Easy to learn, effortless game finding through central server, large games possible (up to 40 players), inexpensive
The Not So Good: Turn-based games can last a while (upwards of a month), less than spectacular graphics, may be too simplistic for some, no single player modes
What say you? A streamlined multiplayer-only turn-based strategy game: 7/8

Despite the large numbers of massively multiplayer online role playing games (or, NAFTA), other genres have been slow in joining the revolution of paying monthly fees to interact with computerized versions of real people. One of those genres is the strategy game. Content with having small (typically no more than four) numbers of players, there hasn’t been a really successful strategy game that has a bunch of people playing at once. Enter StarShift, a turn-based strategy game with an MMO tilt: the game supports up to 40 players in a single game. Unlike most MMOs, StarShift is cheap ($25) and there is no monthly fee. Bonus! Will StarShift herald in a new age of strategy gaming, or evoke why there aren’t any massively multiplayer online strategy games?

StarShift doesn’t have the production values to stack up against the modern strategy game. The game looks and sounds old, reminiscent of the original Galactic Civilizations game (which was developed under similar circumstances). This is fine, as long as you’re not expecting greatness in graphical excellence. Thankfully for StarShift, I’ve always held gameplay and features over graphics and sound. StarShift certainly leans towards the wargame side of the strategy equation when it comes to graphical quality. Honestly, my first reaction to firing up the game and looking at the main screen was a mild “yuck.” I guess playing too much Galactic Civilizations II spoiled me (showing what a graphically good map-based space game can look like). The game has been in development for quite a while (screenshots date back to 2002), so the fact that the graphics and sound are outdated is not surprising. But, as long as the game is fun to play, who cares what it looks like? Right? Right?

StarShift is an online-only turn-based strategy game where you go out into the universe, capturing planets, trading technologies, signing treaties, and all that other good stuff. The game incorporates a central server that holds all of the games in progress. Joining a game is really easy, as StarShift lists all of the games that are open for players. You can join up to eight games at a time (which is more than plenty), and StarShift will send you e-mails when it’s time to submit your next turn. Really, StarShift plays like a massive PBEM (play by e-mail) game, except without all of the fuss of dealing with sending saved games and whatnot. Games in StarShift will automatically “tick” a turn once every 24 hours, whether everyone has played or not (turns will happen sooner if everyone is done). This is great and eliminates one bad player killing a game (this happened to me numerous times in Gary Grigsby’s World At War: uninstall). StarShift can also handle forty players at a time in one game: 40 players in a strategy game is unheard of. Beginning players are required to join one short tutorial game that may (or may not) have a mentor: a real player that can give hints on what to do next. This is a pretty good substitute for the standard tutorial; nothing can replace real human interaction. Once you play a tutorial game, you can join any other game and get owned by people better than you. If you have played enough games, you can create your own. This may seem like a limiting restriction in the game, but it’s actually a good idea. This way, every low level player won’t clog the server with unnecessary games. Once you do get the chance to make your own games, the tools for doing so are very flexible and include a multitude of options. Remember all those comments I made about the poor graphics? Luckily, most of the lost effort there went into creating one of the best multiplayer matchmaking utilities I have seen. This is how multiplayer games are supposed to be. Thanks StarShift!

So, the matchmaking components of StarShift are magnificent, what about the game itself? StarShift plays as a simplified 4x strategy game, where you explore from your home world, expand to neighboring planets, exploit the universe for resources, and exterminate the competition (there are four Xs in there somewhere). StarShift is far easier to play than most (if not all) strategy games I’ve played recently, and therefore should be accessible even to the most noobish of beginning players (Microsoft Word says I misspelled “noobish;” shows what Bill Gates knows). Now, strategic depth is not sacrificed for all of this simplicity, as the game has enough features to keep veteran players pretty happy. StarShift has nine different races of aliens, and the only difference between them is their bonuses: bigger initial ships, recycling destroyed ships, improved economy, or good starting technologies are some examples. Turns are computed simultaneously by the central server once everyone has gone (or the per turn time limit has been reached). There are only three resources in the game: credits, spy points, and research points. Credits are earned by owning asteroids and nebulae, and through your population (every 5 billion people gives one more precious credit). Maps in StarShift are extremely large, and may comprise of near 100 different planets, asteroids, nebulae, pulsars, and black holes, all connected by set paths. New locations are captured simply by moving your units to the planet, where they will automatically fight and usually beat a native population, unless you send an extremely small fleet. Moving units is straightforward. All of the units on one planet are automatically part of one single fleet and can move as one single unit. Or, you can split up your fleet and send them to different destinations (a must in the early part of the game). Moving individual units is extremely easy and done through a map showing possible destinations. Your fleet can consist of six types of ships (from fighters to motherships): the more expensive ships are better.

There are only three structures you can build in StarShift, a great contrast to most games where you have to build, build, and build some more. You can build a spaceport (construct new ships), orbital defenses, or a stargate (movement is allowed between two stargates in any two sectors, no matter the distance). Less buildings means less micromanagement and more attention to your overall strategy, at least in my opinion. The winner is determined by the player who has scored the most points through conquering new sectors and acquiring technologies. Technologies in StarShift just give bonuses, meaning they aren’t prerequisites to certain buildings or units like most games. New technologies can be gained through research (by using research points), or buying, trading, and stealing them. The game rules include an option of random research, since the technologies in the game are not balanced and certain ones are better than others. Better technologies cost more research points, so there is a strategic decision to be made: lots of low-quality technology, or just a couple high-quality techs? Once you discover a new technology, you can patent it. This gives a lot of points towards winning the game, but it makes the technology available for all the other players to buy. You will also spend time ordering around your special ops. Essentially, you can spend your spy points on any number of different actions in any sector adjacent to one of your own. There aren’t any spy units to worry about (like some other games): using special ops is as simple as ordering from a menu. You can give info about a sector, list all the technologies of an enemy, give false information to the enemy, block enemy fleets, build a link between two sectors, have a decoy unit, increase counterspying, steal technologies, and more. There is also a suite of diplomatic options in StarShift. In addition to the usual declare war options, you can enter research or commercial treaties. Commercial treaties raise both player revenues, but each player has less spy points at their disposal. You can trade most resources, and also vote on new rules (like kicking out a dominant player). Like most aspects of StarShift, the diplomatic options are well thought out and easy to implement.

StarShift is an extremely well designed game. Despite its vomit-inducing graphics, the rest of the game is excellent in almost all aspects. The online server makes joining and keeping up with games extremely painless. The game mechanics are streamlined and easy to learn. StarShift features multiple strategies for victory, and gives the player all of the tools they need to succeed in the robust technology, diplomacy, and intelligence fields. Best of all, the game is very affordable (almost budget-priced) and supports up to 40 simultaneous players in a single game. In addition, since the game is turn-based, you don’t need a fast connection to play (all of the data is uploaded and downloaded only once), so even people who are still clinging onto dial-up can join the fray. There’s no single player action, but I’d rather have vigorous multiplayer options than a hastily thrown together single player mode with poor AI. StarShift’s combination of large, easy to use multiplayer games with efficient gameplay makes it a wonderful addition to any strategy gamer’s library.