Developed by: NGD Studios.
Published by: Wargaming.
Starring: Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn, Troy Baker, Nolan North, Alan Tudyk, Robert Englund and more.
Release date: 25th August, 2016 (Windows only).

Cycles come and go in all art forms and entertainments, as tropes and frameworks appear and wear out their welcome – much like the ebb and flow of space exploration/strategy games.

Given the recent, and many would say justifiable, controversy over No Man’s Sky and it’s feature leakage with lack of depth, some may be clamouring for something with the very depth many accuse it of lacking. While there may be many moments in Masters of Orion that borrow heavily from similar flawed strategy titles, those left more than wanting by NMS will be left satisfied.

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The game itself is based on an IP previously published by Atari in the early ’90s, in a heyday for this very kind of game. Remember, that was the release window in which modern behemoths such as Warcraft or Command and Conquer were born. Argentinian developer NGD (known for Champions of Regnum) and publisher Wargaming (World of Tanks) must be hoping for a piece of that same incredibly successful ’90s magic.

All involved in this game have invested a mind-boggling amount of resources in updating and polishing the established format. The voice acting talent is a dizzying collection of industry-best performers, whose welcome tones fill the heart as much they surely depleted the publishers pockets. There may be a small drop off in cinematic scope compared to say Starcraft II, but the graphical fidelity and massive number of cinematics (based on the variety I experienced for one race during the playthrough) is impressive for a studio not existing in the same leagues as Blizzard.

Starting at the top, you select from 10 races with a wide range of characteristics and designs. This review is based on a play-through of the lion and bear-like Bulrathi. Their militaristic bent is contradicted by a deep sense of environmentalism, hence their ability to terra-form and revitalise otherwise inhospitable worlds. Other races are just as unique, with the Meklar being a mechanical AI combine that focus on self-improvement and system expansion, leading to a coldly logical outlook that is impossible to negotiate with.

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The pre-game parameters allow you to adjust difficulty, galaxy size (game area), to number of opponents and starting technological level (this play-through started on the post warp age of star exploration and planetary colonisation). For all intents and purposes, this is far more like Civilisation set in space, but with notable additions to the available options.

When the game starts proper, its visuals richly represent the galactic scale of your play-field. Asteroids and gas clouds glow warmly while subtly rotating, as do planets on their rotational axes. There are hubs of planetary systems that you travel through and colonise, while straight lines are drawn between them in a web of ‘warp points’. Other more rare features include fast-travel wormhole points, space monsters like giant space-borne amoebas and legendary worlds such as the game’s namesake, Orion.

For each planet you manage your population via three civilian classes – growth, production and research. Players protect worlds and flank opponents with several fleets of ships and armed stations based at warps, in a way not dissimilar to point-to-point fortification/manoeuvring in the table top classic ‘Risk’.

Technological research, negotiations with other races over trade and conflict take place through a series of menus, adorned with animated 3D characters that are nigh on par with a Bioware release. Space battles, with both automatic and manual control over fleets, also share the same top-down view as the main navigation. The game is in fact played out over a series of turns, with single-player games tending to last around 400-500 turns as a maximum.

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It is ridiculously in-depth with all the variables in play, and can become a daunting task to juggle the needs and hostilities of your neighbours while doing all you can to expand you own empire. Victory is achieved through military conquest, economic domination or even transcending the physical universe through advanced enough technology.

The game operates smoothly and offers massive scope for individual play.
Even the multiplayer lobby and minute-long wait for human players to sort out their turns is painless and quick. In both modes, there are surprise events to shake you out of any groove you have found yourself in, as you must adapt to sudden and unexpected scenarios, such as a planetary plague or imminent supernova of a local star. These require a diversion of your resources to address the situation, and can prevent sections of a game from being defined by spamming the turn button to fast-forward towards some finished construction or research project.

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Your AI opponents are refreshingly aggressive in pursuing their goals, and require you to guess their potential disposition to you as everyone expands, and create alliances that may dissolve when they no longer serve a need.

That can lead to some of the more unfortunate moments in play as well, as the AI on normal mode is an extreme step up. It must be said that this game caters well for the hardcore strategy fans out there, and while that may be needed in the market it will be off-putting to more casual players. Races you have sided with for tens of turn cycles can suddenly switch to all-out war without any transgression or sudden change on your part, and sequences of novel events can pile on your worst moments with alarming regularity.

There are a few general things to pick at, which seem odd given how detailed and painstakingly balanced it is for the most part. For example, space battle match-ups can viewed ahead of time, based on the sides respective fleet stats, and while manual control can mean you have a better chance directing space battle yourself when odds go against player victory, there are times when the rating is a costly red herring.

Think that Space Amoeba guarding a barren, but mineral rich planetary system can be defeated by building a large armada with stats that outstrip it? The battle rating can be a full green bar tilted in your favour, but nowhere does it tell you that said creature’s high defence stat means that it is effectively invulnerable, and will decimate your fleet, at a time when it could be put to better use expanding your empire.

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Paths to victory in a match can seem to draw from a fairly arbitrary source at times. For example, a diplomatic victory by befriending other worlds is possible, but is controlled by races voting for you. You can even offer votes to races while negotiation as part of your bartering, but I found despite its inclusion, votes were dispersed over races in the match stats in a way that suggest votes were being exchanged between races that have never met in game.

Planet systems also give an illusion of depth, but are randomised from an obviously limited number of presets. You can see that most stars will contain at least one to two vaguely habitable worlds, with a minimum of one gas giant or barren world to terraform/recondition towards a higher level of richness and make it more hospitable later in game (depending on your chosen races’ ability to research such tech), with or without an asteroid belt to mine. Randomised events and rich visuals do little to mask a fairly monotonous core environment, once you have explored it for upwards of ten hours. Random generation only shuffles new play arenas into a reordering of familiar systems, also giving warfare a sense of déjà vu.

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That being said, once you are in the flow of things, it can even be possible to casually play, with a great save system that means you can drop in and out of a game if you need to, and multiplayer matches have a more urgent pace to them that avoids some of the ‘fast-forwarding’ the single player mode can encourage, as real players can be even more aggressive.

Ultimately, the game looks good, and plays well with intuitive navigation – good enough to see it transition from Steam into console marketplaces, like Don’t Starve or Tropico. Featuring Mark Hamill and the rest of its awesome voice line up in the marketing wouldn’t hurt either.

Master of Orion gets 7 and a half wormholes out of 10.

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