Why New Master of Orion Is Already Old
Let’s review remake of my favorite game, and the future of space strategies
By MARTIN REZNY
In a nutshell — as someone who has spent last ten years playing the previous game in the series, Master of Orion II (no, there was no third one, shush), I must say I have mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll keep playing it, but not without comment. It’s very… Basic. Great entry point into the 4X genre. If you only wish to know whether to buy it or not, I’d say it’s worth its price.
It has possibly the highest production values any game of this kind has ever had. It shows especially in its realtime tactical combat (finally), with beautiful 3D models of ships, and in diplomatic dealings with cool alien characters voiced by pretty much the best scifi voice actors you could hope for, from Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker and animated Joker), to Worf, Q, Freddy Krueger…
I’m not complaining, I would agree with Total Biscuit that it’s very solid, it has all the essentials executed competently, it captures the essence of the franchise, and whatever shortcomings it might have can be easily patched or added in a DLC. On the other hand, however, it doesn’t bring absolutely anything new. Not fixing what’s not broken is nice, but… Let me explain.
Derivative Doesn’t Even Begin to Cover It
First, a disclaimer — I’m not writing this angry, my hatchet is buried, nice and deep. But I feel someone has to point out what exactly it is that the developers of this game have done. They have decided to avoid creativity and originality with what I can only imagine must have been religious fervor. What in MOO II felt like homage to scifi classics here borders on unapologetic plagiarism.
If you look at race and ship design, it’s like throwing Star Trek and Mass Effect into a blender (and a few other popular things). The new addition, the Terran Khanate, while amusing, couldn’t be more obvious ripoff of what is today the most hip and trendy aspect of Star Trek lore. Conversely, the most original aspect of the original story, the Antarans, is completely gone. And that’s it.
*CORRECTION: Antarans have been added since this review was written, as were a number of other features like minor races and at least three other major races. It’s still quite basic, but it does help improve the game.
Overall, there’s somehow less story and flavor than there was in a DOS game from twenty years ago, which is just baffling. The events are stripped to bare bones, too. I wonder what’s preventing all these professional gaming studios from hiring a single writer. But that’s not even the worst part. By far the least original part of the art design in this game is the score, to an insulting level.
Just listen to the beginning of the main menu theme of this Master of Orion:
Isn’t it reminding you of anything? Like a TV show maybe? Maybe this one:
Of course, it’s just different enough that no one will get sued over it, but that’s only accomplished by switching the style of the soundtrack. In addition to that of Stargate: Atlantis, it steals from Star Trek (brass fanfares, between the original and remake styles), Star Wars (especially like the instrumental arrangement in the Knights of the Old Republic games), and StarCraft. During the game, I have even heard an Outer Limits-like melody. I’m sure I missed some.
It’s extremely on the nose. I can see how that meeting went — google any scifi beginning with “Star-” and make it like that! I mean, I do love all of those things, and their soundtracks, but I loved them because they had unique identity, enriching my life. It’s possible that it’s only me noticing this, since I have spent years watching and playing ALL the Star-Things, and I am skilled in classical musical composition, but I seriously don’t think it’s acceptable.
CORRECTION: As random would have it, a comment of mine about this on one of the videos with the MOO music has attracted the attention of the composer of the soundtrack for both the new and old Master of Orion — David Govett. Here is his response to my snarky suspicions, possibly not picking up on the fact that I didn’t mean it as a compliment:
I like that feedback. I’m not familiar with the Stargate Atlantis or StarCraft music so any similarity is not intentional. Star Wars and Star Trek, hell yeah, very intentional to imitate those. Back in the original game, the best option with limited sound technology was to emulate the Star Trek/Star Wars genre sound and try to make it as cinematic and epic as possible. (usually a futile effort) Today’s game is a reboot and we stuck with the vibe and sound of the 90s era version including a very much 90s era space cinematic sound. Glad you can appreciate the derivation skills. It was basically me imitating myself imitating John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith 90s era.
And you know what, I’m actually inclined to believe him, and have changed my mind somewhat. I’d personally still prefer an original score, however, for what the game was supposed to be, it certainly is a valid and skillful rendition. Given that some of the main actors from Star Wars and Star Trek were doing the voice over for the game, and that the similarity to Atlantis and StarCraft scores is one of those fascinating musical coincidences based on shared sources of inspiration, I can totally respect it. The following paragraph is still true for me, though.
It’s actually making me want to turn the music off, even though it’s objectively well made. It also makes me doubly frustrated with the okayishness of this game through the reference to all kinds of great scifi storytelling. It makes me long for a world without oppressive copyright laws. A world where old classics eventually end up in public domain, and we can has Stargate-Trek-Wars-Craft.
Let’s Give It One More Turn
Still, I think it is overall a step in the right direction, even though it’s at least five years too late. Or it may be a symptom of a positive trend. The space 4X genre is getting on the map, new people are starting to play it in greater numbers, and I’d say that this particular game is the first truly solid one, after the DOS era. What I mean by that is that it’s the first one with no fatal flaw.
I love this genre, but I seriously cannot play anything other than the MOO games. Over the years, I have tried Sword of the Stars, GalCiv, Sins of a Solar Empire, and Endless Space, and I am aware of the space version of Civilization, and of Stellaris, but in the end, I always had to return to play MOO II. Mainly because all of the other main ones have screwed up combat.
It’s not that I prefer turn based tactical combat so much, I like the realtime one in the new MOO just fine. It’s just that I like a combat that I control. Not some rock-paper-scissors bullshit card game, or a fight that’s always won by higher damage per second ratio, or madly spinning fleets one cannot control as if they were flushing themselves down the drain. And it wasn’t always combat.
- Sword of the Stars has great flavor and backstories of the races that try to give explanations informed by evolutionary principles, but its tech tree is rather uninspired (even if semi-randomization of it should in theory be interesting). Definitely when compared to the MOO system, which is based on actual futuristic space science (of the early 90s) to a surprising degree, as well as allowing for major changes in gameplay between game phases. Its most actively controlled combat of all the contenders should in theory be entertaining, but somehow isn’t. I think it is the sum of all parts kind of problem, but maybe it’s just me. It doesn’t help that this has the least interesting planetary management system of a few basic sliders. Also, all storytelling ends once the game begins, but that’s usually the case here.
- Conversely, GalCiv has terrible, cringeworthy writing across the board, plus only autocombat. Skip.
- Sins of a Solar Empire is too samey and streamlined (and boring), making even its controlled realtime combat bland. Without interesting tech to put into the ships, it’s not challenging or entertaining enough.
- Stellaris, as far as I can tell, does commanders and diplomacy very well, but its galactic map looks awful, and yeah, underwhelming combat again.
CORRECTION: After playing it a lot more, I’m still very underwhelmed by the combat, but I have to commend it for how it attempts dynamic storytelling as you explore space. Unfortunately, the writing is by and large too… What astrophysicists today find interesting. It’s not character driven, and after the initial excitement, it gets very dull very fast. Also, the way this game does research or politics is a step in the right direction, but too simplistic at the moment, also diminishing replay value.
- Endless Space has the best galactic and planetary interface with some interesting special resource hunts that unlock gradually throughout the game, tech tree/web on par with MOO, and the upcoming sequel looks promising, but as is, its seriously nerfed combat makes playing it pointless in mid to late game. I do respect it the most out of all of the post-MOO II games, since it has tried to innovate the most, and the new MOO has ripped off some elements of its interface. Competently, if uncreatively.
- Finally, Sid Meyer’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is different than the rest and has the best stuff planet-side, but overall, it’s little more than a spacey coat of paint over Civilization proper, with fewer options and features.
Out of Ideas? Here, Have Some
It seems to me that the people who make space 4X games either don’t care, don’t have the necessary skills, time, or resources to make them on a technical level, or don’t understand what makes a game like this enjoyable to its players. Or various combinations of these factors. As I already pointed out, I absolutely don’t understand why so many have decided for twenty years that combat is supposed to be uncontrollable, that players only want to skip it.
It’s true that hardcore tactical turn based combat in MOO II can take a lot of time with large fleets, but if you add a button that gives the player the option to skip it, all is well. Only giving an option to essentially skip it, but not to control it, makes the game almost entirely worthless. Most players of this genre don’t want to spend hours building their fleet and customizing ships only to click a button and learn the outcome. Or watch a crappy movie.
Let me give you a brief rundown of what players of space 4X want from this kind of game, and feel free to challenge me if you think any of this is only me:
- Tactical/Strategic Combat — Enough was said already. Turn based or realtime, doesn’t matter, auto-fight is a fine extra option, just make the player tactically or strategically involved in the fights, or there’s no game.
- Pimp My Ship — We want the option to customize the contents of a ship, its weapons, defenses, and special technologies. It’s fine the way MOO does it, but it wouldn’t hurt if it also mattered where a particular weapon is placed on the ship, since tactical combat should be about aiming and escaping lines of fire. Automatic upgrades of ships are a fine extra option.
CORRECTION: Firing angles feature that was present in MOO II for weapon loadouts has also been added into the new MOO since this review was written. I miss the days when games were shipped *after* they were finished.
- Exploration — Put a lot of interesting stuff to find in the galaxy, reward being first to discover a system (like in Endless Space, but better), make varied events happen often. If you don’t do this, this kind of game gets extremely boring and repetitive. For example, where the hell are minor races? Pirates are fine, even though they could have more character than “oh look, a pirate ship”, but spaces between players should be populated by underdeveloped or ascended races, small groups of survivors of once proud races, etc.
- Non-Linear Tech/Varied Gameplay Styles — Different races should not play all almost exactly the same. If they all research the same techs, all need to colonize same types of planets, all build the same buildings, all travel the galaxy in the same way, all have the same objectives, as is the standard in this genre, they’re not varied. What about races that hide instead of fighting? What about nomads that don’t settle planets? What about races that kill you with an engineered virus? Diplomatic, economic, and research victories are a good first step, but this aspect requires some serious innovation. Not to mention the fascist overtones of the genre.
- Story Mode/Single Player Campaign — Correct me if I’m wrong, but has anyone done this in a space 4X game so far? It’s not like it’s impossible, just look at something like Heroes of Might and Magic series. Why is it too much to ask for a HOMAM in space? Is it a budget thing? I would much rather play a retro 2D indie space 4X with a story (and solid mechanics, of course) than the current MOO remake with its voice actors, AAA graphics, and cinematic realtime combat. Let us roleplay, dammit!
Well, these would be a good start, anyway. I do have plenty of other ideas and very personal preferences, and for that reason I’ve been privately developing a game and story system for this kind of game for years. I suppose I should share some of that, eventually. Judging by the lack of ideas behind games like Master of Orion, the creators might even rip me off and I’d have something decent to play, at last. Let me know if you’re interested. I tried approaching Czech game developers, but turns out they don’t hire native creatives, only people from abroad. And my indie friends are too stoned, though we may actually start developing something soon.
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