Note before we start: “4X” is an acronym invented by a moron for the same reason that the term “FPS” was inserted into the general gaming lexicon: because calling games “Doom clones” and “Civ-alikes” is seen as demeaning to the ones that might actually be trying to iterate and develop a genre. Genre labels are necessary; the term 4X, however, is spectacularly awful, standing as it does for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. I sometimes wonder if the bored gaming journalist/PR bod who came up with it ever regrets this most enduring of their contributions to gaming culture. Whatever. We’re stuck with it now.
If you cast your eye back over the last decade or so of strategy titles, you might notice that the 4X genre is littered with the corpses of dead and dying space-based empire building games. Some of them have been badly made buggy messes (Sword of the Stars 2, for example). Some of them have had a limited amount of impact but are ultimately fading away into obscurity (Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire). Even though the last year has seen an extraordinary number of these titles released – I can probably count at least five off the top of my head – only one of them has had any staying power to my mind, and Endless Space is a game with many of its own problems.
Perhaps this isn’t that unusual. I’d expect sci-fi to be a popular setting for games because it requires even less thought than fantasy; you can basically do a hundred iterations of “Modern day thing X, but in the FUTURE” and then call it a day. But why the 4X genre in particular? Compared to sci-fi settings you can count the number of fantasy 4X games on one hand, and I think even historical real-world settings (which are largely propped up by Paradox’s prolific output) are outnumbered by sci-fi ones. This cornucopia of sci-fi games doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. They exist for a reason. They’re trying to recapture and/or recreate the spirit and feel of an ancient classic. They’re trying to do Master of Orion 2 all over again.
God, that was a convoluted intro, wasn’t it? Ten months of writing and I’m still no better at them. Anyway. Master of Orion 2! (Or MOO 2 as everyone refers to it in yet another silly acronym, although I suppose this time it really can’t be helped.) That gaggle of sci-fi 4X hopefuls might not be consciously trying to replicate MOO, but the game will always be lurking somewhere near the shallow reefs of their collective psyche like some kind of gargantuan Nautilus. And the reason for this is that – despite being released way back in 1996 – Master of Orion 2 is still the epitome of the space-based side of the genre1. Think of a feature that one of the new breed offers, and the chances are that MOO did it better sixteen years ago using dark age technology. It’s still the game to beat. No contemporary title has yet managed to do so.
To answer the question of why this is, it’s worth looking at MOO’s own roots. These lead us by a rather short and circuituous route back to the fantasy genre: Master of Orion was an attempt to do Master of Magic, but in space, and it cannibalises many of its ancestor’s gameplay mechanics wholesale. For example, here is a picture of Master of Magic’s town management screen, followed by a picture of Master of Orion’s colony management screen:
They’re almost identical. If Master of Magic had a good idea — and it was a game that was full to bursting with good ideas — then Master of Orion stole it and made it better. This leads to some gameplay mechanics that seem a bit weird in context (wandering heroes that can be hired to command your fleets and solar systems, random encounters with monsters like space dragons etc.) but which actually fulfil the same gameplay roles they did in MoM and make everything flow much better as a result. MoM provided a very strong base upon which to build, and I think proves that it’s perfectly okay to look outside your niche for new ideas rather than just considering what would work in the context of the game you’re trying to make.
That’s not to say that Master of Orion didn’t introduce good ideas of its own that were specific to its setting. The diplomacy options were rather standard for the time but benefited greatly for having an animated ambassador for whatever race you were talking to show up on the holographic batphone accompanied by their theme music; the same went for whenever you discovered/stole/looted a tech and the appropriate representative of your scientific researchers/sneaky spies/military forces showed up to tell you what you’d managed to get your hands on. This was great for really emphasising that the races were different as you were presented with a visual reminder of what you looked like and what they looked like every time you talked to them. It even extended to the colony management screen, with newly-conquered solar systems being full of tiny ant-men or rock-things rather than whatever race you’d happened to pick for that game. It was world-building touches like this that imbued MOO with a sense of personality far beyond what (for example) Galactic Civilizations’ static portraits and cookie-cutter ship design was capable of communicating to the player.
MOO’s research is an interesting attempt to produce a system in which different empires can go down genuinely different paths of development. There are eight different fields of research – physics, biology, sociology and so on – each of which has roughly 8-10 tiers. Each tier has up to three technologies you can research by investing the required number of research points generated by your scientists and labs, but the catch is that you can only pick one of the techs on offer per tier in a given field2 . The techs you don’t pick will disappear from your research options forever, and the only way to get at them after that point will be to trade for them with another race that did choose them. This makes technological research in MOO a process of genuine prioritisation rather than just deciding what order you’re going to research stuff in, and while there are some duff technologies (anything to do with spying, for instance) there’s also some rather tough decisions to be made. Sure, you could take Battlestations and beef up the space-based defences of your colonies, but that means missing out on Powered Armour for your ground assault troops. Are better fuel cells really worth missing out on improved missile technology for? I don’t know. That’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself after considering what you need in the particular game you’re playing, but I really like that MOO forces you to choose one way or the other.
(A neat side-effect of the tech process is that other races often have dramatically different methods of waging warfare compared to you. MOO has provoked a nasty barrage of swearing more than once after I realised that the race fielding the apparently-undergunned battleships facing my top-of-the-line fleet had in fact invested their research points into the Transporters technology. Two turns later all my ships were crippled and burning as a result of the elite boarding parties rampaging through their interiors.)
MOO’s tech tree synergises very well with its ship design element, which as far as I’m concerned has yet to be bettered in any game. You have a number of stock ship classes – Destroyer, Cruiser, Battleship and so on – each of which has a certain amount of space available inside its hull that depends on its size. What you fill this space with is entirely up to you. There are no dedicated slots for guns or shields or anything like that; instead, every component in the game takes up a certain amount of space on the ship depending on what it is, and you can bolt whatever you want onto it as long as you don’t exceed the ship’s carrying capacity. If you want to transform a destroyer into a shoot-n’-scoot missile boat it’s a simple matter of adding Fast Missile Racks and a swarm of two-shot nuke launchers. If you want a tank battleship to soak up damage you include the Reinforced Hull and Heavy Armour subsystems. Want to smash the enemy at range? A heavy Phasor array takes up a lot of space, but it’ll get the job done. Having trouble with enemy missiles and fighters? Those same Phasors can be configured as dedicated short-range Point Defence weapons with an associated reduction in their space cost. MOO’s ship design interface has dozens of different ship components on offer – all of which have to be researched as one of your dedicated options in the tech tree – and is astonishingly flexible as a result. The chances are that if you can think of a ship concept you can build a decent analogue of it in the game. It’s fantastic, it really is.
Unfortunately – as with most things in gaming that give players a lot of latitude to come up with their own designs – the ship-building aspect of MOO was powergamed a long time ago for the optimum solution. While I’ve never done it myself I hear it’s possible to build a ship with a time warp and cloaking device that can literally never be hit by the enemy. This is sad, but by the late-game the flaws in MOO’s tactical combat are starting to become painfully apparent anyway. MOO does small-scale fleet engagements very well, and as long as there’s not more than a couple of ships on each side battles can be terrifically tense as each side tries to make the most of its limited firepower. As the fleet sizes scale up, though, the combat becomes increasingly braindead. Because it’s turn-based, and because it’s possible to equip your ships with weapons that can hit the enemy on the first turn of combat, battles are increasingly decided by which side gets to go first and obliterate the opposing fleet with a devastating alpha strike. At the very end of the game the fleets are so large that trying to deal with them becomes actively painful, and while the developers helpfully included an option to let the AI fight the battle for you while you go off to make a cup of tea or something the tactical combat is still the worst part of the game by far.
Finally there’s all the stuff that’s been tossed into the mix to game the game a sense of context and the stamp of its own personality. There’s the aforementioned wandering heroes who can be hired to dramatically improve the performance of your fleets and colonies, and the frankly bizarre monsters that seem like a joke until a single space eel picks one of your systems for its spawning ground, mashes all your destroyers to pulp and severely mauls three of your four flagship cruisers before they are able to escape, and these inject some much needed liveliness into the early-game routine of scouting out new worlds and colonising them. There’s also the RPG-like custom race creation, where you’re given a limited number of points to spend on building your race out of a collection of positive and negative traits. However, I’m going to reserve my column inches for talking about the headline feature of the game: the Antaran raiding parties and the terrifying threat they represent to any empire that doesn’t have a healthy array of endgame tech to counter their obscene combat advantages.
Every so often a video will play showing an extradimensional incursion by the Antarans, an ancient and long-forgotten race of superassholes who have returned to pillage your burgeoning colonies for no other reason than that they’re massive, massive dicks. You watch this video, and then when it’s done you notice the dashed red line on the map that indicates a hostile fleet approaching one of your systems. You click on the fleet. It consists of two measly destroyers. Chortling, you take advantage of the Antarans’ slow travel time to amass your own fleet in orbit around the threatened colony. Soon the system is occupied by numerous destroyers, a few cruisers and perhaps even a battleship or two if you’ve managed to build them at this stage, backed up by a star base in orbit around the colony and missile batteries on the planet itself. More than enough to see off the threat of two destroyers, you think, even if they have been built by a hyper-advanced uber-race. Sheer weight of numbers has to count for something here, after all, and how much damage can two destroyers really do?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. The long lead time you had to prepare for the raid wasn’t because the Antaran ships are just that slow, it’s because they were intentionally dragging their feet so that you’d turn their killzone into a target-rich environment. They have particle beams that one-shot your destroyers and tear through your cruisers’ armour like paper. The battleships are crippled and destroyed by gravity waves, and while the star base and planetary batteries desperately barrage the enemy with wave after wave of missiles they only manage to chip the tiniest slivers of armour away from the Antaran ships. In almost no time at all your fleet has been crushed and the planetary defences levelled, and the Antarans proceed to bomb the planet until no life remains on its surface. If you want a colony here in the future you’re going to have to start from scratch.
The Antarans are at least fairly egalitarian in their dickishness, preying on each empire more-or-less evenly, but at the start of the game there’s nothing you can do to resist an Antaran attack. Your tech is simply too primitive to cope with it; it’s the classic Civ scenario of spearman versus tank, except this time the tank always wins. Whenever you see that red dashed line terminating in one of your inhabited systems, your best bet is to evacuate everything mobile from the area and let them have their fun while you first research bigger guns and better armour, and then eventually find a way to assault the Antaran pocket dimension and end the threat permanently. Doing so wins you the game, the argument here being that if you have a fleet that can take on the Antaran homeworld and win then beating the other empires back in real space isn’t going to be much of a problem for you.
The thing I like about this goal of beating the Antarans is that it’s both organic and constantly visible rather than being some far-off thing you’ll take care of when you hit the endgame. The dimensional portal technology that gets you access to the Antaran homeworld becomes available during the midgame, and after you’ve built the dimensional gate you can send off a fleet to try and wreck the place at any time. You probably won’t win, but it’s always there as an option for you to try whenever you feel like it. Probably you’ll want to wait until you have Doom Stars plated in Adamantium Armour and armed with a Stellar Converter or two, but it is possible to beat the Antarans with Phasor-armed Titans (at least on the lower difficulties) if you’re crazy enough, or have simply had enough of the constant Antaran raids wrecking your outlying systems. As with so much in Master of Orion the timing of your little Ragnarok is entirely up to you.
I think that’s where most of the successor games have gone wrong, really; they’ve tried to do Master of Orion, but because they have to work with more advanced tech where assets take far more time to finish and implement than they did in the past they haven’t even begun to reproduce the amount of choice available in MOO. They’ve been forced to straitjacket the player through necessity, with the result that every single subsequent game I’ve played – even Endless Space, with its vast and sprawling tech tree – has seemed limited in some way compared to Master of Orion. That they also fail to inject their games with even half the personality of MOO is more of a personal failing on their part, and one which reflects a prevailing attitude in development to treat worldbuilding as a secondary consideration rather than a major hook that drags players into the game and doesn’t let them go.
And this is a bit odd to me, because Master of Orion isn’t perfect. As excellent as it is there’s definite room for improvement, and I would be very happy if somebody simply approached the genre from the same general direction while tightening up some of the flabbier elements of the game such as the tactical combat and the dated colony UI. It’s been sixteen years, though, and that game still doesn’t exist, so at this point I’m going to have to conclude it’s never going to. And in lieu of a genuine successor game I have to say that Master of Orion still beats its modern competitors hands-down. UI aside it’s barely aged in a decade and a half; whether that’s a particular quality of MOO or a general indictment of the genre I can’t really say, but in a way I can’t help but be happy it’s still as fresh to me as it was when I first played it all those years ago.
Master of Orion 2 is available in a double-pack with the original on Good Old Games for the low low price of just six bucks.
- Planet-based goes to SMAC, of course. ↩
- Unless you chickened out and took the Creative trait at race creation which lets you swipe all of them. Not only is this trait expensive but it basically lobotomises research into being a straightforward crawl up the tech levels, not to mention spamming your colony build menu with about a hundred building options you don’t want or need. ↩