Yes, I suppose that after the flood of pale imitations we’ve suffered through in recent years, it was only a matter of time until somebody dug up the body parts of the actual Master Of Orion series and tried to reassemble them into a modern game.
This new Master Of Orion is a more literal take on the common practice of graverobbing the final resting places of much-loved classic games for their licences than I’ve seen in the past, however. Usually whoever’s taken (or has been handed by a publisher) the license keeps the theming and subject matter but otherwise ends up making the game that they (or the publisher) want to make, which often ends up being a shooter of some kind. It would be difficult to make a shooter out of Master Of Orion — you don’t bring that license back unless you fully intend to make a space-based 4X of some kind — but I was expecting it to be ultimately just as superficial a relationship as the Syndicate FPS had to the original 1993 corporate murder simulator. I was therefore rather surprised to discover that this new Master Of Orion really is a faithful attempt to remake Master Of Orion 2 for modern audiences, using an almost Frankenstein-like approach of trying to bolt together the original game’s constituent parts together fully intact. Prior to actually playing Master Of Orion I thought this was an approach that would have stood a fairly decent chance of producing a worthwhile game. Unfortunately I can imagine Doctor Frankenstein thinking much the same thing about his creation, and look how that turned out.
Let’s try and short-cut the tedious part of the review where I explain basic mechanics. Do you have an interest in space 4X strategy games? If no, then you probably weren’t that interested in the mechanics anyway. If yes, then have you played Master Of Orion 2? I’m going to proceed with this review under the assumption that you have, but on the offchance that you haven’t please go and buy it on GOG and give it some hours of your time, since even after twenty years it’s still arguably the best game the genre has ever produced. Anyway, everywhere you look in the Master Of Orion remake — colony management, research, ship design — the mechanics are almost exactly those of Master Of Orion 2, to the point where it’s going to be far quicker for everyone involved I just explain what’s different about them.
As with Master Of Orion 2 you can pick your race from a selection of pre-built ones, each with its own baked-in advantages and disadvantages like being monsters in ground combat at the expense of being crap at research. All of the available races are returning favourites from MOO, and I emphasise “favourites” here because the shit ones like the Trilarians did not make the cut. This is probably because of one of the few things the MOO remake gets right: each race is portrayed by a fully-animated and voiced representative that serves to give it a great deal of character, just as in the original – but the drawback is that this sort of thing is pretty resource-intensive, and so they’ve focused their resources on just 12 races here rather than the 20-odd that were in MOO 2. This is fine and understandable, especially considering that every race also gets its own custom ship visual designs and even little population pieces on the colony management screen (although the latter are drawn in a way that makes them look pretty indistinguishable from another anyway). If none of the pre-built races takes your fancy the option to build a custom race from a selection of positive and negative traits also makes a return, and again it works just the same as it did in MOO 2.
Once you’ve picked your race and started the game, you’re confronted with a starmap containing your race’s home system plus the surrounding ones. As with MOO 2 you start with just your homeworld and a fleet containing one frigate, one colony ship and two scouts, but it’s after this point that the MOO remake starts to diverge slightly from its source material: rather than having these ships be able to travel to any star in range (with said range and the time taken to travel it being dictated by your stardrive and fuel cell technology level) the various stars in the galaxy are instead separated by the now standard set of static warp lanes that are very handy for creating strategic chokepoints between systems. This is a concept that MOO takes to heart as a big part of the game is fortifying the warp points leading into and out of a system; doing so will allow you to control access in peacetime as well as defending your borders during wartime. Travelling along the warp lanes isn’t instant and takes a fair number of turns to get from system to system to begin with, and it’s this that’s reduced by your drive technology. The interior layout of the star systems themselves are now physical spaces on the map that you ships also traverse, although in this case getting from point A to point B within a system always takes just a single turn; this change makes exploration a little more interesting as individual planets must be visited by your ships before you know their climate/mineral abundance and whether or not they’re going to be good places to settle.
These changes to travel and exploration are not unwelcome and seem to have been reasonably well thought-through, for all that they “improve” something that wasn’t particularly broken in the first place; unfortunately that is probably the only time I am going to write those words in this review, as everything else is either practically unchanged from MOO 2 (and thus feels a bit dated) or else has been changed for the worse. Take research, for example. All of the technologies and improvements you research are word-for-word identical to the ones in MOO 2 and serve the same general function (although their precise mechanics have sometimes been changed to accommodate new game systems) so I don’t really have any complaints as to the content. However, the research system has been made a little less interesting by ramming everything into a traditional tech tree and having most techs give you static payoffs. MOO does sort of import MOO 2’s system of mutually exclusive choices between invention A and invention B, but this doesn’t apply to all technologies and is usually accompanied by a guaranteed reward of invention C. This isn’t an outright bad change, it just allows for less variance and fewer interesting choices because the amount of stuff you can’t get on a single run through the tech tree is drastically reduced. I definitely noticed much more convergence in ship technology and empire infrastructure when comparing the various empires in the two games I’ve played, and while I’m sure the move to a conventional tech tree simplified and balanced the game it also made it somewhat less compelling.
A similar approach has been taken with colony management: it’s largely the same system as in MOO 2 with only two substantive changes, but those changes ensure it’s a step down from the original. First is that you can no longer stick an unlimited number of population units into production, research, farms etc.; now you only have a limited number of cells for each based on your planet type and your infrastructure, and the cell system suffers from diminishing returns where the first two cells give three production per population unit, the next two cells give two production per pop, and the last three cells give only one production per pop. This system is now basically saying to me “Don’t bother adjusting your pop distribution” as it’s fundamentally set up to discourage situational min/maxing; you could easily make an AI that finds the optimal distribution to maximise your resource income per population unit — and in fact the game has this built in and turned on by default, meaning that this decision space has effectively been removed from MOO entirely.
And just in case you did find a way to supercharge your production capacity – by far the most valuable of the three resource types — the new pollution mechanic will step in to make your life a living hell. (In fact it’ll do this anyway since it starts to kick in the moment you start producing more than seven or eight hammers per colony.) First, to compare and contrast, MOO 2’s pollution system effectively functioned like corruption did in old Civilization; if you didn’t have pollution suppression buildings then a certain percentage of your production would be eaten up by pollution, and this percentage scaled with your total amount of production. It wasn’t a great system, but it was approximately one billion times better than the pollution system in the remake, where excessive production instead fills up a pollution meter. It can fill at the rate of up to 4-5% per turn, and once it gets to 100% the climate of your planet gets downgraded by one level – from Terran to Arid, and from Arid to Desert and so on. This is a huge deal – think about how much time you spend finding decent planets to colonise, only for this pollution mechanic to potentially fuck them up if you don’t pay attention to it. Of course you can terraform them back up the climate scale, but this takes time, and so your choice is either that, or to waste production time on a Trade Goods-like production option called Clean Up Pollution which empties the bar by about 10% per turn.
Not only is this a clumsy and frustrating mechanic to deal with, but I find it particularly offensive because it flips pollution from something abstract that you tried to passively minimise to something that you have to spend time actively managing – and it is 100% downside; there’s nothing good that happens if you keep pollution to a minimum beside your planets not getting fucked up. While pollution downgrading your planets is a nice idea thematically it’s just a ton of make-work when you put it into practice, and it really throws a spanner in the works of the colony management. The same is true of spying, where you have to up your security rating to defend against enemy spies because otherwise they can pull off some truly devastating espionage like making a core planet secede from your empire for twenty turns. I’m all for spies being powerful, but anything that powerful in a game needs to be linked to some deterministic cause and effect that you can protect yourself against, not a bloody RNG that you can only influence. The only upside with spying is that you can be just as much of a dick to the AI with your own spies – but then again the computer can’t feel frustration or rage when the hundredth spying attempt slips through and screws you over, so you’re still getting the worse end of the deal here.
When set against catastrophically awful pieces of design like spying and pollution, it’s probably a mercy that the ship design and combat is merely very bad. All of the design elements from MOO 2 return in the remake — weapon mounts like Heavy and Point Defense, and subsequent improvements in technology keeping earlier weapon techs moderately viable by miniaturising them, allowing you to cram more onto a ship — but the ship classes now have a much more dramatic impact on the design process thanks to each class having a number of set weapon slots. If you want to put bombs onto a frigate, for example, you’re out of luck – frigates don’t have bomb slots. If you want more than three different variants of beam weapon on a destroyer you’re also going to be disappointed since it’s only got three main weapon slots. Now, I have rarely wanted to have more than three different variants of beam weapon on a destroyer, but this feels like a rather artificial limitation that scales back the ridiculous flexibility of the MOO 2 ship designer and replaces it with something that, again, is just a little less interesting to deal with compared to the original. Maybe if they’d wanted each class of ship to have discrete roles in combat (picket ships, bombers, carriers etc.) then I’d see the point, but Titans and Battleships can do everything Frigates and Destroyers can, they’re just a bit slower when moving around the map. It feels like a restriction that’s present because they had to change something about MOO’s ship designer, and so this is the change that was made purely for the sake of it.
Still, it’s not a huge step down from what was in MOO 2. No, the real problem with MOO‘s ship designer is that the payoff for it is to be found in the game’s tactical combat segment, which takes the predictably terrible decision to plump for real-time and consequently dissolves into the same incoherent mess that Stellaris’s ship combat did. It’s very difficult to see how effective your weapons and designs are being at a glance, and this makes the ship designer far less satisfying to interact with since the consequences of all your design fiddling aren’t visible at all. What orders you can give to your ships feel like they’re only being obeyed half the time — beyond focus-firing enemy ships down one at a time there are no tactics possible, and it’s all very much out of your control and not satisfying to engage with at all. Given the consistent failure of real-time tactical combat in space 4Xes1 and the difficulty of making a turn-based system that wasn’t completely broken in terms of balance (which MOO 2’s rather enthusiastically was), I’m starting to think Endless Space’s approach of intentionally hands-off, cinematic combat was the right approach; I certainly found it tense to watch despite my lack of control – or perhaps because of it. Certainly it was better than giving me the command equivalent of Maggie’s toy steering wheel from The Simpsons title sequence.
I guess the overarching theme of this review is that the MOO remake attempts to balance MOO – but it does so in really unfulfilling ways, and this is a serious problem when half the fun of MOO 2 was that it was seriously unbalanced. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: having a game that’s inherently unbalanced isn’t a problem as long as there are multiple viable strategies that all feel powerful to execute. This remake tries to bring balance to the mayhem of MOO 2’s colony management, research, ship design and combat, but while it arguably achieves some degree of success in one or two of these areas it destroys what was interesting about those systems in the process. Combine this with a seriously misguided attempt to provide flavour – leader talking heads aside, your main information channels in this game are the criminally unfunny news androids and a selection of race-specific advisors that nevertheless all seem to communicate solely via tired internet memes — and you end up with a game that’s curiously bland and flavourless considering the unusual amount of effort that’s gone into infusing the races with some personality, and whose most memorable moments and mechanics are the bad ones. I’m not sure I’d call Master Of Orion itself outright bad since even at the worst of times the mangled features of MOO 2 are still just about visible underneath all of the botched surgery that’s been carried out in an attempt to update it for the modern era, it’s just incredibly mediocre and forgettable, and really not worth your time.
- Sword Of The Stars excepted, although I don’t know how well it’d hold up today. ↩