Thursday, August 26, 2010

Star Ruler Review

Star Ruler, developed and published by Blind Mind Studios.
The Good: Potentially huge randomized galaxies, competent planetary building automation, detailed combat, multiplayer, modding support
The Not So Good: Incomplete interface makes managing your empire difficult, superficial strategy, tedious exploration and ship management, mandatory automation of various tasks but the inability to efficiently automate others, confusing research trees
What say you? An ambitious but currently rough 4X strategy game: 4/8

NOTE: 8/28/10. Recent patches have turned some of my complaints into outright lies. Lies, I tell you! Techs in the research tree are now better organized, related to things only one space away. Freeform spaceship design has automated upgrades. Scouted systems are now indicated. Zooming problems have been resolved. Future development would continue to improve the product as well; raise your expectations accordingly.

NOTE: 10/4/10. Star Ruler continues to improve, see here. I'll keep the review as it originally was (as I do with all other games), but keep in mind that changes have solved some/most of my initial complaints.

If Stephen Hawking says it, it must be true: we humans are destined to colonize the galaxy. There have been many 4X strategy games set in space, from more recent triumphs like Distant Worlds to older titles like Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II, and Sword of the Stars. Add another new entry into the genre as Star Ruler attempts to bring its own flavor of large galaxy automation to the table, eerily similar in approach to the aforementioned Distant Worlds. Does Star Ruler rule the stars, or simply become explored, expanded, exploited, and exterminated?

The graphics of Star Ruler are simply functional. The planets look nice, with animated cloud cover that make them slightly more interesting than simple spheres. It goes downhill from there, however, as the ships use dark textures and generic designs with simple shapes that are uninspired. While more realistic, the stark black background is devoid of colorful nebulae that populate most games of the genre. The game needs some audio notifications for in-game events (like building ships or finishing research) and more interesting effects overall. At least the music is OK. Overall, Star Ruler looks and sounds like an indie game.

Star Ruler lets you carve out an empire amongst the stars. The game allows you to customize your galaxy, specifying as many star systems as your computer hardware will allow. The game scales well from a small galaxy with one system per race all the way up to an expansive space of space. You can also make the galaxy map more two-dimensional or use a randomized technology tree. Still, the options here are less comprehensive than what we’ve seen in other titles: there are no settings for victory conditions and you are limited to only ten AI opponents, so extremely large galaxies would be quite boring to play in reality. The tutorial does a decent, though dry, job teaching the basics of the game, although you the game doesn’t advance the tutorial automatically or check to see if you’ve actually done what it had instructed. Star Ruler has multiplayer: a browser can search for dedicated servers, and online games can be saved and then played in a single-player format. The game has nice support for mods, extending the life of the game as a whole.

The worst part of Star Ruler by a large margin is the interface. It tries to incorporate some features of recent 4X games, like an empire tree, but fails miserably. First off, there is no minimap; while you can zoom out fully, no useful information is available from this display (large icons for planets or ships are all identical), allowing you to easily get disoriented in the galaxy. There is no list of all your systems to cycle through, and the planet list only cycles through planets in the current system. The pinned objects list (empire tree) is limited, requiring you to manually pin objects to the list for easy access. This should be done automatically. In addition, the game only displays five of your pinned objects when you reload a saved game. Finding things must be done through the object list, buried in your empire information window; though it is comprehensive, it doesn’t list fleets you have created (so why have them?). The system ships list is always disabled (so why have it?). Box-selecting will preferentially select ships (good), but doesn’t say what the ships are (bad), just how many are selected. There are some orders (like explore) that aren’t listed anywhere in the game, either as an icon you can click on or from the right-click menu; you must issue them using keyboard hotkeys. The system-wide building queues, a great idea meant to decrease tedium, simply don’t work (or I haven’t figured out how to use them properly), never overriding AI build orders. Camera controls are problematic: the camera sometimes doesn’t rotate, you can’t zoom until you rotate the camera, the camera occasionally rotates around your current position instead of the selected object, and selecting an object always moves the camera to that object, which is extremely unhelpful when you want to send ships to another system. The right-click build menu is a nice idea that works most of the time, but overall the interface of Star Ruler needs a significant amount of work to make the game playable.

Step one in any 4X game is to explore, and Star Ruler tries to make this process as painful as possible. There is an auto-explore command (using only “X”, as there is no other way to issue it), but it must be given each time a new system is scouted: annoying. Also, there is no “fog” or other indication of where you have scouted, and a system’s planets are only displayed if there is a unit present: annoying for colonization. The game also does not indicate how far away other systems are; you just have to base it off of visuals, which can be difficult in a 3-D space game. Once you have found other planets, it’s time to colonize them. Apparently any planet can be colonized regardless of type, which is odd considering that pretty much every other 4X game has some restrictions imposed in this area. Each planet has a size, which dictates how many structures can be built on them and how much ore they are likely to hold. Ore is mined into metal, which is manufactured into electronics, which are used for advanced parts. This simple resource chain is completely automated by your workers, and excess goods can be stored for future use. There is a variety of structures you can build on any of your planets: farms, cities, factories, research labs, storage facilities, and defensive structures. New colonies can be issued an AI governor, who will automate all of the structures, a nice feature for expansive empires that works well: the AI is pretty smart in deciding which structures are appropriate to maximize planet output. You can also mandate civil acts (like a shorter work day), which provide both positive (higher happiness) and negative (but lower work output) effects.

What would a galactic empire be without ships, and Star Ruler has a number of styles to choose from, from small scouts and fighters to large tankers, dreadnaughts, and colony ships. Construction of these ships can be instantaneous if all the resources are present, a change of pace from arbitrary construction times seen in most strategy games. Each of these default designs can be upgraded through research or new designs can be built. Star Ruler allows you to specify engines, shields, power, storage, control, sensors, and weapons systems from beams to projectiles. The interface clearly displays if a mandatory part is missing. However, ship design and upgrades cannot be automated. Ships can be grouped into fleets, which, in theory, would make it slightly easier to manage your military, but fleets are not listed in the object display and units in the same fleet do not stay together in formation when moving to a new waypoint. Why have the option if it’s not used properly? Optional automation in this part of the game would be nice: colony ships will colonize planets in their system (but not in other systems, even if they have been explored), but scouts won’t fully explore on their own. It’s this constant feeling of incompletion that makes Star Ruler fall far short of potential expectations.

Star Ruler features a randomized research tree that is very confusing. All of the techs are displayed in a square arrangement with some of them initially locked. There is no clear indication of how to unlock the locked technologies, no “branches” on the tree that relate techs together. Instead, you have to use the “guess” and “hunch” options (which take an extraordinary amount of time to research, making their usefulness even more questionable) on each individual technology to maybe, hopefully unlock a new item. It’s a really weird system that honestly makes no sense whatsoever. You can continually upgrade the same technology, which offers benefits the game fails to explain. You can control-click to queue up a menu of spicy new technology (not double-click, which would have made more sense) and you can stop one tech and start a new one at any time while preserving the progress made.

You can negotiate with any of your opponents, even before you come into contact with them (kind of weird). Options are typical: peace treaties, declarations of war, trade pacts, and research swapping. The AI loves to swap resources for research, so be prepared to be bombarded with these requests. The AI is very aggressive, declaring war on you without significant notification (there’s a text message that quickly scrolls by) or provocation or before they’ve actually found you or scouted you. The AI seems to be quite efficient at handling the game, providing a good opponent for offline play. The game’s combat is well done, offering directional damage and individual components that can become disabled, hindering the performance of the craft.

The strategy of Star Ruler is quite limited: since you can colonize everywhere and most planets have sufficient size to build enough structures to satisfy the population, there’s no strategy beyond simply colonizing everywhere. Whoever does so the fastest wins, as they will have the resources to out-produce, out-fight, and out-research the enemy. The resources are plentiful and gathered at a quick enough rate that a colony can expand quite quickly. The AI can (and should, especially if you have hundreds of colonies) build all of the structures automatically, so your role in the game revolves around wrangling up the troops and invading enemy worlds. Strategy games should be about choice, and in Star Ruler there is no choice: go everywhere, my son. The interface and other shortcomings in Star Ruler really inhibit the fun, and the game really doesn’t offer anything significantly new to the genre. There are simply too many similarities to games like Distant Worlds to recommend Star Ruler: you can get a much more polished experience elsewhere.

Star Ruler’s most notable features (large galaxies, randomized research, automation, ship design) are completely offset by a handicapped interface that makes running your expansive empire tedious. There are several problems here: no minimap, an odd (or absent) organization of information, hidden orders for ships, and camera control oddities. Exploring other planets is tedious since you have to issue an auto-explore order for every new system and the game doesn’t indicate scouted territory. The distances between star systems are secretive, leading to less efficient expansion. Automation is inconsistent: colony ships will auto-colonize without your consent but scouts will remain stationary once a new system is reached. Ship design is comprehensive but offers nothing innovative and cannot be automated. The research tree layout is highly confusing, unlocking new techs is not explained well, and the benefits of higher levels of knowledge are not concrete. Diplomatic options are basic but the AI seems to be a competent foe. As advertised, you can have massive galaxies but it’s hard to manage all of your assets yourself due to the inefficient interface that doesn’t let you see all of your systems easily. The AI can direct planet-level production, but Star Ruler really lacks strategic depth: simply colonize everywhere because you can, and quickly build up your forces. Multiplayer is an interesting feature, as is the support for user modifications. The graphics and sound are budget-level, though. The bottom line is that Star Ruler offers nothing we’ve never seen before in more complete titles, and the current shortcomings with the interface and strategy are too much to overcome.