Revamping old games for modern times certainly isn't easy. Master of Orion 1 and 2, for instance, were masterpieces in their heyday, and to this day evoke fond memories of space exploration, but how does a remake of a 1993 classic fare 20-odd years later?
Master of Orion is the granddaddy of the genre, brought back to life and updated to accommodate modern sensibilities, swearing by the four Xs in its design ethos- eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. Your fledgling empire is born on a single planet, ready to meet the other races with science, diplomacy or laser-fire, whichever fits your strategy the best. You can either conquer the entire galaxy, finance your way to victory with the galactic stock exchange by having the most points at turn 500, develop three hyper-advanced technologies, or be a diplomat, winning the galactic elections.
The game runs by turns where you move ships, set up production for the planets, choose technologies to study and so forth. The solar systems are now connected via "space highways" and while exploration does take a hit with the decision, large battles occur naturally at these chokepoints. A single campaign can run from 15 hours to near infinity, depending on your galaxy size and whether you indulge yourself in the new real-time combat on a large scale. Compared to its brethren, Master of Orion is slightly easier to learn and quicker to complete.
In the game there are 10 different races, each with their own look and spaceship designs, and each of these offer varied bonuses to game systems. Rock-based Silicoids, for instance, need just minerals to eat, so they don't require any food production, and they're also impervious to hostile environments like lava or poison planets. They do, however, suffer a large penalty to diplomacy and birth rate. The sneaky Darloks are excellent spies with stealthy ships as well, and the robotic Meklars excel in industrial output. Each race has its own identity and preferred victory type, so switching up creates a lot of replayability. Some of the race-specific traits are not explained in the otherwise good UI, so looking things up is sometimes needed. Computer-controlled races are somewhat passive during both war and peace, so it's up to the player to stir up the hornet's nest if they want to makes things truly interesting.
Once your colonisation efforts hit someone else's border outpost, it's time for diplomacy or war, with espionage being used in combination with both. The first has options from non-aggression agreements to tech exchange and alliances, although every action requires cold hard space cash, so you can't go just willy-nilly signing contracts left and right. Even the trade deals need cash up front. AI leaders seem to work more logically and consistently than their peers in Civilization, for example, and they won't attack a superior force just for the hell of it. It also gives the player more leeway than previously in colonising the border planets.
The new real-time battle system was a big question mark prior to release. Previous iterations settled for exchanging laser-burn marks via a turn-based system. It worked well during the early game, where the player could micromanage each little ship to its full potential. On the other hand, it made the late-game massive fleet battles an absolute chore to go through.
The new system felt off at first, but settled in nicely after a few campaigns. You still have plenty of tools at your disposal from fleet formations (which give different bonuses, too) to speed matching, weapon engagement ranges and so forth. The numerically and/or technologically superior side will still win most of the time, though, no matter the amount of zigzagging you pull off. One of those thousand neutron cannons will still hit and scatter the remains to the ether.
Planning your own vessels is as interesting as ever before and offers lots of possibilities for creating your own kind of murder-fleet. Too bad only eight designs can be saved at one time, which is odd to say the least. Different add-ons and inventions look very, very similar in the design screen, too, so visible labels and/or explanatory icons are in order.
There's no denying the game's production values either. Each and every race is sculpted beautifully and the user interface is both sleek and easy to read. Large fleet battles are a joy to behold with dozens of vessels, fighters, death rays and plasma torpedoes whizzing by. Special credit has to go to the voice actors, too. You've got names like Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker and Jokeri), Michael Dorn (aka Worf, Star Trek: TNG), John de Lancie (Q, Star Trek: TNG), Alan Tudyk (FireFly, Con Man), Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger, Nightmare on Elm Street) Troy Baker and Nolan North doing the race leaders and whatnot.
Some omissions have taken place, too. There's no "super-race" from Antares to keep you occupied during the late game (the technologically impaired space pirates can't stand against you after the first few rounds). Space Eel and the gang are still there, occupying the fancier planets. Guardian is still guarding the mythical Orion and all its technological riches. Not every old race made the cut, so maybe we'll see some of them via DLC. Planetary governors and admirals have taken their leave, too. There could also be more galactic events with a more serious effect on the galaxy.
As a whole Master of Orion 2016 is a great, if familiar, game for veterans of the hallowed series. It might not be as complex or intricate as Stellaris, but it offers an easily-approachable alternative to space empire management. There's plenty of replay value by playing with a different race or creating your own. We would like to see the AI take more initiative and be aggressive, though, and more varied and serious galactic events would make the gameplay feel fresh. That said, it still has that "one more turn" magic in it. One hour of planned playtime turns easily into four. As an added bonus, the retail price is very reasonable, so your first dip or the nostalgic trip into space isn't going to cost you and arm and a leg.
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