Off the top of my head, I’ve played Spaceward Ho!, Stars!, Empire of the Fading Suns, and just one afternoon of Master of Orion 2. Unfortunately, I only remember Stars! really well. I played Stars! off and on for like 3-4 years. (SH! was too long ago and was on a Mac which I never owned, EFS was buggy from what I remember which made the game last about a week before I gave up, and my foray into MoO2 was during the peak of my Stars! life which of course killed any prospects for it to be deemed a good game.)
When Ben, George, and I played Stars! as a team that one year over the internet (Team BMG rules!), George and I literally spent 5 hours a day on this game doing our turns. That is a huge time sink, but it was justified because of the near-perfect gameplay. The ability to see the rules in action and to think several turns ahead is a direct result of having simple rules presented clearly to the players. No behind the scenes number-crunching; all the formulas were readily accessible for logic freaks like us to really dig our teeth into it. It was like Chess played much more slowly and much more complex. Simple rules leading to complex gameplay, right?
Anyway, this article is supposed to be about Master of Orion 3.
Where’s the Micro in my Macro?
I’ve been playing it for about a week now. I started and restarted 5 times before getting enough of a hang of the details to feel like I had a good start. The first 4 times, I would get to about turn 50 or so and realize that I hadn’t set the Tech to how I would’ve liked, or I hadn’t defined Planetary Development Plans, or that I hadn’t tweaked the Tax Levels, or any number of things which I didn’t do mostly because I had no idea how to tweak them or what they affected. This is probably going to be the biggest gripe from most fans of strategy games. QuickSilver, the developer, has mistakened Macro-Management with lack of information.
They have this thing called Planetary AI controlled by Viceroys on each of your planets. You sort of set some guidelines with Planetary Development Plans (by saying things like if it is a mineral rich world then mine like crazy), but the Viceroys make all the decisions as to exactly what to build. I don’t mind this so much, but no where in the manual or on the web or in the hint book or anywhere can you find out exactly what they’ll do based on what guidelines you give them and their planetary specific situations. Funny, I always thought the goal of good Macro-Management was to automate a lot of the Micro-Management methods, not to take it completely out of your hands and make you stab in the dark with your policies.
In two of the games I played (and then terminated prematurely) my people were either starving or didn’t have enough minerals to make the stuff the Viceroys were telling them to make. This was happening even after I set in the Planetary Dev Plans to build Farms or Mines. I eventually had to just go to each planet manually and override what the Viceroys were building. Um, excuse me, how is this different than Micro-Management?
Yep, it sure is. Combat between starships works like most RTS games; left click select, right click attack or move, etc. Unfortunately, once you get into a combat screen, the default zoom level is so close that you have to scramble to zoom out and select your guys. Unfortunately, the maximum zoom-out level is so low that you then have to scroll the map around until you find your enemy before you can right-click on them to attack. By then the computer has already launched a volley of missiles and fighters and you are shit out of luck if you die before you even find the enemy. There is no radar/minimap. The combat is on a 2-Dimensional plane but for some reason they made it isometric to give it that faux 3D look. The ships are *tiny*; you’re basically watching some dots fire at other dots.
Then if you are assaulting a planet with transports or if you are defending a planet and they have ground troops you are taken to the Ground Combat screen. Can we say rock-paper-scissors? I don’t mean the good kind of rock-paper-scissors like in Starcraft where some units are good vs. air but suck vs. ground and you have to be able to adapt to your opponent so that you maximize your efficiency in killing. No… I mean the crappy roshambo where you just click on an attack formation and HOPE the enemy randomly chose the defend formation which is weak vs. your chosen attack formation. There’s something like 20 choices (Massed Assault, Sweep, Flank, Ambush, Ruse, etc.). It’s anybody’s guess what they all actually do or what their formulas are.
User-Interface From Hell
Goddamn, this is why I’m going back to grad school. I KNOW I don’t know everything there is to know about good UI (in my case, good ways of presenting info for learning systems), but why can’t others see they need to do some research and learn from set standards?? The UI designers at QS obviously don’t know that consistency is king. If you have a button do something, DO NOT make it do something else during certain situations!
Here’s three specific things I hate:
To zoom in on a system you double-click on the star in the galaxy map. To zoom in on a planet you double-click the planet from the system view. To exit the planet view back to the system view you click on the star in the top-left corner. At the beginning of each turn you are presented with a Situation Report (SitRep). If you click on one of the highlighted events of that turn and it happens to take you to the planet screen of wherever that event took place and then you click on the star to see that sytem, you are taken back to the SitRep. This is lame. They already have the spacebar set to toggle the SitRep and there is a SitRep button ALWAYS visible on the top of the screen. To take away any way of getting to the system (and therefore to the galaxy) so you can see where the hell that planet is in relation to your empire… Man, they suck.
When you get to the planet view via the galaxy map and system view, you see the other planets of the system at the top of the screen and you can jump to any planet you own in that system from these icons rather having to click exit to system and then choose a planet. Great. But when you get to a planet view from the Planets Panel, instead of being able to click on the star or other planets in the system, there are three new buttons laid on top, one takes you back to the Planets Panel, the other two cycle through your planets in the order that you’ve set in the Planets Panel. Great feature, but why remove the other standardized buttons? Why not allow us all those options at any time? I don’t get it.
In the Planets Panel, you can quickly see what your planets are each currently building, what their unrest levels are, etc. But when you look at planets in the system view, you only get to see icons of what they are building (no unrest or other info, btw), and the problem with icons is that all your ships of the same hull size have the same icon. So it’s impossible to tell at a glance if you are building a destroyer class colony ship or a destroyer class ass-wiper. To see what you are building you double-click on the planet and then on the build tab, repeat this about five times and you’ve already had it with this game.
So, by my 5th start I thought I had gotten a hang of the quirky “Macro-Management”. I was just polishing off a really weak race who made the mistake of declaring war on me early in the game and just starting to gear up a massive fleet for the rest of the galaxy when I won the Orion Senate vote and the game ended. Yikes! I had a majority over the incumbent New Orions who start out way more powerful than any other race because I was a rather diplomatic race and had lots of friends in the Senate. As it turns out, you only need 50% majority and there doesn’t seem to be any other requirements. It was barely turn 150 or so. I had barely begun to build up my planets. I was only like halfway up the tech ladder (it’s not a tree btw) (er.. at least I think I was.. no way to tell since I don’t know how high it goes–I was up to level 24 or so). So, I’ve read on the MoO3 forums that in an earlier MoO you could only win by vote after a certain number of turns passed and even then you’d need 2/3 of the vote by population from all races even those not in the Senate. Makes it much harder and way more gratifying. Was this game play-tested??
Obviously, this review isn’t covering enough of the basics to be useful to people who are interested in the game. For more general reviews, go to www.gametab.com or www.gamerankings.com. This review, on the other hand, is probably most helpful to people who’ve played the game and are as yet unsure why they haven’t embraced the game. There is a great game in Master of Orion 3 waiting to to be unleashed, but it just isn’t there yet. Maybe with better documentation we can set up the Planetary Dev Plans how we want and be rest assured that the AI is doing what we want it to do. Maybe with a patch these UI annoyances will be fixed and maybe you will be able to zoom out more in combat… hell maybe combat will start zoomed out! Speaking of patches. Did I mention this game is buggy? There is a known bug with the AI that currently makes this game unquestionably easy.